Jun 22 2011

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.

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