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Jun 22 2011

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The Good, the Bad & the Ugly: The Truth About Crime in Costa Rica

(Updated July 31, 2015) So first, the goodI feel safer traveling around Costa Rica, and in our town of San Ramon, that I did in downtown Baltimore, or even at the local Mall at Christmas time when we lived back in the States.  In 2009, there was only one murder in the entire canton (county) of San Ramon, where the homicide rate remains 0-5 per 100,000. There was a murder of an American in February 2014 in our canton, in Los Ángeles de Peñas Blancas de San Ramón (La Fortuna), just under 2 hours away from where we live, on the other side of the mountains.

Here, I rarely feel concerned about my personal safety.  But like anywhere, you have to be smart. Be aware of your surroundings and don’t walk alone at night. Don’t carry a lot of cash or credit cards or flash expensive jewelry. And don’t leave anything of value out in the open in your car, not ever, especially if you are in a rental car. You can’t leave your common sense at home, here in Costa Rica or anywhere else in the world. And now on to the bad…we received an email from a friend the other day about a string of robberies in a neighborhood nearby. It’s a residential area that has been relatively free from crime, until now. Two homes and a school were robbed. In the first home, the robber stole the microwave and filled it with portable items like binoculars. The second home was empty of furnishings, so the thief helped himself to the copper wiring in the house itself. Perhaps the most upsetting of the robberies was the one at the school. They took everything of value that could be removed, including appliances and food. This is the third time this school has been hit and I think it takes someone pretty low to steal from children.

Unfortunately, this kind of crime of opportunity is pretty common in Costa Rica. Some of our friends’ homes have been broken into. Usually the thieves are after things like laptop computers, GPS units, televisions, cell phones — anything of value that can be sold for cash. We have many friends who won’t leave their homes without someone there at all times and if they go on vacation, they hire a house-sitter to be sure that their homes and belongings are safe. (We also arrange for house sitters whenever we are going to be gone overnight.) We even know a few people who have been robbed multiple times and who have decided to move back to the States.

The sign says, “Peligro! Perro Bravo!”

It’s pretty common to see homes in Costa Rica surrounded by bars, razor wire, and signs that say Peligro! Perro Bravo! It’s part of the culture in Latin America.  But when we gringos move here, we don’t want to feel like we’re in jail, so often we don’t follow this tradition when building our homes. But we are the ones who are most vulnerable.  Even if you are “retiring for less” in Costa Rica, you are still seen as rich by many Ticos. And this is a culture where it is acceptable, to some degree, for those who have less to take from those who have more. And in those instances when the offenders are caught, they are given a slap on the wrist and released.  “Pobrecito, it is society’s fault that you don’t have enough and were driven to steal.” So if you move to Costa Rica, you should take the following precautions at your home:

  • Put good locks on your doors and windows.
  • Install bars in all slider windows and doors to prevent them from being opened, even if the lock is broken.
  • Consider installing an alarm system that is monitored.
  • Get to know your neighbors & start a neighborhood watch if one doesn’t already exist.
  • Keep your home occupied by friends or house-sitters when you are away. Having someone in your home is your best defense.

We have been lucky. We have been living in Costa Rica for more than six years and have never had anything stolen from our home or car.  But we have taken precautions, one of which was to live in the Cabinas, where all of the above precautions have been put into place. Since moving to a rental house, we have taken the same precautions here. The only time we were victims of theft was the time a monkey stole our cookies at the beach

Then there is the ugly…which fortunately we don’t see a lot of where we live. The police are increasingly concerned about drugs and guns, even in the quiet coffee towns like San Ramon. There are known drug gangs from San Jose that are trying to establish a presence in the outlying areas. They are responsible for armed assaults, stealing cars, and selling drugs. In 2011, police in San Ramon arrested more than 15 individuals suspected of being involved in these activities.

Do I think that Costa Rica is as dangerous as most cities in the U.S.? No, I don’t. But there is crime here, and as in most other places, illegal drug trafficking is at the bottom of much of it. We refuse to live in fear, to let the “bad” or “ugly” of society ruin our enjoyment of this beautiful country.  But we try to be smart and do what we can to minimize our risk.

In our experience, the police here are generally sincere and helpful.  A few years ago, it wasn’t unusual to be pulled over by the police here as they did random car searches to check for guns or drugs, though this seems to be happening less often these days. We are always happy to comply, smile, show our residency cards and drivers licenses, and thank the police for their efforts to protect us. In Costa Rica, you need not fear the police.

Permanent link to this article: http://retireforlessincostarica.com/truth-about-crime-in-costa-rica/

2 comments

  1. dwsmith98

    2 years ago a thief put a gun to my wife’s head and stole her phone and laptop as she was leaving her office in San Jose. I bought her a new phone, which a thief stole from her 3 months later while she was on public transportation. Last year, two thieves accosted my daughter and her boyfriend as they returned home from a date. They put guns to their heads and demanded their phones, wallets, watches, etc., and this was in a good community in San Pedro. Nine months later, 2 thieves on motorcycles stopped my 21 year-old daughter on the streets, held a gun to her head and stole her Blackberry. I guess one could compare Costa Rica to Baltimore or Detroit, but I would never visit either of these cities because of the crime. There are hundreds of decent cities in the U.S. where one can be completely safe. But over the years I have come to absolutely HATE Costa Rica because of the crime. The perps will use any form of transportation to come to your neighborhood to bring you harm, and the police are a joke. They are looking for you despite how you may dress-down to look like a poor Tico, the criminals don’t care – they will hunt you. BTW, I am a Gringo, but my family are Ticos…they know the tactics to avoid being spotted – but they still get attacked. And the cost of living is priced for wealthy foreigners…the ticos can’t afford common products and services. A Burger King Whopper will cost you $8.99 – for the burger only. But Costa Rica has a great public relations firm that portrays the country like a paradise. It’s not. Drugs is a real problem and they don’t have an army to protect them from drug lords moving in from both sides – Mexico and Columbia. There is smog, and it’s frankly not as beautiful as the U.S. (I’ve visited 44 states). Don’t move to Costa Rica unless you like living in constant fear, danger, and with jail bars on your windows, doors and garage door.

    1. Paul & Gloria

      Hi dwsmith98,
      Sorry to hear of the terrible time you and your family have had in San Jose. We can understand why you have such negative feelings about Costa Rica.

      That being said, In our 4+ years here, we have heard of relatively few experiences such as yours. The great majority of comments we hear tell of non-violent crimes of convenience and opportunity. Have you considered moving out of the city? In smaller towns like our own San Ramon, there is much less crime. When a drug gang tried to move into San Ramon a couple of years ago, the police response was quick and decisive. Within two months, they were gone, though not before several violent incidents.

      We have traveled the country and have also spent time in San Jose. I can honestly say that we have never felt in fear for our personal safety, but we are careful to avoid questionable areas, don’t bring valuables with us, and try to blend in.
      Paul and Gloria

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