Thousands Detained in Immigration Raid
PUBLICATION: The Beach Times, Costa Rica, print edition
Heavily-armed police detained at least 1,000 people in separate immigration and crime raids in Tamarindo, Playas del Coco, and Filadelfia on the weekend.
The raids began Friday at around midnight, when officers with automatic weapons and wearing bulletproof vests blocked exits to at least three night clubs in Tamarindo, asking patrons for passports before allowing them to leave.
Foreigners without proper documentation were put on buses or taken to a nearby police station for further questioning, often waiting up to four hours to be released.
Forty people including Americans, Brazilians, Colombians, Germans, Israelis, Koreans, Nicaraguans, and Panamanians remained in custody while the rest were released around 4 a.m. At least ten cars were seized in the raids.
“The objective of the operation was to return security to the citizens and minimize crime,” said Captain José Domingo Cruz, Regional Director for Guanacaste’s Fuerza Pública, or uniformed police.
“(It) was to search for illicit drugs, carry out immigration control, and disband delinquents dedicated to stealing from vehicles, homes, and commercial properties.
“A specialized and well-trained group on motorcycles was in various strategic points, maintaining communication to avoid vehicles or people fleeing through the Los Jobos road.”
Los Jobos is a secondary route out of Tamarindo.
The raids involved an array of police including a special immigration unit, uniformed police, a motorized unit, dogs, transit police and members of the Unidad de Intervención Policial (UIP).
At least seven firearms were confiscated and seven people apprehended with illicit substances including marijuana and crack cocaine. Transit Police decommissioned 17 vehicles being used for illegal taxi services.
Cruz confirmed a group of Nicaraguans without documentation were taken from Tamarindo directly to the Peñas Blancas border crossing that night.
In similar operations in Fildelfia and Belén, another 120 immigrants were detained — the majority of them melon farm workers — of which 77 remained in custody.
Additional raids were carried out in Villareal and Playas del Coco and, according to the Ministry of Security, a total of 115 officers took part over the weekend.
“I was just dancing and I saw cops coming up the stairs,” said Roxanne Stevens, a Belgian tourist visiting her brother in Tamarindo. “A lot of cops came in and they started asking everyone for passports.
“They were put on a bus. There were two buses. I didn’t know what they’d done wrong.”
Italian expatriate Fillippo Mazzocca was detained for four hours with a friend after they passed a Tamarindo road block without proper identification. At 4 a.m., they were let go.
He was not upset, he said, but overheard many tourists who said they were.
“They stopped the whole town,” he said. “They stopped all the cars. They asked the names of everyone who didn’t have a passport…I just wanted to go dancing with my girlfriend.
“But they have to do this,” he added. “It is their job.”
Matt McPheely, who recently relocated from South Carolina, was in a Tamarindo night club when the police entered.
“It was blocked off from both ends,” he said. “Traffic was stopped and they were checking documents. We saw a bus that looked full of mostly Nicaraguans although there were some Americans.
“I think it’s twofold,” he said. “On the one side you’re glad they have police and they are doing something. I just think it’s a little misguided, coming one night to a place full mostly of American tourists…but I guess it’s better than nothing.”
Yet police strongly defended their position, saying operations like these are critical to the long-term welfare of coastal tourism.
“This [operation] is far from sending tourists away,” said Cruz. “These actions are sending us directly on a path of providing greater security.”
Francisco Castaing, Chief of Immigration Police, said it is vital that hotels and tourist establishments tell their guests they must carry proper documentation at all times. If passports are photocopied, the page with the date of entry stamp must be included.
“We are making a vehement call to all the tourist businesses, hotels, and tourist transports,” said Chief Castaing. “It is for them to indicate to their guests and clients they always must carry their identification and trip documents. If not the originals, at least a copy that shows the stamps.
“Tourists told us that in the hotels they never tell them these things.”
Cruz said that in raids like this, everyone must be given equal treatment. The police chief said tourists must understand the controls are done for their own benefit and they must be checked along with everyone else.
Federico Amador, Executive Director of the Asociación Pro Mejoras de Playa Tamarindo (Tamarindo Association), pointed out the raids were part of a national effort not just on the coast. He said that, despite the inconvenience, it is necessary for the security of the region.
“It hurts a little bit the tourists who visit us but in the end I think it will help us because it will make Tamarindo a safer place,” said Amador. “We are well-known for being a peaceful country, you never see police walking around. But I think the majority will agree it will be a positive change.”
The raids follow what officials say are increases in crime in key towns. Nineteen robberies were reported in Tamarindo in January, and 14 in Playas del Coco. Last month, two of Tamarindo’s on-duty uniformed police were held up at gunpoint and robbed of their weapons.
“In Belén we detained a Salvadoran man who is currently under investigation for suspected involvement with the Salvadoran maras (gangs),” said Cruz.
Chief Castaing agreed, adding it was important to prevent these groups — often recognized by tattoos with spider webs, pictures of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the number 18, and the letters MS — from entering Costa Rica.
“This is now the fifth we have captured in our country in our history,” the immigrations chief said. “This year we have detained three. The first was in Peñas Blancas, the second in Filadelfia.
“It is worrying,” he continued. “In Central America they are becoming established in every country, just like in Guatemala and Los Angeles. With interventions like this, Costa Rica sends a message that there will be zero tolerance for these violent criminal organizations.”
Cruz, who assumed charge just last Friday, said he expects these types of operations to continue, at least for the time being.
“We are returning security to the population,” he said. “(This) results in a more stable climate, which favors economic and recreational activities like tourism.”
This article was originally published in The Beach Times newspaper. Guanacaste, Costa Rica. Photo with permission from Pixabay.