Stay Safe, Especially in San Jose
Like any city, crime is worse today than yesterday. Still, San Jose would be considered one of the safer cities in Latin America. With weak social programs to head off criminals before they act, and the mixture of drugs and poor, crowded conditions, these crimes were inevitable. People are learning to hunker down with their possessions.
It is advisable to carry only what you need, you can photocopy your passport and leave the original in your safety deposit box, do not wear jewelry (as a tourist you don't need to impress anyone) and travel in pairs. In San Jose at night, especially in the poorer neighborhoods, packs of teenage chapulines, high on drugs or alcohol, wander the streets or lurk in shadows to ambush anyone who may be vulnerable. Where security and police protection is lax, neighbourhood vigilante groups are forming. One crack addict, who was caught breaking into a property near my friend's house, was nearly beaten to death by a neighborhood vigilante mob, setting an example for others.
There is no army in Costa Rica but there are several different types of police, in different uniforms. For example, you will not get a speeding ticket from any policeman, only the transit police (MOPT).
Some police are prejudice towards gringos. A gringo one time called the police to help him remove an angry drunken Tica from his home as she was trying to destroy his belongings. He held her arms to restrain her until the police arrived. Noticing the red marks on her arms, the police put the gringo in jail and robbed his house. Another time a chapulin (young street criminal) took four hundred dollars from our inn's front desk cash register, but did not know how to open the gate and escape. We called the police to apprehend the young man. During their investigation the police insisted they needed the four hundred dollars as evidence. I visited the court thirteen times to get the money back and finally gave up listening to their lame excuses. They had no intension of returning the money. Many of the MOPT (transit police) at the side of the highway are still more interested in bribes than traffic safety, especially when working alone.
One night getting off a bus I foolishly took a short cut through a seedier part of San Jose and was mugged. Unsuspectingly I was approached from behind and quickly put in a sleeper-type choke hold, dropping in less than ten seconds unconscious to the sidewalk. I never did see who did it. It took a few minutes to wake up, discovering my wallet, watch, jewelry and even my shoes were missing. A witness followed me back to the hotel and asked for a finder's fee to try to recover the possessions. I gave him ten dollars but never saw him or the stolen articles again. Even if the mugger was located and the money had already been spent, I would be back dealing with the police. Making a police report is mostly a waste of time other than when it is needed to replace a stolen passport. Our guests are advised to travel in pairs, carry only what money they need and a photocopy of their passport, which normally suffices, wear nothing flashy like jewelry, and at night use taxis as they are generally safe, cheap and plentiful.
It is well known that Costa Rica's strategically located Caribbean coast is being used as a staging point for marijuana and cocaine from Columbia, with resounding similarities to the pirate days. Both drugs are readily available to consumers in San Jose at a fifth to a tenth of the US street value. Crack cocaine permeates the poorer barrios and has reached epidemic proportions. It is estimated that thousands of homeless children live in the streets, and are drawn into crack and even inhaling propellants, then crime and prostitution. Without a strong welfare safety system in place, these uneducated children have little hope of improving themselves, compounding problems down the road for Costa Rica by becoming future chapulines, and long term criminals.