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
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)EditOIJ 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 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.
DIS is a state intelligence service, somewhat similar to the CIA 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.
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 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.
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-copsEdit
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)EditOn 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.