Politics Drug-related violence is soaring in a quiet corner of Latin America, and it's not clear what the new president plans to do about it

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Costa Rica set a new record for both homicides and homicide rate in 2017, but it's not clear what the new government plans to do about it.

A man sells fruits and vegetables in San Jose, Costa Rica. The banner over the stand says, "Thank you, Lord, to fight those who fight against me--Isaiah 49:25." play

A man sells fruits and vegetables in San Jose, Costa Rica. The banner over the stand says, "Thank you, Lord, to fight those who fight against me--Isaiah 49:25."

(REUTERS/Juan Carlos Ulate)
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  • Costa Rica has seen steady increases in homicides over the past several years.
  • These increases appear driven largely by the drug trade, exacerbated by poverty and inequality.
  • It's not clear how the new president will address violence and its underlying problems.


Carlos Alvarado Quesada's surprisingly large victory in Costa Rica's presidential election has buoyed hopes that progressives can win in a region where conservative politics have seemed ascendant.

But Alvarado Quesada still faces challenges at home, in particular a rising tide of deadly violence, and it's not yet clear how he plans to address them.

The number of homicides in the country has steadily risen since 2012, when there were 407. That total rose to 578 2016 and 603 in 2017.

Costa Rica, home to about 5 million people, also finished 2017 with a homicide rate of 12.1 per 100,000 people. That's well below rates elsewhere in the region — which is the deadliest in the world — but the highest the country has ever seen.

"Since 2012, we have seen an increase, and it's likely this curve will keep going up unless something extraordinary happens," Michael Soto, the deputy director of Costa Rica's Judicial Investigation authority, said in January.

A women holds a sign that reads "4 femicides in a week, do not be indifferent." play

A women holds a sign that reads "4 femicides in a week, do not be indifferent."

(REUTERS/Juan Carlos Ulate)

But the increase comes as deadly violence elsewhere in the region is declining, and the trend appears to be continuing.

During the first three months of 2018, there were 146 homicides in Costa Rica — seven more than the same period last year. Included in these were eight femicides, killings where a woman is targeted specifically because of her gender. There were 26 femicides in 2017.

"We can't cover the sun with a finger. We are the same as last year," said Alvaro Gonzalez, head of the Costa Rica's Judicial Investigative authority's homicide division. Gonzalez tied the increase to drugs. "The fight against the narco is frontal because it is the principal cause of what we are experiencing," he said.

Authorities have attributed the rise in homicides to disputes between groups involved in the drug trade. According to the police, 52% of killings are related to score-settling, drug trafficking, or revenge.

Police arrest alleged Honduran drug trafficker Wilter Blanco in San Jose, November 22, 2016. play

Police arrest alleged Honduran drug trafficker Wilter Blanco in San Jose, November 22, 2016.

(Ministry of Public Security/Handout via Reuters)

Seventy percent of homicide victims in Costa Rica are younger than 30, and Gonzalez said youths who were neither in school nor employed were more susceptible to criminal activity.

A March report by the Costa Rican Drug Institute and the State of the Nation program found high rates of violence and drug trafficking correlate strongly to areas with high unemployment.

It also found that half the country's homicides in 2016 took place in 30 of its poorest districts, and half of drug seizures were in areas making up just 7% of the country's territory.

"Unemployment shows us people who ... don't have formal access to the market, don't have income, but have to cover basic necessities and find drug trafficking an option to survive," said Leonardo Sanchez, who led work on the report.

The geographic dimensions of violence also point to drug trafficking as a key driver.

In 2017, nearly 75% of homicides were concentrated in three of the country's seven provinces: San Jose, which includes the capital city; Limon, which covers the entire Caribbean coast; and Alajuela, which makes up much of northern border with Nicaragua.

In one canton near the capital, police have investigated 28 homicides since the beginning of 2017. In a recent case, a 27-year-old man was shot more than 15 times by a gunman on a motorcycle. Police attribute the violence to disputes over control of local drug sales — competition stoked by the capture of leaders who used to be in control of the area.

"For many years, Costa Rica was a route of passage. But now it is also selling and consuming [drugs]," Marcelo Solano, the director of the municipal police in San Jose, told BBC Mundo.

Drugs seized by Costa Rican authorities. play

Drugs seized by Costa Rican authorities.

(Costa Rica Fuerza Publica/Facebook)

The provinces of Alajuela and Guanacaste, which is on the northern Pacific coast, have seen the country's greatest increases in homicide rate. Guanacaste went from 6.6 homicides per 100,000 people in 2015 to 12.7 in 2017. Alajuela rose from 5.8 per 100,000 in 2015 to 10.8 in 2017.

The Pacific coast in particular appears to be a hotspot for drug trafficking and drug-related violence.

In two February incidents, authorities intercepted a total of more than 3 metric tons of cocaine from boats off the country's southern Pacific coast. In early March, officials found a "narco sub" abandoned on the Pacific coast. A few weeks later, Costa Rican police and the US Coast Guard seized 240 kilos of cocaine on a fishing boat in the Pacific off Panama.

"There does not exist a beach in Costa Rica where narcos haven't penetrated with a boat with cocaine, coming from Colombia," Public Security Minister Gustavo Mata said in February 2017. (Jamaican traffickers moving marijuana are also active on Costa Rica's Caribbean coast.)

'Vague promises to improve security'

Carlos Alvarado Quesada greets a supporter during his recent election campaign. play

Carlos Alvarado Quesada greets a supporter during his recent election campaign.

(REUTERS/Juan Carlos Ulate)

Despite those trends, security was not a high-profile issue during the presidential campaign.

"Even though Costa Rican citizens are concerned about rising violent-crime rates, the election in Costa Rica was fought on other issues," James Bosworth, founder of political-risk analysis firm Hxagon, told Business Insider.

Alvarado Quesada and his rivals focused largely on the country's financial situation, corruption, and social issues.

Solano, the police chief, stressed that Costa Rica is in better shape than its neighbors, but he said he thought the "enormous challenge" facing Alvarado Quesada will be restoring the stability that earned the country the nickname "the Switzerland of Central America."

But neither Alvarado Quesada, nor his conservative rival in the run-off, Fabricio Alvarado Muñoz, "provided significant details about their security agenda beyond vague promises to improve security," Bosworth said.

Alvarado Quesada has proposed enhancing training for the Costa Rica's national police and bolstering citizen-security programs as part of preventative anti-crime efforts.

While more and better police training is a positive step after the previous government's decision to reduce training in order to produce more officers, Alvarado Quesada's plans lack specifics, according to Insight Crime.

"President-elect Alvarado has promised greater gun control and asset-forfeiture laws, but even those promises have lacked details for implementation," Bosworth said. "Costa Rica needs better-paid and better-trained police forces as well as a strategy to combat rising organized crime."