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Costa Rica 2013 Crime and Safety Report

Western Hemisphere > Costa Rica > San Jose

Overall Crime and Safety Situation

The criminal threat for San Jose is rated “High” by the U.S. Department of State. Violent crime is of significant concern to the local security services. However, in 2012, there was a marked decrease in the number of homicides committed. In 2012, there were 394 murders committed, down from the 2011 total of 459. 

Petty theft continues to be the biggest threat in Costa Rica. Pick-pocketing, muggings, purse snatchings, and theft are common occurrences and seem to be the biggest issues confronting tourists. The Embassy has seen an increase in the amount of passport thefts; in 2012, there were nearly 700 U.S. passports stolen. Costa Rica ranks among the top three countries in the world in U.S. passport thefts. 

Credit card theft and fraud is also on the rise with a reported 916 victims in 2012. Of the individuals who reported being victims of credit card theft/fraud, 22 were U.S. citizens. 

Violent crimes like murders, robberies, and sexual assaults also have been committed against Americans. Since January 2011, at least 12 U.S. citizens have been murdered. Costa Rica’s Organismo de Investigacion Judicial (OIJ) reported 394 homicides in 2012; two were listed as U.S. citizens. Nine U.S. citizens have reported that they were sexually assaulted in 2012.

Overall Road Safety Situation

Driving can be extremely challenging to the most experienced driver. While the majority of roads in major cities are adequately paved and managed, some are often in poor condition with large potholes that could cause severe damage to vehicles. Bridges, even on heavily traveled roads, often are single lane, requiring vehicles traveling in one direction to cede the right away to oncoming traffic. Buses frequently stop in travel lanes and on highways. 

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. The abundant motorcyclists, in particular, drive without respect to rules of the road, often passing on the right, weaving in and out without warning, and creating lanes where none officially exist. As a result, the fatality rate for pedestrians and those riding bicycles and motorcycles is high.

Driving outside of San Jose at night can be treacherous. In many regions, roads lack adequate lighting, guardrails, and street signs. During the rainy season (May-December), landslides and washed out roads are common. 

Another challenge confronting drivers is the lack of street signs and street names, making finding an address extremely difficult even with a GPS. 

In downtown San Jose, the government has imposed a law restricting cars from operating on certain days of the week. The last number on a vehicle’s license plate determines which day of the week it can operate. This has relieved some of the traffic congestion. A toll road added a few years ago has provided another alternative for drivers to avoid traffic.

Criminals usually operate in small groups but have been known to act alone as well. Heavy traffic provides the opportunity for thieves to steal property, such as purses and bags that are left in plain view, from vehicles. Tourists should make an effort to store luggage and other personal items out of plain view and ensure that car doors are locked. 

Criminals have been known to target buses, rental vehicles, and chartered vans. Thieves typically look for cash, passports, jewelry, and electronic devices. In 2012, there were several thefts of valuables and passports from tourist chartered vans reported. 

Another tactic criminals use is to puncture the tires of rental vehicles and then follow the car until the driver pulls over to the side of the road. Criminals, under the guise of being Good Samaritans, will approach the vehicle to assist with changing the tire and, in the process, steal the tourist’s personal items. This scam often occurs near restaurants, tourist attractions, beach resorts, airports, or near rental car agencies.

Political, Economic, Religious, and Ethnic Violence

Costa Rica has a long standing tradition of stable democracy. The country has not had military since 1948.

Local, Regional, and International Terrorism Threats/Concerns

There are no known indigenous terrorist organizations operating in country. There is a low threat for international and transnational terrorism. Porous borders allow the country to be utilized to traffic drugs and other contraband.

Organized crime groups are of significant concern. Both Costa Rican citizens and foreign nationals participate in organized crime. Organized crime consists of car theft rings, drug traffickers, petty thieves, and burglars. 

Civil Unrest 

Protests do occur but are generally peaceful. In 2012, motorcyclists protested against the increase in road tax. The protest was non-violent but caused significant traffic delays, as most protests do. This past year, there were a few protests that turned violent; one occurred at the Caja Seguro Social (Costa Rican Social Security) in downtown San Jose. As a result, several arrests were made, and some involved sustained minor injuries. 

Post-specific Concerns

Environmental Hazards 

Costa Rica is located in an active earthquake and volcanic zone. On September 5, 2012, a 7.6 magnitude earthquake struck the northwestern coast in Guanacaste. It was one of the largest earthquakes recorded in Costa Rican history but caused limited damage considering its size. One death--a heart attack--was reported after the quake, a few minor injuries were sustained, and minor damage to infrastructure was reported. 

When planning travel to the area, you should consider that such a disaster may strike without warning. Serious flooding occurs annually in the Caribbean province of Limon and the Pacific province of Puntarenas, and flash floods and severe landslides occur in other parts of Costa Rica as well, depending on the time of year and rainfall. General information about natural disaster preparedness is available from the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Industrial and Transportation Accidents 

Industrial accidents are not a significant concern. 

Transportation accidents are frequent, particularly outside of San Jose. Drivers can be aggressive and at times take considerable risks, especially on highways. 

Regional Travel Concerns and Restricted Travel Areas/Zones

Crimes are more prevalent in certain locations and at certain times during the year. For example, the downtown area of San Jose is a popular tourist destination in the daytime. However, it is strongly encouraged that you not go there after dark. U.S. government employees are not permitted to stay in hotels in that area due to safety concerns. 

Violent crimes targeting tourists is on the rise on the Caribbean coast. In the second half of 2012, six home and hotel invasions by armed men were reported. Americans report being confronted by robbers brandishing guns or machetes. There have also been three reported rapes during the same time frame. The Embassy conducted several outreaches with the resident American population in Puerto Viejo and continues to express concern to local law enforcement with the level and intensity of crime in the Limon province.

During the holiday season, there is a spike in the number of home invasions and robberies. In November 2012, a police substation in San Jose was robbed. The thieves assaulted and tied up the officer on duty and stole several weapons, bullet proof vests, and a radio. 

Drug-related Crimes 

For years, Costa Rica has been a major transit zone for narcotics due to its geographic location. The absence of a military and a poorly equipped, under manned police service makes it easier for cartels to operate. In 2012, Costa Rica ranked second in the region in cocaine seizures. Drug traffickers continue to use Costa Rica as a transit point for smuggling cocaine to the north.

Kidnapping Threats

There were six kidnappings reported in 2012, none were U.S. citizens. The majority of kidnappings are a result of feuds between rival criminal organizations. OIJ, Costa Rica’s investigative police, have a 100% resolution rate on all kidnappings.

Police Response

Police response can be obtained by dialing 911 just like in the U.S. However, response times vary due to the lack of manpower and vehicles. Response times vary from 23 to 30 minutes when the police respond. 

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 Costa Rican law enforcement should take the opportunity to immediately contact the U.S. Embassy at 2519-2000. Harassment is not common with foreigners, but should it occur, report the incident to U.S. government authorities. 

Where to Turn to for Assistance if you Become a Victim of Crime

Police emergency - 911
Ambulance - 911
Fire - 911 
OIJ – 911, 2295-3639, or 2295-3640
Tourist Police – 2586-4620, 2586-4287, 2586-4287, or 2586-4458

Various Police/Security Agencies 

The uniformed police, Fuerza Publica, have 13,500 officers. In 2012, police were given more resources, and to show a stronger presence, the National Police Academy began placing more officers on the streets. 

Crime is initially reported to Fuerza Publica and then to the Organismo de Investigacion Judicial (OIJ), Costa Rica’s investigative police. OIJ is the organization responsible for investigating the majority of major crimes committed in Costa Rica. In 2012, OIJ appointed a new director, Francisco Segura Montero. All crimes discovered after the fact must be reported in person to the nearest OIJ office. 

Medical Emergencies

Medical care in San Jose is adequate. U.S. medical insurance is not always accepted, and most hospitals will require payment up front for services. Supplemental medical insurance with specific overseas coverage, including a provision for medical evacuation has been useful in many emergencies.

Contact Information for Recommended Local Hospitals and Clinics

San Jose:
CIMA Hospital - 2208-1000 
Hospital Mexico - 2242-6700
Clínica Bíblica Hospital - 2257-5252
Hospital Calderon Guardia - 2212-1000
National Children's Hospital - 2523-3600
Hospital Clínica Católica (private) San Antonio de Guadalupe – San Jose –2283-6616
Hospital Metropolitano (private & Services U.S. Veterans) - San José, sede principal: central: + (506) 2521-6565

CIMA and Clinica Biblica will require payment up-front for non-emergency care. 

Puntarenas:
Hospital Monseñor Sanabria - 2630-8000

In Limón
Tony Facio Hospital - 2758-2222

In Guanacaste
Enrique Baltodano Hospital - 2690-2300
In Ciudad Nelly (Closet to Panama)
Hospital Ciudad Nelly – 2785-9600

In Nicoya
Hospital Anexion – 2685-8400

In Los Chiles
Hospital Los Chiles – 2471-2000

In San Carlos
Hospital de San Carlos – 2460-1176

Cartago:
Hospital Max Peralta – 2550-1999
In Pérez Zeledón:
Hospital Escalante Padilla – 2785-0700
Alajuela:
Hospital San Rafael de Alajuela – 2436-1000
Heredia:
Hospital San Vicente de Paul – 2562-8100, 2261-9971
Red Cross Ambulance -911

Recommended Air Ambulance Services

The Embassy recommends visitors consider purchasing private air medical insurance before traveling to Costa Rica.

Costa Rica Medical Response
San Jose - (506) 2286-1818, 2286-4848, 8304-2121
Guanacaste - (506) 2665-2626 (Liberia)
                      (506) 2670-0047 (Papagayo)
Puntarenas – (506) 2645-7778 (Monteverde/Santa Elena)
           (506) 2637-1111 (Jaco)  
Limón - (506) 8841-8404 (Tortuguero)
Web page - www.costaricamedicalresponse.com 

CDC Country-specific Vaccination and Health Guidance

For health guidance, please visit the CDC at: http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/destinations/traveler/none/costa-rica.

Tips on How to Avoid Becoming a Victim

Crimes/Scams

Passport theft is a big issue. Tourists are encouraged to leave passports in hotel safes or other secure locations. Make a photo copy of the biographical and entry stamp pages in lieu of carrying your passport.

Areas to be Avoided and Best Security Practices

The Embassy recommends visitors avoid visiting downtown San Jose after dark. 

All travelers and long-term visitors are encouraged to exercise the same level of caution as they would in any major U.S. city. Maintain a low profile. If possible, do not travel alone at after dark, and do not walk in isolated areas at night. Do not carry large sums of cash or wear flashy clothing and jewelry. Most businesses accept major U.S. credit cards, and many local ATMs dispense both U.S. dollars and local currency.

Travelers should purchase an adequate level of locally-valid car theft insurance. Never leave luggage or other valuables in a parked vehicle. Park in paid lots whenever possible; if unavailable, park in well-traveled and lighted areas. Always lock vehicle doors and use the anti-theft device and alarm system if the car is so equipped. When driving, minimize the risk of smash-and-grab robberies. Keep valuable items hidden and if possible within reach. Valuables left in plain view on the passenger or back seats are easier targets.

Visitors should use taxi cabs that are red or orange in color only. Visitors should never get into a cab that is occupied by more than just the driver. Visitors should also ensure that the cab has a working meter.

It is highly advisable that visitors avoid city buses. U.S. government employees are not permitted to use this medium of public transportation, as city buses are a haven for petty thieves and are often robbed. 

Even though the majority of protests in Costa Rica are peaceful, all protests should be avoided.

U.S. Embassy/Consulate Location and Contact Information 

Embassy/Consulate Address and Hours of Operation 

Street address for the U.S. Embassy in San Jose: U.S. Embassy in Pavas.

U.S. style street addresses do not exist. An address will start with a common landmark and then give the meters and direction (i.e. Hospital CIMA, 300 mts. Este). Since the U.S. Embassy in the Pavas neighborhood is a landmark, any taxi should be able to take you there.

Embassy/Consulate Contact Numbers

American Embassy: 2519-2000
Regional Security Officer (RSO): 2519-2313

U.S. Embassy maintains a website at http://sanjose.usembassy.gov, and the Consular Section can be reached by email at consularsanjose@state.gov. In the event of an emergency involving an American citizen, the Consular Section can be reached at 2519-2188 during working hours. 

OSAC Country Council Information

U.S. Embassy San Jose has a growing OSAC Country Council. Regional Security Officer Patrick Mitchell is the point of contact for all OSAC issues and can be reached at 506-2519-2313 and via e-mail at MitchellPA@state.gov.