By Rommel Téllez
of the A.M. Costa Rica staff
Wearing phosphorescent green or orange vests and sometimes wielding wooden sticks for self-protection, an army of cuidacarros have taken streets and sidewalks all over San José and claimed possession over it.
They are also called Guachimanes, a very informal translation of the English word watchmen, and have attributed themselves the duty of car surveillance in exchange for spare coins or sometimes a flat fare.
Basically, at one point or another, every single person in Costa Rica has dealt with them whether it was giving them money, ignoring them or in the worst case scenario, suffering damage to their vehicles for not paying their fees.
So, is there a way to reclaim the city and its parking places and give them back to the people? Unlikely.
According to Ministerio de Trabajo, guachimanes are informal workers and as such, they are out of its jurisdiction. If there is no employer, it seems to not be the ministry’s business.
“We have set a special committee to study these cases, but as of now, we are not legally obligated to intervene in the cuidadacarros business.” said Geovany Diaz, spokesperson for Ministerio de Trabajo y Seguridad Social.
The same question was asked to Francisco Cordero, regional sub-director of the Fuerza Pública who said it is not a felony to take care of cars and demand money in the public spaces.
“People pay because they want, but they are not forced to.”said Cordero. He believes that there should be more private parking as a way to deal with the issue.
He also considers that organizers of mass events should provide enough parking spaces to their audiences to avoid the arrival of guachimanes.
“Unless there is a threat, there is nothing Fuerza Pública can do about it.” he said. The sub-director did mention that some cuidacarros have a vigilante privado work permit that allows these workers to do their business legally.
However, Marcelo Solano, the director of the Policía Municipal de San José, said those permits only apply to people who watch out for cars inside a private property.
He explains that sometimes people get confused when they see guachimanes wearing a badge, but that doesn’t mean they can take ownership of public spaces.
“If you ask me if we can do something about it well, no, we can’t stop this. But what we do is to take preventive measures to avoid some cuidacarros from carrying batons, knives and any object which they claim is used to safe-keep the cars but in reality are used to intimidate clients that do not pay,” he adds.
According to Solano, during regular patrolling, the Policía Municipal officers check guachimanes to make sure they don’t have weapons, drugs or are under the influence of alcohol, which may constitute a felony.
He also encourages people to call 911 immediately if they get into an argument with cuidacarros, since some of them have problems of substance abuse and therefore, may become aggressive.
Solano provided some statistics and he says there are at least 120 people in San José doing this job. An average of 3 per block.
“It’s also our fault. We got so used to pay some stranger to take care of our car that it has become a cultural problem. Look, sometimes a very well-known fast food restaurant and other private companies allow cuidacarros to work in their own parking lots. I would assume that’s easier than having a formal security guard watching out for the vehicles.” Solano said.
When asked about if the guachimanes are here to stay, he said it is a social issue rather than a police one.
Oscar Wilson watches over vehicles and enjoys a chat.
“These people are usually unemployed and uneducated, the market wouldn’t take them in. So the solution doesn’t come from the police, we can’t afford to have one officer per guachiman,” he said.
“Five or six years ago the municipality of Cartago tried to create a cooperative enterprise and provide cuidacarros with a more formal status. However the idea didn’t work because there were arguments among them. Again, what we should do is stop giving them money and provide them with jobs,” he added.
Solano’s perspective may be right, according to the story of Oscar Wilson, who’s been a cuidacarros for 24 years next to Casa Amarilla doing his work behind the looming Institución Nacional de Seguros building.
With nothing else than a minimum pension of $260 a month, the Puntarenas-born man sits 12 hours Monday through Friday at his wooden table and spends his days watching out for cars and motorcycles.
He makes a living by charging car drivers 1,000 colons for the whole day and 500 colons to motorcycles and scooters. He knows most of his customers because all of them work at Instituto Nacional de Seguros. He says they are also his friends and that’s why he offers his clients the possibility to pay on a weekly or daily basis.
“I would call the police or go to that cafeteria over there or I would ask for help from the security guards of Casa Amarilla. No, I would not engage in a fight if someone tries to break into a car. I’m 72-years old. They would kill me,” he said. Wilson also says that he is able to make up to 25,000 colons per day because that is a good area.
“Just one time two guys tried to steal my place and my job, but the guards at Casa Amarilla came to my help and made it clear that this is my zone. They also said that Casa Amarilla put me here, so the intruders left,” he said while greeting at least three people passing by.
“Well, this is my little job and if people don’t like it and don’t want to pay I don’t care. Some other one will come along and pay. That’s how I see it,” he explains as he keeps an eye on his turf where he already knows 21 cars and 19 motorcycles can fit in perfectly.