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Costa Rica
Friday, October 15, 2021

Is Costa Rica dangerous for expat retirees?— Putting crime into the proper perspective

I am repeatedly asked  by people thinking of relocating here if there is a lot of crime.

I have lived in Costa Rica for over 40 years, speak Spanish with native fluency and above all want to want to clear up a lot of erroneous information that is being published on many social media platforms about the subject of expats and crime in Costa Rica.

I’d like to point out that I ride the bus, walk the streets, talk to many Costa Ricans, so I am fortunate to be able to have the opportunity to observe daily life first hand.

Crime is a difficult subject to address since it has a lot to do with perception and understanding the scope of the problem. Bear in mind that NO country in the world is crime free. If it exists, then please let me know.

 I can honestly state that during the time I have lived here I have never been a victim of any crime. Yes, I have made a couple of bad investments and some of my ex-girlfriends have beaten me out of a few bucks, but nothing more than that. So putting everything into proper perspective, Costa Rica is not a dangerous country in which to live. 

Yes, there have been cases where a few American tourists have disappeared without leaving a trace. Over the years a handful of expats have been murdered for their possessions or died under mysterious circumstances

NOTE: According to my contacts at the American embassy, the real danger here is from drowning and not dying as a result of a violent crime.

Despite the warning signs on many beaches, tourists, Costa Ricans and residents venture into unfamiliar waters and drown every year because of the strong undercurrents. The good news is that the country is in the process of organizing a national lifeguard service to try and prevent more deaths

Automobile and motorcycle accidents also cause a lot of unnecessary deaths but most of those who die are locals and not foreigners.

It is important to make the distinction between “Latino (Costa Rican, Colombian, Nicaraguan, etc.)  on Latino crime” and “Latino on gringo” crime in Costa Rica. The latter is miniscule while the former predominates.

 The majority of homicides occur among Costa Ricans and people from neighboring countries.  They are usually precipitated by territorial drug wars, revenge, jealously, inebriation, crimes of passion or armed robberies. Expat residents are seldom victims of these types of crimes.

Since Costa Rica is a small country when a crime does take place, it is usually sensationalized and blown completely out of proportion by the news-starved local and sometimes international media.

For instance, a few weeks ago a North American  was shot to death by the ex-boyfriend of his local girlfriend. Unfortunately, a lot of single men get mixed up with prostitutes, gold diggers or lowlifes who seem to be the easiest women to meet. I have seen this scenario repeated over and over and over during the 40 plus years that I have lived here. I even have coined a term that can be applied in most cases, “Tontingos or dumb gringos.”

Many leave their brains on the plane and do things that the never would do in their home countries that include bad investments and getting involved with unsavory characters. They fall in ’lust’ and not in love with the country and drop their guard.

Costa Rica is peaceful when we compare it to Mexico which reportedly has around 1,000,000 residents from the United States. Over 250,000 people have died there due to drug violence during the last 15-20 years. In fact, 43  candidates for public office  have been killed so far this year by the ruthless cartels.

Nothing on this scale has EVER occurred in Costa Rica. Yes, we have local drug dealers who kill each other but on a small and far less violent scale than Mexico where murder, mayhem, dismemberment and other heinous crimes are almost an everyday occurrences. 

Medellín Colombia which is slowly becoming a new expat retirement haven, has double the homicide rate of Costa Rica at about 25 deaths per 100,000 people. When Pablo Escobar was terrorizing the city’s inhabitants the murder rate was a whopping 450 deaths per 100,000.

The city is much safer now even with the current social upheaval. Curiously, a while back I was reading an article that almost every person including foreigners have metal security doors on their homes due to the large number of burglaries. This phenomenon doesn’t seem to be the norm here. According to the media,  in 2021 around 20 foreigners have been murdered in Medellín to date.

Let’s not forget that the good old USA is one of the most violent countries in the world since guns are obtained easily. A resident or citizen of Costa Rica can only own three (3) handguns and NO military assault weapons. A handgun permit has to be renewed every two years and includes a thorough psychological exam and evaluation.

Furthermore, to date there have been NO indiscriminate massacres like the ones that are happening almost every week in the United States. Here you can go shopping or to a movie here without having to look over your shoulder for fear of a deranged gunman.

I know of a few people who have been mugged over the years, usually in San José. On the other hand, I also have friends who have lived there for many years and never had a single problem nor felt in danger. 

Nevertheless, here are a few pointers.

  • Always try to be aware of your surroundings. 
  • Dusk is a popular time for muggings, as many people are walking home from work.
  • If you have to walk the streets in the Central Valley around that time, stick to heavily-traveled areas.
  • Watch for parked cars that look suspicious.
  • Be aware of your surroundings.
  • If you’re in a car, roll up your windows when you’re at stoplights or stuck in traffic.

Generally it’s a good idea not to carry anything that can’t be easily replaced (passport, laptop, U.S. driver’s license, lots of cash, etc.). Mugging can be avoided, but you have to be smart about it, look like you know where you’re going, and don’t display targeted items like cell phones, digital cameras, or expensive jewelry.

Burglary is the most prevalent crime here. Choosing where to live reduces the chance of burglary. Most condo and apartment complexes have good security. ADT and other alarm companies operate here.

I have had ADT for over 20 years without a problem. Their response time is quick even when my alarm is triggered accidently. Many neighborhoods also have night watchman who make the rounds. 

Isolated properties that are off the grid are more vulnerable than gated or semi-gated communities or traditional neighborhoods with subdivisions. 

Believe me! If thought it was dangerous for my family to live here, I would pack my bags and relocate.

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