Monday, February 12, 2007
Tourism Related Security Concerns in Costa Rica
By Sam Logan
· Some believe Central America's top tourist destination has security problems that may affect the
country's future tourist income.
Since the start of his four-year term in February
2006, Costa Rican President and Noble Peace Prize Laureate Oscar Arias has focused on education, trade and improving his country's
infrastructure. He is known for his belief that Central America needs more books, not bullets.
Under Arias, Costa Rican authorities have worked
closely with the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the US Coast Guard, and Interpol. They have also worked hand-in-hand
with other countries on extradition cases.
Yet immigration issues and rising crime top the list
of hurdles Arias faces as he works to strengthen security in his country. There are signs of improvement and increased government
activity focused on security, but observers believe that Costa Rica must work harder to ensure the security necessary for
domestic growth and tourists' peace of mind.
Immigration and crime
Of Costa Rica's 4.2 million inhabitants, over a million
are immigrants. According to Costa Rican authorities most of these are Nicaraguan, which has led to the belief that the latter
is exporting its poor. But Colombians, Panamanians, Americans and Italians also populate the list of immigrants. There is
little evidence to suggest that most of Costa Rica's crime stems from this community, but the day-to-day relationship between
Costa Ricans and foreigners can be tenuous.
Citing a case when Costa Rican authorities reportedly
failed to stop a Costa Rican store owner from letting his dogs kill a Nicaraguan citizen, the Nicaraguan government asked
in July 2006 for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to accept an international legal case against Costa Rica for
"xenophobia and discrimination," according to an 18 July report from the Spanish news agency EFE.
Even though many Costa Ricans are quick to blame
Nicaraguans for petty theft and other crimes, especially in the country's populated central valley, others believe that crime
is crime and the Costa Rican government should focus more on stopping it and not on the origins of the criminal.
"It's true that crime perpetrated by immigrants happens
and they are mostly on the news, but it's not accurate to say that they are the ones responsible for the increase or the cause
of it all," Say Leon Gamboa, a Costa Rican business owner in San Pedro, told ISN Security Watch.
"The immigrants I know are not folks out to scam,
kill, kidnap or sell drugs […] and yes a few idiots always muddy the pool for the rest," he added.
Tourism police and
Costa Rica attracts nearly two million tourists per
year, bringing in some US$1.6 billion with them, according to Security Minister Fernando Berrocal, who on 20 December attended
the graduation of Costa Rica's first class of tourism police.
According to a 21 December EFE news report, Arias
spoke to the graduating cadets, telling them "security to tourists is vital to generating confidence." The country's first
graduating class studied criminal analysis, forgery detection, interpersonal communications and map reading, among other skills.
Each cadet also participated in a six-month intensive English-language program.
According to Berrocal, another 120 officers will
graduate by the middle of 2007, bringing the total number to 242 tourism police. That is roughly one cop per 10,000 tourists.
Different from normal police, Costa Rica's tourism
police focus on protecting and serving Costa Rica's tourists, assisting with directions, information, and most importantly,
beefing up security in cities and towns where large numbers of tourists attract a concentration of would-be criminals.
Tourism police and immigration reform are two tools
Arias has implemented to ensure a future of security in Costa Rica, but the specter of an insecure future is still there.
Some fear that Costa Rica may be losing its edge. Internationally, Costa Rica has been labeled as the Switzerland of Central
America because it does not have a standing army. But perhaps more important to tourists is the pervasive sense of peace and
security through out the country.
Immigration reform, supporters argue, is a more robust
policy that will help Costa Rica's aim to become a crime-free country in the long-term.
Arias' cabinet announced on 25 January that it had
completed drafting the reforms to Costa Rica's current immigration law. According to Immigration Director Mario Zamora, the
focus of the reforms is to allow his office to better combat illegal immigration.
In the first week of January, Zamora made public
a case that underlined human trafficking. Asian immigrants had allegedly been brought into Costa Rica with illegal documents
and forced to work off the cost of their the documents and transportation from Asia to Central America.
On 14 January, Costa Rican authorities arrested two
Peruvians in the Costa Rican international airport who were allegedly assisting illegal immigrants with falsified visas and
passports for travel to Canada. According to the Security Ministry, this smuggling ring moved at least four people a week,
charging between US$5,000 to US$10,000 per person.
The immigration reforms differentiate human trafficking
from the aiding of illegal immigrants in moving from their home country — often Nicaragua or Panama — into Costa
Rica. Human trafficking has now been legally defined as the business of bringing humans into Costa Rica to sell them into
slavery inside Costa Rica or elsewhere.
The reforms proposed for Costa Rica's immigration
law mandate a minimum of 16 years in prison for illegal immigration. Such a long sentence, authorities claim, will deter future
immigrants from entering Costa Rica, or at the very least deter illegal immigrants in Costa Rica from committing crime.
One of the Costa Rica's most popular destinations
is a small fishing village at the end of a long, six-hour journey from San Jose along dirt roads full of mud and potholes.
The small town of Quepos, located on Costa Rica's
Pacific coast, has undergone a rapid transition over the past decade as tourist dollars and real estate investment have brought
millions into the local economy. Its beauty and security has attracted foreigners, which in turn has helped breed a situation
where some believe drug use is on the rise and increased crime may be around the corner.
Scott Williams, an American expatriate who has lived
and worked in Quepos for the past decade, has seen a slow transition.
When asked to comment on the situation in Quepos,
Williams' immediate reaction was to avoid casting Quepos in a bad light because of a few individuals, but he did admit that
increasing crime in Costa Rica and the effect it might have on tourism was a problem that needed to be addressed.
"[Crime] is a real issue that needs to be dealt with,
and I think the right kind of attention to the matter, without smearing the situation or bashing the current president too
badly who has been much more proactive than any executive here in a long time, is necessary," Williams told ISN Security Watch.
He is worried that if Costa Rica "loses its 'pure
peace' reputation, [the country] will see its popularity ushered out the door and onto the next 'hot spot.'"
And attention may need to come sooner than later.
According to a 25 September EFE report, assassins working for international drug smuggling organizations were responsible
for 16 contract killings in the first half of 2006. The Costa Rican investigative police believe the killings were drug related.
This type of violence appears to trickle down to
the street, where local dealers fight for turf and defend their piece of the market from international actors. According to
the Costa Rican Red Cross, on 15 January, a US drug dealer shot and killed a Costa Rican national over a drug dispute. A guard
eventually gunned down the drug dealer.
Williams considers it is only a matter of time before
the random pickpocket moves on to bolder crimes. "We're seeing this transition take place," he said.
"I personally feel very safe here, and contribute
much of the problem to any given society's standard moral entropy, but would love to see some attention brought to the matter
This article was originally published at ISN Security Watch (02/05/07). The
International Relations and Security Network (ISN) is a free public service that provides a wide range of high-quality and
comprehensive products and resources to encourage the exchange of information among international relations and security professionals
Sam Logan (www.samuellogan.com) is an investigative journalist who has reported on security,
energy, politics, economics, organized crime, terrorism, and black markets in Latin America since 1999. As well, Logan is the Latin American correspondent for ISN Security Watch. He has just published
his first e-book entitled “The Reality of a Mexican Mega Cartel.”
Reprinted with permission from ISN.