Nov 14, 2015

My First Bad Border Experience

After nearly nine years of living half-in and half-out of Panama, I finally decided to stay here permanently.  I returned from the states in mid-August and obtained legal residency.  I have a temporary Panamanian ID, valid for one year, and the permanent one arrives in the next few months. I've avoided excessive border hops because of my frequent trips to the states, but nevertheless have found myself making 1-2 runs a year to renew my 90-day driving privileges on a US drivers license. Once my permanent ID arrives, I will be able to apply for a Panamanian driver's license.

Yesterday, on day 88 of my return, I headed to Paso Canoas for what I was hoping would be the last exit and re-entry to update my driving privileges. With two days to spare, I stamped out of Panama as I always do, and walked over to Costa Rica to sign in at immigration there.   I noticed there were an unusually large number of people standing around the waiting area and along the side of the building, but attributed it to being November, which is a holiday month in Panama.  I remember thinking, "Wow, there are a lot of Panamanians leaving this weekend."  Then I noticed several policemen in the area, and black & yellow tape cordoning off the immediate area in front of immigration's entry and exit windows.  Figuring there must be some remodeling going on somewhere, I walked up to one of the policemen and asked where the entry had been moved to.  He instructed me to climb under the tape and walk up to the windows.

I approached an empty window and handed over my completed immigration form and passport to the waiting agent.  A very arrogant young man immediately demanded to see my airline ticket corroborating a flight from Costa Rica to the USA.  I provided him with a ticket from Panama City, Panama to the USA in December, right before Christmas.  He refused to accept it.  He stated he needed proof of my exit from Costa Rica, not from Panama.  I explained to him that I resided in Panama and planned on staying less than 24 hours in Costa Rica, as is customary for Costa Rican or Panamanian expats needing to update visas or driving privileges from either side of the border.  

My clarification was useless with this particular agent, and he advised me if I wanted to enter Costa Rica, I would have to purchase a $ 20 bus ticket from San Jose, Costa Rica (which is 8 hours from the border) to David, Panama.  I questioned the need for it, because in nine years of crossing back and forth, I've never had to provide this.  I explained again that I resided in Panama, had driven to the border, and would be returning in my private vehicle that was about 6 blocks away.   He insisted a bus ticket was required. I commented that I found this policy objectionable as it obviously benefited the Costa Rican bus company and took advantage of tourists who might want to just shop for a few hours.  (About a year ago, Costa Rica implemented a $7.00 exit tax for people crossing from Costa Rica into Panama, and everyone has had to just accept the imposition.  Panama has not levied any similar fees.)  

The agent informed me  I could not enter Costa Rica without it, so I left to buy the ticket.  About 20 minutes later,  I returned with the bus ticket.  The agent immediately called his supervisor and I was informed by her that I would not be allowed to enter Costa Rica because I had been rude to her agent and accused him of promoting the bus company's business interest.  I denied this and repeated exactly what I had said, but I might as well have spit in the wind.   I was told to go around the corner to enter a door on the side the building.  It opened into a small, windowless office with one desk and a side chair.  There were two Costa Rican immigration police with bullet proof vests standing by the desk.  I was instructed to come in and sit down.  One of the police officers held a typed NCR form in his hand.  I hesitated.  Visions of a Costa Rican interrogation and/or jail cell popped into my head, as ridiculous as that may seem.... They insisted I enter.  I entered but remained standing and asked if I was being detained or arrested.  They never answered, but then the two of them together directed me to leave with them.  I insisted they tell me where we were going first.  And I repeated my question about being detained.  One of the officers cracked a slight smile and responded that I wasn't being detained. The other one then explained that I was being sent back to Panama and they would accompany me because otherwise Panama wouldn't receive me.

So, for the next 6 blocks or so, I walked between two police officers in riot gear back to Panama immigration and was not given possession of my passport.  I was ushered into the back of the Panama immigration office (which thankfully had windows) and was again instructed to be seated.  No one spoke to me, but one of the officers handed my passport to a Panamanian immigration official who examined it for five minutes with a magnifying glass.  After viewing the multiple entry/exit visa, he requested my temporary ID and then examined it under the magnifying glass for another two minutes.  Eventually he stamped over the exit notation in the passport and I saw that they had annulled it.   I was  then allowed  to leave.  It was 7:30 pm and dark, so I headed to Hostal La Morenita and booked a room for the night.  The next morning I considered trying to cross the border again, but noticed my two escorts from the night before were inside the office and decided to give up and go home without updating my passport status.

What I subsequently learned sheds a lot of light on the rationale for my treatment at the border and probably explains why my innocent but irritated and ill-thought comment got me into the trouble it did.    A kind Panamanian whose ear I bent at the hostal advised me  next time to tell the border agent I plan to stay 3 days in Golfito and to speak English.   Apparently there is a big push to generate as much revenue as possible in Costa Rica from people who pass through the country.  Additionally, Costa Rica has their own little "Cuban Crisis" going on.  Because I'd been taking a respite from the local news for the last few weeks, I walked right into it clueless.  I will explain and elaborate in the next post.