Page last updated at 10:27 GMT, Tuesday, 7 June 2011 11:27 UK

Missing in Costa Rica - the Dixon family's nightmare

By Rajan Datar and Rosie Waites
BBC Fast Track

Michael Dixon
Michael Dixon vanished after leaving his hotel room in Tamarindo in 2009

The British government has updated its travel advice about Costa Rica to note that eight foreign nationals, including one British citizen, have gone missing in the last two years, with some in suspicious circumstances.

This follows a report by BBC World's Fast Track programme into the disappearance of British journalist Michael Dixon, who went missing while on holiday in Costa Rica two years ago, and an appeal from his family to the Foreign Secretary William Hague.

The Costa Rican authorities concluded that his disappearance was due to accidental death, but with no evidence to support this. Michael's family believe he was the victim of a violent crime.

Michael's brother David believes that if the official travel advice had contained a stronger warning two years ago, his brother may not have gone to Costa Rica.

The updated advice also warns tourists to beware of gang muggings and armed robberies in broad daylight.

The latest foreign tourists to vanish are a French couple, Gerard and Claude Dubois, who were travelling on Costa Rica's central Pacific coast in March. Their rented car was found abandoned south of Quepos, and their passports were found a few days later in a rubbish bin.

Foreigners Missing in Costa Rica
Gerard and Claude Dubois, French - April 2011 (Quepos)
Barbara Struncova, Czech (expat) - Dec 2010 (Tamarindo)
Austin Allen Hiers, American - Oct 2010 (Tamarindo)
Steve Edelson, American - Sept 2010 (Puerto Viejo)
Kim Paris, Canadian (expat) - Aug 2010 (Cóbano)
Roger Peter Biennvennu, American (expat) - July 2010 (Quebradas)
Kelly Robert Nutting, American (expat) - March 2010 (Golfito)
John Scibeck, American - Jan 2010 (Playa Portrero)
Herbert Langmaier and Horst Hauser, Austrian (expats) - Dec 2009 (Puerto Jiménez)
Michael Dixon, UK - October 2009 (Tamarindo)
David Gimelfarb, American - August 2009 (Rincon de Vieja)
Craig Snell, American (expat) - February 2009 (Ostional)
Brendan Dobbins, Australian - March 2005 (Tamarindo)
Source: The Missing Americans Project

The Lonely Planet travel guide describes Costa Rica as "a peaceful oasis in a tumultuous region", but in a new development, the Costa Rican Foreign Minister, Rene Castro, said that although the country's reputation as a safe haven is "still justified" there is "an increase in the violence of crime and an increasing amount of drugs seized".

He admitted that the Costa Rican police are "ill-equipped" to deal with cases of missing tourists, and added that he would "welcome the co-operation of the [British] police" in the Dixon case and would be "open to share whatever clues we have and will not hesitate in opening the door to specialists".

David Dixon said nobody wanted to take ownership of Michael's case, partly because his brother had been living and working in Belgium for 10 years but was a British citizen, and also because of a flaw in international protocol.

"We found some new clues and wanted to get the British police involved - but they said they couldn't get involved unless they received an official request from the Costa Rican police.

The Costa Rican authorities said they were welcome to come but refused to send an official letter inviting them to come over… We were stuck in between." He hopes that Mr Castro's invitation to the British police will help open a proper investigation.

'Wrong call'

Tamarindo, a small tourist town on the Pacific Ocean coast, was Michael's third port of call in Costa Rica.

The last confirmed sighting of him was walking out of the Villas Macondo hotel in Tamarindo on Monday 18th October - shortly after he had checked in.

Michael's family didn't find out he had gone missing until a week later, when Michael failed to show up for work in Brussels.

"We know that the UK Foreign Office was alerted three days after his disappearance but they decided not to inform us as people choose to go missing all the time," David recalls.

A missing person is not considered a victim in the way that a person who has been mugged or murdered is - they don't slot into the system
Matt Searle
Lucie Blackman Trust

"To us this was very irresponsible, seeing that all his belongings, his passport and credit card were still in his hotel room. When they were questioned about this later, they said it was the wrong call," he adds.

David thinks this delay critically impeded all progress in the subsequent attempts to find his brother.

"Who knows, we may have found him or found out what happened to him if we had known in time, these are the golden hours and days of a missing person's case."

Painful obstacles

Michael Dixon (second right) with his parents and brother David
We've always thought that the worst thing that could happen to anyone would be to lose a child - to lose a child and not know what has happened is even worse
Lynn and Hubert Dixon

Matt Searle, operations manager of the Lucie Blackman Trust, which assists families with missing relatives, says a common complaint is that there is no single global body able to coordinate a search for a missing person abroad.

"There are no global standards when you're dealing with a missing person overseas, and it's those first 24 hours that are crucial.

A missing person is not considered a victim in the way that a person who has been mugged or murdered is, a missing person is nothing, they don't slot into the system."

Mr Searle added that in some countries a missing foreigner isn't considered a high priority.

"Often local authorities don't like families displaying missing person posters, because it might damage tourism, and will take them down. That's on top of the language and time differences and red tape and lawyers' fees families face."

Foreign Office records, released to the BBC under the Freedom of Information Act, showed 242 Britons were missing abroad at the end of 2010. Many had disappeared years earlier and their cases remain unsolved.

Last sighting?

Michael Dixon was 33-years-old when he travelled to Costa Rica, and apparently enjoying life.

We've heard from quite a few witnesses that Michael was last seen in a bar surrounded by some people known to be troublemakers
David Dixon

David has produced t-shirts, released a record and turned to Facebook and Twitter in an effort to raise awareness and find out what happened to his brother.

"Not a day passes when I do not miss Michael - I will never stop looking for him," he said.

His parents, Lynn and Hubert Dixon, say that time has not helped to heal their pain. "One wonders what happened, did he suffer - one tries not to imagine...

We've always thought that the worst thing that could happen to anyone would be to lose a child - to lose a child and not know what has happened to him is even worse."

The Dixons refuse to accept the conclusion drawn by the Costa Rican authorities that Michael drowned in the sea on that fateful afternoon he left the hotel - they believe there may be a more sinister explanation.

"We think he's a victim of crime, we've heard from quite a few witnesses that Michael was seen on the night of his disappearance in a bar surrounded by some people who are known to be troublemakers in the local community," David said.

"Costa Rica is a beautiful country, there's a lot to see, but they have a huge problem of crime which they need to face up to and take ownership of."

Watch Fast Track on the BBC World News channel on Saturdays at 0330, 1330 and 1830 GMT or Sundays at 0630 GMT.

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