From petty theft to armed home invasions, beach towns along the Pacific coast in the northwestern province of Guanacaste are seeing an upswing in what many say is a crime problem spiraling out of control.
While that may not be news to most residents, government officials say they are beginning to take steps to confront the problem in a meaningful way. Efforts until now have been handicapped by a lack of police and a lack of funding.
“The crime problem in the sector has risen in the past 15 days,” said Kattia Chavarría, Guanacaste Regional Director of the National Police. “There is possibly an organized group operating in the area. What we have seen, basically, is house robberies.”
Many in beach communities such as Sámara, Tamarindo and Playa Potrero, however, told The Tico Times crime has been rising for a lot longer than 15 days, and is as bad as it ever has been.
In Playa Potrero, for example, Zoraida Díaz awoke at approximately 1 a.m. Aug. 24 to three armed intruders in her home. Díaz, a 39-year-old mother of two who puts out the regional weekly newspaper The Beach Times with her husband, was sleeping in her 13-year-old daughter’s room when she was awoken.
“There were three guys in the room, and immediately as we woke up two of them pointed their guns at us,” Díaz said. “They threatened us; one kept his gun on us while the other two continued to take stuff out of the room. There was a light on in the hallway and I could see a fourth man. They told me they were going to tie us up, but I said there’s no need, just get going.”
This one incident, however, is indicative of the bigger problem in the region, Díaz continued. Robberies up and down the coast are escalating, becoming more daring and violent, she said.
“Now thieves have no qualms going into a house where people are asleep, they have no qualms about poisoning dogs, and they have no qualms about injuring people,”she said. “It’s almost like the thieves no longer have any fear because there’s no one to stop them… You’ll find the same feeling in Playa Hermosa, in Playas de Coco, in Tamarindo.”
Further down the beach, in the southern Guanacaste coastal town of Sámara, Manú Dibango, 25, says crime in his community is the worst he’s ever seen it. Born in Canada and raised in Sámara since he was 1 year old, Dibango, like Díaz, says not only has crime increased, it is also becoming more violent.
“They’ve started to use guns, pulling cars over in the dark and robbing everyone,” Dibango said. “They’ve started pulling knives on people and taking their tennis shoes. They’ve been using stuff to put you to sleep when they break into people’s houses.”
Dibango said in the neighboring community of Carrillo, seven houses were “cleaned out” in one night approximately three or four weeks ago. In July, he continued, he heard a woman yelling for help outside his house and chased off two would-be rapists with a machete. He went on to list friends who have been robbed at gunpoint, knifepoint or with machetes.
“It’s a really different crime. It’s switched over to a lot more violence,” he said. “Basically, the local cops are afraid to confront these guys.”
The police officer in charge of the Sámara station, Melvin Agüero, acknowledged that crime in the area is rising and becoming more violent. However, the official said it is to be expected because there are more and more affluent tourists visiting the town.
Regarding the rash of home break-ins, Agüero said robberies are now under control. Asked if he felt his force lacked the necessary resources or training to deal with the community’s growing problems, he said only, “Of course, our limitations are very large.”
Brock Menkink, 55, a resident of central Guanacaste’s tourism boomtown Tamarindo for more than 30 years, has had his home broken into more than six times during the past couple months.
“Mostly what they were doing, in our little sector, is the guys come in and steal just enough to get some crack,” Menking explained. He added that he believes the addicts are being used by networks that take the stolen goods and fence them to San José.
Menking tells a story of catching a would-be thief before he could steal anything, turning him over to the police, and then watching a “late-model Galloper (driven by) a welldressed guy pick him up and head back to town,” after the police let him go.
On another occasion, Menking recounted, after catching another person trying to break into his home, his wife had to drive to the police station with one of the couple’s three sons in the car, pick up a police officer and bring him to their home to arrest the guy.
“You can go to the police station, which ain’t much, and maybe three guys are there, the truck is broken or they don’t have gas for it and the phone is just going off the wall with people calling,” Menking said. “The policemen here are working very hard, but they don’t have any equipment.”
Guanacaste police director Chavarría acknowledged that forces across the region are underequipped to deal with the rising tide of crime.
“It is definitely an imminent necessity to have more resources available,” she said.
“There definitely needs to be more investment in public security.”
The government is looking for ways to better fund police, she said, and is currently creating “an office for international cooperation” that will seek donations from other nations. The police director asked residents to be patient, citing the well known pace of government bureaucracy as a reason people will not see big changes soon.
In the short term, Chavarría said, Guanacaste has already received 30 officers from the new Tourist Police force that President Oscar Arias promised to create during his campaign. According to Chavarría, the officers were sent to police delegations in Villareal, just inland from Tamarindo, and Playa Brasilito, north of Tamarindo along the coast. They are currently indistinguishable from regular police, as their Tourism Police uniforms and vehicles will not be ready for months, but they have received special training to protect tourists, Chavarría said.
Public Security Minister Fernando Berrocal announced in May that he expects the Tourist Police force to total some 500 officers once it is complete (TT, May 26). In July, the Public Security Ministry signed an agreement with the Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT) in which the ICT will contribute ¢21 million ($41,000) to equip for the officers (TT, Aug. 18).
In addition, police are carrying out a series of immigration operations on construction sites in the region, looking for mostly Nicaraguan undocumented workers. Chavarría explained the operatives are a response to complaints, not because officials think Nicaraguans are at fault for rising crime.
Police have also been cracking down on drug use and sales and trying to increase police presence in tourism areas.
On a larger, more long-term scale, the Public Security Ministry has made motions toward battling the Guanacaste crime problem more seriously. It recently helped create a private regional security commission with which it meets regularly.
Jessica del Rossi, who heads the Playa Tamarindo Community Improvement Association, is one of the six members who sit on the commission, along with other representatives of the private sector from various areas.
The commission is discussing plans to try to integrate private security into the beach communities. In Tamarindo, Del Rossi said, the community is looking to bring in a security advisor to help create a communications network between residents and hotels, restaurants, banks and other businesses.
“The problem is there are a lot of islands of security, like hotels. The ideas is to make all of Tamarindo one whole island, with communication and police presence,” Del Rossi said. “We’re trying to solve this by implementing an integral security system… But you’re not going to solve crime or security from today to tomorrow.”