As Security Crisis Deepens, Costa Rica Struggles

This article by Sam Woolston and Beatriz Vicent Fernández originally appeared on InsightCrime and is being published by under a Creative Commons 3.0 license.

Authorities in Costa Rica have announced 10 policies to address the country’s worsening security crisis, but the reforms do not tackle budget shortfalls and underlying causes of crime.

Leaders of Costa Rica’s three branches of government met on January 30 to determine a course of action. If approved, the measures will include increasing prison sentences, expanding the scope for prosecutors to bring charges against minors, and giving authorities new powers to revoke citizenship from naturalized citizens convicted of drug-related crimes.

The announcement of the new measures came just days after a string of murders in Limón, a port city and drug-trafficking hotspot, left 14 dead, including a police officer.

Record homicide rates have recently drawn Costa Rica’s security situation into sharp focus. In 2023, homicide rates reached 17.2 homicides per 100,000 people, a 38% increase from 2022. Authorities say the increase is due to clashes between gangs fighting for control of drug trafficking routes.

Costa Ricans named “insecurity and crime” as the top concern in a November poll by the Political Studies Investigation Centre (CIEP). Of those surveyed, 69% said they had “little” or “no trust” in the government’s ability to tackle crime.

“(Costa Rica) has never experienced levels of violence like the levels today,” Manuel Garro Chacón, founder of the country’s municipal police, told InSight Crime.

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The latest proposals, which are primarily aimed at increasing penalties for criminals, fail to address the budget crisis hindering security institutions or the socioeconomic issues underpinning crime in Costa Rica.

In an interview with InSight Crime, Karen Jiménez Morales, Director of Police Sciences at the State University of Distance Education said that the solution to the crisis should not be “just about maximizing penalties.”

“We have a police force that is doing everything humanly possible with its resources. But on the other hand, there is a significant weakness in public policy, in the proper investment, in all these policies related to social welfare,” she added.

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The government first ramped up its response to the security crisis in April 2023 with the launch of the Costa Rica Segura plan, which called for 700 new police officers and an investment of 600 million colón ($1.2 million) in new patrol cars. Soon after, President Rodrigo Chaves brought in Mario Zamora, a tough-on-crime former minister, to return to his post as the Minister of Security.

But three months into Zamora’s term, cuts to the general police budget left the institution struggling to purchase even basic equipment, including boots and uniforms. Of 900 patrol cars, 200 were not working in August 2023, according to a report by El País.

While Garro Chacón hopes that Congress will approve the new measures, he said the package falls short of much-needed strategic reform.

“We cannot continue putting on patches,” he said.

The lack of funding for police forces has also created an environment ripe for institutional corruption, a problem that has increased alongside the spread of drug trafficking in the country.

Garro Chacón told InSight Crime that police officers’ salaries start at around $600 per month.

“If a drug trafficker then comes and says, I’ll give you $2,000 a month for information … we’re in bad shape,” he added.

The budget crisis has also impacted other areas of the government, which analysts say also contribute to the rise in crime. More than 21,000 students dropped out of school last year, according to data from the Ministry of Education, and youth unemployment stood at 31.9% in 2022, according to the World Bank

“This is the reality for many young people. Now we see videos of assassinations, and we see very young individuals committing these acts,” said Jiménez Morales. What the country really needs to reduce levels of violence, she said, is preventative measures to address drug addiction and unemployment, and investment in education.

This article by Sam Woolston and Beatriz Vicent Fernández originally appeared on InsightCrime and is being published by under a Creative Commons 3.0 license.