Corruption is a Latin American stereotype and Costa Rican headlines continuously announce the latest official caught taking bribes for anything from automotive safety inspections to construction contracts. Corruption impacts residents much more than tourists, but visitors may experience it in a few ways.
Do Not Pay Bribes
Check under any large shade tree near a minor intersection with a convenient roadside restaurant or bar along a popular tourist route and there’s a chance you’ll find a traffic cop collecting bribes. Fines for speeding, or even minor offenses like not carrying two reflective triangles now exceed $500 and roadside cash payments are sometimes suggested as an alternative.
We’ve been shaken down a few times and it’s still happening in 2020.
Two years ago a highway patrolman was arrested for allegedly using a modified breathalyzer that always read over the legal limit to extort thousands of dollars in bribes from innocent drivers. They cracked down on several other officers but within a few months things seemed back to business as usual.
Do not pay bribes. It’s illegal and you may be arrested, you may get the ticket even after paying (they still have quotas), and the only way we’ve ever found to get off completely free when stopped for something we didn’t do is insisting on a ticket. They’d rather let you go and collect cash from the next driver.
The other way travelers end up interacting with corrupt officials is if they are the victim of a crime. Frequently the police will refuse to make a report, sometimes simply because it creates work, but also because they want to keep crime stats down. If the police are initially reluctant you’ll have to decide for yourself how much of your vacation you want to waste badgering them into providing you with a report.
If you are a victim of a crime remember it’s illegal to bribe police or court officers to do their jobs. However it is legal to hire a private lawyer to prosecute the case and it’s often more effective than bribing the state prosecutor to actually work on the case.
Corruption in Tourism
The hotel and tour industry caters to people from the U.S., Canadians, and Europeans who get quite indignant about being ripped-off. There may be some rule bending, tax evasion and looking the other way but it’s usually to provide a more competitive price.
Rental car agencies sometimes push extra damage waivers and “insurance” so hard it may feel like extortion and we once had them try to charge us $200 for a car wash when we returned a vehicle with mud on it but generally they stay within the technical confines of the law.
Any Government Agency
Any government agency you deal with is a possible source. For example, we had a charge for a simple emergency room visit to the community hospital in Liberia padded to 20 times the legitimate cost with non-existent days of “intensive care.” The ICU was a small room with four plastic chairs and an IV drip hanging from a coat rack and it was only occupied for two hours not 2 days.
A big problem with these scams is that if you have an unpaid traffic fine or hospital bill you won’t be allowed to leave the country until you produce a credit card or cash. I really have no idea how the bureaucracy can be so fantastically inefficient in most ways but still get this sort of information to immigration infallibly.
Of course you can fight it but that means weeks, months or possibly years of wading through more bureaucracy and possibly a bunch of bribes to get anything done…