Costa Rica has no millitary, and security is maintained by a series of police forces. The largest police force is operated by the Ministry of Public Safety, and is known as "Fuerza Pública". Other police and investigative forces are operated by the Judicial Branch of the government, the Ministry of Transportation, and Inmigration.
Police (Public Force)[edit | edit source]
The most widespread police force is known as "Fuerza Pública" or "Public Force". This is a civillian police force operated by the Ministry of Public Safety. Its officers wear a black or blue uniform, and sometimes bulletproof vests with the word "POLICIA" in large lettering. On the standard uniform, the words "FUERZA PUBLICA" are embroidered in yellow on the pocket.
You'll also see them using a shield which depicts a police officer and two kids. In recent months, the shield has been redone with stylized silver figures, but the original one is still used on cars and uniforms.
Police cars are white and say POLICIA in large blue or black letters. There are also police motorcycles, which are white or blue, dirtbike type, and have a blue light on the back.
Also operating under Fuerza Publica are several specialized groups. These will wear the same uniform but use different abbreviations on their bulletproof vests. For example GAO (used by operational support) and UIP (used by riot control).
OIJ (Judicial police)[edit | edit source]
OIJ is a special group operated by the judicial branch of the government. Its functions are more investigative than regular police work. OIJ usually works undercover on the street, or during search and seizure operations or warrant enforcement uses bulletproof vests and black t-shirts with the words "PODER JUDICIAL" or "O.I.J." in yellow lettering.
The simplicity of the uniform makes the OIJ appearance easy to forge. If someone identifies themselves as OIJ, you should immediately ask to see badge and credentials before going with them or complying with their requests. Undercover OIJ will usually not bother anyone, or make their presence known unless they see a crime that requires intervention.
In any case, you have the right to request that regular police (Fuerza Publica) be made present. If you refuse, your vehicle, home or possesions cannot be searched, even by OIJ, without a court order signed by a judge.
Transit police[edit | edit source]
Transit police are a group operated by the Ministry of Transportation, and work traffic duty exclusively. Their sole function is to control traffic and monitor traffic violations. They are not involved in regular police work, and cannot assume any functions that are competence of other police units. For example, they cannot search vehicles, homes, or demand to see migratory documents. If they see the need to arrest someone, they may immobilize and hold, but must turn them over immediately to regular police forces for processing.
Transit police use black and white uniforms, and their cars are blue and yellow. Motorcycles are white, highway patrol models with clear shields up front.
Just as transit police cannot perform regular police duties, regular police cannot perform traffic duties. If a regular police officer wants to take you in on a traffic violation, they cannot do it unless there's a traffic officer present to fill out the necessary paperwork.
Transit does not operate undercover. By law, they must be in uniform at all times, their cars or motorcycles in a visible location on the side of the road, and with lights on after dark. If you find anyone claiming to be undercover transit, or "volunteer transit", don't listen, or request a uniformed officer be called at once.
Ignoring transit police[edit | edit source]
There's currently a legal loophole that allows anyone to ignore transit police if they try to pull you over. Correct interpretation of what the law currently says, leads to the conclusion that it's not forbidden to ignore transit police if they try to pull you over and you haven't broken any laws. And even if they do get mad at you, there's no fine or punishment defined within the law for ignoring them, and therefore no consequences. The police can follow you, and force you to stop eventually, but at that point all they can do is check your license, registration and circulation permits... as long as you haven't broken any laws. If, for example, you ran a red light and that's why they're following you, you're getting fined when they manage to pull you over. Or (typical) if someone in the car isn't wearing their seat belt, it's a fine.
There's only 3 exceptions to this loophole: one is if you've broken the law, described above. Two is, if you ignored them at an intersection, in which case you broke the law because you ignored a transit device at the intersection (yeah, the police can be considered "transit devices"). And the third one is if you have someone under 18 in your car, in which case you can be processed for endangerment of minors.
In any case, we don't recommend ignoring transit police. There's too many "if-s" in that loophole. Also, you'll be putting yourself needlessly at risk during your getaway, and might end up causing an accident down the road. Just stop when they tell you to.
Municipal police[edit | edit source]
Some municipalities (i.e. San Jose) have their own police service. They work similar to Fuerza Publica, and have similar authority. Uniforms and vehicles vary, but will have the words "POLICIA MUNICIPAL" on them.
DIS (Intelligence)[edit | edit source]
DIS is a state intelligence service, somewhat similar to the FBI in the United States. Their work deals mainly with tracking and gathering information on persons of interest that might be in the country. Issues involving INTERPOL are also normally routed through DIS.
Officers belonging to DIS are not normally allowed to disclose their status, or make themselves visible. It's most likely that you won't see DIS anywhere, unless you're caught in the middle of something big, or get into trouble at airports or other points of entry. If someone appears on the street claiming to be DIS, be immediately suspicious and request regular police be called in to oversee.
Immigration service[edit | edit source]
Migratory police also operate in the country, they belong to the Direction of Immigration. They will not normally work alone, and will be accompanied by regular police. The usual drill is a bar or hotel will be cordoned by regular police, and immigration will be called in to check statuses. Foreigners in violation of migratory laws will be detained and turned over to regular police for arrest. After processing, they'll be sent to an immigration center, for deportation.
Coastguard[edit | edit source]
Coastguard vessels operate at the ports and around Cocos Island. They're the equivalent of Fuerza Publica on the water. Boats are normally white, with the red and blue striping, and say "GUARDACOSTAS" en large letters. There's only a few coastguard boats around, if you're sailing around you should have no real problem spotting them.
US Millitary[edit | edit source]
Ocasionally in ports and at sea, US millitary vessels and personnel can be found. These are normally joint operations targeted at intercepting maritime drug traffic. On land, US Millitary personnel and MPs have the equivalent of tourist status, and cannot perform any type of law enforcement. At sea, US ships may operate and intercept vessels only under supervision of costarrican authorities. In international waters, operations are much less regulated, and follow international law and treaties.
Private guards and rent-a-cops[edit | edit source]
Private security services exist in Costa Rica, and operate extensively throughout the country. You can find anything from guys with batons, to fully armed security forces carrying shotguns and assault rifles.
Their uniforms vary by company. They cannot use the word "police" on their uniforms or vehicles. They'll usually use words such as "SEGURIDAD" or "VIGILANCIA" to identify themselves.
Private guards work like any other normal business, and have no priviledges or authority outside the dwellings they protect. They cannot stop vehicles or search anyone. In the event of a crime, they can hold someone until regular police arrive, turning them over immediately. Private security companies cannot limit your basic rights, and if you're being held, you still have the right to communicate freely with whomever you might want to, as well as use phones or other devices to call for help.
Clandestine parking watchmen (Cuidacarros)[edit | edit source]
On any street that has good vehicle movement, you're bound to see these guys. They usually have nothing more than a reflective vest and maybe a flashlight, and direct vehicles in and out of parking spots.
They're known as "cuidacarros" or "guachimanes", and are simply a type of urban squatter, that takes it upon themselves to "watch" your car for you and charge you when you get back. Their trade is 100% clandestine: it's not authorized nor regulated. There's no law giving them the right to request a fee, and no obligation on your part to pay the fee.
The subject has been discussed off and on several times in the past few years, with no real progress. The police have no time to deal with these guys, municipalities have no interest in them, and the owners of establishments that they squat normally pay no attention and prefer someone else deals with them.
In the end, the best you can probably do is play along. In most cases you really have no other viable option that isn't time-consuming and, in the end, worthless. For short periods, maybe up to an hour, give them 200 or 300 colones. For more than an hour go up to 500. And for several hours, up to 1000. Some of them fix their own rates, which they'll give you stamped on a piece of cardboard. In these cases, pay attention to what it says, and if it's beyond what you're willing to pay, leave.
In downtown San Jose, remember you have the option of parking lots. Around the National Theater, for example, these guys will want to charge you as much as 2000 colones for parking. You can usually drive a block around the corner and find a parking lot, that goes for 600 to 800 an hour.