San José, Costa Rica, since 1956
Gun violence

A study abroad student reflects on being robbed in Costa Rica

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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To everyone who responded to my article, thank you for taking the time to read it and respond, I value your input highly. I understand that I am very lucky, and that there are many people much poorer than the people who robbed me who would never do such a thing.

I am not making excuses for what happened to me, I am attempting to explain in my article how such events came to pass. Indeed, I was walking alone late at night with money I didn’t need, this was my fault, and put me in a bad position. It did not mean that I felt it was okay for this couple to rob me, there was nothing okay about the situation.

What I feel I did not make clear enough is the following: We are social creatures, none of us became who we are today solely as a result of our own actions. We all were impacted by the various influences we have been exposed to in our lives, family, friends, teachers, books, TV shows, religious groups, etc. We interpret the information in our own way, that is certain, yet the things that we have available to interpret vastly change who we become. For example, my time in Costa Rica, and being robbed here as well, will change who I am and how I act in the future.

It is very easy to underestimate the effects of high levels of relative deprivation when coupled with the effects of increasing consumerism and the belief that worth is determined by one’s material possessions. Throw in the lack of good role models or parental figures and a culture/school system that likely offered no guidance or inspiration to these individuals when they needed help, and I think it’s safe to say that society has a large part to do with why these sort of things happen.

When we label these individuals as solely responsible for the actions and deny the importance of the vast array of factors that contributed to their choosing to carry out their actions, we end up ignoring why the events happened, and we lose any chance we could have had of preventing or reducing the likelihood of similar events in the future. Locking someone up may prevent that one person from committing more crimes, but what does it do to prevent people in the future from making similar decisions, since the threat of imprisonment is clearly ineffective?

Saludos cordiales a todos!

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Donald Waltz

Typical liberal BS, always trying to justify crime with some poor story about the perpetrator life story. To bad the writer wasn’t shot and killed,as the US would have one less Obama supporter to worry about. If the writer felt this way about loosing his,wait bet it was mommy and daddy’s money he lost,then get a job and give it all away next time.

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Ignace Hilsberg

Don Donald, a little harsh even by my neolithic standards. Better that someone arrive at their stance on Obama based on real-life experiences. Sadly in this case even a gun in the face seems not to been the slap back to reality in sufficient dose. I wonder if this student ever pondered the idea that if he had been visibly armed, would the thugs had left him alone.

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Ignace Hilsberg

typical mush-headed drivel by another student majoring in “grievance”.
the perps here are feral animals that need to be eliminated one way or another so that good people can walk the public streets at whatever hour.

my tica friend’s kid was held up at gunpoint last year in broad daylight upon exit from the private school he attends. the gunmen demanded and got everything including the kids’ sneakers. the kid has lived traumatized since such that he is afraid to walk down to the local pulperia. I guess he needs a sociology degree to put the whole thing in context.

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Hey! This is the weirdest thing, I got robbed at gunpoint in Costa Rica as well about three months ago. Also, I met the exact same guy you did in Santa Teresa, I was staying at his hostel when it happened! Crazy story, and small world! Were you studying abroad?

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Chuck in Illinois

Perhaps they where just POS that found an easy way to make money by taking it from rich liberal morons that try to justify what happened to them by blaming everyone else and turning the Thugs into the “Victims.” Under your scenario we all deserve to be robbed and should turn over our hard earned money and possessions to these unfortunate POS. I for one think that those that live by the sword should die by the sword and look forward to hearing about these dirtbags getting shot in the face when they rob the wrong person.

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Maybe if the author had been the victim in the other report, posted a few hours later on, he would have thought differently. In that case, the victim was shot. These thugs are not victims of society, but of being brought up with no values by their parents. The public at large are the victims. This bleeding heart attitude only empowers them by giving them further motivation, and allowing the Costa Rican judicial system to just turnstile them right back out on the streets. The ‘pobrecitos’ view is going to get more people killed, and going to turn Costa Rica into a mirror of its fellow Central American neighbors. The only motivation these people have is easy money, and relative impunity. They are not the victims. The author needs to wake up and smell the coffee.

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The real moral of this story is you shouldn’t go out at night if the locals won’t. That’s just arrogance.

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JM Fonseca

Sorry to hear that too. I also was a victim of robbery, not as a tourist but as a native resident. And by experience I learned that poverty is not the main reason, it’s greediness. I’ve known a lot of people of rural areas that overcame hard economical situations without using poverty as an excuse. Consumerism, lack of solidarity between neighbors and lack of family values are the more problable reasons.

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Colin Brownlee

Sorry to hear about your experience. Being a victim of robbery always leaves a scar.

But after living here for almost 10 years, the difference I see for the most part, is they will take your wallet or Iphone and in North America, they take your house or your pension.

Tactics are obviously different, but no matter how you look at it, corporations just pulled off the largest heist of the middle class ever seen. And they did it just because they were greedy and not hungry.

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gee cee

A thinly veiled attempt to turn a story into a political statement. And corporate greed is not limited to North America. It happens here as well.

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