A lot of people ask me if Costa Rica is a safe country to visit. I tell them that while there’s plenty of petty crime, unless they’re wearing a Hawaiian-style “Pura Vida” shirt and a fanny pack downtown at 2 am, they shouldn’t have any problems.
The country is hardly known for violence, but once in awhile, a crime is committed that shocks the entire nation and captures the public’s attention for months. Here are three of the most notorious.
The Brother’s Fund – $500m Ponzi Scheme
By now almost everyone knows about Bernie Madoff, but how many have heard of the Villalobos brothers?
Investors Enrique and Oswaldo Villalobos are legendary in Costa Rica. When I first arrived in 2003, it seemed like almost every expat I met had been scammed or knew someone who had been taken by the two financial gurus.
Through what they called “The Brothers Fund,” they defrauded 6,400 American and Canadian investors out of around half a billion dollars, making it one of the biggest Ponzi schemes of all time.
What was the secret to their success? Greed and religion.
For 20 years, they paid clients up to 3.5 percent interest in cash, per month – an astonishing return. Investors joined by invitation only, and once they ponied up a minimum of $10,000, they could kick back, sip on margaritas and take home a whopping 42 percent return a year.
The fact that Enrique seemed to be a devout catholic wasn’t bad for business either. He supported a local church and was even known to administer communion to some investors – someone so religious couldn’t possibly be crooked, right?
So what did they invest in? Well, nobody really knew, nor cared for that matter. As long as the money kept coming in, no one asked too many questions.
That is, until the Canadian Police started investigating a Canadian drug gang they suspected of laundering millions of dollars through The Brother’s operation.
That’s when the shit hit the fan. All of a sudden the Costa Rican government stepped in, claiming that they themselves had been conducting their own two year investigation and froze The Brother’s 30 bank accounts. “Hey guys, don’t worry, we got this!”
Unfortunately for investors, during the investigation only $7 million was recovered – the rest is still unaccounted for.
Oswaldo was arrested by police but old Enrique was smart enough to get his ass out of the country. I mean what’s the point of having hundreds of millions in stolen cash if you don’t have a James Bond-style escape plan ready just in case?
Some claim Enrique has ties to the CIA and others still believe that the god-fearing investor will make a glorious return with their money. But for the time being, one thing remains clear – both he, and the money have vanished.
The Psychopath – Costa Rica’s First Serial Killer
The Psychopath was Costa Rica’s first documented serial killer. He terrorized the area between Cartago, Curridabat and Desamparados from 1986 to 1996 killing a total of 19 people – that we know about.
He preyed mostly on couples parked in secluded areas and always used the same weapon – an M-3 machine gun. You know, basically serial killing 101. But apparently, killing two at a time just wasn’t doing it for him anymore, so he decided to take it up a notch. His most heinous crime was the massacre of six school girls and their teacher who were on a trip in the town of Alajuelita.
Despite a massive manhunt and help from the FBI, The Psychopath was never caught. What’s even more shocking is that according to Costa Rican law, if he were arrested today, he could not even be prosecuted due to the fact that the statute of limitations on the murders has expired.
Theories abound as to the identity of the killer. Some believe he was a member of the police force due to his weapon of choice – a gun which had once been standard issue. Others think that he was a Nicaraguan guerrilla with mommy issues. One widely believed theory is that the killer was a member of Costa Rica’s wealthy elite and escaped arrest through family connections. For now, he seems to have gotten away with it – his last murder was in 1996 and he hasn’t been heard from since.
The Monster of the Basilica – Million Dollar Jewelry Heist
Costa Ricans are well-known for their peaceful and friendly nature – that is, as long as you don’t screw with their patron saint, the Virgin of Los Angeles.
That friendly disposition turned into country-wide rage one night in 1950 when gunmen broke into the Basilica of Los Angeles church in Cartago, killed the night watchman and stole millions of dollars worth of jewels adorning La Negrita, the cherished statue which represents the Virgin Mary.
While the crime in itself was shocking, what would happen in it’s aftermath is absolutely astonishing.
In the days following the robbery, the country was virtually under siege according to a contemporary Panamanian newspaper. The police were running amok, kicking down doors while citizens formed lynch mobs demanding blood.
It was at this moment that the story of perhaps the unluckiest person in the history of Costa Rica began – or better yet, continued.
José León Sánchez was screwed right from birth. His mother was a prostitute in a dirt poor town who sold her children because she had no money to support them.
But José was born very sick, and no one was interested in buying a baby who was “as yellow as an egg yolk.” The desperate mother tried trading him to a man for a bag of salt (that’s right, salt), but when they couldn’t reach an agreement, she simply gave him the child and went on her way. After being taken to the hospital, José was sent to a rough orphanage from which he later escaped at the age of 10.
Soon after the Basilica robbery, José’s father-in-law, who must have been a huge dick, went to the police and told them that José had tried to give him a horde of jewels which he had recently stolen.
The problem was, it was all made up. But the police, who were desperate for a suspect, latched onto the accusation faster than you can say WMD’s in Iraq. Poor José was taken in and tortured until he signed a false confession, which was drawn up for him by the authorities on break from sticking lit matches in his ear and pulling his teeth out.
He became known as the Monster of the Basilica – the most hated man in Costa Rica. So despised was he, that all of the lawyers in the country signed a pledge to accept any punishment before they would represent him.
Naturally, he was given a life sentence and thrown into a dungeon inside the notorious slave-labor prison on the Island of San Lucas (like a third world Alcatraz, but really hot), where he was only allowed to see sunlight for one hour a day. After several escape attempts and taking a bullet near the heart, he was transferred to a maximum security prison in the capital (which is now a children’s museum).
Here, he learns to read and write and begins work on what would later become the iconic masterpiece La Isla de Los Hombres Solos (The Island of Lonely Men), based on his time at San Lucas. He then goes on to win several literary prizes with poems and short stories. Whats more, in jail, he creates the first prison newspaper, founds a library, a blood bank and writes the first educational text for inmates himself.
After serving 30 years for a crime that he didn’t commit, he was released and declared innocent by the government. The Catholic church, for the first time in the country’s history, actually gave him an official apology.
He later moved to Mexico where he wrote his seminal work Tenochtitlan, amongst many others, which have sold millions of copies all over the world and been made into successful films. Today he is recognized as the most well-known Costa Rican writer in history and lives in his house in Heredia.