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When we moved to Costa Rica a year and a half ago, the prison-like façades that faced the streets of San Jose appalled us. Steel security bars and razor tape are everywhere. We were delighted that our first house was safe enough in the middle of a large coffee plantation that it needed neither bars nor wire. The five big, not-that-friendly dogs and attentive longtime employees provided reliable security.

A move across the valley to a suburb closer to the city gave us a new perspective on security. With a small and underpaid police force and equally small consequences for getting caught thieving, the locals believe in prevention.

Our house is surrounded by an 8-foot brick wall. On top of the wall is a four-foot iron fence. We have a monitored alarm with door and window triggers and motion detectors. The doors are double bolted and have iron gates in front of them. Bars cover every window. The electric garage door is padlocked at night. There are three ferocious looking, but otherwise useless dogs living in the yard.

We feel pretty safe here. Despite the landlady’s sincere warning against never leaving the house empty, sometimes we have no choice.

“They’re watching you”, she said. I didn’t believe her.

“They will steal the light fixtures and the toilets,” she said. Once again I was incredulous. Is there really a black market in hot toilets? We’re talking low value density here. But what do I know about it?

The house has an impressive view of the valley. When we first arrived we were glad there was no razor wire atop the fence to mar the view and complete the prison-yard chic that begins with the walls and bars.

It’s funny how the simplest incident can change your notion of what looks good.

My wife and the boys were traveling. I was in the house alone for a week. Now and then I had to leave it empty. On one of those occasions someone tried to break in. The landlady was right, they are watching. Chico didn’t make it into the house, just the yard. Apparently I scared him away without seeing him. He dropped his baseball cap in the mud, a red and black number with a Chevrolet logo on it. He left footprints on the wall next to the bars he was trying to bend apart. He had to have climbed the wall at one of the low spots. I decided I’d have to make that a lot harder.

Even if he had been successful at getting in the house, I thought comfortingly, he never would have got the toilet out through the gap in the bars. He would have set off the motion detector alarms. The alarm guys would have been here in 10 minutes.

No matter. I was going to defend my space, not my toilet. Suddenly razor tape didn’t look so ugly.

Its predecessors have had many names, barbed wire, thorn wire, and the devil’s rope among them. Inventor Joe Glidden came up with a workable model in 1874. He won the patent battle in 1887. Soon after in San Antonio, Texas, “Bet a Million” Gates showed how effective it was in containing wild cattle. “Bet a Million’s” marketing skills and promotional ability triumphed over the open range opposition and he made millions. Attitudes toward barbed wire had to be changed then too, just like mine was here in Central America. Some blood flowed in the Fence Cutter Wars, but attitudes did indeed change.

Barbed wire ended the era of open range grazing in the Old West and changed the face of the land forever. Before the end of the 19th century it had become not only an agricultural tool but a weapon. It was the weapon I needed.

The French introduced barbed wire as a military obstacle in the 1880’s. By the end of WWI in 1918, entanglements of barbed wire had become famous death traps for many a hapless soldier. Barbed wire and its more modern offspring razor tape and concertina wire are now used throughout the world wherever there is a need to control meat with metal.

Control meat with metal was exactly what I wanted to do. It’s funny how footprints on the wall next to my desk so quickly extinguished any aesthetic objections I had to coils of razor wire.

We had three choices, electric wire, razor tape or concertina wire. Concertina takes its name from the accordion-like musical instrument. Coils of concertina wire form a double helix and open like the bellows of that instrument. It is the most effective obstacle, but costs almost three times as much as the simpler razor tape. Electric fence costs a little less than concertina but needs maintenance. We went with the least expensive, maintenance free choice, stainless steel razor tape.

Within a week it was installed. Two bucks a foot. More than the value of all the toilets in the house, but less than one laptop. It now twinkles cheerfully atop the four foot iron fence that itself stands atop the brick wall. I’m trying to remember what I thought was so ugly about it.