Imagine you plan your vacation to Costa Rica, and take extra special care to make a photocopy of your passport and keep the original locked away in a safe place. One evening you are enjoying a meal at a restaurant in San Jose when a group of heavily armed police enter the establishment and demand identification papers.
You show the immigration agents a photocopy of your passport only to be told that isn’t good enough anymore. You are served with a written demand to report to the immigration police on the following day and present you passport. The agents also inform you that if you fail to report to immigration and they catch you again, well then it’s off to the jail in San Sebastian.
The special police patrols are a combined group of Fuerza Publica (national police), Municipal Police, Immigration Police, and Judicial Investigative Police (OIJ). This is the new modus operandi in the central valley, and they are actively making sweeps among bars, restaurants, and other strategic locales.
Police are also being more aggressive, and this week patrons at another bar and restaurant frequented by mostly tourists were asked to turn out their pockets so that they could be inspected for contraband. The sweep was not pleasant, the music stopped, the party came to an end and all the tourists were inspected “Guatemala” style.
In the case of our friend who was ordered to report to immigration things took a turn for the worse. He dutifully showed up the next day at the immigration police station in La Uruca and presented his passport. They ran a check of the records and apparently there was some mistake when he arrived at the airport a few weeks prior.
Apparently there was no record of his entry, and agents promptly confiscated his passport. They explained he was free to go, but they would have to keep the document for a while in order to verify that the entry stamp was legitimate. He needs to leave the country and return to Florida on Friday, but has twice been given the run around at immigration, being told come back later.
As you can image he has already been to the United States embassy in San Jose. Their advice to him was to behave, obey Costa Rican law, and if he liked they would issue a new passport for the usual fee. They also cautioned that if he had been placed on the Costa Rican equivalent of the “No Fly List”, a new passport would not necessarily get him through the immigration checkpoint at the airport.
At least for now these sweeps seemed to be confined to the downtown San Jose area. We have not heard reports from the beach towns or plusher central valley neighborhoods such as Escazu. We also assume that the new approach is part of the New President’s Plan to bring security to Costa Rica.
Our advice is to not carry a photocopy of your passport anymore, and instead carry the real thing in a hidden pouch around your neck. Apart from being polite to the police if stopped there isn’t much else you can do to avoid problems.
While I can understand the new tactics as there have been fake passport stamps in the past, problems with illegal immigrants and perhaps Perpetual Tourists, however the situation is making it difficult to explain to friends in the United States that Costa Rica is still a nice place to visit or vacation.
Ask most Americans with a job they depend on what would happen if their vacation in Costa Rica were to be extended by the immigration police and the answer might not be pleasant.
Costa Rica shouldn’t be the kind of place where you would expect to spend hours waiting in line to beg a government official to return your passport. Tourists do not belong in the Immigration Maze. That headache should be reserved for those of us who are crazy enough to apply for Residency in Costa Rica.
I have to hope that this latest policy is temporary, and hopefully President Chinchilla with her background in public security will also think of the big picture, and the benefits that tourism provide. The Costa Rica I know is the kind of place where a tourist can Soak in the Hot Springs, experience a Cloud Forest, enjoy the Surf or just hang out with friends at the Beach.