From Costa Ricans and tourists to expats and politicians, crime was a topic on everybody’s lips this year. Residents in tourist towns, particularly hotspots along the northern Pacific coast of Guanacaste, said robberies and other crimes were not only on the rise, but also turning more violent.
New President Oscar Arias made some moves to make good on promises made during his campaign to improve security in Costa Rica, and shortly after taking office in May announced he would increase the size of the nation’s police force by 50% by the end of his term in 2010. The President also announced the creation of a specialized, 500-officer Tourism Police force, which was set to receive its first 120 officers after their graduation from special training in mid-December. The officers were expected to be sent to various beach towns in Guanacaste.
Recognizing that security is one of the top concerns for Costa Ricans, new Public Security Minister Fernando Berrocal announced other measures, such as forming an alliance with private security firms (a move that sparked some controversy), improving security at the borders and forming a national security council, among other measures.
Shortly after taking the helm of the Public Security Ministry, Berrocal denounced a series of irregularities including an astonishing number of weapons missing from the national arsenal; a network in the Immigration Administration that illegally helped mainly Chinese and Cuban citizens get Costa Rican visas; ministry pick-up trucks that were purchased and never worked; police stations where the construction was paid for, but never happened; and various other problems.
The August arrest of an alleged Colombian guerrilla in Costa Rica – accused by officials here of running a drug and arms trafficking operation, and accused in Colombia of participating in massacres there – led officials to submit a list of 18,000 Colombians with residency or refugee status in Costa Rica to Colombian authorities for a criminal background check. The move sparked concern among human rights groups, who wondered about the legitimacy of targeting people based on their nationality.
Despite concern about crime in Costa Rica, and statistics showing there is approximately one mugging every hour in the country, the U.S. daily USA Today included Costa Rica in a list of the safest destinations for women travelers worldwide.
Observers saw movement in several high profile trials this year.A date in February 2007 was set for the trial of Osvaldo Villalobos, one of the two Villalobos brothers who ran a high yield investment operation that closed in 2002 and left thousands of investors without their savings. He faces charges of money laundering and fraud. His brother Luis Enrique, wanted by authorities in connection with the case, remained at large this year.
Investors in the similar Savings Unlimited operation, run by the fugitive Cuban José Milanés, began looking for a way to get their money out of the hotels and casinos allegedly linked to Milanés.
U.S. citizen Narvin Lichfield, owner of a defunct behavior-modification school accused of holding students against their will and abusing them, will also stand trial in February 2007, delayed from an original date in mid-2006, the courts announced.
Luis Alberto Castro, who was convicted along with Kattia Cruz of murdering U.S. student Shannon Martin in the southern zone town of Golfito in 2001, saw his sentence increase to 35 years in prison from 30 on an appeal.
While the trial for slain radio journalist Parmenio Medina crawled along throughout the year, the trial for the death of Costa Rica’s second slain journalist, Ivannia Mora, came to a close that left many disappointed.
Charges against Mora’s former boss Eugenio Millot and five Colombian codefendants were thrown out because of what the judge called errors by the prosecutors. Chief Prosecutor Francisco Dall’Anese said he has no other leads or suspects, and he’s appealing the judge’s ruling.Meanwhile,Millot and the others were set free.
The justice system fell under increased scrutiny after eight inmates from Costa Rica’s largest prison – La Reforma, in the province of Alajuela, north of San José –killed a prison guard and escaped in the dead of night. In less than two months, however, one of the fugitives had been killed in a police shootout and the other seven were back behind bars.
It was a record year for drug busts, as officials saw new transportation methods such as the use of Costa Rican fishing boats and even a homemade submarine to transport the drug north. Counting the three metric tons of cocaine found aboard the submarine in November, U.S. and Costa Rican authorities seized nearly 18 metric tons of cocaine in 2006