QCOSTARICA – Crimes of yesteryear. Long ago, back in 1845 in Costa Rica, a cow that roamed the streets could be detained seized by the authorities. A family that had more than two dogs had to get rid of some of their pets and a person who walked at night without the company of a watchman (police), was approached by the officers and could be taken to the local jail cell.
At one time, it was even forbidden for trapiches (sugar mills) to grind at night and those who did it after hours were exposed to losing the production, the mills, and even the oxen. Nor was the sale and export of mules allowed – because there was a lack of these animals for forced labor and construction – so there were checkpoints all over the country to prevent any mule from being used on a leisure trip.
The above are just some of the crimes that we can now consider curious, but that at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th – in a country with a much smaller population than today – were the most common and for which the police were obligated to prosecute offenders.
The laws in Costa Rica have changed a lot since September 15, 1821 – almost 200 years ago – when our independence was declared. At that time, “Costa Ricans organized themselves politically and constituted their own government,” explains the history of the Costa Rican Judicial Branch.
The Carrillo Code affirmed that the woman is obliged to live with her husband and to follow him wherever he deems it convenient to reside
Although at that time we were an incipient democracy and a country that was just beginning its freedoms, our rulers knew very well that it was necessary to put the house in order, so with the formulation of the Interim Fundamental Social Pact of Costa Rica (Pacto de Concordia), in December 1821, the Supreme Government Board was established to exercise government functions. In addition, a court was created to administer prompt and fulfilled justice, respecting the Indian Laws that Spain promulgated to govern the peoples it had conquered.
We were free, but for 20 years the administration of justice in the nation was conducted based on Spanish laws. However, in 1841, the lawyer Braulio Carrillo Colina – head of state at that time – issued the General Code, a legislative document that was divided into three parts: civil, criminal and procedural. That was the basis of Costa Rican law, according to the historical document of the Judicial Power.
A married women could not separate from their husbands since they were exposed to being denounced and criminally prosecuted.
Known as the Carrillo Code, it was the first legislation in our country. In the extensive document, which can be found in the National Library, Costa Ricans had a kind of rule to follow to ensure peace, the execution of good customs and tranquility in the national territory.
Rules and penalties
Much of the Carrillo Code legislation focuses on health, education, and workplace and safety standards.
In this code, the type of penalties that were executed according to the nature of the crime was made explicit. The corporal penalties included death (abolished during the administration of Tomás Guardia, 1877-1882), imprisonment, public works, confinement in a workhouse, exile from the national territory, prison and even to see the execution of a death warrant.
On the other hand, the non-corporal penalties included being unworthy to be called Costa Rican, disqualification from holding public office or monetary fines.
According to the historian Vladimir de la Cruz, most of the crimes committed in those times were not considered criminal, therefore not all offenders went to jail but most paid fines corresponding to the offense.
“You have to be clear that society changes and the nature of crime changes with it. What is punishable today, tomorrow may not be. It is a social dynamic that changes a lot ”, clarified the expert.
“During the XIX and XX centuries this legislation, which has to do with punishments, sanctions and fines; sometimes it shows strange things, other times funny, sometimes interesting or rigorous,” he added.
Now, what kind of actions or attitudes were considered offenses that could lead a citizen to jail, to pay money fines or to carry out public works?
Thanks to the support of the historian De la Cruz, as well as Cristian Salazar and Karina Acuña – in charge of the Penitentiary Museum, and some details compiled from the Carrillo Code, we will now review some of these reasons.
Freedom of transit, pets, sanitation
After Independence, very interesting laws were passed; There was even one for the creation of newspapers or news, because the information given to the people had to be backed by a name and a reliable source.
“Sometimes writings were put on the walls giving some information or publishing a news item, then it was established that the person who put up a table with information on whatever it was had to write his name as the person responsible for the publication. If someone was discovered publishing these tables without a signature, they would be fined 600 pesos, which were donated to the leprosy hospital,” said De la Cruz.
Related to this issue, insults and slander were also contemplated. By 1839, the authors of alarming news were being punished, as well as those who invented something in order to disturb public order. Those who “produced things unpleasant to the public” were also serving a sentence, a law that was very subjective since it was up to the judge to determine what could be considered “something unpleasant.”
On the other hand, in 1885, the police officers were obliged to know the residents of the barrio (neighborhood) that they had to take care of so that they could recognize them immediately and thus have the citizens under control. In addition, in the nineteenth century, the famous police rounds were made through the town, in which the officer made a tour of the streets and a whistle sounded to announce that he was passing.
If in the night watch the officer came across a person who was not from the barrio, he immediately took him to the police station. In other words, strangers were forbidden.
“If someone had to go out at certain hours of the night, they had to report to be accompanied by a policeman. The watchmen were obliged to go with the citizen who, due to an emergency, might go out to look for a confessor or a doctor,” added the expert.
On their rounds, the watchmen also had to check that the windows and doors of warehouses and houses were properly closed, in addition to ensuring that the dogs did not disturb the peace of the night with their barking.
There was strict animal control, especially towards dogs and cattle. The dogs were not allowed to run loose during the day or at night, this measure was due to the fact that there was no drinking water system and to avoid the dirt of the animals in the streets, the owners had to keep them at home.
Animal control was also rigorous because in those days rabies was deadly.
Dogs, for example, could be out on the street as long as they had special permission from the authorities. If the dog did not carry that permit, evidenced by a plaque on his collar, the police confiscated them and the owners had to pay fines. Once a week a dog was registered to maintain control.
Another curious example of the handling of animals is that dairy cows were not allowed to enter populations without the company of a custodian. In other words, the cows could not roam the streets while they were milking. If the police found them loose and unaccompanied, they seized them. To recover them, the owner paid a fine of about four pesos.
The Carrillo Code was very clear regarding people’s responsibility for their actions and those of their animals.
“Every man who causes some damage to another is obliged to repair it (…) The owner of an animal or the one who uses it, is responsible for the damage that the animal causes, whether it is under his guard or is I would have escaped ”, explains the document in articles 965 to 968, of chapter 2.
Ensure good customs
In those days, as today, it was forbidden to hold parties and scandals at night. “If there was a scandalous neighbor, the police were called to knock on the door and force him to be quiet,” De la Cruz explained.
In addition, when the city of San José began to be illuminated (around 1884), it was established that the businessmen were in charge of the lanterns that were placed on the outskirts of their premises. It was mandatory to have them on at night, that the lights were kept alive (on) and they also had the responsibility of keeping the surroundings of the lanterns clean.
The Carrillo Code affirmed, in article 132, that the woman is obliged to live with her husband and to follow him wherever he deems it convenient to reside. For this reason, married women could not separate from their husbands since they were exposed to being denounced and criminally prosecuted.
Another conspicuous crime has to do with raffles or sweepstakes. Anyone who ran a raffle without permission from the Government, even in the name of a church or a saint, lost the raffle and also the money obtained from the sale of the numbers.
Another curiosity is that someone who, with the intention of hurting his neighbor, cut down one or more trees was punished. The penalty imposed was 5 to 15 days in jail for each tree cut down. In this section, the code also stated that the person who maliciously shook a seasoned fruit tree could also suffer an arrest of four to 20 days and the payment of a financial fine; here are also included the faults that correspond to having spoiled vegetables, flowers, plants and gardens to a neighbor.
Anyone who maliciously killed a bird or other domestic animal also received financial punishment, as long as it was proven that the action was not carried out because it was a dangerous animal.
Loitering, women and children
During the first years of operation of the Central Penitentiary, the presence of women, men and children was registered in the penal center, because they were arrested under the vagrancy law included in the Carrillo Code.
“People who asked for money or who lived on the street, many times were detained and brought them to the Penitentiary. Whoever did not have a proven trade or if it was considered that he did not have one, would end up here,” expressed Cristian Salazar, director of the museum.
“Those who were drinking liquor on the street were among the first to be arrested. There was a space in the prison for those crimes considered minor, such as prostitution, vagrancy or petty theft,” he added.
The law of vagrancy considered lazy people who, among other situations, did not have a trade or who, if they did, would not practice it. In addition, children over 14 years of age who walked in the street without the permission of their parents or guardians, drunkards who made scandals on public roads, who spent the day in squares, walks or gambling houses were lazy. Other cases of vagrancy were the artists or day laborers who were found in billiards, lottery stalls, courts or any other place of entertainment.
“The orphans who were in vagrancy gave themselves to families that would educate them, that would teach them good life and habits. The same thing happened with women,” said De La Cruz.
Since the inauguration of the Penitentiary (1909), the prison received different inmates who were accused of a wide variety of crimes. Of course, those of a criminal nature, such as attempting against the life of another person, was the strongest; however, the officials of the Penitentiary Museum assure that the place housed accused of minor crimes such as drunkenness, cattle theft, revolt against the authorities, street lawsuits, insults, insolence and slander.
Exhibitionism was also considered a crime, which is why many transvestites were held in the Josefino prison. In the case of women, they were often arrested after accusations of abandoning the home, recalled Karina Acuña, a social worker at the Penitentiary Museum.
The Carrillo Code affirmed, in its article 132, that the woman is obligated to live with her husband and to follow him wherever he deems it convenient to reside. For this reason, married women could not separate from their husbands, since they were exposed to being denounced and criminally prosecuted.
Other crimes committed by women, with prison sentences, consisted of selling liquor late at night, as well as when they were found working in canteens or because they kept the door of an establishment open at improper hours.
“The woman had to be good, honorable, she was not supposed to commit crimes and when she did she hid. If there was a lack, they were first secluded, in a symbolic way, in the families that taught them the jobs of the female role,” Acuña added.
“The first women’s prison was in Cartago. Women were held there, from any town in the state, who were condemned as vagrants or notoriously prostitutes. In that place or in the houses of confinement, they were taught trades to seek their correction,” said De La Cruz.
According to the historian, many of the crimes that were punished in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries could, unfortunately, become frequent today.
“As society changes, actions change. For a long time there were no penalties or charges for these types of crimes, but now they have been reactivated. Currently, there is a lot of poverty that can intensify actions of petty theft or theft of livestock to obtain food, “he concluded.
The expert recalled a fact that he saw recently, which could well be related to his theory. “Some time ago, in Guanacaste, I was surprised to see in certain areas the head of a carcass nailed to a stick, then another there and another on the other side; So I asked why it was. They gave me a very simple answer: “It’s to tell the owner not to look for the beef.” In that sense, there was a social responsibility of the beef thief to tell the owner: ‘I’m sorry, I had to eat your beef, I’ll leave you this so you doesn’t go looking for it,’ ” the historian narrated.
In short, whether they are curious or exaggerated, the crimes that Costa Ricans committed more than 150 years ago corresponded to a small society, mainly peasant, considered to have “good manners” and a basic education. In other words, the fouls and punishments could be consistent with a nation that was just beginning to form and, somehow, learning from mistakes, successes and experiences.
In that sense, for the construction of our society, it is important not to forget where we come from, our roots and the bases on which we have created our idiosyncrasies.
As the Polish politician Józef Pilsudski said: “The nation that loses its memory ceases to be a nation, it becomes a mere collection of people who temporarily celebrate in the territory.”
Article adapted and translated from La Nacion’s Revista Dominical. Read the original (in Spanish) here.