Costa Rica has traditionally been perceived as a bastion of security in crime-ravaged Central America. In recent years, however, the country has experienced record levels of violence, which authorities have blamed on its growing role as a drug transshipment point.
Local crime groups do not appear to pose a major security threat. But as they become increasingly involved with transnational criminal organizations expanding their operations in Costa Rica, corruption and instability may deepen.
Located on the Central American isthmus, Costa Rica shares a 309-kilometer northern border with Nicaragua and a 330-kilometer southeastern border with Panama, acting as a link and transition zone for cocaine shipments among those countries.
Despite being one of the region’s smallest countries, with just over 51,000 kilometers of largely rugged, rain forest, Costa Rica seems to be growing in attractiveness for transnational drug traffickers.
With large stretches of unpatrolled coastline and several important ports along the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean, Costa Rica’s geography enables organized crime groups to use overland, aerial and maritime trafficking routes.
In contrast to many other nations in Latin America, Costa Rica has largely avoided major armed conflicts and periods of military rule. The country’s relatively strong institutions and stable democratic system have hindered the development of powerful homegrown crime groups. But Costa Rica’s geography and history have helped transnational criminal organizations develop a foothold.
The presence of international crime groups in Costa Rica stretches back to the mid-1980s, when the country became an important bridge for drugs coming from South America that were headed to the United States through Central America and Mexico.
As US authorities beefed up security measures to monitor drug trafficking from South America through the Caribbean, crime groups began to take advantage of gaps in Costa Rica’s law enforcement. The country’s ports were particularly attractive, as Costa Rican criminal networks used them to trade subsidized fuel for drugs with Colombian traffickers. These local groups would then traffic and store the drugs locally, using corrupt port officials to export the drugs in commercial shipping containers. Traffickers also used small regional airports with easily corruptible security forces to move drugs through the country.
Moreover, transnational trafficking groups employed Costa Rican citizens to help in money laundering operations using local banks and other legitimate businesses. In part due to this legacy, the country remains an important hub for international money laundering.
An aggressive crackdown on corruption during the late 1980s and early 1990s saw graft cases take down several top Costa Rican officials accused of aiding crime groups. Additionally, throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Costa Rica signed a number of multilateral agreements to target corruption, drug trafficking, money laundering and arms trafficking. The creation of new government institutions aimed at combating organized crime, combined with new laws and regulations, contributed to improvements in security in Costa Rica.
In recent years, however, Costa Rica’s past successes in combating crime and corruption have been challenged by innovations on the part of transnational organized crime groups, which are becoming more adept at corrupting security forces and working with local criminal partners.
In late 2011, then-President Laura Chinchilla warned about the severity of the threat posed by transnational organized crime in Costa Rica. And from 2010 to 2016, homicides increased markedly. In 2017, the country saw its most violent year on record.
Officials have blamed the uptick in violence on the increasing presence of transnational criminal organizations — particularly drug trafficking networks — although it is more likely that spats among local crime groups are also fueling the rise.
Nevertheless, there is strong evidence that drug trafficking in Costa Rica has increased in the 2010s in conjunction with a boom in cocaine production in Colombia. And there are similarly strong signs that transnational criminal organizations are expanding activities in Costa Rica with an array of increasingly sophisticated local crime groups.
In addition to collaborating with transnational groups in illicit activities related to the drug trade, homegrown criminal organizations in Costa Rica engage in a number of underworld enterprises, such as petty drug dealing, sex trafficking, organ trafficking, illegal mining and logging, as well as smuggling of humans and contraband. Highly sophisticated money laundering operations have also been uncovered in the country.
A variety of transnational criminal groups are known to operate in Costa Rica, often in collaboration with local partners.
There have been numerous indications in recent years that powerful Mexican groups like the Sinaloa Cartel maintain a presence in Costa Rica, primarily to facilitate the transshipment of drugs. Officials have even accused Mexican criminal organizations of sending Costa Rican triggermen abroad for specialized training.
Costa Rican authorities have also warned about Colombian crime groups — including the now-demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) — who are engaged in arms and drug trafficking as well as money laundering in the country.
Drug traffickers from other Central American nations have also used Costa Rica as a base of operations and as a hideout. In November 2016, the leader of Honduras’ Atlantic Cartel, Wilter Neptalí Blanco Ruíz, was arrested in Costa Rica just weeks after fleeing his home country. And in 2015, a Costa Rican court sentenced Nicaraguan drug boss Agustín Reyes Aragón to 12 years in prison on trafficking charges. Reyes Aragón said he had fled his home country due to a government assassination plot.
Transnational criminal groups from Europe, like Italy’s primary importer and wholesaler of cocaine, the ‘Ndrangheta, have also been linked to the drug trade in Costa Rica.
Costa Rican officials have warned about the presence of Central America’s most powerful gangs, the Barrio 18 and the MS13, but there have been few indications that these groups pose any substantial security threat.
Costa Rica has not had a military since it was abolished by the 1948 constitution. The country has a police body called the Public Force (Fuerza Pública), which is controlled by the Public Security Ministry (Ministerio de Seguridad Pública) and is charged with ensuring security in rural areas as well as along the country’s borders. The Public Security Ministry had a budget of about $450 million in 2017.
The judicial branch maintains a separate police force known as the Judicial Police (Policía Judicial), which is under the authority of the Judicial Investigation Department (Organismo de Investigación Judicial – OIJ) and is charged with investigating crimes and apprehending suspects. The OIJ is housed under the Justice and Peace Ministry (Ministerio de Justicia y Paz), which had a budget of about $230 million in 2017.
Costa Rica’s security apparatus has received significant support from the United States in recent years, including a $30 million security aid package announced in 2016.
In past years, surveys have shown that Costa Rica’s police are generally perceived as more trusted and less corrupt than those in many of its neighboring countries. However, there have been numerous recent cases of police ties to organized crime, which have raised concerns that crime groups are becoming increasingly successful in efforts to penetrate the security forces. Moreover, in response to rising levels of crime and violence, authorities have proposed policing measures that would likely be counterproductive, such as shortening the minimum training period for officers.
Costa Rica’s judicial branch constitutes an independent branch of the government and follows a civil law system common throughout Latin America. It is comprised of the Supreme Court (Corte Suprema de Justicia), appeals courts (Tribunales de Apelaciones) and district courts (Juzgados de Distrito). The Supreme Court has a specific chamber that hears criminal cases.
The Public Ministry (Ministerio Público) and the Judicial Investigation Agency (Organismo de Investigación Judicial) are Costa Rica’s two most important judiciary bodies, with the former responsible for determining the scope of investigations and the latter responsible for criminal investigations. The Public Prosecutor’s Office (Fiscalía General) is the highest body in the Public Ministry.
Costa Rica is generally considered to have one of the lowest instances of impunity in the region.
Costa Rica’s prison system is controlled by the Justice and Peace Ministry (Ministerio de Justicia y Paz) and managed by the General Directorate of Social Adaptation (Dirección General de Adaptación Social), while the Ombudsman monitors and reports on prison conditions.
In part due to the use of pretrial detention, Costa Rica’s prisons are overcrowded, at about 140 percent of their capacity as of the end of 2014. The country is taking some initial steps to improve its high incarceration rate.