Costa Rica Officials Work to Stop Escazú Home Invasions

Written by:
C Costigan
Published on:
Home Invasion

Escazú is home to a few hundred online gambling operators based in the Web haven of Costa Rica.  As such, it is no surprise that their wealth and extravagant life styles would make them targets of criminal activity in a poor nation that is surrounded by instability. 

Over the past couple of decades Escazú has become an expatriate enclave: several embassies have their residences located here, including the residence of the US Ambassador and the British Ambassador. The past few years have seen a significant influx of newly arrived foreigners from North America, South America and Europe, many of which are online sportsbook and casino operators. It is home to many bars and restaurants, especially those of the more chic (and expensive) variety, some of which are or have been owned by these very same casino operators. Rents and prices reflect this and Escazú is the most well-known upscale location in Costa Rica.

Many locations in the canton are prized for their scenic outlooks. This zone is one of the most developed parts in the metropolitan area, populated by families with high incomes and many apartment blocks and residential areas.

But Elise Sonray of AM Costa Rica reports that armed bands have had their way in the high class neighborhoods of Escazú. From fake flower deliveries to the use of rental cars that match the vehicle of the actual homeowner, the groups are more organized and advanced than ever, said officials Wednesday.

"The area draws a lot of attention because of the types of houses here," Ronny Sánchez Villegas, the director of the Fuerza Pública in Escazú, told the online newspaper. House robberies and thefts are the top crime in the area, said Sánchez. The majority of those houses belong to Americans and other foreigners, said the police director.

Over the years, in fact, online sportsbook operators and their employees have been the target of armed robberies, attempted rapes, attempted kidnappings and even shootings.  It was just two years ago that a Gambling911.com associate was robbed at gun point, stripped naked and nearly raped by a gang of armed thugs who chased him though the streets just outside of Escazú where he was staying with a friend.  Eventually the naked bloodied victim was rescued by a taxi driver who found him laying in a sewer.

The now jailed founder of defunct BetonSports.com, Gary Kaplan, once employed seven bodyguards to protect his sprawling gated home in Escazú.  A partner in another defunct operation, MVP Sportsbook, had his Sports Utility Vehicle shot up while en route to his Escazú neighborhood just a few blocks from his home.

Sonray reports that, in a typical home invasion, a gang of armed robbers break through the gates and hold occupants at gunpoint or pounce when a homeowner opens a garage door or gate to park a vehicle. Some invasions have been violent, and one nearby at the home of a former presidential candidate in March 2007 led to the death of two innocent persons.

With 10 officers per shift to cover a zone of 35 square kilometers (13.5 square miles), his staff is not enough to keep up, said Sánchez.

Just two months ago the Fuerza Pública and the Judicial Investigation Organization paired up to fight the robberies in Trejos Montealegre. Since then, crime has gone down some, said Sánchez, but the bands are still on the loose, he said. A number of diplomats live there.

Tuesday night a man in Escazú reported that he heard a knock at the door and, when he open it, he was attacked by at least six gunmen wearing ski masks. Among the things stolen was a .38 caliber revolver, said Sánchez. The victim, Raúl Balio, lives in a large house in La Carmén de Bebedero, Escazú, said Sánchez.

The criminal analysis unit of the Judicial Investigation Organization conducted a study last year categorizing house robberies and thefts by area, mode of operation, time of day, and day of the week, said the judicial director of the Sección de Asaltos. The most prominent areas of house burglaries and robberies included Trejos Montealegre, Santa Ana, Rohrmoser, and Curridabat, said the director, Manuel Brenes Carillo.

The organization has since been working with the local Fuerza Pública to bring down the number of cases in each area, said Brenes. For the last month, officers have been patrolling the Trejos Montealegre area three times a day, said Sánchez. Other entities, including the U.S. Embassy, also maintain private patrols.

In one case, police found two scanning radios in an abandoned vehicle which they believe robbers used to listen in on to police communications, said Sánchez. "They can't use the radios to communicate. But they know what we're doing," said Sánchez. One band uses bulletproof vests, said Sánchez.

Sánchez said there are at least two prominent bands who come into Escazú solely with the purpose of busting into houses. Police believe that one group is from Alajuela and that one is from Pavas.

Many times they travel in two or three cars, said Sánchez.

At least one of the bands rents cars similar to the car owned by the homeowner so the subdivision security guard does not suspect anything, said Sánchez. "They rent luxury vehicles so they don't stand out in the neighborhoods. They can disappear," said Brenes.

As is the case with most criminal activities in the Central American enclave, Costa Rican officials will typically point the finger at neighboring countries without seriously addressing the concerns over child abandonment due mostly to parental drug use that is most prevalent just outside of Escazú.  Police say there are at least two groups of Colombians, one of which invaded the house in Bebedero Tuesday.

Police are encouraging the creation and use of neighborhood watch programs, said Sánchez. Three streets in Trejos Montealegre are participating so far, although some areas have not been cooperative, said the police director.


Christopher Costigan, Gambling911.com Publisher CCostigan@CostiganMedia.com

Originally published July17, 2008 9:57 am EST

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