In Costa Rican cities all homes are barricaded with steel fences, all doors are perpetually locked, and external windows are criss-crossed with a menagerie of iron bars. The first time that I was in this country I was taken aback by the evident fear that Costa Ricans seem to have for their neighbors. This is a fear which has forced the populations of entire cities into the cages which have become their homes. A fear that makes people uneasy to walk down their own streets and puts entire communities on perpetual guard. I never thought of Costa Rica as being a particularly dangerous country, and I never imagined that the people here would be living inside of very real cages. I once scoffed at these iron bars, but on my return to this country I have heard some stories that have made me realize that the people here really feel as if these palisades are necessary.
All of these events have happened within the past six months during normal commuting hours:
1. A professor that I know at the national university of Costa Rica was having a small party at his home in the suburbs of San Jose when a group of armed masked men walked in through the front door, held everyone up at gunpoint, and stole everything. The police did nothing.
2. Two foreign students from the USA opened the door of their home in Heredia to find two masked men with guns who again took everything. The police did nothing.
3. I met a girl from the USA who had been robbed at knife point three times and severely verbally threatened once within the past four months in Heredia. All of these events happened in the early evening on main streets that were full of people. One time she was with a Costa Rica friend who had a knife put up to his throat while the American girl was force to submit her bags on fear that her friend would be harmed.The police did nothing.
4. A boy of US origins was robbed on three or four occasions in the streets of Heredia within the past few months. The last time was just a couple of days ago at 6:45PM on his walk home from school in front of a Burger King restaurant on a main street full of people. A kid asked him a question as he passed by on the street and he turned around to find three knifes promptly pressed up against his body. After the assault he tried to call the police, but was discouraged by a Costa Rican who asked, “Why do you want to call the police? They are not going to do anything.”
5. On his first night in Costa Rica a friend of mine was in a neighborhood (La Esperanza) of Heredia when he heard shouts of “Thief Thief He has a gun He just ran into the park ” from a Costa Rican woman who was robbed of her purse. The men in the community quickly assembled themselves, found the thief, stripped him naked, and beat him to a pulp. The police showed up just to watch the beating.
6. A Costa Rican friend was walking down a busy street in downtown Heredia when a guy stuck a gun up to him and demanded money. The kid asked the thief if he was really going to shoot him in a street full of people. The thief ran away.
7. Two young women from the USA on separate occasions were seriously sexually assaulted by taxi drivers in Heredia, Costa Rica.
8. Many, many more stories similar to the ones above.
These are just a few of the many stories of robberies and assaults that have recently happened in the Heredia area of Costa Rica that I have heard during past week that I have stayed here. I am floored. I never imagined Costa Rica to be particularly dangerous.
Usually when a traveler is robbed it is because they make an error of judgement. I have often heard tales of robberies followed up by declarations by the victims that the incidence was partially their own fault. “I should not have been there at that time of night,” I have heard many travelers say (including myself). But I can not place any blame on someone who is robbed on a busy street during normal business hours on their walk home. I do not have much advice on how this can be avoided. This just seems really odd to me. This is Costa Rica, a major tourist country in the tropics, not a run down backwater slum. The criminals that are operating in the Heredia area do not seem to have very much fear of the police in Costa Rica. They taunt them daily, in fact. I just heard a story from a girl who watched a police officer pull his gun on a man. I guess the guy just looked at the cop and ripped the gun from his hands and threw it away. Odd stories. I would expect such tales to come out of Peru, Guyana, or Columbia, but not Costa Rica, and especially not in such intense intervals. Nearly everyday I hear a new story about how someone else was robbed the night before. Heredia is not a large city, it has more the flavor and feel of a large town, and it seems as if a gang of criminals are running amok. It has been readily shown that the police are not prepared to do anything about it. So what do the people who live here do?
Build cages and live in them.
I find that I no longer give a spiteful sigh when I have to pass through the outer layer of a fortress to go into my room. I have become almost thankful for my cage. I am very saddened to write this. I am a traveler, I feel that I abused some term of worldliness by my above statement. I feel as if I should be running with the thieves and finding out what is really going on. This is my job: to go out into the dangerous parts of the world and prove that it is not as bad as what people think. But sense tells me that if I tried this, I would just get robbed like everyone else. Maybe it would be worth it. I am a traveler, this is what I do, I travel and collect stories. But I can only take in the information that I am exposed to, which is often only small bits and pieces of any story. The incidents that I mentioned above are only a small cross-section of the rampant thief, muggings, and hold ups that has swept through Heredia. A traveler should be aware of their surroundings anywhere in Central America, people get robbed here, it is normal. To be held up in the streets at knife point is part of the experience of traveling in this region. But the frequency of street crime in Heredia is beyond anything that I have observed before. It is seriously an everyday event, but I refuse to be scared while walking down the streets, or avoiding contact with the people that I travel amongst.
How has personal security breached so badly in this part of Costa Rica?
The Costa Ricans almost unanimously say that it is because of Nicaraguan and Columbian immigrants.
“The Nicaraguans and Columbians are very dangerous here. You need to be careful. They are the ones robbing people, not us Costa Ricans.” I have received this warning all up and down Costa Rica, and it at first seems as if it is silly speculation, but I am now beginning to wonder if it is founded in some sort of fact.
Immigrants to any country tend to occupy the lowest rung of the economic strata, and it is my impression that crime is more rampant in impoverished urban areas. Immigrants in Costa Rica are removed from their native communities, and seem to have fortified themselves in communities (La Carpia) that have distinct social lines that separate them from the broader society. From the perspective that we are raised with in the USA, it seems as if the above statements that street crime in Costa Rica is mostly carried out by immigrants are redundant stereotypes. But stereotypes are sometimes the only warnings of danger that someone can have- I am told that Nicaraguans and Columbians have a darker skin tone and that Costa Ricans can identify them in the streets. I am not so sure about this.
But I feel that stereotypes are often born out of and evolve from patterns. It is my impression, outside of pure racial pride and bigotry, that stereotypes do not often arise from nowhere.
Some people say that this is racist prejudice. Some people say that it is a matter of circumstance and national origin or culture has little to do with it.
Somebody tell me what is going on.
I think I just need to get out into the countryside. All urban areas are cease pits of violence, crime, and disaster. To walk in the hills is to be away from all of this.
Wade from Vagabond Journey.com
Barva, Costa Rica
January 31, 2007