SAN JOSE — Costa Rica, known for its friendly people, beautiful scenery and low crime rates, has cultivated its reputation as the “Switzerland of Central America” since abolishing its army in 1948.
But the past five years haven’t been so rosy for this country of 4.6 million. From 2006 to 2011, the homicide rate jumped from 7 per 100,000 inhabitants to more than 11 per 100,000, and security -- traditionally a second or third-tier national concern – has become a national obsession.
“Deeming something a crisis is always relative to your situation,” Public Security Minister Mario Zamora told reporters in December. “We still have the lowest homicide rate in the region, which is something other countries envy. But for us, the annual increases in homicides are obviously a cause for concern. If we don’t take the correct measures right now to stop national crime, all we’ve worked to establish over the last several decades could be erased very quickly.”
It’s no secret that Central America is under siege. Honduras has earned the notorious title of “murder capital of the world,” with 82 homicides per 100,000 citizens, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). El Salvador and Guatemala are also reeling from incessant violence and murders.
The continued expansion of international drug gangs, corruption and arms and narcotics trafficking are blistering the northern triangle of Central America -- resulting in diminished foreign investment, tourism and even the removal of U.S. Peace Corps volunteers in early January.
Costa Rica is monitoring its northern neighbors with a careful eye. With the entire region serving as a corridor between North and South America, drugs being moved between shipping and destination points are traveling through the heart of Central America by land, air and sea.
The challenge for Costa Rica’s Ministry of Public Security and President Laura Chinchilla’s administration in 2012 is to prevent the country from sliding further away from its long-standing history of calm. Costa Rica finds itself at a tipping point. In 2011, drug and arms seizures reached all-time highs, and the year before, murders with weapons hit record highs, as did the number of total crimes reported.
The world is beginning to take notice of Costa Rica’s strife. In early January, The Global Peace Index, an annual ranking authored by The Economist Group’s Institute for Economics and Peace, dropped Costa Rica five spots from 26th to 31st place.
Of the 153 countries ranked, Costa Rica was still one the most peaceful in Latin America, trailing only Uruguay, but the fall in ranking was attributed to increased violence and corruption.
“We fell a few positions in the rankings due to diminished citizen security, which is accurate,” said Foreign Minister Enrique Castillo. “We know that this is something that is threatening the perception of Costa Rica at home and abroad.”
For every problem, a solution
To thwart escalating crime rates, Costa Rica’s security strategy for 2012 is very simple: for every problem, counter it with an immediate remedy. The country spent much of 2011 preparing to combat crime in 2012, which Chinchilla claimed would be “the year of citizen security.”
Costa Rica’s security deficiencies were repeatedly exploited last year. The top concern was police response-time, which Zamora himself deemed “far too slow to adequately service the citizens of the country.” In September 2011, Zamora said Costa Rican security desperately needed more funds, more vehicles, and more police officers.
Four months later, all of those requests have been answered. Last year, Costa Rica only had 276 police vehicles in the entire country. To generate more funds for more vehicles, Chinchilla last August proposed a $300 annual tax on all national businesses. Of the $100 million or more expected to be collected by the tax, at least $72 million would go towards security and the purchase of police vehicles.
After the proposal stalled in Congress in October, the Legislative Assembly united to pass the tax on Dec. 23. The new law will now go into effect in March, meaning that perhaps as soon as April, Costa Rican security forces will have an estimated $70 million more for security purposes.
“This is a huge step for the security of the citizens of this country, and we are ecstatic that the Legislative Assembly elected to pass such an important law,” said Carlos Benavides, the minister to the presidency. “The Public Security Ministry will now have much more funding to contribute towards improving the lives of the Costa Rican people.”
Expanding the security budget
The country’s commitment to security was further evidenced in late November, when the national budgetary committee of Congress cut funding from several other national sectors though it gave the Security Ministry an additional $34.6 million to work with in 2012, an 11 percent budget increase from 2011.
Of that funding, nearly 8 percent will be used to fund police administration, while the remaining 92 percent will be spent on improving police capabilities and training. An estimated 80 percent of the overall budget will go to the National Police, and the additional 20 percent will be shared by the Drug Control Police, the National Police Academy, the Costa Rican Coast Guard and the National Air Patrol.
As for police numbers, two classes of nearly 400 police officers graduated from the Police Academy in December and January. With better resources, more automobiles and more investment to improve the capabilities of the National Police forces, Zamora said the officer turnover rate - which has at times been as high as 1-to-1 - has tapered off in recent months.
“For every 300 police that entered into the force every six months, an estimated 50 officers left the job each month. We were losing as many police as we were hiring. The primary reason for this was that they were given insufficient equipment to do their jobs,” Zamora said. “Now with more funds and more vehicles, we are already seeing that number drop.”
In 2012, it is estimated that 400 to 450 police vehicles and 1,500 officers will be added to the National Police forces.
Putting out fires
The new year started off looking much like 2011. On Jan. 2, a prison riot at the country’s lone maximum security prison, La Reforma penitentiary near San José, left two prisoners dead and several others injured. The riot started when 800 prisoners from the 1B cell block began fighting and the seven guards on duty were unable to control the melee. Upon a search of the cells later in the day, guards confiscated hundreds of knives and cellphones, as well as large amounts of marijuana and crack.
The riot rekindled calls for increased prison security, larger penitentiaries and above all, more funding for the justice system. In May 2011, Justice Minister Hernando París pleaded for more prison resources after an escape attempted resulted in the death of two prisoners and a guard at La Reforma. París warned that similar incidents would follow if guard numbers and prison space were not increased. By the end of 2011, no such help had arrived.
“We simply do not have the prison space to accommodate the increase in prisoners, nor do we have enough money to hire sufficient personnel to monitor national penitentiaries,” París said on Jan. 3. “National prisons are saturated and in danger of complete collapse. Similar incidents are certain to follow without financial assistance from the state.”
IDB to fund prison construction
But keeping trend with the quick responses in 2012, on Jan. 5, Zamora and París held a press conference to announce that members of the National Police would be deployed to penitentiaries to enhance prison security. Zamora’s announcement was followed by the government’s Jan. 16 approval of a $132 million loan from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) that will be used to create up to 1,000 more prison spaces, 500 prison security jobs, and improve the technological monitoring of inmates in national penitentiaries.
“I am very pleased with this news,” París said of the loan approval. “These are resources that are going to strengthen security in the prisons, create social reinsertion programs for prisoners and development community prevention programs to educate more Costa Rican youth about how to avoid crime and potential prison time.”
París added that the collaboration between Congress, national ministries and government are essential to reduce crime rates in 2012 and beyond.
“It will take all of us working together -- families, communities, police, the prison system, and the government -- to reduce crime levels before they get to a dangerous level,” París said. “It appears we are taking steps to implement that strategy.”