The Missing Americans Project

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Although most people enjoy great vacations to Central America, there is an underlying danger that people must be made aware of. Our focus is on security. There are cases of tourist missing in our country ( Costa Rica ) and surrounding countries, however, there are also many more cases of expats being targeted for robbery, extortion, rape, even murder. In the past few years we have known more than 50 cases in Costa Rica alone that involved a great deal of violence, some resulting in death.

The reason I write this is for awareness, not "scare tactics". There are many criminals walking the streets of Costa Rica that feel "comfortable" due to the lack of arrests , detention, and weak investigations. Often criminals who are arrested will be released within days. "Gringos" represent opportunity to thieves, and sometimes a simple robbery can go wrong and lead to a more serious crime. A criminal in countries such as Costa Rica like to pray on tourists because there is confusion on the part of the victim that places them in a much weaker position. A tourist will not know the local "thugs" by name, they are confused by moment they are amazed by the beauty of a lonely beach...then out of nowhere they are facing three men armed with guns. Victims will often return home, unable to follow up on investigations or prosecution. There is often a language barrier when speaking to police who speak minimal English. The police in Costa Rica are unable to conduct investigations, this must be handed over to OIJ, adding much more time as one organization must work through another. Also, criminals can detect a gringo face with ease and that may signal a few items such as passport, camera, laptop, cash, or maybe an ipod. Many criminal gangs work in very predictable patterns through Central America, from pick pocketing to home invasions, there are keys and signals to look much to post here. However, it pays to do research where you may travel, stay in groups...don't let the friendly locals separate you from your group.....especially when alcohol is involved. The problem here is that it's easy to be taken in by the locals who are often friendly and may want to become your friend......but it's common for locals to only see $$$$ on your forehead. Young men often drink/ party and become over confident, a criminal sees this as an opportunity. Women seem to pay a little more attention to the security rules while traveling, often other women will go out of their way to ensure the safety of their friends. Basic rules apply, be wary of people who are a little to "friendly" or seem very interested in "helping". Take a taxi, even if it's a short distance at night after drinking or leaving a bar.... not a pirate taxi! Don't go to deserted beaches alone, travel in groups...lonely beaches in Central America are busy with narco traffic. It's also a great place for criminals to isolate their victims.....we know this from experience. Stay away from drugs!!!! these are not your local neighborhood spots to score a bag of weed. Often drug dealers in beach towns through central America are supplying help to the cartels. (gasoline, supplies, warehousing) they in return are paid with cocaine and must then distribute locally to turn their payment into cash. Supporting these people may get you in is also supporting everything that has destroyed local communities.
I think it's also important that more pressure is placed on the Embassy and local police to protect tourists and do more to investigate serious crimes. Sometimes a crime may not even be involved in a disappearance, however, communication must be improved and tourist safety must be a priority. For example, one hotel in Tamarindo did not want to place riptide warning signs on their beach.....they thought it would deter customers. We have asked for hotels to increase their security presence around their property as well.....common response is "that's for the police". There must also be more pressure placed on communities who profit from being a tourist destination. If they want to spend millions to grab travelers from the other side of the world......why can't they provide a little more community safety?

Stasi Ballano

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Comment by Jeff Dunsavage on May 12, 2010 at 2:01pm
Stasi - Thanks for this post! I was reading the U.S. Embassy in Honduras's page on "What to do if you're arrested in Honduras" -- in a nutshell, an American (like any other foreigner) has no rights there and the U.S. government won't get involved. My take is, given all the direct aid from the U.S., tourism dollars from U.S. citizens, and tons of aid from U.S.-based relief organizations in the region, the ONLY appropriate response when an American gets into trouble is "How can we help?" and more often than not, the only appropriate answer is, "Stay out of the way while we investigate." Unfortunately, it doesn't happen that way. Embassies don't exist to look after our interests - they exist to ensure that certain kinds of transactions occur seamlessly. Anything else is a distraction. American citizens have to wake up and demand that the State Department take a more active role in ensuring their safety and security abroad. Citizens of other civilized countries must do the same.

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