Whether it was coincidence or a wake-up call for Costa Rica’s political elite is anybody’s guess. But since the violent crime besieging the country touched the life of former legislator and presidential candidate Ricardo Toledo, the government is abuzz with activity and announcements of new measures to make Costa Rica’s streets and homes safe.
Within days of a brutal attack on Toledo’s home, in which an employee and neighbor were killed and his wife injured, the Public Security Ministry had in its hands a draft of a bill to reform the nation’s criminal laws – including changes security officials have been requesting for more than a dozen years.
The government also announced a special commission charged with helping implement new security measures, and the University of Costa Rica, at the behest of the Security Ministry, is preparing recommendations for a total overhaul of the ministry.
On a more regional level, government security officials met with business representatives and two legislators from Limón Wednesday to discuss ways to cooperate in preventing crime in the Caribbean province.
Though officials have steered clear of saying the measures announced this week are a reaction to the macabre scene at Toledo’s house, the high-profile robbery and double homicide spurred public clamor and a series of pointed interviews with top judicial officials in the days before the measures were announced this week.
On March 21, four masked men assaulted Toledo’s wife, Martha Lora Morejón, as she arrived at her west San José house, and gained entry to the family home. Once inside, the men shot the household employee, Nicaraguan Ligia Hernández, 42, twice in the abdomen, killing her. As they were leaving, a neighbor, Peruvian Werner Bohl, 48, shouted for help from the balcony of his apartment across the street, and was shot and killed by the fleeing attackers.
Shortly after the incident, police arrested three of the alleged criminals in the southwestern San José neighborhood of Hatillo. A fourth suspect was arrested the next morning, also in Hatillo. The four allegedly had fled with a TV and inexpensive jewelry from Toledo’s house in a red Hyundai, which was confiscated by police.
Toledo, who was not home during the incident, claimed the men were the same who had been arrested trying to break into a neighbor’s house March 16 – suspects who were arrested thanks to the testimony of his employee Hernández.
Toledo accused police of compromising the woman’s life by forcing her to confront and identify the would-be robbers face-toface, an opportunity the accused took to threaten her life. The standard procedure for identifying suspects is through a one-way glass, to protect the identity of the witness.
Delroy Hernández (no relation), police chief for the sector, denied officers brought the employee and suspects together, saying the officers arrested them in the act and did not need witness identification. He acknowledged that neighbors had gathered, and said it was possible the suspects may have threatened the woman.
The police chief said the two arrested for the first break-in were street kids, and because they were under 18, were released within a few hours of their arrest. He flatly denied they are connected with the attack on Toledo’s home.
Two days after the bloody incident, Rodrigo Arias, Minister of the Presidency and brother of President Oscar Arias, said the government needs “emergency” legislation.
“We cannot continue with this rise in crime. Something must be done now, because we all are afraid that this wave of violence is getting out of hand,” he told the daily La Nación.
The same day, Supreme Court president Luis Paulino Mora said the nation’s laws are out of date, and proposed a bill that would give better protection to victims, and witnesses like Hernández.
Chief Prosecutor Francisco Dall’ Anese told the daily that crimes like Toledo’s happen “almost every day,” and called for more police and changes to the Criminal Code, including reforms proposed 13 years ago.
As if to prove the Chief Prosecutor’s point, a series of homicides have splashed across headlines in Costa Rica in the days since the attack on Toledo: a businessman was killed for $1,200 he just with drew from a bank March 22; a young man was shot and killed for his tennis shoes March 23; a businessman was found dead and stuffed in a cardboard box in the bed of a pick-up truck Monday. In addition, three women were killed in murder-suicides perpetrated by their husbands or ex-boyfriends, one woman was murdered by her son-in-law, and another woman was found dead of a gunshot wound to her head in an apartment Tuesday.
Robyn Wright, a U.S. citizen who lives near the central Pacific beach town of Jacó, told The Tico Times this week that the day before the attack on Toledo she was sexually assaulted by two men, who then attempted to kill her. It was the third time some one had broken into her home in six weeks, she added.
“They strangled me, brutally beat me and sexually assaulted me, and left me for dead,”Wright wrote in an e-mail.
Wright says she is frustrated by the lack of follow-up and investigation on behalf of the authorities.
“It’s been eight or nine days, and they have not investigated or asked a single neighbor if they saw or heard anything,” she said.
“I don’t know what their process is. Do they have a process? I think talking to the witnesses the day of the event is where you are going to get a lot of information. They are not going to remember in two weeks whether they saw anything unusual.”
A new high-level commission made up of judicial and other government officials met for the first time yesterday to discuss ways to speed up the application of various proposals for improving security in Costa Rica.
“There is a national clamor, very justified for sure, about crime and the need to fight delinquency,” President Arias said in a statement this week. The President said he considers it unacceptable that robberies of less than $500 are considered misdemeanors, and therefore don’t receive “the follow-through and punishment they should.”
A bill drafted by former Public Security Minister Juan Diego Castro contemplates this and other points, and was turned over to current Public Security Minister Fernando Berrocal Monday for analysis before an eventual submission to the Legislative Assembly.
The bill proposes a variety of reforms to Costa Rica’s Criminal Code (which lists crimes) and Criminal Process Code (which lists punishments), reforms Castro said he submitted to the Legislative Assembly 13 years ago when he was minister. Nothing ever came of those efforts.
The bill proposed this week would eliminate the highly criticized clause stating that the theft of goods or money less than ¢250,000 ($484) are misdemeanors.
The bill removes value limits, making all robberies crimes, not misdemeanors, and therefore punishable with jail time. Castro’s list of reforms would also extend wiretapping from drug-trafficking cases to all organized crime investigations, and allow police to interrogate suspects without the presence of their lawyers. While the change would not obligate the suspects to talk, current law prohibits police from asking suspects any questions until they have a lawyer present, Castro said.
The drafted bill also would require the Judicial Branch to maintain a database of the names of people convicted of certain offenses, and allow free and easy public access by way of the Internet.
The University of Costa Rica (UCR) is expected to present its plan to restructure the Public Security Ministry – whose official name is the Ministry of Public Security, Governance and the Interior – in October.
The University’s School of Public Administration is leading the efforts, meeting with scholars, lawyers, public officials, researchers and others as they tackle the infamously inefficient ministry.
According to Mayela Cubillo, director of the School of Public Administration, the Public Security Ministry has eight offices that are repeated, including two press offices, two human resources offices and two legal departments. Cubillo also noted that Costa Rica has 17 different police divisions with distinct and often limited powers.
Part of the blame for the overlap can be traced back to the administration of Miguel Angel Rodríguez (1998-2002), when the Public Security Ministry was joined with the Governance and Police Ministry, Cubillo said.
“Our idea is that (with a restructured ministry) we can diminish both the real and perceived crime rates,” she said.