PUERTO VIEJO, Limón – Such is the flippant attitude of a recent thief in this southern Caribbean tourist town that he takes a self-portrait with the digital camera he has just stolen, then tries to sell it in town. Like many thieves here, he seems confident he will be able to slip through the net without punishment.
A lack of government finances and human resources, mismanagement and victims’ reluctance to spend precious vacation time in a Bribrí prosecutor’s office was rendering the judicial system in the Talamanca region virtually impotent, according to Eddie Ryan, vice-president of the Puerto Viejo Chamber of Tourism.
As the chamber’s head of security issues, he decided a while ago something needed to be done.
“The judicial process wasn’t functioning, so there was neither investigation, nor prosecution, nor resolution,’’ Ryan told The Tico Times recently. “There was an obvious problem. It was an open door for crime and there was no response.’’
His efforts have begun paying off. A year after his first meeting with Costa Rica’s Chief Prosecutor Francisco Dall’- Anese, the Judicial Branch has approved a pilot plan to place a Bribrí-based judge and prosecutor in Puerto Viejo on the weekends to give tourists improved access to the judicial system.
The plan gives crime victims and witnesses immediate access to the law. Normally, victims and witnesses of crimes committed Friday night, Saturday or Sunday would have to wait until Monday, as they must everywhere else in the country.Not only that, they must travel 15 kilometers to the courthouse in Bribrí to seek help, and many tourist victims will have already left the area or be reluctant to spoil the rest of their vacation dealing with officials, opting instead to try and erase the bad memory.
If the local prosecutor decides to press charges, the case can be brought to trial without the victim’s presence. Additionally, a foreign witness can allow his or her testimony to be used without being present at the trial.
Puerto Viejo businesses and other community members are providing donations to cover the cost of transportation for the public officers, and are willing to donate a video camera to judicial authorities to record the weekend proceedings.
The plan, the first of its kind in Costa Rica, is slated for implementation by the end of the year and reports on its progress will be filed every two months. It is expected to help tourists gain access to the judicial system without extra cost to a financially strapped government.
“Justice is going to the person instead of the person going to justice,” said José Luis Ocampo, a lawyer specializing in criminal law at Interlex Bufete Echeverría in San José.
“This will facilitate the procedure for tourists.”
Like most beach towns in Costa Rica, Puerto Viejo’s economy is heavily dependent on tourism; whether through employment in hotels and restaurants, truck drivers delivering construction materials for new enterprises, or young men fishing for bait at sunrise to sell to the fishermen who will catch the day’s entrees served at those local hotels and restaurants.
Costa Rica hosts more than a million tourists every year and they spend an estimated $1.5 billion or more. Coupled with foreign direct investment in hotel projects and the influx of expatriates moving here, business owners’ increasing concerns over the surge in crime throughout the country are understandable, as there seems to be no sign of it abating.
The Web site of the U.S. Embassy in San José warns of carjacking and thieving, and residents of Puerto Viejo are concerned that rising crime levels will deter tourists from visiting, subsequently threatening residents’ livelihoods. The south Caribbean’s population doubles during high season, so a drop off in tourists would certainly be a blow to the economy in this area.
In some respects the residents of Puerto Viejo are lucky, as they have yet to see the armed robberies that some residents in the beach areas of the northwestern province of Guanacaste have reported (TT, Sept. 8).
Nationwide, reports of theft, excluding car and house theft, reached 3,464 in the first six months of 2006, more than half the 6,744 reported in all of 2005, according to statistics from the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ).
Reports of assault reached 4,128 during the same period this year, again more than half the 7,655 reports in 2005. Then there are all the unreported crimes to add.
While the OIJ and the Ministry of Public Security say they are trying to improve levels of security and policing, a severe lack of funding can render officers impotent to act. In a bid to try and step up protection for tourists, the government has promised to distribute 500 tourist police (TT, May 26) throughout the country. Still, that’s at least 2,000 tourists for each police officer to protect.
Back in Puerto Viejo, Ryan didn’t end his quest to improve access to the justice system with the pilot plan. He also had meetings with OIJ Director Jorge Rojas and Supreme Court president Luis Paulino Mora.
In August, Dall’ Anese replaced Bribrí’s two prosecutors with others deemed better able to serve the community, and Rojas provided an extra OIJ officer to help with the investigative process, Ryan said. After Ryan’s meeting with Mora, there was an end to the bimonthly departures of Bribrí’s appointed judges. The town has now had the same judge for an entire year.
Success of Puerto Viejo’s weekend plan could lead to the possibility of establishing similar programs in other areas of the country. While extensive implementation wouldn’t be feasible given the cost of placing prosecutors and judges in all the towns necessary, maybe it would be possible to place judges and prosecutors in certain areas on weekends where they could be easily reached from a number of areas, Interlex’s Ocampo speculated.
Ultimately, the community in Puerto Viejo wants to curb crime through better access to the law, showing robbers like the camera thief and criminals at large that tourists can and will seek justice.
To learn more about Puerto Viejo’s community actions against crime, contact Ryan by e-mail: [email protected].