Second in a two-part series. Read the first part here.
PUERTO VIEJO, Talamanca – At sunset in the Caribbean town of Puerto Viejo, four community members gathered at a café near the beach to discuss the tourist destination’s once taboo topic of crime.
“Most of the people involved in the community understand the way the information era works, that there is no hiding stuff,” one man said. “The only option really is to correct and solve the problems.”
As the members of Un Caribe Más Seguro (A Safer Caribbean) chatted about improving the region’s reputation, the sunlight reflected what the Caribbean has to offer. The dusk showcased a panorama of serene beaches, thriving vegetation and tropical eateries advertising Caribbean-style meals.
The southern Caribbean presents a section of Costa Rica not found anywhere else in the country, but also one that comes with a reputation.
The most recent high-profile crime occurred on Aug. 14, when a 24-year-old U.S. student was kidnapped while walking to her hotel at 2:30 a.m. The woman was left on a beach 25 kilometers north of town, and later informed authorities she had been raped. Sobering cases like these are sporadic throughout the years, but the popular refrain “this can happen anywhere” doesn’t tell the whole story.
Petty thugs and thieves seem to operate with impunity around Puerto Viejo, committing home invasions and armed robberies without fear of retribution.
For a long time, Un Caribe Más Seguro members said, the community resigned itself that nothing could be done about the corruption. But a year ago, the eight-member committee took off. Working closely with local police, elected officials, the prosecutor’s office, and many foreign and local business owners, they combat crime and debate naysayers.
Initiatives using beach guards, cameras, newsletters, social media and victim-advocacy centers reflect the changing mentality.
“We are trying to be completely open here,” said Talamanca Police Chief Leandro Chaverri. “Because in order to be successful here we need as much information as possible.”
The group members who spoke at the café asked that their names not be used, deferring to Un Caribe Más Seguro’s “workaholic” president, Manuel Pinto. At the time of the beachside meeting, Pinto was taking a rare break from his role with the group to dine with visiting relatives. A week later, the French expat was in San José meeting with members of the Chief Prosecutor’s Office.
A business owner, vice president of the local chamber of tourism and 42-year-old family man, Pinto’s busybody persona fits his guise – animated and lean, with streaks of gray in his hair. Pinto speaks with flair in several languages, using dramatic pauses to emphasize his points.
He acknowledges on some days he’s been frustrated enough with the judicial process, bureaucracy and lack of security laws to dwell on quitting. The kidnapping was a sad and demoralizing occurrence, but also motivation to “go a little harder” and keep picking up more allies in the string of beach towns on the southern Caribbean coast.
The nearby community of Playa Negra asked the committee to speak on the beach security-guard program first implemented in Punta Uva and Playa Chiquta. The initiative expanded to Punta Cocles after U.S. tourist Steve Edelson was shot and killed on the beach there in September 2010. Community members said the presence of those guards, for a cost of $20,000 a year, has pushed beach crime elsewhere.
Pinto praises Facebook and Twitter for bringing the community into the information age. Almost 400 community members, including the police chief and attorneys, use Un Caribe Más Seguro’s Facebook group to report suspicious activity and crimes, like a high-tech Neighborhood Watch program.
The organization also set up victim advocacy centers. Victims have a place to rest and enjoy a cup of coffee. The centers provide comfort, but another purpose is to encourage victims to file a denuncia (criminal complaint).
A year ago, members met with the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ), and were told the southern Caribbean was the safest place in Costa Rica. Nobody ever filed denuncias when crimes happened.
Pinto tries to receive a copy of every denuncia filed, and has 217 (about five a week) from the past year. The figures helped bring about the meeting with the Chief Prosecutor’s Office last Friday and plans for future ones. The OIJ remains an obstacle, members said. And crimes, including both the kidnapping and the beach shooting, go unsolved.
A 25-minute drive from downtown Puerto Viejo on a remote road that overlooks a deep valley of banana plantations, the local OIJ office is located in a garish green building in the indigenous community of Bribrí. The distance discouraged many Puerto Viejo residents from filing denuncias in the past. But it’s the OIJ’s attitude that keeps them frustrated, members said.
In perhaps the most infamous example, an expat family from Florida was riding a rented golf cart on the road between Punta Uva and Puerto Viejo when a man ran at them holding a gun. The family fended him off, and when another car drove by, the robber fled.
But when one of the victims, Mike Humphrey, went to file a denuncia, the OIJ wouldn’t accept it. Humphrey said they told him no crime had been committed because nothing was stolen and nobody was shot.
At an Un Caribe Más Seguro community meeting weeks later, Humphrey confronted the local OIJ head about what happened. The OIJ hasn’t accepted invitations to subsequent meetings.
But Humphrey did return to the OIJ, accompanied by a local prosecutor, to file the denuncia. The officials that took the report knew the exact spot of the incident, Humphrey said. Days earlier, a woman on a bike had been robbed there.
Sometimes tourists need to exaggerate the length of their stay to get the OIJ to take a denuncia, since a “mandatory” four days are needed for an investigation.
“They either don’t understand the purpose [of criminal complaints] or they don’t give a damn,” Humphrey, 58, said.
He added that OIJ investigators never comment on crimes, always saying they are “under investigation.” The OIJ did not respond to multiple inquiries by press time.
Talamanca Mayor Melvin Cordero, one of Pinto’s closest supporters, commented on the situation. He said even if there is a personnel problem with the OIJ or the local police – who many community members agree have improved but lack training – it’s unfair just to blame them when resources are so lacking in the southern Caribbean’s Talamanca Municipality, the largest and poorest in Costa Rica.
“They don’t have the necessities to cover a territory so big, so disperse and so difficult,” Cordero said.
Cordero, who grew up in Bribrí, has made a goal of bringing more security funds from taxes back to Talamanca. The area already has received some help, as Puerto Viejo residents have noticed an increase in Tourist Police and National Police this year.
Un Caribe Más Seguro is funding its own plans. In addition to beach guards, locals are constructing a new holding cell for the National Police station in Puerto Viejo, and donating computers for a “denuncia room.” A new agreement will allow victims to bypass the Bribrí office when reporting minor crimes, and file denuncias to OIJ headquarters in Limón. Both projects should be completed this month.
The group also is working with the Costa Rican Tourism Board (ICT) on a hotel certification program. Hotels and lodges that take training courses on keeping tourists safe and that follow certain rules for protecting guests receive special recognition. Luis López of the ICT confirmed that the organization supports the plans. Business owners hope it will coerce dissenters in the community to chip in for security.
While the intentions seem meaningful, some older Limón residents believe the government abandoned the region long ago. Prejudice results in repeated setbacks for the country’s Caribbean.
But Pinto recommends coming to Puerto Viejo in September and October, when thunderstorms sweep over the rest of the country and clear skies and sunshine remain on the Caribbean.
In the past few years, he’s seen more “well-off” Ticos visit. They take notice of a land neglected throughout Costa Rica’s history and understand it has something to offer. They recognize it would be a shame to see these sultry slivers of beach and its unique culture disappear at the hands of criminals.
“You’re losing one of the few places remaining of the old Costa Rica,” Pinto said. “A Costa Rican comes here to be reminded of what the rest of the country used to look like before all these booms. In the rest of the country, you no longer find what you used to find. And you can still find that here.”
How can you help? For more information on Un Caribe Más Seguro, see www.caribeseguro.com.