Crime threatens to tarnish Tortuguero’s tourist industry
Days after masked gunmen robbed 12 foreign tourists and two Costa Ricans on a riverboat near the Caribbean town of Tortuguero, authorities have yet to find the culprits.
Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) Guápiles Assistant Chief Román Marchena told The Tico Times Thursday that they had detained two suspects in the case but had to release both because there was insufficient evidence to hold them.
Marchena added that police did not interview the tourists, citing that several had left the area or Costa Rica. OIJ did interview Laguna Lodge manager Rebeca Gómez and the boat’s captain, according to Marchena.
The tourists were from the United States, Spain and Switzerland. The U.S. Embassy in San José said that no requests for new passports from the U.S. victims had been filed.
As the OIJ continues its investigation, hotel owners and guides in Tortuguero are wary about how perceptions of increasing crime will affect the economic lifeblood of the town: tourism.
“Tourists are the perfect victims all over the world,” said Michael Kaye, president and founder of Costa Rica Expeditions, noting that tourists tend to carry cash, valuables and passports, and then leave the country.
Karla Taylor, a guide with 16 years of experience specializing in the Tortuguero area and its eponymous national park, said that her family has been in the town since it was founded in the 1930s.
“Tortuguero feels more unsafe every day,” Taylor told The Tico Times in a telephone interview. “I asked myself if I was going to have to change profession,” she said after hearing about the robbery Monday. “I travel that river every day.”
Several community members have contacted The Tico Times since the robbery Monday, noting that buses — both public and tourist — traveling along the highway between Tortuguero and Cariari de Guápiles are favorite targets of thieves.
Taylor said that she had been robbed at gunpoint while riding with her three children on a bus on that stretch of road.
While the recent thievery caught national attention here, several hoteliers and community members told The Tico Times they believe the robberies are underreported.
Taylor lamented that despite Tortuguero’s international reputation as a destination for turtle nesting, rare wildlife sightings and coastal canals, it was forgotten by the Costa Rican government.
Juan Carlos Borbón, general manager of the Costa Rican Tourism Board (ICT), told The Tico Times in an email that ICT works with various other government agencies to help ensure tourist safety. Borbón added that the Public Security Ministry assigned 32 tourist police officers to the towns of Manzanillo, Cahuita, Puerto Viejo and Cocles, where the station is located, in southern Limón.
Police in the southernmost part of Limón, however, can do little to ease the worries of Tortuguero residents and workers, who live on the northern Caribbean coast. There are 36 total Tourist Police officers for the entire province of Limón.
In 2012, 92,552 tourists visited Tortuguero National Park, according to attendance numbers from the National System of Conservation Areas.
Tortuguero National Park Administrator Elena Vargas opined that the park itself is not dangerous, but that there have been robberies.
Vargas said the sprawling park’s small staff and difficult terrain mean that most of the park rangers are concentrated along the thin coastal strip most trafficked by guests, an area that is less than 1 percent of the park’s area.
“The park needs to be safe, but security is not our main focus; it’s conservation,” she said.
Costa Rica’s national park rangers won the right to carry firearms in August this year, a result of the greater dangers they face patrolling the country’s parks, especially from drug traffickers and illegal miners.
“The Tourist Police have increased their visits to hotels at night to guarantee the tourists’ security, as well as to inform them so they are cautious during their trip,” Borbón said. In the case of an altercation, she said, those officers help victims file a complaint with the appropriate agency.
Unfortunately, that did not happen this time. There is no OIJ office in remote Tortuguero. Tourists would have to travel to Guápiles to file their complaint with the nearest OIJ office, something many are either unaware of or unwilling to take vacation time to do, if they haven’t left the country already.
Kaye said that the ICT has not taken the problem of crime in the area seriously and that it should muster a more thorough response to complaints and crimes against tourists.
“Good destinations bring witnesses back,” Kaye said.
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