LIMON – The province of Limón, stretching between the borders of Panama and Nicaragua along the east coast of Costa Rica, is known for postcard white sand beaches, vibrant Caribbean culture and abundant wildlife. It is also stereotyped throughout the rest of the country as being a crime-ridden haven for drug trafficking and violence.
While this label is one perpetuated largely by fear and misunderstanding, there is no question that the province hosts its share of crime.
For example, of the 143 murders committed in Costa Rica in 2008, 101 happened in Limón province, according to the State of the Nation, an annual report by an independent think tank of the same name.
The murder rate per 100,000 people in Limón has increased at an alarming rate, rising from 9.2 in 2003 to 25.1 in 2008. In comparison, the murder rate in San José in 2008 was 14.9.
The port city of Limón, the province’s economic hub and capital, sits on a strategic shipping location and brings a diversity of foreign products into the country – including illegal drugs.
Costa Rica was recently ranked by the U.S. government among the top 20 drug transit and drug producing nations (TT, Sept. 17), and Manuel Villegas, an officer in the Tourist Police force of the region’s capital, has witnessed firsthand the effects that the drug trade has on Limón, fueling theft and gang violence.
“The passage of drugs through (Limón) has influenced the increasing incidence of violence and delinquency,” says Villegas. “It’s a truth that we can’t just try to hide.”
In addition to the National Police, the Limón city government employs over 150 police officers to combat crime. Nevertheless, Villegas thinks police forces are understaffed and underequipped. “As a civil servant you learn to make do with what you have,” he says.
The biggest impediments to law enforcement, in Villegas’ opinion, are the abundant loopholes that weaken the laws themselves. For example, he was once involved in the arrest of a criminal who was carrying nearly 70 crack rocks on his person. The offender faced no charges because he claimed that the drug was intended solely for “personal use.”
“As a police officer it frustrates me that the very laws prevent these people from at least spending some time in jail,” says Villegas.
Although sometimes discouraged, Villegas defends the city of Limón. He says that petty theft and drug possession are rampant, but violent crime is rare and seldom affects tourists or local law-abiding citizens.
“In general, when there are murders they happen between gangs,” says Villegas.
Norma De Pintos, a resident of Limón city who lives by Playa Bonita, is concerned by the lack of police presence in her neighborhood. She has requested that the police force station at least one or two police officers on the beach, which is popular among both tourists and Costa Rican nationals.
Theft is a common occurrence on Playa Bonita. In fact, last Sunday two unidentified teenagers stole a backpack belonging to Katie Onheiber, photographer for The Tico Times. The backpack contained several thousand dollars worth of camera and computer equipment, as well as her cell phone, cash and credit cards.
De Pinto often witnesses thefts like this as she watches the beach from her house window.
“There are robberies every Sunday, when the beach is most crowded,” says De Pinto, and police advise beachgoers not to bring expensive items that could attract thieves.
In Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, toward the southern tip of the province, neighborhoods like one near the beaches of Cocles and Playa Chiquita are organizing to patrol and protect their seashore with new zeal, putting into effect a community watch group that works with local police officers. They also plan to hire fulltime security guards like the ones found on nearby Punta Uva.
This enthusiasm stems from the town’s response to the tragic murder of Steven Edelson last month.
Edelson, a 65-year-old Californian tourist who was visiting Puerto Viejo for the fifth time, was shot in the back of the head from close range while playing his guitar on the beach near Punta Cocles. His backpack, containing a water bottle, sunscreen and a beer, was stolen, while his watch, ring and guitar were left behind.
René Carillo, pastor of a nearby apostolic church, was among the first to arrive on the scene after the shooting, and has been instrumental in organizing the community watch. Several hours a day Carillo walks the beach, keeping an eye out for potential danger.
“If I see a suspicious person I call the police or a security guard,” he says.
While theft is not an uncommon occurrence on the beach, the recent murder was an anomaly, and Carillo intends to ensure that things remain peaceful.
“We are working because this is a beautiful place and we want to keep it free of violence.”