| Manny Pinto
Viejo, Costa Rica
Manuel Pinto on the pros and cons of
Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica
Costa Rica's southern Caribbean coastline, from Puerto Viejo
to Manzanillo, has long been popular with Europeans and North Americans,
whether they stay for a week or for decades. Manuel Pinto, a French-born
expat who runs Caribe
Sur Real Estate in Playa Chiquita, loves
his adopted home, but also clearly sees the problems here.
Pinto arrived in 2002 with his wife Emmanuelle and their three-year-old
daughter; they had a second daughter once in Costa Rica. Besides
selling real estate and managing property, Pinto has been deeply
involved with community policing initiatives and in efforts to
sort out the complications of land ownership in the area.
Dazzling and diverse
“This coastline is incredible,” says Pinto. “In
the Southern Caribbean we have an extremely unique eco-system,
where the jungle comes right up to the beach. The other thing that’s
unique about this place is the melting pot of different cultures,” with
Afro-Caribbean people, indigenous tribes like the BriBri and Cabecar,
the Chinese community in Limón, and the mestizos so
prevalent in the rest of Costa Rica.
“In the last 20 or 30 years a lot of foreigners have come,” Pinto
continues. “We have almost 55 different nationalities living here, and
everybody gets along. I mean we have small
town politics and gossip, of course.
But if you behave, and treat people well, you’ll be welcome.”
Partying and Living Clean
“You can do pretty much what you want here,” says
Pinto “If you want to be the world’s biggest partier,
there are plenty of drugs here, and good ones. Some people can’t
At the same time, if you want to be the world’s most healthy
person—organic food, yoga, meditation—this is a paradise
for that too.
Of Parks and Preserves and Beachfront Property
As a realtor Pinto
is well versed in the complications of property ownership in the
area. There are different laws governing the local indigenous territories
and the Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Reserve, and local
permutations of the country-wide Maritime Zone regulations, which
regulates what can be done within 200 meters of the high tide mark.
One example of the evolving story can be found in the town of
“It’s a mess,” said Pinto in late 2012. “For
maritime zone concessions to be legal, you have to have a zoning plan. There’s
been no zoning plan [in Puerto Viejo]. So they’ve been giving out permits—and
they’re not even permits, they’re kind of like these pieces of
paper that say, we recognize that you’re over there, and please pay us
under the table. It’s been a machine of corruption for the last 20 years.
Today, it’s catching up.
”Meanwhile, we have an entire town built on these practices.
If we were to follow the letter of the law, we would have to tear
down almost the entire village—everything built within 200
meters of the tide line. We’re faced with an unbelievable
situation: the mayor has been ordered to apply the law, tear all
that stuff down, then create a zoning plan, and then allow some
In late 2012 a two-year moratorium on that order was issued. “We’re
working on passing a law to recognize the structures that have
been legally built,” says Pinto. “To grandfather them
into the current law, and then put together a zoning plan. But
that has slowed down the sales of property in the maritime zone.
And here, in this coastal area, that’s a lot of the properties.”
Crime, Policing, and Social Media
The other ongoing problem in the area (and nationwide) is crime.
Nearly every foreign resident has his or her own story of being
burgled or held up. “There’s always been petty theft
here,” says Pinto, “but the use of weapons in relatively
new – guns, knives, machetes. The problem is, people can
commit crimes and usually get a away with it.”
Officially reporting crimes in the Puerto Viejo area has meant
heading inland to the prosecutor’s office in the town of
BriBri. That may change soon, with official reporting of crimes
soon allowed in Puerto Viejo. But wherever the reporting takes
place, many residents haven’t bothered to report crimes because
they feel the police don’t do anything.
And for those foreign residents whose living depends on tourists, “it’s
been taboo in this area to talk about crime,” says Pinto. “People
think it’s bad for tourism.”
But a group of mostly foreign residents have been working hard
to remedy the situation. Efforts picked up in 2010, when the number
of incidents crested into what Pinto calls “a really bad
crime wave.” Small communities along the coast, like Pinto’s
hometown of Playa Chiquita, had already organized local responses,
like residents chipping in to pay private security guards to walk
to the beach. But it was clear that such programs were no more
than bandaids on gaping systemic wounds.
The first order of business, says Pinto, was to get the three
branches of law enforcement to work together. The Policia Nacional
are supposed to prevent crimes from happening. The Organismo de
Investigación Judicial (the OIJ) investigate crimes once
Spurred by the crime wave in 2010, Pinto and other concerned residents
did three things: “We got the local law enforcement agencies
to speak to each other. The OIJ, the Policia Nacional, and the
fiscal had not been working together. Today, they have meetings
every week or two to see what’s going on and what they need
to do. We forced them to work together.
In Fall 2012, Pinto told me, “The other piece was that no
one had any confidence in the system so no one talked. Most people
figured, if you get into trouble, that’s your bad luck. We
changed all that. We put together a web
site with a database to
let people report crimes—anonymously if they want to. Those
reports go directly to the police chief (of Talamanca region),
who is great. He’s very familiar with the social networks,
and he communicates with the town. Everybody has access to him,
and he answers immediately."
By April 2013, the reporting of incidents big and small had mostly
migrated to a closed Facebook group, Caribe
Mas Seguro. "We activated a genuine discussion
that continues to this da," says Pinto. "It makes everyone more
aware. And we’ve
helped catch criminals just by people posting online. Someone posts
about something and once the guy makes it down the coast, he’s
caught. We’ve really increased the community’s confidence—in
ourselves, and in the system. There’s now daily communication,
whereas before they weren’t. It’s mostly foreign residents—locals
have a more ingrained distrust of the system.
“We just got more police officers. Things are getting better.
“It’s about being on top of things. Because we are
at the far end of the country, there’s a tendency for the
system to slow down or fall apart. Our job as citizens is to watch
over them and make sure that the system works.”
Also see "Is Puerto Viejo Safe to Visit?"
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