Falling asleep, unaware of their surroundings or distracted, tourists traveling on buses that cover tourist routes across the country are targeted by criminal groups whose sole purpose is the theft of suitcases.

OIJ screenshot of thieves working a tourism bus

These criminals do not discriminate. For them, the bags of nationals or foreigners is the same. Their objectives are clear about what they want and how they achieve it.

The routes to/from Puntarenas, Guanacaste, Limón and La Fortuna are prime. The strikes are planned. They select the buses and schedules full of tourists – national or foreign, though the bags of foreigners are favored – and come up with a strategy that includes tracking the bus, pre-select victims at the stations or stops along the way.

The Organismo de Investigación Judicial (OIJ) is aware of several organized criminal structures, who for the most part take advantage of the carelessness of their victims, leaving unattended bags in the upper compartment of the bus.

They also take advantage at stops, as passengers get off briefly for a snack, while the thieves stay behind.

“The victims become aware of the theft (the entire bag or just the contents) when they arrive at the terminal or destination, many hours later,” says Mario Madriz, a researcher at the Judicial Investigation Agency (OIJ) working in the Puntarenas OIJ offices.

By that time it is too late. The bags and the thieves are long gone.

How do they operate?

While criminal groups general target tourist buses – foreigners and nationals alike – the also operate on urban (city) buses

The researcher expaliined, they (the criminals) scout “sensitive” points, such as terminals and bus stops of routes that mainly carry tourists. The use several vehicles, which then serve to flee with the stolen bags.

Inside the bus – selected from their scouting – 2 or more thieves ride with their potential victims, waiting for the opportune moment to strike, taking advantage of distracted or sleeping travelers.

“Sleeping passengers are targeted. They take the bags in the upper compartment. One of the thieves may sit next to the passenger, distract them with conversation or questions, while the accomplice takes the bag.

“If the victim becomes aware, they try to block their way or pretend it was accidental. After getting off the bus, the thieves get into the waiting car and flee the scene,” said Madriz.

Madriz added that tourists are targeted for their “high-value goods” carried in their luggage: cameras, tablets or computers. “They are the target, however, the local tourist is also a victim,” said the researcher.

“Police resolution of these cases is very low, because people realize hours after the event occurred. Or, buses do not have security cameras installed. In addition, foreigners do not always file a complaint because they will be in the country for a short time,” concluded Madriz.

The OIJ researcher said the criminal groups are highly organized, setting up their own “tour” schedules of buses leaving the Central Valley and travel to places like Puntarenas, Jaco and Quepos, highly traveled tourist destinations and short trips – under two hours –  as compared to destinations in Guanacaste, the northern zone or Nicaragua and Panama borders.

How can you protect yourself?

Yerling Gómez, executive director of the Cámara Nacional de Autobuseros (Canabus), recommended that passengers not store high-value goods in suitcases placed in the upper compartment of the bus.

Gómez suggests always have your belongings in a location in sight.

Another safeguard is to carry high-value items in checked bags – on bus carriers that issue a ticket for each bag – carried in the lower and locked compartment of the bus, accessible only by the driver or one of his/her helpers.

Don’t assume because the bag is going in the lower compartment it is safe if there is no control, such as the ticket and that the operator (driver and/or helper) actually check each ticket when handing over the bags.

Thieves not only target electronics, but passports, credit cards and cash. Keep them on your person at all times, and don’t “flash the cash” – keep handy, in your pocket or separate section of your bag – a small amount of cash needed for the bus trip.

You don’t want to be antisocial, but a certain amount of “malicia” (a Spanish term for malice) can come in handy. Don’t be that fast and furious to strike up a conversation, more so don’t get distracted, by that nice stranger who has taken all the interest in the world in you. Listen to your inner voice, act on any doubt.

Thieves also operate on urban routes – city buses!

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