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 Manny Pinto
   
 
Gandoca-Manzanillo Reserve
   
 
Puerto 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 handle it.

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 Puerto Viejo.
 “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 rebuilding.”

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 they occur,

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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