Just days after a U.S. tourist fresh off a cruise ship killed an assailant in the Caribbean port of Limón – an incident that attracted international attention to the country’s crime problems and had Carnival Cruise Lines threatening to eliminate Costa Rica from its tours – the government announced plans to increase police presence there.
Public Security Minister Fernando Berrocal and Tourism Minister Carlos Benavides announced Tuesday that an expanded Limón police force will closely monitor cruise-ship passengers’ movements through the city, and pull licenses from operators who insist on taking tourists into dangerous areas. Before the conference, the ministers met with cruise line representatives, local tour operators, municipal leaders and others to discuss public security in the region.
“We’re not going to allow a few thugs to dirty the name of Limón or Costa Rica,” Benavides said, adding that Carnival has announced it will continue to visit Limón despite previous statements that it might replace the stop with a visit to a Honduran port.
“We opted not to call in Limón late last week with the Carnival Legend following the Liberty incident,” Carnival spokesman Vance Gulliksen told The Tico Times in an e-mail Tuesday, referring to last week’s mugging.
“The thinking at that time was to suspend calls until further notice. However, we were advised yesterday that Limón officials have been in contact with us and are taking a variety of proactive measures to try to ensure there are no further issues related to passenger safety.”
He confirmed the next Carnival visit to Limón is scheduled for March 8 when the cruise ship Legend arrives.
Doubt over Limón’s future as a cruise destination began Feb. 21 when three assailants, one carrying a handgun, approached 12 tourists in the Limón neighborhood of Cieneguita. One of the tourists, who’d arrived that morning on a Carnival ship, killed one of the assailants, a 20-year-old Limón man later identified as Walter Segura. The other assailants fled the scene.
Gustavo Herrera, of the National Police in Limón, told The Tico Times Segura was treated at the scene by the Red Cross but was pronounced dead of asphyxiation.
Passenger Clova Adams, 54, told the Associated Press that she initially “thought (the attack) was a skit… but then he pointed the gun at my head and grabbed me by the throat and I thought I was going to die.”
None of the tourists was injured, though one woman was treated for a panic attack.
The Miami Herald reported that the tourist who killed the assailant is a military veteran in his 70s who eluded the press upon the ship’s return to Florida. Costa Rican authorities have withheld the man’s name and stated that he’d acted in self-defense; no charges were filed (TT, Feb. 23).
The incident caused a flurry of coverage by international and U.S. media, and the Associated Press story on the assault – which also mentioned one of the most infamous crimes in recent memory against a U.S. citizen here, the murder of college student Shannon Martin in the southern Pacific town of Golfito in 2001 (TT, May 19, 2001) – was picked up by papers and Web sites from Oregon to Israel.
International media also warned tourists to be careful here.
“Although Costa Rica has coveted the American tourist dollar, it has also had to cope with increasing levels of violence in recent years,” Consumer Affairs reported in a story posted on its Web site. “With attacks against American tourists on the rise throughout the Caribbean, visitors would be wise to travel in groups and be especially wary after dark.”
Security Vice-Minister Rafael Gutiérrez said at the press conference this week that 75 additional police officers will be deployed to Limón in the coming months. According to Benavides, increased communication between police and tour operators will allow authorities to track cruise passengers throughout their stay.
Gutiérrez told The Tico Times that some day-tour operators take tourists into unsafe areas of the troubled port city, and that the government will now crack down on such companies. Monday, just five days after the attack in Cieneguita, police arrested four assailants for mugging a tourist who’d been brought to the very same spot, the Vice-
Benavides, who last week denounced a 1999 episode of the popular U.S. TV show “South Park” that portrayed Costa Rica in a negative light (see story in “Weekend”), insisted that “Costa Rica is still considered a safe place.”
So far this December-May tourism high season, 64 ships and 82,000 passengers have visited the Caribbean port, Berrocal said. In 2005, 192 ships brought 280,000 tourists to the country, according to Gonzalo Vargas, president of the National Chamber of Tourism (CANATUR).
Vargas told The Tico Times he sees last week’s mugging as “an isolated and very regrettable event.”
“It’s a call to attention that we need to put in some effort,” he said, applauding the measures the Tourism Minister is planning to control passengers’ movements within the port.
In Limón as well as other cruise-ship destinations in the country, including Puntarenas and Playas del Coco on the Pacific coast, residents and business owners have often complained that passengers bypass their ports of call, heading directly to planned tours. Asked whether the Tourism Institute’s planned controls could make this problem even more severe in Limón, restricting passengers’ access to local businesses, Vargas said the government must work to build the city’s capacity to host tourists while also keeping tourists safe.
“This has to be a joint effort…developing safe areas little by little within the city.
But (meanwhile), we can’t ignore the issue of tourism safety,” he said.
Last month, Institutional Coordination Minister Marco Vargas announced the first installment in a commitment of $5.7 million by the Arias administration over the next four years to improve infrastructure in the province of Limón.
This first investment, which includes $121,317 from the government, will be split between social programs and local infrastructure, according to Vargas, who has become the Arias administration’s point man on all things limonenses.
The administration has also thrown its support behind a plan to find private companies to build a “megaport” 600 times larger than the existing government-run facilities (TT, Jan. 13).