Nine police officers have been killed in the line of duty in the last two years. By itself, that number might seem low, particularly when compared to the United States, where 186 officers died last year alone.
But in Costa Rica, it’s a number that looms large behind overall homicide figures, which declined slightly from 347 in 2006 to 329 last year.
It’s especially high when put into the perspective of the Costa Rican population, a little more than 4 million people. Take 2007, which saw at least three officers fatally shot. (Some cases are still unconfirmed.) That’s about 0.07 cops killed per 100,000 inhabitants. And the year before,when six cops were killed, the rate was about 0.14 per 100,000 people.
The murder rate of cops in the United States in 2007, by comparison, was 0.05 – one of that country’s deadliest years in nearly two decades.
Still, the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) finds the Costa Rican figures unalarming.
“I’d say it’s a very low number if we compare it with the number of crimes committed here,” said OIJ Criminal Investigations Chief Carlos Morera.
But after 30 years with the OIJ – Costa Rica’s version of the U.S. FBI – Morera can also speak to the pain of losing a police officer.
“The death of a member of the force is a low blow. I mean, we feel it as if (we’d lost) a brother,” he said. “A guy leaves for work in the morning, says goodbye to his family, and he never comes back home because he’s been killed by a criminal.
“When it’s one of our own, it’s especially painful.”
For Ivette Agüero, homicide investigator in San José, murder numbers were driven home when her husband,National Police officer Roy Sarmiento, was shot in the head April 21, 2006, and died almost a week later in the hospital, five days after his 32nd birthday.
“I was six months pregnant with our first son,” Ivette told The Tico Times.
After taking a year leave for grieving, and giving birth to her son, who was named after his dad, Ivette returned to work in May, this time with the Department of Juvenile Delinquency.
She recounted the start of probably the most painful week of her life.
“My husband left for work around 4 p.m., and the moment he left I had this premonition that something bad was going to happen to him… a car crash or something. So I called him.
“He said, ‘I’m OK, just getting to the office now and then I have a job to do in Desamparados.’” They were the last words Ivette would hear from her husband.
A member of the Intelligence Unit, Roy worked undercover. He wore plain clothes and rode in an unmarked car.
During the drive to Desamparados, a southern suburb of San José, he and his partner, Jacinto Zúñiga, passed a car driving the wrong way.
“According to his partner, my husband was surprised to see the car had tinted windows, driving the wrong way, with no license plates. And it was a Hyundai, which here we catalogue as the kind of vehicle used by criminals,” Ivette said.
The car stopped at the corner and parked, the driver sitting alone and staring at the entrance to a shop called Greghoo, in downtown San José. The officers drove over to the driver, who at first tried to get away but the police stopped him.
As they started questioning him, two other men walked out of the store. Zúñiga stayed with the driver while Roy followed after the other men, yelling, “Freeze! Police!”
One kept walking and the other stopped.
Roy grabbed him and slammed him against fence, the police report said. Then the other suspect came back and shot Roy.
“The bullet entered him right here,” said Ivette, pointing at the top of her skull.
Despite his injury, Roy managed to shoot back, hitting his assailant in the hip. But the shooter ran off. Roy’s partner chased him down. All three suspects were detained.
In August 2006, a judge sentenced Isaac Antonio Vargas, Roy’s killer, to 35 years in prison, the highest sentence allowed in Costa Rica. Rafael Angél Villavicencio, who was slammed against the fence, was sentenced to 15 years as an accomplice. Both men and their suspected getaway driver are also charged with robbery and face further sentences, said Mario Solano, police statistics coordinator.
Trials for at least three other cases involving cops murdered in 2006 are in process, said Solano, adding it takes an average three years before murder suspects face a verdict.
For cops shot in 2007, at least one case is closed, that of the killer of Dixon Hernández, who died Oct. 25, age 29, 10 days after he was shot in San José’s Barrio Cuba. The cop’s killer, last name Bellido, nicknamed “La Piedra” (The Rock) was seeking revenge on Hernández for cracking down on a drug dealer.
“Drugs are the main cause of these killings,” said National Police Director José Fabio Pizarro. “It’s the ‘Colombianization’ of Costa Rica.”
But catching thieves in the act seems to be another major avenue to police fatalities. A mall security guard Tuesday was shot and killed in Escazú while trying to thwart a robbery.
Though he was not a sworn police officer, the event resonated with law enforcement. Criminal Investigations Chief Morera believes criminals fire at police to avoid being handcuffed.
“The principal motive is self-defense. ‘If a police officer traps me, I want to get away, and I’ll do what it takes to get away, even shoot or try to kill the officer so that he doesn’t catch me,’” said Morera. “They’re mentally prepared for that.”
However, according to San José’s homicide squad chief Manuel Cabezas, Ivette’s former boss, cops who get shot usually lack preparation. Pizarro said more cops are needed, as well as more bullet-proof vests and other resources.
Morera agrees. “One of our main concerns,” he said, “is to better equip the officers for basic safety, vests, good weapons, as well as only using a specially trained tactical team to carry out house searches.”
Ivette also said the police lack the tools to do their job.
“The National Police is a very risky job. It burns you out. You have to give it your all, all the time, and it’s really badly paid, and offers very few resources or incentives.
“The government should consider how to better equip the police to deal with criminals.
We have a saying here:While criminals drive fancy cars and carry the latest weapons, the police ride a scooter and carry a slingshot. Criminals advance; the police fall behind,” Ivette said.
Ivette’s eyes still overflow with tears when she tells the story of losing Roy. She feels anger and frustration during the trial against the killer and accomplice. “I checked my gun at the door to go into the courtroom unarmed,” she said. “I wasn’t sure I could control myself.”