Costa Rica Keeps Youth Away from Crime

Programs combining prevention and enforcement complement police forces’ training to face the rising homicide rate.
George Rodriguez/Diálogo | 1 March 2018

Transnational Threats

A Costa Rican Coast Guard ship tows a boat that carried cocaine intercepted in Costa Rica’s southern Pacific zone. (Photo: Costa Rican Ministry of Public Security Press Office)

Costa Rica’s rising homicide rate sounded the alarm for the nation’s security authorities. In the 2016-2017 period, the rate increased from 11.8 to 12.1 per 100,000 residents, due in most parts to narcotrafficking activities involving the youth.

Costa Rican Drug Control Police agents conducted an operation to dismantle a five-person narcotrafficking structure in a sector of the capital city. (Photo: Costa Rican Ministry of Public Security Press Office)


“The 2017 rate is the highest in history, leaving us with a bleak outlook for the future,” said Michael Soto, head of the Plans and Operations Office at the Judicial Investigation Agency of Costa Rica (OIJ, in Spanish). “Forty-eight percent of these [criminal] cases are due to narcotraffickers settling scores.”


As a result, Costa Rica faces the prospect of registering an unprecedented level of crime in 2018. The nation’s security authorities anticipate the increase of local fights over territory among narcotrafficking structures, particularly in the areas in and around the capital, home to the largest outflow of cocaine smuggled northward through Central America.


“The penetration of large amounts of drugs coming in from countries to the south is going to increase the aggressiveness to corner the market,” Minister of Public Security Gustavo Mata told Diálogo. “The origins of these criminal structures have varied from groups that were at one time foreigners to the current networks made up of locals.” The higher volume of drugs trafficked adds to the challenge with increased and more aggressive nationwide competition.


“Previously, there were [just a few countries involved], but not anymore. We now have Costa Rican groups making up part of the structure to sell drugs here in Costa Rica,” Mata explained. “That leads to a rise in the homicide rate, mainly due to drug sale, turf wars, and efforts to dominate more of the market.”


Regional focus


According to Mata, the effort to promote joint enforcement against narcotrafficking among nations led him to propose the creation of the Southern Block (Bloque Sur), made up of Costa Rica, Colombia, Panama, and Ecuador. The nations all share maritime borders in the Pacific Ocean. The initiative, which also covers aspects of environmental security, materialized at the first meeting of the block’s environmental, defense, and security ministers, held in November 2017 in the Costa Rican capital of San José.


The seizure of 30 tons of cocaine in 2017 reflects the Costa Rican effort—an integrated joint effort between Costa Rica’s Public Force, National Coast Guard Service, Aerial Surveillance Service, and Drug Control Police, all entities of the Ministry of Public Security (MSP, in Spanish). These agencies are all responsible for national security, defense of sovereignty, and civil safety.


The country, initially a trafficking route for cocaine, became a storage location for routes to North America and Europe. Transnational structures gradually abandoned cash payments for local custody and shipment services and now make payments directly in the form of drugs.

As such, local commercialization of drugs becomes entrenched and grows. “This implies that organized groups may enter into a pitched battle over the drug market and sale,” Mata said.


Joint effort


On the first broad fight of 2017, MSP hired 1,500 agents who completed their training at the National Police School. The recruitment of at least 1,000 additional personnel—for which $8 million were earmarked—is scheduled for 2018. On January 7th, MSP reported the immediate incorporation of 319 new personnel in the police corps.


A Costa Rican Drug Control Police agent leads a detainee away in an operation conducted in the Paso Ancho district, on the outskirts of San José. (Photo: Costa Rican Ministry of Public Security Press Office)

Training and equipping the new members of the Public Force and other security services is a priority in the fight against organized crime. International cooperation—a framework in which the United States distinguishes itself—is an essential component.


In early 2018, the United States delivered two vessels donated to the Costa Rican National Coast Guard Service. “We already have 48 Coast Guard officers in Baltimore who are being trained on how to pilot these two vessels,” Mata said. “They’re coming back in April, crewing both ships.” During his visit, Mata also met with authorities from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency to coordinate their cooperation efforts.


In the fourth quarter of 2018, two Skytrooper aircraft that can carry up 12 people, as well as helicopters, will arrive in Costa Rica, all donated by the United States. Added to that is the purchase of a small-size King Air jet with cutting edge technology that includes radar for land and sea surveillance flights.


“In Costa Rica especially, we’ve made a significant effort in the fight against narcotrafficking,” Mata said. “Cocaine won't stop, but we can stop its consumption—and here lies the success of our struggle.”


Prevention efforts


The second front line in the Costa Rican battle against narcotrafficking is at primary and secondary schools, and in training programs for young people who come from blighted urban neighborhoods with high rates of violence. The goal is to reduce crime and drug use.


“The people involved in acts of violence, including homicides, are in the 15- to 25-year-old age group,” Mary Fullmen, Deputy Minister of Security for Costa Rica, told Diálogo. “That’s clear, and it’s been shown throughout this region and in this country that those who commit acts of violence are increasingly younger, most of whom are unemployed males with a low level of education. In the context of violence, they are both victims and victimizers.”


Two successful programs


The social environment in which at-risk youth grow up, which includes crime and street violence as well as volatile family situations, led MSP to promote two programs in partnership with various institutions. The programs, Learning for a Life without Violence and Together We Stand, reach nearly 400 people.


Learning for a Life without Violence, promoted in the coastal tourist towns of Quepos and Manuel Antonio, as well as in San José, trains young people to become entrepreneurs through economic projects of their own. The second program operates in particularly conflicted districts of the capital.


“Together We Stand is a program whose target population is young people under the age of 18. It seeks to rehabilitate those suffering from drug addiction,” Fullmen said. “The technique consists of police seizing the substance when searching minors in possession of drugs and writing up a report to a non-governmental organization specialized in addiction that then works with the teen and their family for three months.”


“We got many of them back into high school,” Fullmen said. “As far as I know, 100 percent of these young people got away from drugs,” she concluded.

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