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Costa Rica 2018 Crime & Safety Report

Western Hemisphere > Costa Rica

 

According to the current U.S. Department of State Travel Advisory at the date of this report’s publication, Costa Rica has been assessed as Level 1: exercise normal precautions 

Overall Crime and Safety Situation

U.S. Embassy San José does not assume responsibility for the professional ability or integrity of the persons or firms appearing in this report. The ACS Unit cannot recommend a particular individual or location and assumes no responsibility for the quality of service provided.

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.

Please review OSAC’s Costa Rica-specific 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.

Due to the country’s reputation as a leader in ecotourism and biodiversity, Costa Rica receives almost three million tourists annually from around the world. The year-round temperate climate and above average healthcare system has long-established Costa Rica as a destination for expatriates from the U.S. and elsewhere to work, retire, or establish secondary residences.

Crime Threats

Crime is a consistent and significant concern in Costa Rica. While the vast majority of visitors do not become victims of crime, all individuals are potential targets for criminals. The majority of crime and safety threats to U.S. official and private communities are opportunistic acts of theft. U.S. citizens commonly report motor vehicle accidents and theft of travel documents. Theft is common in highly populated and tourist areas, particularly in cases where personal belongings are not being closely watched, to include those left on beaches or in parked vehicles. The most common types of theft 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; however, armed robberies do occur. More serious crimes such as armed robberies, sexual assaults, and homicides occur, although less frequently. There is generally a spike in the number of home burglaries and robberies during the holiday season. If confronted by a thief, remain calm and do not resist. Most victims of theft are injured when they resist or try to fight back.

American citizens are advised to practice good situational awareness with regard to their passports. Theft of travel documents is a common complaint among foreign visitors – particularly during peak tourism months in the dry season (December-April), when criminals take advantage of larger crowds. Tourists are encouraged to leave passports in a hotel safe or other secure location, utilizing a photocopy or picture on their smartphones of the biographical and entry stamp pages.

The downtown area of San José is a tourist destination during daylight hours. After dark, visitors are cautioned to be aware of their surroundings or limit their visits due to increased crime potential.

The most widely used indicator of crime is the homicide rate, which reached a record high of 603 in 2017, equaling 12.1 per 100,000 people, continuing a six-year upward trend (specific data may be found on the website for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime). The main factor driving this level of violence is competition among groups engaged in the domestic sale and transport of drugs.

Organized crime is an increasing concern. Both Costa Rican nationals and third-country nationals participate in organized crime: car theft rings, drug traffickers, petty theft, and burglary. Less-monitored areas on Costa Rica’s borders and beaches are utilized to traffic drugs and other types of contraband. As a result of its geographic location, criminal organizations favor Costa Rica as a location to commit financial crimes including money laundering and financial scams, but 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.

Since 2014, the government of Costa Rica has passed legislation and undertaken a public campaign to curb the promotion of the country as a destination for sex tourism and the legal risks of sexually exploiting minors. Tourists who engage in/solicit prostitution exponentially increase their chances of being a victim of theft or of violent robbery or being arrested for violating Costa Rica’s trafficking-in-persons laws.

Credit card theft/fraud is also a common crime faced by visitors. Many victims maintain physical possession of their cards, but their credit card information is stolen and later used without their knowledge. For more information, please review OSAC’s Report, “The Overseas Traveler’s Guide to ATM Skimmers & Fraud.”

Other Areas of Concern

U.S. government officials are not permitted to stay in certain hotels in downtown San José due to safety concerns.

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

Access to the Poas Volcano National Park remains restricted.

Due to crime, exercise increased caution in Central neighborhood in Limon, Liberia city, Desamparados neighborhood in San Rafael, and Pavas and Hospital neighborhoods in San José.

Transportation-Safety Situation

For more information, please review OSAC’s Report, “Security in Transit: Airplanes, Public Transport, and Overnights.”

Road Safety and Road Conditions

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 amount of and types of vehicles that use these roads. The result of these insufficient roads is significant traffic jams and delays, which can lead to aggressive driving behavior, accidents, significantly impact travel times, and hinder law enforcement, medical personnel, and fire department response to an emergency. 

Traffic laws and speed limits are often ignored, turn signals are rarely used, passing on dangerous stretches of highway is common, and pedestrians are not given the right-of-way. Motorcyclists commonly drive without respect to rules of the road, often passing on the right, weaving in/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 from vehicles. Another challenge confronting drivers is the lack of street signs/names, which makes finding an address extremely difficult even with a GPS. For more information on self-driving, please review OSAC’s Report “Driving Overseas: Best Practices.”

Visitors are reminded that they must 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. A large volume of vehicular traffic and single lane roads often lead to severe congestion and delays across the country.

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 proven to relieve some of the traffic congestion. However, traffic delays remain a common daily occurrence. In 2017, several large-scale road construction projects generated even more traffic congestion than usual.

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 street signs. During the rainy season (May-November), landslides and washed out roads are a common occurrence.

The fatality rate for pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorcyclists is high. Due to a lack of resources, the traffic police are not proactive and do not regularly monitor roads. They mainly respond 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 be prepared for a significant wait. As a result, single lane roads of travel can often be backed up for miles. Furthermore, the government of Costa Rica may prevent any driver involved in a vehicular accident from departing the country until all injury claims have been settled. This is true regardless of who was at fault or coverage by insurance. The courts often delay imposing a settlement until all injured parties have fully recovered and the definitive costs are known. As a result, travelers may be prohibited from leaving the country until a local judicial resolution is reached.

Public Transportation Conditions

Visitors are advised to 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 installed. The triangle will include a designated number that matches the number on the taxis license plate.

Uber is available and heavily used by citizens and visitors. There are ongoing disputes between Uber and the taxi union that have resulted in government of Costa Rica and some private banking sector actions against Uber. For more information on ride-sharing, please review OSAC’s Annual Briefing Report “Safety and Security in the Share Economy.”

Aviation/Airport Conditions

In general, air travel is deemed reliable without major security concerns or unnecessary travel delays. Visitors should be aware that changes in weather conditions and increased levels of volcanic ash can cause flight cancelations or delays.

There are multiple smaller airports and airstrips serviced by small domestic carriers and a charter flights. Travelers should be aware that smaller domestic carriers and charter flights do not have the same type of oversight and regulation as the commercial aviation industry in the U.S.

Various agencies, to include 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.

Terrorism Threat

The U.S. Department of State has assessed San José as being a LOW-threat location for terrorist activity directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests.

Local, Regional, and International Terrorism Threats/Concerns

Due to the relative open nature of portions of the country’s 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.

Civil Unrest

Protests occur in the heavily-populated areas on occasion and typically center on fair pay and working conditions. Protests are generally peaceful. However, all protests should be avoided as a safety precaution and to avoid any perception of interfering in local politics. The Constitution bars foreigners from political activity, and foreigners involved with protests, even peaceful ones, could be arrested.

Post-specific Concerns

Environmental Hazards

Costa Rica is located in an active earthquake and volcanic zone.

  • Small earthquakes (4.0-5.0) are common and occur throughout the year.

  • Travelers are advised not to travel to Poas Volcano National Park due to a continuing volcanic activity. Travelers are also advised against travel to Turrialba Volcano National park due to a natural disaster.

  • 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 the greater metropolitan area, which includes San José and 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, according to the National Statistics and Census Institute. In recent years, the average annual amount of fine particle pollution in the greater metropolitan area ranged between 22-25 micrograms per cubic meter, more than double the recommended level set by the World Health Organization (WHO).

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

In 2017, Costa Rica recorded a record number of 116 water-related deaths. Travelers should exercise extreme caution when swimming in the ocean. Many beaches with dangerous rip currents do not have lifeguards or warning signs.

When planning travel to the area, consider that a disaster may strike without warning. Travelers can access the Costa Rican National Emergency Commission and the Costa Rican Volcanic and Seismic Observatory for additional information.

Economic Concerns

Costa Rica has been on the U.S. Trade Representative’s Special 301 Watch List for deficiencies in its protection of intellectual property rights. In spite of this, many U.S. companies with extensive intellectual property rights have business operations in Costa Rica.

Personal Identity Concerns

In very limited situations, cultural or religious ideologies may impact discrimination based on sexual orientation.

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 recent steady increase in 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 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 can partially be attributed 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. For more information, please review OSAC’s Report, “Kidnapping: The Basics.”

Police Response

Police response can be obtained by calling 911; however, 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.

How to Handle Incidents of Police Detention or Harassment

U.S. citizens who are detained by the police will be given the opportunity to contact friends or family. Those detained by law enforcement should immediately contact the U.S. Embassy at 2519-2000. Harassment is not common with foreigners. However, should it occur, the incident should be reported to the U.S. Embassy. If detained, a defendant has a right to a public defender and translator services.

Crime Victim Assistance

A crime in action should be reported to Fuerza Publica: 911.

To have a crime investigated/prosecuted, it must be reported to Organismo de Investigación (OIJ), the investigative/judicial police.

Police emergency/ambulance/fire: 911

OIJ: 911, 2295-3639, or 2295-3640

Tourist Police: 2586-4620, 2586-4287, 2586-4457, 2586-4458 or 2586-4143

Police/Security Agencies

The country has not had a military since 1948 and prides itself on its peaceful nature and efforts to maintain neutrality.

Fuerza Publica: Uniformed police agency. Performs ground security, law enforcement, counter narcotics, and border patrol functions. This agency is within the Ministry of Public Security.

Organismo de Investigación (OIJ): Agency that investigates all crimes for prosecution. This agency is within the Poder Judicial (judicial branch).

Policía de Transito: Transit police enforces traffic laws and responds to all traffic accidents. This agency is within the Ministry of Transportation and Public Works.

Directorate de Inteligencia y Seguridad (DIS): Costa Rica’s intelligence agency, within the Ministry of the President.

Unidad Especial de Intervención (UEI): Special weapons and tactics police unit, specializing in explosives.

Migración: Controls immigration at the borders; overland ports of entry, sea ports, airports, and maintaining the immigrant detention center for pending deportees; within the Ministry of Governorship and Police.

Medical Emergencies

Medical care in San José is adequate.

Red Cross Ambulance: 911

Contact Information for Recommended Hospitals/Clinics

For medical assistance, please refer to the Embassy’s Medical Assistance page.

Available Air Ambulance Services

REVA Inc. is a fixed-wing air ambulance and medevac service with operations throughout the western hemisphere. Individuals should consult the agency’s website or its 24-hour air ambulance communications center at 1-800-753-4195.             

Insurance Guidance

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, though private hospitals will, if the plan includes suitable coverage for care while abroad.

To be covered under the Costa Rican public health system, an individual must be a Costa Rican citizen or have residency.

Medicare and Medicaid do not offer coverage outside the United States. Therefore, visitors to Costa Rica are strongly encouraged to review their 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 visitors consider purchasing private air medical insurance before traveling. The Costa Rican government can place a departure impediment on individuals who attempt to depart without paying their medical bills.

Country-specific Vaccination and Health Guidance

The CDC issued updated guidance on the Zika virus that adds Costa Rica to the list of countries that have ongoing cases of Zika transmission.

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

OSAC Country Council Information

The San José Country Council meets quarterly by invitation only. Interested private-sector security managers should contact OSAC’s Western Hemisphere team with any questions.

U.S. Embassy Location and Contact Information

Embassy Address

U.S. Embassy San José, Costa Rica

Calle 98 Via 104, Pavas

San José, Costa Rica

(Across the street from Centro Comercial del Oeste Pavas)

Business Hours: Mon-Fri, 0800-1630 hours

Embassy Contact Numbers

Switchboard: 2519-2000

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

Embassy Guidance

U.S. citizens traveling to Costa Rica should register with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to ensure they receive pertinent security updates and notices.

Additional Resources

Costa Rica Country Information Sheet