(EXPAT FOCUS) First, this article is to put kidnappings in Latin America into perspective and not to instill fear in anyone about retiring or relocating to Costa Rica since few foreigners here have ever been victims of this phenomenon.
A few years ago there was a rash of express kidnappings called ‘paseos millonarios’ whereby the kidnappers made the victim withdraw money from different ATM locations.
I do not know of any American retirees who were victims of this type of crime here.
Fortunately, Costa Rica really never been burdened by kidnappings of foreign residents except for two cases of which that I am aware. On September 24, 2018, the owner of a sportsbook company, William Sean Creighton, was kidnapped. He was found dead about a year later and 12 people were apprehended in connection with his disappearance.
In 2015, Canadian Ryan Piercy, a longtime Costa Rican resident and naturalized citizen, was mysteriously kidnapped. Fortunately, a month later Mr. Piercy was released unharmed after several ransom payments were made. To this day his disappearance has left many more questions unanswered than answered. Interestingly, no persons or groups were ever charged or punished, the case is now virtually forgotten but still shrouded in mystery.
According to several newspapers and the country’s equivalent of the FBI, the O.I.J., “Although Mr. Piercy led an unostentatious life he held a sizable bank account which could have made him a prime target.” QCostarica.com reported that at the time there was speculation as to what happened to him. Theories ranged from him being kidnapped to a (autosecuestro) or “self disappearance.” It is doubtful that the latter was the case.
Fortuitously, Costa Rica does not share a history of violence, kidnappings or disappearances as most other countries in Central and the rest of Latin America. Believe me, if I felt unsafe neither my family nor I would be living in this wonderful place.
Other Central American countries have not been as lucky as Costa Rica.
“Kidnapping is common in El Salvador but foreigners are, thus far, rarely targeted. However, in Honduras, “The main industrial town, San Pedro Sula, is regarded as the ‘kidnap capital’ of Central America with most victims tending to be wealthy local or foreign industrialists.”
Probably the worst time for kidnapping in Latin America was during the 1970s and 1980s especially in Uruguay, Argentina and Chile. Most of these kidnappings were politically motivated and did not include American citizens.
The Tupamaro National Liberation Movement was a left-wing urban guerrilla group operating in Uruguay in the late 1960s and 1970s. During this period they kidnapped many people. A number of hostages were ransomed for considerable sums of money. As a result of this, the government employed the military to carry out a counter-insurgency campaign to suppress the group. The army’s response was swift and included the heavy use of torture, kidnapping and murder. The dictatorship in Uruguay ended in 1984 when democratic elections were held and amnesty was granted to most of the Tupamaros.
Interestingly, there was even a movie called “State of Siege” that recounted the events that transpired in Uruguay during that era. In the movie, an official of the United States Agency for International Development (an organization sometimes used as a front for training foreign police in counterinsurgency methods), posted in Uruguay in the early 1970s, is kidnapped by a group of Urban guerrillas The story is based on an actual incident in 1970 when U.S. Embassy official Dan Mitrione was kidnapped and killed.
Using Santore’s interrogation by his captors as a backdrop, the film explores the often brutal consequences of the struggle between Uruguay’s repressive and the leftist Tupamaro guerrillas. Using kidnappings and death squads the government decimates the revolutionary group, whose surviving members choose to execute the smugly calculating Santore, who is accused of arranging training in torture and political manipulation.
The movie could not be filmed in Uruguay due to its political content. Instead, it was shot in Chile, around Santiago and in the coastal cities of Valparaiso and Viña del Mar.
Ironically, the movie was filmed during the brief democratic socialist rule of Salvador Allende just before the 1973 coup d’etat, which Costa-Gavras would dramatize in his later film Missing. This move is an historical classic and a realistic picture of what happened at the time.
Augusto Pinochet, a Chilean general and later dictator and president of Chile (1974–90) orchestrated kidnappings, murders, and disappearances. All of this carried out by the DINA – a CIA equivalent —when Chile was “effectively under martial law.”
Argentina’s history in the 1970s and 1980s is similar to Uruguay’s except it is more brutal. Between (1976-83) there was a campaign by Argentina’s military rulers against left-winged opponents, suspected dissidents and subversives, often known as the “Dirty War.”
Between 10,000 and 30,000 people were kidnapped, killed (with some being thrown alive from airplanes), and tortured including opponents of the government as well as innocent victims. Vestiges of this tragic period still haunt Argentina to this day. The Mothers and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, often hold vigils to bring attention to something that threw their lives into tragedy and chaos during the 1970s: the kidnapping of their children and grandchildren (los desaparecidos) by Argentina’s brutal military dictatorship.
Among the desaparecidos were children born to pregnant women who were kept alive long enough to give birth to their babies, then murdered. Five hundred of those children, and others seized from their parents during the Dirty War, are thought to have been given to other families. In fact, some were adopted by the very military families responsible for the disappearances.
During the1980s and early 1990s kidnappings were rampant in some South American countries.
In Colombia, for instance, the country’s drug cartels, left-wing guerrilla groups and paramilitary wreaked havoc by kidnapping and murdering thousands of people. Disappearances were also very prevalent.
Currently, in Colombia, the number of kidnappings has fallen dramatically since 2000. Common criminals with no political agenda are now the only perpetrators of the overwhelming majority of kidnappings. In fact, in 2018 Colombia only had 279 kidnappings. The same year Mexico had the most with 1,833 with many more going unreported. So much for retiring there.
Christopher Howard has been conducting monthly relocation/retirement tours and writing retirement guidebooks for more than 30 years. See www.liveincostarica.com.
He has a #1 relocation/retirement blog at: http://www.liveincostarica.com/blog, is also the author of the forthcoming 19th edition of “New Golden Door to Retirement and Living in Costa Rica — the official guide to relocation” and the one-of-a-kind bestselling e-book, “Guide to Costa Rican Spanish,” that can be purchased through Amazon.