Amid the palm trees, yoga studios, restaurants and souvenir stands, the topic of conversation in Puerto Viejo de Talamanca seems to revolve around crime. Just ask anyone and you’ll likely get an earful.
But when the Tico Times spoke with residents, police officers, tourists and business owners recently, we found that almost nobody wanted to go on the record. In a small town like Puerto Viejo, anonymity is important to residents, especially regarding crime.
Recently released statistics by the Judicial Investigative Police (OIJ), which investigates crimes in Costa Rica, show that crime is down nearly across the board in Costa Rica. The Caribbean coast province of Limón, where Puerto Viejo is located, is the only province that showed an increase. Over the course of a few days this January, The Tico Times received reports of assaults with machetes, armed home invasions, and open-air drug markets. Most went unreported to authorities. And nobody involved wanted to speak on the record.
For example, a Tico Times reporter met an Irish tourist who asked to remain anonymous. Thieves had stolen her camera, wallet and cash the previous day. When asked if she was going to file a report, she replied: “A report? What are these guys going to do? I already spoke with the police and they told me I’d have to go to some other bloody town, who knows where. For what? I’m getting out of here tomorrow, that’s my solution.”
A local business owner, who asked that her name be withheld, confirmed that the tourist’s case is not unique. “People come here on holiday for perhaps a week. If they’ve been robbed, that’s already a bad experience. They don’t want to spend another day at a strange police station and spend money for a taxi just to file a report. [Tourists] want to put it behind them and enjoy the rest of their holiday the best they can,” she said.
Asked why she didn’t want her name published, she said, “It’d be bad for business, and for me personally, if people knew I was talking.”
A source in the OIJ – who also asked to remain anonymous because he is not authorized to speak to reporters – confirmed that robberies are commonplace. “We get a fair amount of tourists up here to report crimes, mainly for insurance purposes,” he said. “[Tourists] are mostly victims of petty theft, but we do see an increasing number of armed robberies. And we know there is large gray area of unreported crimes.”
Crime victims on the southern Caribbean coast cannot give statements at local Fuerza Pública, or National Police, stations. “Our function [at the National Police] is to prevent crime, not investigate it,” said a local officer who did not wish to be named. “To make a formal report, you have to travel to the OIJ office in Bribri.”
Reporting a crime can be a daunting experience for a vacationing tourist. From Puerto Viejo the trip to Bribri is a 40-minute journey across pothole-laden roads. The center of Bribri is a smattering of ramshackle buildings and bus stops and resembles a Central American traveler’s nightmare. Inside the pale green walls of the local courthouse, at the very end, is a two-room office that houses the OIJ. The sound of a typewriter marks a percussive backbeat as victims wait to report their crimes.
If they report them, that is.
“I wouldn’t go to the OIJ to report a crime,” a local resident said. “I live here. I don’t want anything to happen to me.” This sentiment was echoed throughout the community.
Not everyone is keeping quiet, however. Manuel Pinto, a French-born resident who runs the Caribe Sur real estate office in Playa Chiquita, is attacking crime through community organization.
Pinto is the vice president of the Southern Caribbean Chamber of Tourism and Commerce, and through the chamber he is spearheading a local public security initiative. “We’re working to establish relationships with the National Police, the Tourism Police, the OIJ, schools, tourists and community members,” Pinto said.
“There are problems [related to crime] throughout the country, and especially in beach towns,” Pinto said. “Here in the southern Caribbean I really don’t think it’s worse than anywhere else. Puerto Viejo is not a dangerous town; it’s part of a rising crime problem everywhere. This isn’t San José. Look at my office,” he said, motioning to a modern glass room with computer equipment. “I don’t have any bars on my windows. I don’t need them. We don’t have a war zone down here yet. That said, if the government doesn’t do something soon, it’ll be too late.”
Pinto says his group has found central government agencies and the National Police attentive to the community’s concerns. “The main problem here is the local OIJ and Fiscalía [prosecutor’s office]. I’ve seen them tell blatant lies, blatantly trying to get out of work. Where is their supervision, their accountability? A lot more needs to be done,” he said.
Pinto and other community members are working on finding solutions. “We as a community are willing to work with the structure and make their job easier,” he said. “Unfortunately, so far we haven’t received any willingness from [the OIJ] to work with us. And that is what we’re trying to establish.”
Pinto and his colleagues have set up a website (www.caribeseguro.com) that outlines the security committee’s objectives and provides crime victims with a clear outline of how to report a crime. “Additionally, we’re about to send out letters to local businesses regarding helping tourists understand procedures,” he added. “We’re hoping we can get community leaders to band together and help improve security.”
In contrast to his opinions regarding the OIJ and Prosecutor’s Office, Pinto sings high praise for the Tourism Police. “The Tourism Police are amazing, simply amazing. They come to all of our meetings, are eager to help, and sincerely want to control some of [the community’s] problems. With their presence in the area, we are seeing positive results. The National Police are working with us, too.”
Local law enforcement officials find their job hindered by infrastructure. “Look, it’s really difficult for us to work here,” said a National Police officer in Puerto Viejo, who asked that his name be withheld. “We only have 20 officers for the entire district, which runs from Hotel Jaguar [in Cahuita] to Manzanillo. We work in two shifts of 10, with foot patrols, vehicle patrols and people in the station. It’s not enough,” he said. Additionally, officers complained about the poor condition of the roads, many of which are deeply rutted and allow for a bicycle to reach higher speeds than a motor vehicle. “The roads are terrible, and that affects our response time.”
The source in the OIJ shared similar lamentations: “We only have six people to work this entire region,” he said. The Municipality of Talamanca, to which Bribri and Puerto Viejo belong, stretches over some 2,800 square kilometers. More than 25,000 people live there. “People don’t come and make a report. Without a report, we can’t work. And even when we can, we don’t have any undercover vehicles. It’s not easy running an investigation here.”
Ostensibly, the central government is trying to make their jobs easier. A statement sent to the Tico Times from the Ministry of Public Safety lauded recent achievements in fighting crime, including the hiring of 1,102 new officers, as well as investments in equipment and training. Minister of Public Safety Jose Tijerino recognized the challenge the country faces. “With paltry resources, our police forces fight an unequal battle against international drug cartels, delinquency and organized crime. We compensate for our lack of numbers, equipment, arms and infrastructure with spirit, vocation of service and eagerness to honor our commitment to fight,” the minister said (see related story).
Pinto still has faith. “We just need to get people involved in the system, to trust the system. The country has to trust the system, and trust that the system will work. Until that happens, nothing will change. In the meantime, we hope to work from within the community on this problem. We really believe that we will soon be the best organized community in the country.”