Tuesday, February 12, 2008

On crime, and all that

I read on various e-mail groups and other sites about crime in Costa Rica. There seems to be two schools of thought: that it's getting worse here every year and the police force are ineffectual, or that it's no worse here than anywhere else. I put myself firmly in the first camp. Honestly, if I had known I'd have to live behind bars down here I probably never would have agreed to move here in the first place. One of the things I value most is my personal freedom, and I think that bars are only there to give the illusion of security. They actually do nothing to deter crime. Case in point:

Ten days after we moved to Costa Rica I was robbed in my own home at gunpoint. I had almost nothing of value for thieves to take; only what I had brought down with me on the plane. Unfortunately, that included my iBook laptop, with all of my work information and personal contacts. (The OIJ got it back, but that's another story entirely.) They also took off with a box of CDs and a $5 telephone we'd picked up at Wallgreen's before leaving California.

I was taking a shower at the time they broke into my house. We had those "security" gates on the front fence, and on the front door, plus a deadbolt on the front door itself. I think it took the thieves all of five minutes to break through all three. My then-novio had just gotten a new job, and I thought he'd come home early (I did hear some stirring downstairs). When I called his name and he didn't answer, I put on some clothes and went downstairs. Imagine my shock when I came face-to-face with a complete stranger instead of my boyfriend. He seemed shocked, too, and turned tail and ran out the door and into the waiting car. His accomplice was in my bare-bones office, stealing my laptop. All I could see was my work and how badly I needed that computer to do anything, and here he was running out the door with it. I started screaming and running after him, pleading, please don't take my computer! I'll give you whatever you think you can get for it! Please, please... Instead, he turned around and pulled his shirt over his face and pointed a gun at me, saying, effectively, back off, we're taking this computer. I threw up my hands in defeat, and that was that.

I called the police, but it took them almost 20 minutes to get to the house and by that point the thieves could have been halfway to Nicaragua. I didn't speak much Spanish back then, so I tried to get someone at 911 who spoke English and that took an extra five minutes. When the police got there, they questioned me, tried to calm me down, and tried to get in touch with my boyfriend. I didn't even know the name of the place he was working at (he quit that evening when he came home and found out what had happened). After the police left, I tried to calm down, but it wasn't easy. I had my three cats (Venus, Bug and Boo) and my sweet Lucy girl (my chihuahua-terrier mix), and realized that if the thieves had hurt any of them I would never have been able to forgive myself. I was so grateful my babies were okay. Novio finally arrived home a few hours later, and I was out of my mind with worry. I wanted to leave that house immediately, but our friends assured us that no one would be stupid enough to break into the same house twice, and that we should spend the night there, and find another place in the morning. Oh, and we'd called the landlord and he didn't seem at all concerned about the fact that there were no locks on the front of the house, saying that he'd fix them the following day. Well, guess what. Someone did break into the house in the middle of the night! We had all the furkids and the two of us sequestered in a bedroom on the top floor, and actually there was nothing left to take. Apparently that didn't matter. Novio dropped an encyclopedia on the floor, which I guess might sound something like a gunshot if you are a nervous thief trying to find something to steal in an empty house in the middle of the night, so the guy took off out of a back window, down the roof and through the backyard.

The next day, we moved everything into our friend's house and started looking for another apartment, although all I really wanted to do was go home to California. In case you were wondering, this all happened in Rhormoser, home of the U.S. Embassy.

For years, I could not sleep alone, and if novio/esposo was out or working late, I would just stay up with all of the lights in the house on. I would have panic attacks for seemingly no reason that didn't seem to be triggered by anything specific. In short, I was afraid to live my life and I felt miserable. It was the first time in my life I had ever been the victim of a crime, and it pretty much rocked my world. I got very little support from novio/esposo, who sort of thought I should just "get over it" after a while. Well, it's not that easy. This was almost eight years ago, and I'm finally able to sleep at night without jumping out of bed every time I hear any little noise. Mostly, what gives me peace of mind now is my dogs. Nine dogs. It may be that I've subconsciously taken all of these dogs in in an effort to feel more secure, I don't know. But I do know that if anyone tried to come into this house, the dogs would rip them to pieces. That's a lot more security than a few silly bars on the windows that only serve to keep you in, not thieves out. One of the things I like most about our current house is that, though there are bars on the windows, all of the bedrooms and the living room have sliding glass doors, so it would be easy to get out in case of an emergency. (I worry about these things since that one time when my son was a baby and I fell asleep with a pot of rice on the stove -- woke up to a smoke-filled house, and couldn't get out through the bedroom window because there were freakin' bars on it.)

So, is crime getting worse? I think it is. I don't have statistics to back me up on this, but I think you do hear more about it, and of course it goes underreported because everyone knows the cops will do next to nothing when they eventually arrive on the scene. Recently, a friend of mine was robbed at gunpoint in her own home with her two babies and her maid there. She was terrified, rightfully so, and her family is planning on leaving soon. I don't blame her. I hate when I read that somehow the victims are to blame for this crime, as though having something worth stealing is a crime in itself. I don't buy that, and as someone who's lived through this, I find it highly insulting. You will see some people suggest that crime here isn't any worse than in any big city, though let's not compare apples and oranges. Escazu, Santa Ana, are not big cities. I think that esposo has been robbed in every way possible. We did count it up one day; he's been mugged several different times in several different ways, had his car broken into, his house broken into. I think the only thing that hasn't happened to him is carjacking (knock on wood, because our friend H. has been carjacked in San Jose). Once we even had the HH broken into in a five-minute time span as we were stopping by a friend's house to drop off something. They got away with our car CD player, and two Costco-size bottles of bleach and a bag of cat food. The image of crackheads running down the street with bleach and cat food was enough to lighten the mood on that one.

The problem I see is that the administration seems content not to do much about crime; when you can bribe a police officer for $10 and a bag of marajuana (I know someone personally who's done this!), how much faith can you really put in them? They get paid so little, to put their necks on the line -- do we really expect them to get in the line of fire? There are solutions, but I think the fact that this country does not have an army or military of any kind speaks to the idea that people do not want a strong police presence, either. People do not want to see Costa Rica become a military state. I don't want that either, but I'll tell you what, I felt a lot more secure in Colombia with all of the military and police officers -- who take no crap from anyone -- all over the place than I do here, where you rarely see police officers, and if you do, they don't seem to be doing anything. It is going to take a change in the consciousness of the Costa Rican people and the leaders they elect before any real change will happen. Costa Ricans have to give up this attitude of "Oh well, crap happens, it's all in God's hands" BS. Until then, I'm afraid crime is only going to get worse, and we'll probably be long gone by that time. I have no interest in raising our son in such a society, and when Obama gets elected, I'll be happy to hang up my ex-pat label.


  1. Hey Raven!

    James Brausch did a great post on his Costa Rica HQ blog about crime in Costa Rica. He had a very similar experience to you, except it wasn't at gunpoint. He then went on to say that statistically crime was actually lower than the US. Everywhere but San Jose.

    You should check it out: he is offering a different, but similar view as yours.

  2. Hi Bryan,

    Thanks for your comments! I really appreciate it! I read James' blog entry, and I would have to politely disagree that having a ring stolen that was left on a hotel table is actually quite a bit different than being held up at gunpoint in one's own house in the middle of the day. I never leave anything expensive in hotel rooms in Costa Rica or anywhere else; that was just not a very smart thing for his wife to do, you know? I still think bars on windows are pointless; thieves come in through the front or back door anyway. Sometimes through the roof! Bars do nothing to deter crime, IMHO. With all due respect to James, he does not cite statistics as to the crime rate either here or in the U.S., so I don't think he can say with any certainty that rates are, in fact, lower here. Without statistics, it is simply his opinion. And truthfully, it doesn't matter all that much to compare one to the other -- is there a significant amount of crime here in Costa Rica? That is the question one has to answer for oneself. To me, I answer yes, to James, I suppose he would answer no. I also think that, given he's only been here for about three months, he really hasn't been here long enough to know what's really going on. I've been here for almost eight years; my husband was born here and has lived here almost his entire life (except for a couple of years when we both lived in California). Take a poll of some longtime Tico residents about the crime here and I can almost guarantee you that the majority will say it's getting worse, not better. He also says that violent crime is "almost unheard of" outside of San Jose. That is simply not true. I personally know of three different families who have been the victims of home invasions in the past few months in the "upscale" Escazu area (including my friend who has two young children under the age of two, who was robbed in the middle of the day inside her own home at gunpoint); I would guess there are quite a few more that no one has heard about. I don't want to scare anyone away, which is why I put off writing this post for so long (my experience happened about eight years ago), but I do feel that unless the administration takes some serious steps to reduce these types of crimes, and soon, Costa Rica is not going to look like the paradise it used to be. It's sad, really, because Costa Rica was so different maybe 15 years ago. I guess the world is changing everywhere, and Costa Rica is just no different than anywhere else?

    And, speaking of statistics, I actually did read something in La Nacion a while back about how the car theft rates are higher in Santa Ana than anywhere else in the country. Unfortunately, I didn't save that page, but I'll try to do a search on La Nacion's page and see if I can find it. It would be nice to find some hard statistics about the number/percentage of home invasion-type crimes in Costa Rica vs. elsewhere, as most of the stats one sees cited are in regards to murder rates.

  3. I think the reason people seem to argue that crime is no worse here than it is everywhere else is because the statistics in Costa Rica are skewed. Robberies of less than $500 are not reported, even if they were at gunpoint. So every criminal that holds you up at gunpoint and steals your iPod or your cell phone does not get added to the stats. Another big difference is the type of crimes. Anyone living in Costa Rica that reads the paper or talks to people, knows what happens. 1. Bajonazos - Carjackings are frequent and common. Its hard to run into someone that doesn't know someone or hasn't personally been held up at gunpoint and had their car stolen. 2. Cell phone, iPod, purse, etc. street robberies are common. But the problem here is they shoot people to get them. I heard a young girl was shot and killed in front of the PriceSmart in Moravia for her iPod recently. 3. Standard crackhead robberies. They steal stuff from your house, out of your car, climb in through your windows and steal stuff out of your house. You've got to be kidding me if you think bars are just for looks. They stop crackheads from climbing through your windows while you sleep and stealing everything you have. I lost a nice camera, video camera, my wife's wedding ring and a lot more that way. 4. The most troublesome, bands of 5-6 wearing masks, bulletproof vests, carrying radios that listen to the police and to talk to each other and guns. According to the OIJ, these guys, usually Colombians, scope out your house and then hit you when you least expect it, tie everyone up, steal everything and then head on their way. And when the cops catch them they either let them go the same day because no one can identify them due to the masks and gloves, or they deport them and they happily come back a week or two later. I thought the OIJ were getting a bit extreme with this one...until it happened to us. And now I've spoken to others that have had these guys hit them. One said that the team of 6 that attacked his place even had OIJ painted on their bulletproof vests. Costa Rica is freakin scary these days. I'm sick of the gringos that have never had a gun put to their head or been tied up and watched things stolen from their homes saying we should stop talking about the crime. Or the people that say don't read the newspaper just bury your head in the sand. The gov't will try but they're not going to do much without lots of money. For now its up to everyone to increase their own level of security, arm themselves, get dogs, have good alarms and watch their backs. Its a beautiful country but drugs and Colombian organized crime have changed it into the Old West. Vigilante justice, will increase and it will be sad...but what else is there?