Thefts and robberies of U.S. passports here decline

Thefts and robberies of U.S. passports are on the decline, although the reason or reasons are hard to pinpoint.

The stolen passport trend, which gave Costa Rica a black eye, appears to have peaked in 2007 and has continued to decline since, according to Paul D. Birdsall, U.S. consul general in Costa Rica. It is to his office that U.S. citizens come to obtain a new passport when their passport is lost or stolen.

Birdsall said that 1,108 passports were reported stolen in 2010, down from the peak of 1,450 in 2007. That was when Costa Rica made international news as the country where the greatest number of U.S. passports were taken. The countries included those that hosted far more U.S. tourists.

The numbers might be a little bit soft because citizens reporting missing passports are asked what happened. Some are just not sure, Birdsall noted Friday. The figures he gave are just for passports that have been stolen or robbed and not all the passports reported lost or missing here.

The passports usually are taken as part of the theft or robbery of other belongings. The downward trend has continued into 2011 with 417 passports classified as stolen through May compared to 525 in 2010, according to embassy figures.

Why reported thefts and robberies have declined is a real puzzle with a number of possible factors. Birdsall said that he thought the Policia de Turismo, the special tourism police force, has had an impact. Most of the officers travel in pairs on bicycles in the areas with high tourist concentrations like the central Pacific beaches.

A favorite technique of crooks is to wait until a tourist is in the water swimming and then ransack belongings left on the beach. The presence of tourism police impedes these thefts.

The Instituto Costarricense de Turismo just agreed last week to allocate about $600,000 to the security ministry to double the size of the force to 312 officers. Mario Zamora, security minister, said that the special 5-year-old police force has been able to reduce by 40 percent crimes reported by tourists.

The passport statistics suggest a far lower cut in crime.

Crime statistics are not very accurate in Costa Rica except for major cases like murder and bank robberies where there is sure to be a report. U.S. passport thefts, on the other hand, are highly accurate because tourists cannot get back to the United States without some form of substitute. Each morning at the consulate entrance to the embassy on the Pavas boulevard U.S. theft and robbery victims can be found seeking a replacement.

Birdsall also noted that U.S. passports issued recently contain a computer chip and enhanced security measures that make creating a doctored document nearly impossible. However, he noted that illegal passport brokers can work to match the physical description of a crook to the selection of passports that have been obtained as the result of crimes. The big advantage, he noted, is that these passports can be used to enter countries other than the United States because most nations in the world give easy access to U.S. citizens.

Once a passport is reported as stolen or lost to consulate officials, an entry is made in a data base, and the document is useless for trying to enter the United States, he noted.

Birdsall also credited a better informed public for cutting the number of stolen or robbed passports. Most travelers now know that they cannot leave their street sense at the airport.

Even when taken, passports no longer seem to be highly valued by crooks. When an A.M. Costa Rica editor was robbed at knifepoint two years ago, a crook took the passport and then threw it into the gutter.

When someone got their hands on passports of a missing French couple this year in Quepos, the documents ended up in a trash container in Jacó. It may be that crooks have simply graduated to more lucrative enterprises.

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