Costa Ricans Feel More Secure as Crime Rates Drop, Say New Surveys

By Dialogo
April 15, 2013

SAN JOSÉ, Costa Rica — For the first time in three years, personal security no longer tops the list of concerns among Costa Rican citizens, according to new surveys conducted by Gallup and Unimer.
“We are now the first country in the region where insecurity is not the principal preoccupation of its citizens,” said Security Minister Mario Zamora in a March 12 press conference following the release of the Unimer poll. “This shows that the people are beginning to take note of our containment of crime.”
Zamora credited a more professional police force and better surveillance of Costa Rica’s borders for the encouraging numbers.
“These crime reduction indicators reaffirm the commitment we have to citizen security,” he said. “We are going to continue working with the authorities of various institutions, and we will not drop our guard.”
In recent years, Central America has seen huge increases in homicide and other violent crime. Even Costa Rica — which abolished its army in 1948 — has been unable to quell the drug-related violence that has spilled across its borders from neighboring Nicaragua and Panama.
Between 1997 and 2008, the number of Costa Ricans who were victims of violent crime doubled, according to the World Bank. And in 2007, said the Costa Rican Institute on Drugs (ICD), authorities seized seven times more cocaine than in 2005.
Unimer, Gallup polls reveal big drops in crime worries
Costa Rica’s spiraling crime rates spurred protests and left the country’s president, Laura Chinchilla, with a lower approval rating than any leader in the Western Hemisphere, according to an April 2012 survey conducted by Mexican pollster Consulta Mitofsky. The following month, Chinchilla told reporters “we’re advancing down the road of citizen safety [and] making Costa Rica a safe, prosperous and worthy home for all its citizens.”
One year later, those citizens seem to have taken notice.
According to Unimer’s latest poll, which surveyed 1,200 Costa Ricans, insecurity now ranks third among the country’s chief concerns after unemployment and the high cost of living. Only 18 percent of respondents claimed crime as their biggest worry — the lowest since 2009 when it was 48 percent. Gallup conducted a similar poll in January among 1,282 Costa Ricans, finding a 22 percent drop in the number of respondents who say crime is on the rise.
The sudden perception change is not unwarranted. While crime is still higher than it once was, Costa Rica has seen huge drops in violent crime. The nation’s Organization of Judicial Investigation [Organismo de Investigación Judicial] pegged the 2012 homicide rate at 8.9 per 100,000 inhabitants — a 1.4 percent fall from the 10.3 per 100,000 murders reported in 2011.
Assaults also decreased 13.4 percent between 2011 and 2012, while thefts fell between 10.6 and 15.5 percent depending on type, said the OIJ.
Police are also more vigilant in monitoring the drug trade. So far this year, Costa Rica has confiscated more drugs than any other country in Central America. In 2012, cocaine seizures doubled from the year before and were triple the amount of drugs confiscated in 2010.
Border security beefed up to keep drug dealers out
The Security Ministry credits the strengthening of its security policies and the launch of several new programs for the drop in crime.
With financial support from the United States and China, Costa Rica has revamped its police academy, raised the minimum salary for police officers and changed its curriculum to include more specialized training. The academy has also opened a new 35-hectare training ground in Guápiles, just outside of San José.
Border security also saw improvements in 2012 with the modernization of the Peñas Blancas border crossing between Costa Rica and Panama. The $1.3 million renovation included securing the neutral zone between border stations, the installation of new technology to detect criminals and the hiring of more border police.
Border patrols play an important role in Chinchilla’s new security strategy, since a growing number of those arrested for drug-related crime in Costa Rica are foreigners. In 2010, said the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 44 percent of such arrests involved Nicaraguans, Mexicans and other non-Costa Ricans.
“Much of the crime we have here in Costa Rica unfortunately comes from outside of our borders,” Zamora said. “It’s harder to track, and we need to keep criminals out.”
SIMEP helps Costa Rican police track petty crime
The Security Ministry made changes to interior security as well in 2012, launching a complete overhaul of the police patrolling system in December. The computer-based SIMEP program — an adaptation of the CompStat system used in the United States — will allow police stations throughout Costa Rica to map and track local crimes such as theft and assault.
“The short-term goal here is small-time local crime,” Security Vice Minister Walter Navarro recently told reporters. “Long-term, we want this lead to a reduction in organized crime in the whole country.”
Chinchilla, who’s called security her “favorite issue,” lauded Costa Rica’s presidency of the Inter-American Drug Control Commission [Comisión Interamericana para el Control del Abuso de Drogas, or CICAD] as an international acknowledgement of the nation’s newfound commitment to fighting drugs within its borders.
Yet Chinchilla still seems hesitant to celebrate any sort of victory over crime, pointing to the danger that still exists across Central America.
“The fact is that our circumstances haven’t changed,” she said in a recent speech. “It is more evident than ever that organized crime is winning the war in this region.”