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Costa Rica 2014 Crime and Safety Report

Western Hemisphere > Costa Rica; Western Hemisphere > Costa Rica > San Jose; Western Hemisphere > Costa Rica > Santa Cruz

Overall Crime and Safety Situation

Crime Threats 

The U.S. Department of State criminal threat rating for San José is High. While crimes occur throughout Costa Rica, they are more prevalent in certain locations, including popular tourist destinations, and at certain times during the year, including the Christmas holiday season. There is generally a spike in the number of home burglaries and robberies during the holiday season. 

The majority of crime and safety threats to the U.S. official and private community involve theft. Petty theft is very common in highly populated and tourist areas. Pickpocketing, mugging, purse snatching, and theft are common occurrences and are the biggest issues confronting tourists while visiting. Passport theft is a big concern. In 2013, 871 lost or stolen U.S. passports were reported to U.S. Citizens Services, down from 1,040 in 2012. 

Vehicle burglaries, smash-and-grabs, and home robberies are prevalent but are often deterred by hired guards and enhanced security features on homes and vehicles. 

Credit card theft and fraud are also on the rise with a reported 916 victims in 2012. Many victims maintained physical possession of their card, but their credit card information was stolen and later used without their knowledge. 

Organized crime groups are of significant concern. Both nationals and third country nationals participate in organized crime, consisting of car theft rings, drug traffickers, petty thieves, and burglars. Porous borders allow the country to be utilized to traffic drugs and other contraband.

Sex tourism is on the rise in the tourist areas, specifically the coastal areas. Tourists who engage in or solicit prostitution exponentially increase their chances of being a victim of theft or violent robbery. 

Violent crimes, like murders, robberies, and sexual assaults, are not committed frequently against U.S. citizens. In 2013, 11 U.S. citizens reported being sexually assaulted. Preliminary annual statistics for 2013 reported approximately 416 homicides, which is an increase from 392 homicides in 2012. Out of those approximate 416 victims, only two were U.S. citizens (there were seven in 2012). Assaults increased nearly 19 percent from 2012.

U.S. Embassy San José has received reports of a particularly high number of violent assaults and robberies in the Limón Caribbean costal region (from Tortuguero through Limón to Puerto Viejo), often involving invasions of rental homes and eco lodges.

Costa Rica is experiencing an increase of human smuggling. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and OIJ, between January and October 2013, 28 victims of human smuggling were discovered. The primary reasons for human trafficking is illicit organ harvesting. 

Overall Road Safety Situation

Road Safety and Road Conditions 

Driving can be extremely challenging to the most experienced driver. Roads are often in poor condition, and large potholes are common occurrences that could cause severe damage to vehicles. Heavy traffic provides an opportunity for thieves to steal property, such as purses and bags that are left in plain view, from vehicles. 

In San José, the government has imposed a law restricting cars from operating on certain days. The last number on a vehicle’s license plate determines which days it can operate. This tactic has proven to relieve some of the traffic congestion. 

Driving outside of San José at night can be treacherous. Roads often lack adequate lighting, guardrails, and street signs. During the rainy season (May-November), landslides and washed out roads are common. Another challenge confronting drivers is the lack of street signs and names, making finding an address difficult even with a GPS. 

Transportation accidents are frequent, particularly outside of San José. Drivers can be aggressive and, at times take, considerable risks, especially 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. There were 154 collision-related deaths in 2013. The majority of casualties were motorcyclists. Motorcyclists commonly drive without respect to rules of the road, often passing on the right, weaving without warning, and creating lanes. The fatality rate for pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorcyclists is high. 

Traffic police are not proactive and do not regularly monitor the roads; they mainly respond to traffic accidents. If involved in an accident, the law requires that you leave the vehicle(s) in place until the insurance company and traffic police arrive, which could take hours.

Criminals have targeted rental vehicles. Tourists should make an effort to store luggage and other personal items out of plain view and ensure that car doors are locked. Another tactic used by criminals is to puncture the tires of rental vehicles and follow the car until the driver pulls over. The criminals, under the guise of being good Samaritans there to help change the tire, will steal the tourist’s personal items.

Only take taxi cabs from reputable companies (red or orange in color).

Political, Economic, Religious, and Ethnic Violence

Costa Rica has a long tradition of stable democracy, has not had military since 1948, and prides itself on its peaceful nature. There is no history of religious or ethnic violence or violent civil unrest.

Local, Regional, and International Terrorism Threats/Concerns

There are no known indigenous terrorist organizations operating in Costa Rica. There is a low threat for international and transnational terrorism. 

Civil Unrest 

Protests occur in the heavily populated areas on occasion but are generally peaceful. In 2013, there were a few large, peaceful protests by “pirate” taxi drivers who were demonstrating for increased rights by stopping their vehicles on major thoroughfares, causing significant traffic delays. Public sector workers also held a couple peaceful protests, focusing on wage adjustments, in 2013 in downtown San José. All ended somewhat peacefully without injury. 

There was one violent protest on May 1, 2013 (“May Day”), when protestors voiced their demands for fair pay and better working conditions. May Day occurred just days prior to President Obama’s visit to San Jose. During the protests, self-proclaimed anarchists staged riots in front of the Costa Rican Legislative Assembly in San Jose, burning the American flag and cardboard cutouts of President Obama, chanting “Obama: Go home!”. There were no reported major injuries or deaths. 

Even though protests are generally peaceful, all protests should be avoided. To avoid perception of interfering in local politics, Americans should avoid protests. 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. There were 155 earthquakes in 2013; the largest one was 6.6 in magnitude in Santa Cruz, Guanacaste. Some 28 earthquakes in 2013 had a magnitude of over 4.5 but caused little to no damage. The last large earthquake, a magnitude of 7.6, occurred in September 2012. It was one of the largest earthquakes recorded in Costa Rican history but caused limited damage, considering its size. When planning travel to the area, consider that such a disaster may strike without warning. 

Serious flooding occurs annually in the Caribbean Province of Limón 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.

On both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, ocean currents are swift and dangerous. According to the Costa Rican Red Cross, there were 84 water-related deaths, including 12 U.S. citizens, in 2013.

Regional Travel Concerns and Restricted Travel Areas/Zones

The downtown area of San José is a prime tourist destination during daylight hours. You are strongly encouraged not to go there after dark, and are advised to avoid the El Pueblo Centro Comercial area of San José at all times. 

Attacks of tourists on isolated roads and trails are a threat. If you plan to visit an unfamiliar area, you should consult with a trustworthy local (a concierge, a tour guide, etc.) regarding precautions or concerns.

Drug-related Crimes

For years, Costa Rica has been a major transit zone for narcotics due to its geographic location, porous borders, and thinly patrolled waters. The absence of a military and a historically poorly equipped, under-manned police service made it easy for the cartels to operate. Costa Rica is, however, improving its focus on counter-narcotics programs. In 2013, 19 metric tons of cocaine were seized, a 33 percent increase from 14.73 tons in 2012. Costa Rica is a leading eradicator of marijuana, seizing 1,390 metric tons in 2013, a near 50 percent increase from 2012. These successes can be attributed to the recent improvements in equipment that the government has made, including boats for the Coast Guard, patrol trucks for the newly-formed border police, and new helicopters for air surveillance.

Kidnapping Threats

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. OIJ, Costa Rica’s investigative police, have a 100 percent resolution rate on kidnappings. 

Police Response

Police can be called through 911; however, response times may vary due to the lack of manpower and vehicles. The uniformed police, Fuerza Publica, have 13,500 officers in the entire country. Police presence on the streets is gradually growing, as is the National Police Academy. A crime in action should be reported to Fuerza Publica. To have a crime investigated and/or prosecuted, it must be reported to Organismo de Investigación (OIJ), Costa Rica’s investigative police. 

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, 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 

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

Organismo de Investigación (OIJ): Investigative 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. UEI is a special unit within DIS.

Migración: Controls immigration at the borders, ports, and airports, within the Ministry of Governorship and Police.

Medical Emergencies

Medical care in San José is adequate. U.S. medical insurance is not always accepted, and most hospitals will require payment up front. 

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 to Costa Rica.

Contact Information for Recommended Local Hospitals and Clinics

San José:
CIMA Hospital - 2208-1000 
Hospital Mexico - 2242-6700
Clinica Biblica Hospital - 2257-5252
Hospital Calderon Guardia - 2212-1000
National Children's Hospital - 2523-3600
Hospital Clínica Católica ( private ) San Antonio de Guadalupe – San José –2283-6616
Hospital Metropolitano (private & Services U.S. Veterans) - San José, principle headquarters: +(506) 2521-6565
CIMA and Clinica Biblica, will require payment up-front for non-emergency care. 

Puntarenas:
Hospital Monseñor Sanabria - 2630-8000

Limón: 
Tony Facio Hospital - 2758-2222

Guanacaste:
Enrique Baltodano Hospital - 2690-2300

Ciudad Nelly (Closet to Panama): 
Hospital Ciudad Nelly – 2785-9600

Nicoya: 
Hospital Anexion – 2685-8400

Los Chiles: 
Hospital Los Chiles – 2471-2000

San Carlos: 
Hospital de San Carlos – 2460-1176

Cartago:
Hospital Max Peralta – 2550-1999

Perez Zeledon: 
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

Costa Rica Medical Response
San José: (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 - http://costaricamedicalresponse.com/blog/

CDC Country-specific Vaccination and Health Guidance 

Travelers are required to show proof of their yellow fever vaccination if arriving from a country with risk of yellow fever. The risk of contracting malaria is low, but cases of dengue fever have been on the rise. 

For vaccine and 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

Real estate scams are prevalent. If looking to purchase real estate, please ensure that you are using a reputable real estate company and lawyer.

Crimes of opportunity often result from an “inside job.” Remain vigilant and watchful of your employees. Do not trust everyone with sensitive information (combinations to alarms, keys, etc.). Also, take precaution when severing the employment of an employee. Ensure that all local employment laws are followed and that the employees receive their legally mandated severance compensation; many crimes against private sector organizations are motivated by retribution of a former employee. 

Areas to be Avoided 

The Embassy recommends visitors to be extremely cautious when visiting downtown San José after dark. U.S. government officials are not permitted to stay in hotels in downtown San José due to safety concerns. The Embassy specifically advises to avoid the El Pueblo Centro Comercial in downtown San José. 

The areas of Jaco on the Pacific coast and Limón on the Caribbean coast are also increasingly dangerous at night for tourists due to increased drug and prostitution activity.

Best Situational Awareness Practices 

Walking alone at night should be avoided. Be extremely cautious when carrying bags or when you have valuables in your pockets. Do not carry large amounts of cash or valuables. If confronted by a thief, do not resist. Try to stay calm, give the perpetrator what s/he wants, and they are unlikely to hurt you. Most victims of theft are injured when they try to fight back.

Maintain awareness of your surroundings at all time. Use a safe or lockbox wherever you stay. Tourists are encouraged to leave passports in hotel safes or other secure locations while visiting. Make a photo copy of the biographical and entry stamp pages in lieu of carrying your passport. Make locking the doors to your home, hotel, and vehicle a habit. Do not leave your bags unattended in public, and maintain a low profile. 

Invest in an effective security system for your office space. This should include an alarm system, physical security enhancements to doors and windows, and an effective guard service. 

U.S. Embassy Location and Contact Information 

Embassy Address and Hours of Operation 

U.S. Embassy San José, Calle 98 Via 104, Pavas, San José, Costa Rica, in front of Centro Comercial del Oeste Pavas, Costa Rica.

Business Hours: Monday-Friday, 8:00AM-4:30PM

Embassy Contact Numbers

Switchboard: 2519-2000
RSO Office: 2519-2313
American Citizens Services Section: 2519-2590
Consular Visa Inquiries: 4000-1976

OSAC Country Council Information

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 or via e-mail at MitchellPA@state.gov. Monthly meetings are held at the American Chamber of Commerce.