TOURISTS filed more reports of crimes in 2005, and kidnapping for extortion is on the rise, but the landmark crime stories this year were historic police actions: police confiscated more cocaine this year than ever before and have made a stellar, end-of-the year push to capture the dozens of escaped convicted criminals and accused sex-crime offenders on their list of Costa Rica’s most wanted, having caught at least 27 by press time.
A gruesome and harrowing bank robbery terrorized the otherwise peaceful mountain town Santa Elena de Monteverde in March. A band of three robbers, masked and armed with automatic assault rifles, shot their way into the Banco Nacional; two of them died in a shootout with a guard and three police who responded to the shootings, while one entered and held clients and employees hostage for 28 hours. Nine people died, including a police officer shot when trying to enter the bank, the two gunmen, two employees and four clients. Seventeen were injured.
Judges sentenced pimp Sinaí Monge to eight years in prison in February for heading a ring of underage prostitutes and offering them to some of Costa Rica’s elite businessmen, sports figures and politicians.
Some children’s rights defenders, including Child Welfare Minister Rosalía Gil, were disappointed with the sentence, saying it should have been double.
THE perceived amount of crime against tourists has increased, and a midyear report indicated a slight rise over last year in the number of tourists who filed reports of assaults and thefts. In spite of the country’s reputation as a safe haven for tourists amid the tumult of other Latin American countries, Tico Times readers and staff witnessed and experienced an alarming spate of violent crime and theft this year.
Readers wrote letters to The Tico Times detailing armed muggings, guns fired at them, hotel room thefts and a wimpy, even indifferent, police response.
By late May, near the end of the high tourism season, tourists had reported 599 assaults and 918 thefts between January 2004 and April 2005, according to records from the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ).
An average of 3.03 people per day – both foreigners and Costa Ricans – reported they were victims of theft during the first four months of the year, compared to 2.63 people who filed reports during the same period last year. Judging by reported crimes, San José is by far the most dangerous spot in the country. Of the 599 assaults reported in the 16-month period, 81% took place in the greater metropolitan area, and a series of armed home invasions in San José suburbs at year’s end added to this figure.
However, more than 70% of tourists say they feel “very safe” in Costa Rica in airport exit surveys and most crimes against tourists are non-violent, Costa Rican Tourism Chamber President William Rodríguez said.
KIDNAPPING is on the rise in Costa Rica, though the numbers are still paltry compared to the two Latin American nations leading in kidnapping crimes – Mexico and Colombia. Four victims of extortion-motivated kidnapping were reported in 2003, nine in 2004 and 11 by Oct. of this year. The rate is 0.35 victims per 100,000 citizens, up from 0.09 two years ago, placing the country – in terms of the rate, not the actual numbers – surprisingly close to Mexico’s 0.37 victims per 100,000 and Colombia’s 0.80.
By mid-December, the Costa Rican Drug Control Police had confiscated approximately 9,829 kilos of cocaine, a record for a single year, exceeding the former record of 5,566 kilos set in 1997.
In late April police found 2,550 kilos of cocaine buried on a beach near Laguna de Samay in Colorado de Pococí, Limón, on the northern Caribbean coast. It was valued at $40 million and hailed as the biggest drug seizure on Costa Rican soil in history. The suspects arrested were foreigners, including one U.S. citizen, four Colombians and two Nicaraguans.