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Chapter 17 - Crime and Safety

Costa Rica used to be a lot safer than it is today. With no recent history of armed conflict, low unemployment, a large middle class, and a high standard of living compared to its neighbors, one wouldn’t think that crime would be much of an issue here. However, the situation has deteriorated significantly over the last 15 years. Everyone has a theory as to why this is. The crime problem could be described as something like growing pains, where the growth has been quick and drastic, making the pain particularly acute. Costa Rica was, after all, an agrarian country with practically no crime, no military, and little need for efficient law enforcement. Then billions of dollars in foreign investment arrived, increasing the need for immigrant labor and putting quite a bit of strain on Costa Rican institutions in terms of how to manage an increasingly dense and urban population with wider wealth disparities than ever before in the country’s history. Hence, there is more crime.

That is - at least in the Central Valley - car jacking, home invasions, and muggings have become, if not common, certainly not unusual. Crack cocaine has become a scourge in both rural and urban areas, and theft of everything from manhole covers to clothes hung out to dry happens all too regularly. The bars on houses have gotten higher and more elaborately-adorned with razor and electric wire in an ever-escalating arms race with the bad guys. (What you won’t find much of in Costa Rica, by the way, is child gangs, gratuitous violence, kidnapping-extortions, paramilitary death squads, militant revolutionaries, etc. Costa Rica has its crime problems, but they pale in comparison to those of its neighbors.)

The government has taken a few stabs at fixing things by, for example, hiring more police officers and granting emergency funds to the judicial branch. What’s really needed, however, is a legal reform and total overhaul of the judicial system. It’s not that there are so many people committing crimes in Costa Rica – it’s that the same ones get caught and released multiple times, to offend another day. Costa Rica is a model citizen when it comes to protecting the rights of the accused, but not very good yet at meting out justice.

That said, there are plenty of precautions you can take to protect yourself from crime in Costa Rica, just like anywhere else.

A word on the police...

Costa Rica takes a rather fragmented approach to law enforcement – a cop here is not just a cop. There are many branches of law enforcement in Costa Rica, but three main ones you would probably have to deal with in the event of some kind of incident:

Fuerza Pública: These are the beat cops, the ones in charge of prevention, enforcement, and making arrests. They’re the ones who are supposed to come when you call 911. They wear blue uniforms, ride motorcycles or drive cars, and get paid a very measly salary. This police force is so under-funded that in certain rural parts of the country they often don’t have enough fuel to get to the scene of a crime. Therefore, if you do live in a rural area, make friends with them, bake them cookies, buy them the occasional tank of gas – they’ll remember you.

Tráficos: These are traffic cops, and the only police with the authority to stop you and give you a ticket for speeding. They wear white shirts with dark pants, often with a reflective yellow vest on top. They drive white motorcycles or blue pickup trucks. The traffic cops are the ones who will (in theory) be on the scene first if there is a major accident. They do not do criminal enforcement or investigation, and they also earn a measly salary.

OIJ: These are the detectives, and they also do the door-kicking and drug busts. The OIJ (pronounced oh-ee-HO-ta, the Organismo de Investigación Judicial) officials will investigate a crime after it’s been committed. Often phone calls to the Fuerza Publica after a crime is committed will get a tepid reception What can we do? Go to the OIJ and file a report. Which is indeed what you must do, even if the Fuerza Pública does show up.

Other branches of law enforcement that you may run into include the Policía Turísitica, or Tourism Police, and the Policía Municipal, or municipal police, which may or may not exist depending on the municipality.