Costa Rica’s escalating homicides

The urgent call for unified action against drug trafficking.

Costa Rica is facing an alarming surge in homicides, surpassing last year’s record total with 630 cases reported as of September 25, according to government data. The country’s homicide rate, estimated to reach over 900 by the end of 2023, could climb to 17 per 100,000, up from 11.4 in 2021. Drug trafficking and organised crime are major contributors to the rising violence, with criminal groups competing for territory.   

Costa Rica has historically been a transit point for Colombian cocaine heading to the United States and Europe. Seizures spiked by 56% in 2020 and remained high in 2021 but dropped by 46% in 2022. Traffickers have shifted operations away from authorities and the country’s primary cocaine port, Moín in Limón province, targeting other ports and potentially contributing to the “worrying decrease in drug seizures.” According to former minister of communication, “In 2021 more than 30 tonnes were seized and this year until August only 12 tonnes.”

The Costa Rican government has implemented several measures and received financial assistance from the US to counter the surge in drug trafficking and homicides. “The use of Costa Rican territory to store and transport drugs to the US has increased,” highlighted former Costa Rican Ambassador. In May, the legislature extended pretrial detention periods as part of anti-organised crime reforms. Additionally, Operation Sovereignty was launched in July in Moín, with a promise to scan every container transiting through the port for drugs.  

The use of Costa Rican territory to store and transport drugs to the US has increased.

Former Ambassador, Costa Rica

However, the effectiveness of these measures is hindered by a lack of coordination among Costa Rican authorities. “For unclear reasons, the government decided to withdraw the Drug Control Police from borders and airports,” identified the former Minister of Communication. The absence of a long-term, coherent national security strategy exacerbates the coordination challenges. The former President Chinchilla led a unified approach through a national security council, which has been dismantled by successive governments, according to a former Vice Chancellor. 

“For unclear reasons, the government decided to withdraw the Drug Control Police from borders and airports.”

Former Minister of Communication, Costa Rica

The lack of formalised security plans in recent years means that each new presidential administration must start from scratch, according to former Public Security Minister Gustavo Mata, leading to inefficiencies. The former Vice Chancellor elaborated that without a plan “the Legislative Assembly and the Judiciary have had to establish the necessary programmes and laws on their own because the executive branch has shown great incapacity or lack of interest in the issue, more due to the President’s lack of knowledge than any other intention.” That is before considering how criminal groups take advantage of low salaries to penetrate police forces. 

Costa Rica’s situation mirrors other Latin American and Caribbean countries experiencing a surge in violence due to increased drug trafficking. In Ecuador, homicides have spiked even more drastically as gangs vie for control of rising quantities of cocaine flowing into the country from Colombia. “We hope that Costa Rica does not follow the path of other Latin American countries,” asserted former Costa Rican Ambassador to Honduras. “My opinion that the country will be able to withstand this moment without experiencing the dramas of other neighbouring countries is based on institutional strength.”  

“We hope that Costa Rica does not follow the path of other Latin American countries.”

Costa Rican Ambassador to Honduras

Costa Rica is grappling with a concerning surge in homicides, with drug trafficking and organised crime driving the escalating violence. Despite government efforts and US financial aid, a lack of coordination among authorities hampers the effectiveness of anti-crime measures. The absence of a long-term national security strategy exacerbates the problem, leaving each new administration to start from scratch. Addressing poverty, improving education and establishing a comprehensive security plan are crucial. Failing to act decisively risks Costa Rica’s descent into further violence and instability, akin to other Latin American nations facing similar challenges.

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