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Overseas Security Advisory Council
Bureau of Diplomatic Security
U.S. Department of State

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Costa Rica 2020 Crime & Safety Report

This is an annual report produced in conjunction with the Regional Security Office at the U.S. Embassy in San José. OSAC encourages travelers to use this report to gain baseline knowledge of security conditions in Costa Rica. For more in-depth information, review OSAC’s Costa Rica country page for original OSAC reporting, consular messages, and contact information, some of which may be available only to private-sector representatives with an OSAC password.

 

Travel Advisory

The current U.S. Department of State Travel Advisory at the date of this report’s publication assesses Costa Rica at Level 2, indicating travelers should exercise increased caution due to crime. Review OSAC’s report, Understanding the Consular Travel Advisory System.

Overall Crime and Safety Situation

Crime Threats

The U.S. Department of State has assessed San José as being a HIGH-threat location for crime directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests. Exercise increased caution in central Limon, Liberia, the Desamparados neighborhood in San Rafael, and the Pavas and Hospital neighborhoods in San José due to crime.

Crime is a concern in Costa Rica; non-violent petty crime occurs most frequently. All individuals are potential targets for criminals. The majority of crime and safety threats to the U.S. official and private communities are opportunistic acts of theft. U.S. citizens commonly report theft of travel documents. Theft is common in highly populated and tourist areas, particularly in cases where individuals are not watching personal belongings closely, to include leaving items on beaches or in parked vehicles. The most common types of thefts that occur involve vehicle burglaries, home robberies, pickpocketing, smash-and-grabs, muggings, and purse/wallet snatchings. Random acts of petty theft remain the primary area of concern. More serious crimes, such as armed robbery, sexual assault, and homicide occur, although less frequently. There is generally a spike in home burglary and robbery during the holiday season. If a thief confronts you, remain calm and do not resist. Most theft-related injuries occur when victims resist or try to fight back. Review OSAC’s report, All That You Should Leave Behind.

Practice good situational awareness with regard to their passports. Theft of travel documents is a common complaint among foreign visitors – particularly during peak tourism season in the dry season (December – April), when criminals take advantage of larger crowds. Use a well-secured safe or lockbox wherever you stay. Make copy of your passport identification and entry stamp pages and leave it in your hotel room, or keep a picture of them on your phone.

Downtown San José is a tourist destination during daylight hours. After dark, be aware of surroundings, and limit visits due to the increased potential for crime. Avoid overt displays of wealth and limit travel to established and frequently visited areas in order to avoid “wrong place-wrong time” scenarios.

The Embassy is aware of reports of robbery of isolated rental properties. Research any rental homes to ensure they have adequate security and remember to properly secure all doors and windows. Review OSAC’s reports, Hotels: The Inns and Outs and Considerations for Hotel Security.

Costa Rica has experienced a steady year-over-year decrease from its 2017 record high murder rate of 12.1 per 100,000 people. In 2019, there were 545 murders (10.6 per 100,000 people), down 5% from 2018. The main factor driving this level of violence is competition among local groups engaged in the sale and transport of drugs.

During the past few years, the Government of Costa Rica has passed legislation and undertaken a public campaign to curb promotion of the country as a destination for sex tourism, and to highlight the legal risks of sexually exploiting minors. Tourists who engage in/solicit prostitution exponentially increase their chances of being a victim of theft or violent robbery, or being arrested for violating Costa Rica’s trafficking-in-persons laws.

Organized crime is an increasing concern. Costa Ricans and third-country nationals alike participate in organized crime via car theft rings, drug trafficking, petty theft, and burglary. Organized criminals use less-monitored areas on Costa Rica’s borders and beaches to traffic drugs and other types of contraband. Criminal organizations favor Costa Rica's central location to commit financial crimes, including money laundering and financial scams. To address this trend, in 2017 Costa Rica completed its anti-money laundering legal framework and strengthened implementation of these laws. Proceeds from international narcotics trafficking represent the largest source of assets laundered in Costa Rica, although human trafficking, financial fraud, corruption, and contraband smuggling also generate illicit revenue.

Cybersecurity Issues

Costa Rica has cybersecurity concerns similar to many other countries. There are no identified cybersecurity issues unique to Costa Rica. Review OSAC’s reports, Cybersecurity Basics, Best Practices for Maximizing Security on Public Wi-Fi, Traveling with Mobile Devices: Trends & Best Practices, and Satellite Phones: Critical or Contraband?

Visitors to Costa Rica commonly encounter credit card theft/fraud. Many victims maintain physical possession of their cards, but criminals steal credit card information and later use it without their knowledge. Review OSAC’s reports, The Overseas Traveler’s Guide to ATM Skimmers & Fraud and Taking Credit.

Transportation-Safety Situation

Road Safety and Road Conditions

U.S. citizens commonly report motor vehicle accidents. Driving can be extremely challenging, even to the most experienced driver. Roads are often in poor condition, and large potholes are common and can cause severe damage to vehicles. Additionally, most roads are insufficient for the quantity and types of vehicles using these roads. This often results in significant traffic jams and delays, which can lead to aggressive driving behavior, and accidents that can significantly impact travel times and hinder law enforcement, medical, and fire department response to an emergency. Drivers often ignore traffic laws and speed limits, rarely use turn signals, pass on dangerous stretches of highway, and do not give pedestrians the right of way. Motorcyclists commonly drive without respect to rules of the road, often passing on the right, weaving in and out of traffic without warning, and creating lanes where none officially exist. Heavy traffic provides the opportunity for thieves to steal property that is left in plain view in vehicles. Another challenge confronting drivers is the lack of street signs/names, which makes finding an address extremely difficult even with a GPS. Practice defensive driving and exercise common sense.

Obey all traffic regulations and be familiar with road conditions prior to traveling. Traffic Police occasionally enforce traffic rules, and citations can be costly and must be paid before leaving the country. Road conditions may change drastically and suddenly due to weather, construction, or accessibility. In downtown San José, the government imposed a law restricting cars from operating on certain days of the week depending on the last number on a vehicle’s license plate. This tactic has relieved some of the traffic congestion. However, traffic delays remain a common daily occurrence.

Driving outside of San José at night can be treacherous due to narrow or poorly maintained roads, many of which lack adequate lighting, markings, guardrails, and signage. During the rainy season (May-November), landslides and washed-out roads are common.

The accident and related fatality rate for pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorcyclists is high. Due to a lack of resources, the Traffic Police are not proactive and do not monitor roads regularly, mainly responding to traffic accidents. Costa Rican law prohibits the movement of vehicles involved in an accident prior to the arrival of investigative authorities. Those involved in traffic accidents should prepare for a significant wait. As a result, single-lane roads can often back up for miles. The Government of Costa Rica may prevent any driver involved in a vehicular accident from departing the country until all injury claims are settled, regardless of whether the driver is at fault or has insurance coverage. The courts often delay imposing a settlement until all injured parties have recovered fully and the definitive costs are known.

Review OSAC’s reports, Road Safety Abroad, Driving Overseas: Best Practices, and Evasive Driving Techniques; and read the State Department’s webpage on driving and road safety abroad.

Public Transportation Conditions

Only use taxi cabs from reputable companies. Officially registered taxis will be red or orange with a yellow triangle on the side door and functioning meters. The triangle will include a designated number that matches the number on the license plate. Uber is available within Costa Rica and is in heavy use among residents and visitors alike. Ongoing disputes between Uber and the taxi union have resulted in protests and strikes. Review OSAC's report, Safety & Security in the Share Economy.

Aviation/Airport Conditions

In general, air travel is reliable without major security concerns or unnecessary travel delays. Changes in weather conditions and increased levels of volcanic ash can cause flight cancellations or delays. There are two main international airports in Costa Rica.

Juan Santamaria International Airport (SJO) is located approximately 12 miles west of downtown San Jose. It is the primary airport serving international travelers to the country’s capital and central valley regions. SJO is rated the second-busiest airport in Central America, serving over four million passengers annually.

Daniel Oduber Quiros International Airport (LIR) is located in Liberia, Guanacaste Province. LIR serves as a tourism hub for visitors to the Pacific coast and western Costa Rica.

In addition to the larger international airports, there are multiple smaller airports and airstrips serving various regions within the country through smaller domestic carriers and a variety of charter flights. Smaller domestic carriers and charter flights do not have the same type of oversight and regulation as the commercial aviation industry in the United States.

Various agencies, including U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and Transportation Security Administration, work closely with the Government of Costa Rica to improve airport procedures for the increased safety of passengers and efficiency of airport operations. Review OSAC’s report, Security In Transit: Airplanes, Public Transport, and Overnights.

Other Transportation Issues

When traveling in remote areas or by boat, be mindful of limited mobile phone reception and limited first responder access.

Terrorism Threat

The U.S. Department of State has assessed San José as being a LOW-threat location for terrorism directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests. There are no specific threats of terrorism regarding Costa Rica. Due to Costa Rica’s relatively porous borders, the threat for terrorist elements to use the country as a transit point does exist.

Political, Economic, Religious, and Ethnic Violence

The U.S. Department of State has assessed San José as being a LOW-threat location for political violence directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests. Costa Rica has a long tradition of being a stable democracy. The country has not had a military since 1948, and prides itself on its peaceful nature and efforts to maintain neutrality. In 2019, Costa Rica implemented sweeping economic changes that have and will impact some pensions and retirement benefits for a segment of its residents. The country experienced political incidents that involved threats and incendiary devices in various locations; these incidents were isolated and not associated with any other organizations or movements.

Civil Unrest 

Protests occur in heavily-populated areas on occasion, and typically center on fair pay and working conditions. Protests are generally peaceful. Avoid all protests as a safety precaution and avoid any perception of interfering in local politics. The Constitution bars foreigners from political activity, and authorities could arrest foreigners involved with protests, even peaceful ones. Review OSAC’s report, Surviving a Protest.

Anti-American/Anti-Western Sentiment

Costa Rica is generally free from anti-U.S. sentiment. Costa Ricans regard U.S. nationals and other Westerners in a positive manner, and are known for their friendliness toward foreigners. Due to the country’s reputation as a leader in ecotourism and biodiversity, Costa Rica annually receives millions of foreign tourists, and national/local-level authorities and businesses work to maintain the country’s positive image as an attractive tourism destination.

Post-Specific Concerns

Environmental Hazards

Costa Rica is located in an active earthquake and volcanic zone. The last large earthquake occurred in September 2012, with a magnitude of 7.6. It was one of the largest earthquakes recorded in Costa Rican history but caused limited damage, considering its size. Smaller earthquakes in the seismic range of 4-5 are much more common and occur throughout the year.

Avoid Turrialba Volcano National Park due to continuing volcanic activity. Access to the park remains restricted. Check on the status of the various volcanoes before traveling to the parks. Access additional information regarding volcanic activity and other natural disasters in Costa Rica from the Costa Rican National Emergency Commission and the Costa Rican Volcanic and Seismic Observatory (both in Spanish).

Experts from the Health Ministry and the National University have stated that fine particulate matter from volcanic ash (frequently from Turrialba and Poas) and automobile exhaust can be a public health concern in greater  San José, to include parts of Alajuela, Cartago, and Heredia. These areas are home to approximately 60% of Costa Rica’s population, 70% of its vehicle fleet, and 85% of its major industry. Although the average annual amount of fine particle pollution in the greater metropolitan area ranges between 22 and 25 micrograms per cubic meter, the amount of fine particle pollution (PM2.5) can vary depending on location. According to the Embassy’s Air Quality Monitoring system, operational since August 2019, PM2.5 levels around the Embassy have been below 12 micrograms per cubic meter 80% of the time. 

Serious flooding occurs annually in the Caribbean province of Limón and the Pacific province of Puntarenas. Flash floods and severe landslides occur in other provinces as well, depending on the time of year and rainfall.

Exercise extreme caution when swimming in the ocean. Many beaches with dangerous rip currents do not have lifeguards or warning signs. If caught in a rip current, swim parallel to the beach and not against the rip current. Once out of the rip current, swim at a 45° angle away from the rip current to get back to shore.

Review OSAC's report, Central America Natural Disaster Emergency Planning: OSAC Guidance and Resources.

Economic Concerns

Use extreme caution when making real estate purchases or investments, consult with reputable legal counsel, and review contracts thoroughly. There is little the U.S. Embassy can do to assist U.S. citizens who enter into land or business disputes; you must be prepared to take your case to the local courts. Civil archives recording land titles are at times incomplete or contradictory. Coastal land within 50 meters of the high tide line is open to the public and closed to development. Foreign nationals cannot own the next 150 meters inland (“Maritime Zone”), which the local municipality administers. Expropriation of private land by the Costa Rican government without adequate or prompt compensation has hurt some U.S. investors. 

Maintain security and access controls on any private property. Organized squatter groups have invaded properties, taking advantage of legal provisions that allow people without land to gain title to unused property. Victims of squatters have reported threats, harassment, and violence.

Personal Identity Concerns

In very limited situations, cultural or religious ideologies may lead to discrimination based on sexual orientation. Costa Rica is a leader in the region in support of human rights and was the first country in Central America to recognize same sex marriage, in May 2020. Review the State Department’s webpage on security for LGBTI+ travelers.

Accessibility and accommodation is limited. Many buildings and public transportation options remain inaccessible. Review the State Department’s webpage on security for travelers with disabilities.

Drug-related Crimes

Costa Rica’s strategic location, unevenly monitored borders, limited security forces, and thinly-patrolled waters make it a major transit and temporary storage country for illicit drugs. The homicide rate has, in part, been attributed to the increase in organized drug trafficking and associated activities. As the number and size of groups associated with narco-trafficking have increased, so has the presence of illegal drugs, greater domestic drug consumption, and associated turf wars. The government is steadily increasing its spending on law enforcement agencies and improving its focus on counter-narcotics programs and organized crime. A key factor in combating the increasing drug-related criminal activity is the strong security cooperation with the U.S. Government. The recent accomplishments in Costa Rica’s counter-narcotics programs are partially due to the improvements in equipment, training, and infrastructure achieved in cooperation with the U.S. Government.

Kidnapping Threat

The kidnapping rate is very low and rarely involves U.S. citizens. The majority of kidnappings are a result of feuds between rival criminal organizations. Review OSAC’s report, Kidnapping: The Basics.

Police Response

The police emergency line in Costa Rica is 911. Reach the Tourist Police at 2586-4620, -4287, -4457, -4458, or -4143

Response times may vary due to the availability of manpower/vehicles and based on location, time of day, and severity of the accident, particularly outside of San José or major tourist centers.

U.S. citizens detained by police have the opportunity to contact friends or family, and should contact the U.S. Embassy at 2519-2000. Harassment of foreigners is not common. A defendant has a right to a public defender and translator services.

To have police investigate/prosecute a crime, you must reported it to the investigative/judicial police (OIJ, 2295-3639 or -3640).

Police/Security Agencies

  • Fuerza Publica: Uniformed police agency. Performs ground security, law enforcement, counter-narcotic, and border patrol functions. This agency is within the Ministry of Public Security.
  • Organismo de Investigación (OIJ): Investigates all crimes for prosecution. This agency is within the judicial branch.
  • Policía de Transito: Transit police enforces traffic laws and responds to all traffic accidents. This agency is within the Transportation and Public Works Ministry.
  • Directorate de Inteligencia y Seguridad (DIS): Costa Rica’s intelligence agency. This agency is within the President Ministry.
  • Unidad Especial de Intervención (UEI): Special weapons and tactics (SWAT) police unit, specializing in counter-explosives and tactical operations.
  • Migración: Controls immigration at the borders and maintains the immigrant detention center for pending deportees. This agency is within the Governorship and Police Ministry.

Medical Emergencies

The medical emergency line in Costa Rica is 911. Medical care in San José is adequate.

U.S. medical insurance is not always accepted and most hospitals will require payment or deposit up front for services. Public hospitals generally do not accept private insurance, but private hospitals will, if the plan includes suitable coverage for care while abroad. To have coverage under the Costa Rican public health system, an individual must be a Costa Rican citizen or resident. Medicare and Medicaid do not offer coverage outside the United States. Review your insurance plans to guarantee coverage in the event of an emergency during travel. Supplemental medical insurance with specific overseas coverage, including a provision for medical evacuation, has been useful in many emergencies. The Embassy recommends purchasing private medical evacuation (medevac) insurance before travel. The Costa Rican government can place a departure impediment on individuals who attempt to depart without paying their medical bills. Review the State Department’s webpage on insurance overseas.

For clinics offering alternative medical treatments, thoroughly research these clinics and their providers. The Embassy has received reports of hospitalizations as a result of clients at so-called wellness centers undergoing medically unverified “alternative treatments.”

Malaria is rarely found in Costa Rica. However, there have been limited confirmed cases in the past in Osa Peninsula (Puntarenas Province), Matina Canton (Limón), Sarapiquí Canton (Heredia), and San Carlos Canton (Alajuela). Travelers planning to visit these areas should take precautions to prevent mosquito bites and malaria transmission. 

The CDC has updated guidance on the risk of Dengue in Central and South America.

The CDC offers additional information on vaccines and health guidance for Costa Rica.

Review OSAC’s reports, The Healthy Way, Traveling with Medication, I’m Drinking What in My Water?, Shaken: The Don’ts of Alcohol Abroad, Health 101: How to Prepare for Travel, and Fire Safety Abroad.

OSAC Country Council Information

The San José Country Council currently meets quarterly by invitation only. Contact OSAC’s Latin America team with any questions or to join.

U.S. Embassy Contact Information

Calle 98 Via 104, Pavas, San José (Across the street from Centro Comercial del Oeste Pavas)

Business Hours: Mon-Fri, 0800 – 1630

Switchboard: +506-2519-2000

Regional Security Office: +506-2519-2313

American Citizens Services: +506-2519-2590

Consular Visa Inquiries: +506-4000-1976

Website: https://cr.usembassy.gov/

Helpful Information

Before you travel, consider the following resources:

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