The Bars that Divide us

The issue of security is fascinating me as I travel around Costa Rica. The foundation for our visit, is "the alternative way” of Costa Rica, a country that disbanded their military 71 years ago and now rely only on negotiations, the courts and their police force for safety and security of the country and the citizens. National security is one issue, but being on the ground here in Costa Rica, first in San José and then to Tortuegera and back, I’m noticing how people live and what that says about personal security and sociology.

While on the one hand it’s true that Costa Ricans spend much more time in the open air than we do, it’s also true that their homes feel much more cut off than ours. In San Jose there isn’t a building in residential areas without bars on the windows, bars on the doors, a fence and a gate, or a set of heavy metal shutters. Homes are close together, in San Jose, and you can tell the difference between them because the heavy iron bars are painted a different color, or change style.

It takes two keys and three locks to get into my houst family’s home: the first two locks only let me onto the patio, behind bars the likes of which I’ve only experienced in prison before. As we moved out of San José on Friday, the houses got a little bigger, a little further apart, but no less protected. The bars might be brighter, more of them painted than rusty—some of them even were shaped into designs mimicking a sun with rays emanating from its center, but they are still barred. Not until we reached homes that are spaced far apart and only accessible by boat did the bars fall away and the yards become un-walled.

The predominance of these bars raises lots of questions for me. How big is the police force, here in Costa Rica? I’ve seen a few officers, but have no concept of how they are in comparison to the U.S. What is the judicial and prison system like? Are crimes against property prosecuted? What makes people put walls around their homes and bars on their windows? Is this just how it’s always been? Do Costa Ricans ever even think about it? Does it bother them?

Costa Ricans rate extraordinarily high in measurements of life satisfaction, life expectancy, and education in comparison to other countries. They’re friendly, welcoming, and non-confrontational. Yet when my host mom stopped on the way home to ring the bell of a neighbor and buy cheese from her, the conversation happened through a barred gate which was only opened to hand out the cheese and eggs, too large to fit between the bars. I can’t imagine such a transattion taking place in the U.S.—if a vender treated me that way, rather than opening their gate, welcoming me inside, and chatting with me while they filled my order, I have to think I would feel very put-off and probably not come back. Yet here it seems to be working.

Some of us in the U.S. talk about wanting to reduce the military. We want to demilitarize the police, reduce their numbers, let communities police themselves. Some Americans hate the idea of the police patrolling their neighborhoods, arresting people they suspect of being up to no good. But I have to wonder how many Americans would be willing to trade? Our homes in America are open. Our yards might have a decorative fence, or one designed to keep an animal or a child safe from a road, but we don’t walk down streets lined with nothing but wrought iron bars.

The iconic America where people sit on their porches and chat with people passing by, where you can walk up to anyone’s house and knock on the door, where bars on the windows is a sign that you’ve accidentally entered into a dangerously crime-ridden neighborhood, is not something many of us would be willing to lose. Is losing openness and comfort with your neighbors a necessary consequence of such demilitarization and police reduction? Must it be? Are there places where the police do their job and nothing more and yet people live in close, comfortable community with one another? I don’t think I know the answer to this, but I’d like to.

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