A study abroad student reflects on being robbed in Costa Rica

April 21, 2014
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As I turned to walk the five blocks to my host family’s house, the door to the small hostel in Santo Domingo of Heredia shut, and I knew that my friend Maya was safe and secure for the night. Thoughts raced through my head; the week of traveling ahead of us, our friend Daniel whom we would meet in Panama, and the classes I would miss at the National University in Heredia.

I took a deep breath, happy to have my friend from home visiting, enjoying the cool night air.

Down the block, a man and woman walked by me and I heard the man suggest turning around. His tone seemed odd. It was 11:30 p.m., and despite having passed a few other people, the street was almost empty.

The woman began to protest, and as I turned to check out the situation, the man rapidly advanced in my direction, yelled something at me and pulled up his shirt to reveal a gun.

Before I knew what had happened, the man had me up against a wall and the woman, no longer protesting, was going through my pockets. I gave them my phone, trying to persuade them to leave, but the man demanded my wallet, and I knew I was not going to get off easy.

I explained that I needed my driver’s license as I pulled the wallet out of my pocket, reaching in to grab the license. The man punched me in the face, knocking off my glasses.

He then snatched the wallet and told me to run. I ran, cursing the night sky, and cursing myself for having brought my wallet, full of money for my upcoming travels, on the walk.

My experience is not unique, and in fact I met a tourist later that week on a ferry ride who had been shot from behind, point-blank through the shoulder, in Santa Teresa on the Nicoya Peninsula. All he had with him was an old iPod, but the thieves didn’t think to ask him what he had before they shot him.

This experience is not unique to Costa Rica, either. I was robbed at gunpoint in my hometown of Olympia, Washington, when I was 15, and in that case as well, the thief only made off with an old iPod. Every day, all over the world, for many different reasons, in many different ways, people decide to rob other people.

My initial reaction, as a sociology student, was to frame the experience in context of the societal pressures that may have led to this. Perhaps the couple who robbed me has a child to feed and they were doing what they had to to put food on the table; perhaps one of their family members is sick and needs a special type of treatment; perhaps they are unable to secure employment that provides a living wage.

Behind every robbery, whether a tourist or a resident is the victim, the constant factor is that there is an unmet need that the robber is trying to fill, be it a financial need, an emotional need for power and control, or a combination of the two.

Looking at the differences in the average income between the U.S. and Costa Rica, it is not hard to imagine why a robber would target tourists. In the U.S., the average income is around $51,000, while in Costa Rica, it is just below $9,000. To my assailant, the $80 in my wallet may have been a fortune, and while it was by no means a trifling sum to me, I will be able to tighten my belt and survive the rest of this semester without it.

Additionally, while Costa Rica has a population of just under 5 million – with 20.3 percent of them in poverty in 2012 – there are over 2 million tourists streaming through the country every year.

To an unemployed young Costa Rican with a rocky past and a bleak future, a tourist walking down the street alone at night might be seen as a wonderful opportunity to “redistribute the wealth.”  While it is unlikely that my assailants rationalized their actions in such a way, robbing me must have seemed like something to bring them closer to immediate goals. I hope that my money brought them the happiness that they anticipated.

Judging by the look in the man’s eyes right before he punched me in the face though, something tells me that it did not. When the money they took from me runs out, they will be back to square one, and if they still don’t have enough money to satisfy their needs, chances are they will rob again.

Numerous sociological studies have demonstrated that areas with higher rates of inequality tend to have higher rates of crime. In line with this theory, statistics in most areas show that lower-class people, and people living in lower-class areas, have higher official crime rates than other groups. People in poverty who turn to crime to survive usually do not target the wealthy – they take what they can, when they can, from whom they can, without discretion.

When I returned from traveling, I was confronted by the police’s request to identify the assailants, and it made me stop to think about the possible effects on these individuals. If apprehended, the two would likely face jail time, which would likely make them more pessimistic and angry than they already seemed. Upon their release, they would face reduced job prospects, and would likely return to a life of crime.

Incarceration by itself does not teach criminals the lessons they need to learn to prevent them from reoffending. What needs to happen is a restructuring of the society and economy to reduce inequality. My hope does not lie in getting revenge on the people who robbed me, but in the vision of people like President-elect Luis Guillermo Solís, who has recently identified reducing inequality and poverty as one of the three main goals of his upcoming presidency.

With this in mind, I can’t help but be thankful after my experience. I may have lost a bit of money, my glasses, and a cellphone, but I was lucky to get away without having lost any blood. More than anything though, I am thankful that I am not in a position where I am forced to consider robbing people to accomplish my goals. I may have to keep my guard up in order to not get robbed again, but I have the privilege of waking up in the morning with my needs met. This is something not everyone can say.

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