By Christopher Howard, Live in Costa Rica – Safety is a concern when moving to any foreign country. I remember when I told everyone that I was moving to Costa Rica in the year 1980, one friend asked me ,”Isn’t there a revolution going on down there?”
Obvious he was confusing peaceful Costa Rica with the problems that had gone on in Nicaragua, el Salvador and Guatemala during those days. I told everyone who had similar questions about my safety that I would never move to a place where I thought my life was in danger because of crime or social upheaval.
For those who have seen pictures in the media of young heavily-tattooed Latino gang members with their heads shaved, you can breathe a sign of relief because this phenomenon doesn’t exist in Costa Rica. You’ll only find these mareros as they are called in the poorer crime-infested Central American countries like El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras where there are many social inequities. In fact, between the three countries just mentioned there are 70,000 gang members who have terrorized general population by committing a whole slew of violent crimes. Fortunately, these maras (gangs) have no presence in Nicaragua, Panama or Costa Rica.
According to Costa Rica’s equivalent of the F.B.I., the Organismo de Investigación Judicial or O.I.J. in their report The Situation of the Country, the marero culture has not pervaded Costa Rican Society. This is partly due to the fact that the standard of living is higher here than in the three countries mentioned above and that there is far less abject poverty which seems to breed gang violence among the youth.
In the poorer neighborhoods like los Cuadros de Goicochea near San José, El Infiernillo in Alajuela or la Cieneguita in Limón province, there are some quasi-type gangs but their activities are mostly confined to territorial disputes within their own neighborhoods and the sale of drugs. The study by the O.I.J. says that these groups are more interested in activities that produce money than a cultural identity like the mareros in other countries. The local group’s crimes have mainly been limited to lesser offenses like vandalism, small robberies and small time drug dealing. Occasionally there is murder because of a bad drug transaction or a rift over territory. The report says that these groups are mostly composed of youth who are beginning their criminal careers, are very impulsive and unlike the marero gang structures are highly disorganized. In fact, the report says that these groups are more disorganized than organized which is a good sign.
What you basically have here is localized violence confined to a couple marginal areas with the groups preying on each other for their own economic gains. This phenomenon is not generalized as in some of the other Central American countries.
So, retirees and other foreigners living here should not be concerned or worried about becoming victims of gang violence. The activities of these young punks are most always confined to their own neighborhoods. During the time I have lived in Costa Rica I can’t recall anyone I know having a problem. The only situation I do remember is that some tourists from a cruise ship were held up near the city of Limón by a couple of local thugs and one of the tourists who was an ex-marine quickly put an end to situation by disabling one of the young robbers.
Costa Rica is a relatively safe country with about 11 homicides per 100,000 in habitants. On the other hand El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras all have homicide rates of near 100 per 100,000. In fact, there are places in the U.S. with a much higher crime rate than Costa Rica.
REMEMBER: NO society is crime free!
Good news! The Security Ministry (El Ministerio de Seguridad) just reported a huge increase in the apprehension of criminals and more arrests for drug-related activities in 2013 than in previous years. This makes Costa Rica an even safer place to live or retire in with these elements off the streets. I will provide the figures in a future blog.