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HomeCosta RicaExpat Living: A Hectic Day in the Costa Rican Court

Expat Living: A Hectic Day in the Costa Rican Court

It was the day after Christmas. I was managing a tour company and we were in the middle of the most hectic two weeks of the year. I got a call from a friend, asking a favor. A few weeks earlier, his 22 year old son, visiting from the states, had been robbed on a Quepos street at knifepoint just after sundown. Witnesses on the scene ID’d the assailant–a known local hoodlum– and he was arrested, and as usually happens here, let out quickly. A court date was set for the evening of December 26th.

My friend called that morning because the court had informed him–with little notice–that due to the holidays there would not be a court interpreter available for his son’s case. As his son was only an occasional visitor here his Spanish was limited, and certainly not on the level needed for court proceedings. Thinking this would be a matter of introductions, and a quick guilty plea, I agreed to act as the interpreter.

The court was on the second floor of one of the municipal buildings near the center of town. We entered and took our seats. My friend’s son nudged me and pointed out the punk who had robbed him. The defendant was a taller, skinny kid, no older than twenty. I was in town on the streets every day, but did not recognize him.

The judge called the session to order. First he addressed the defendant. After reading the charge, he informed the defendant that he had the option of remaining for the hearing or leaving. The defendant chose to absent himself from the proceedings and left accompanied by a court official.

Three and a half hours later we finally got out. After so many years of experience with the Costa Rican bureaucracy, I have no idea why I thought it would be a quick turn. Instead, it was as if my friend’s son was the one on trial. He had to give a detailed account of the crime. Every couple of sentences I translated in Spanish to the court.

Then the judge would ask something, and I would translate back to English to my friend’s son. At one point the judge, who gave no indication that he understood English, accused me of not translating accurately, I then asked him, “Usted habla Ingles?” He repeated the accusation in Spanish. He was not happy with my insolence. His tone was sharp.

I then asked how he knew what I was saying: “Como sabe que estoy diciendo en Ingles?”, then I quickly made nice, as I considered the irony of being charged with contempt. I explained that I was translating the best I could: “Estoy traduciendo lo mejor que puedo.”.This exchange was well into the third hour. We were all a bit frayed at this point. Somewhere in there, my friend’s son let me know the drinks would be on him when we finished. Then finally all was resolved to the court’s satisfaction.

We departed the room, walked down the steps to the street below. Waiting nearby was the suspect and a few of his friends. Here was the often and rightfully criticized Costa Rican justice system illustrated. My friend’s son and I had just sat through a 3 plus hour session that was more like an interrogation than the testimony of a victim of a crime. And now this punk had gathered a few of his buddies below. My friend’s son hesitated and then bolted into the street.

The whole scene pissed me off, so I made like Clint Eastwood in one of his old westerns. I turned and walked right at the group, forcing them to move as I passed. I stared down the suspect, called him an hijueputa. As I reached the street I turned toward them, slowly backpedaling while giving them the full extent of my Tico street vocabulary. They shouted insults back, but made no move toward us. Then we turned the corner and headed toward my friend’s house.

We later found out that the kid was actually convicted and sent away to the regional jail in Puntarenas for a while. Whether he has reformed or is still out there breaking the law is anyone’s guess.

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