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Costa Rica 2015 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 Rating: High

Crime Threats

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. 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. Pickpocketing, mugging, purse snatching, and theft are common occurrences and are the biggest issues confronting tourists. Crimes of opportunity often result from an “inside job”.

Criminals have targeted rental vehicles. A tactic used by criminals is to puncture the tires of rental vehicles and then follow the car until the driver pulls over to inspect. The 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.

Credit card theft/fraud are on the rise. Many victims maintain physical possession of their card, but their credit card information is stolen and later used without their knowledge. 

Passport theft is also a big issue.

Sex tourism as well is on the rise in the tourist areas of Costa Rica, 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.  

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.  

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

Areas of Concern

In regards to regional travel concerns, 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. U.S. government officials are not permitted to stay in hotels in downtown San José due to safety concerns. 

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.

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

Attacks of tourists on isolated roads and trails are also 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.

Transportation-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 and could cause severe damage to vehicles. 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. 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, making finding an address extremely difficult even with a GPS.

In downtown San José, 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 tactic has proven to relieve some of the traffic congestion.  

Motorcyclists commonly drive without respect to rules of the road, often passing on the right, weaving in/out without warning, and creating lanes where none officially exist. The fatality rate for pedestrians and those riding bicycles and motorcycles is high. The 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 states that you must keep your vehicle in the place where the accident occurred until the insurance company and traffic police reports to the scene, which could take hours.

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. 

Public Transportation Conditions 

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

Political, Economic, Religious, and Ethnic Violence

Costa Rica has a long tradition of stable democracy. The country has not had military since 1948 and prides itself on its peaceful nature. 

Political Violence Rating: Low

Local, Regional, and International Terrorism Threats/Concerns

Terrorism Rating: Low

Civil Unrest 

There is no history of violent civil unrest amongst Costa Ricans. Protests occur in the heavily populated areas on occasion but are generally peaceful. Protests frequently center on fair pay and working conditions. That said, all protests should be avoided. To avoid perception of interfering in local politics, Americans should avoid protests. The Constitution bars foreigners from political activity in Costa Rica, 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. 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. 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 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 of Disease Control and Prevention. 

Both coasts contain ocean currents that are swift and dangerous, accounting for a significant number of water-related deaths annually.

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 easier for cartels to operate. Costa Rica has improved its focus on their counter-narcotics programs. The recent accomplishments can partially be attributed to the 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 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. OIJ, Costa Rica’s investigative police have a 100 percent resolution rate on all kidnappings.  

Police Response

Police response can be obtained by calling 911; however, response times may vary due to the lack of manpower and vehicles. Police presence on the streets is gradually growing as is the National Police Academy. 

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.  

Crime Victim Assistance

To report a crime in action, the crime 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.

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

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) of the government.

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. 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 in Costa Rica and most hospitals will require payment up front for services.  

Red Cross Ambulance -911

Contact Information for Recommended Hospitals/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

Recommended Insurance Posture

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.

CDC Country-specific Vaccination and Health Guidance 

Costa Rica does not require any vaccinations prior to travelling to the country; however, travelers are required to show proof of their yellow fever vaccination only when arriving to Costa Rica from a country with risk of yellow fever. Although the risk of contracting malaria is low, 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?s_cid=ncezid-dgmq-travel-single-001.

Tips on How to Avoid Becoming a Victim

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.

Situational Awareness Best Practices 

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 awareness of your surroundings at all time. Do not walk alone at night. Do not leave your bags unattended in public, and maintain a low profile. Be extremely cautious when carrying bags or when you have valuables in your pockets. Do not carry large amounts of cash or valuables on your person. If confronted by a thief, do not resist. Try to stay calm, give the perpetrator what they want, and they are unlikely to hurt you. Most victims of theft are injured when they try to fight back.

Tourists should make an effort to store luggage and other personal items out of plain view and ensure that car doors are locked.  

Use a safe or lockbox wherever you stay. Make locking the doors to your home, hotel, and vehicle a habit. 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.

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. 

If running a business, 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, Costa Rica Calle 98 Via 104, Pavas, San José, Costa Rica, in front of Centro Comercial del Oeste Pavas, Costa Rica.

Business Hours: Monday through Friday 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Embassy Contact Numbers

American Embassy: 2519-2000
RSO Office: 2519-2313
American Citizens Services Section: 2519-2590
Consular Visa Inquiries: 4000-1976
Website: http://costarica.usembassy.gov/

OSAC Country Council Information

Embassy San Jose has a growing OSAC Country Council. Regional Security Officer Karl Bultrowicz is the point of contact for all OSAC issues and can be reached at 506-2519-2313 and via e-mail at BultrowiczK@state.gov. Monthly meetings are held at the American Chamber of Commerce. To reach OSAC’s Western Hemisphere team, please email OSACWHA@state.gov.