Drug traffickers take advantage of Costa Rica’s strategic location, porous borders, thinly patrolled waters, and lack of a standing military to make it a major transit country for illicit drugs. According to U.S. Department of Defense estimates, 83 percent of U.S.-bound South American cocaine passed through the Mexico/Central American corridor in the first half of 2014. The Costa Rican government continues to express great concern over the increased presence of illegal drugs and related crimes, including street crime and the growing influence of Mexican and South American cartels.
Costa Rica has the second lowest homicide rate in Central America, so far avoiding the levels of violence experienced by its northern neighbors El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Homicides dropped in 2012 but were back on the rise in 2013 and 2014; authorities blamed drug violence for the continued increases in homicides, particularly revenge killings between drug gangs. Assaults and other violent crimes were also up. In a country proud of its pacifist nature and lack of standing military, concerns about crime — and the recognition that it is a regional problem — have helped to justify security investments.
INL programs focus on institutional capacity building to modernize the Costa Rican Fuerza Publica (FP), strengthen the government’s law enforcement entities to combat transnational trafficking and other complex crimes, and build capacity in the justice sector to, among other things, prosecute organized crime and corruption. INL also aims to protect Costa Rica’s maritime and land borders in order to promote legal commerce across borders, institute systems/procedures to address deficiencies in the corrections sector, and to create safe communities through combating gender violence, providing forensic investigative support, and arranging programs for at-risk youth.
The Costa Rican government has increased its spending on law enforcement agencies over the past several years. The development of its Border Police force and improvements to its Coast Guard are tangible examples of Costa Rica’s commitment to disrupting the flow of illicit drugs. Costa Rica has continued to invest in specialized assets, such as six riverine boats to patrol the northern border area, as well as utilize seized assets, such as a King Air plane that has been used in successful maritime interdictions supporting the Costa Rican Coast Guard. In addition, Costa Rica has committed to increasing personnel within the Coast Guard by an additional 120 personnel in the near term.
In April 2015, 65 Border Police officers graduated from a training program developed with U.S. support and expertise, bringing the total number of Border Police officers to more than 300 since the group launched in September 2013. Most of those officers will be assigned to the new border crossing to Nicaragua at Las Tablillas, joining other officers assigned to the north where Costa Rica remains preoccupied by growing tensions with Nicaragua over the disputed Isla Calero area. Ministry of Public Security elements are more closely coordinating in drug interdiction activities, with large seizures in 2015 facilitated by the combined efforts of the Coast Guard, the Air Surveillance Service, the Counter-drug Police, and the Fuerza Publica, including the Border Police.
The United States actively supports the further professionalization of Costa Rican police, including updating the academy curriculum. The Ministry of Public Security has completed the nationwide rollout of the COMPSTAT crime-tracking system, with full-year numbers already available for the capital of San Jose and select areas and full-year statistics expected for the country by the end of June 2015. On the judicial side, the United States has supported a range of training programs for Costa Rican investigators, prosecutors, and judges, on topics ranging from money laundering to wiretaps. The United States also has donated software and computers to speed up backlogged case management in several key offices, supported the creation of specialized prosecution teams for gender based violence, and supported the establishment of a new court to handle organized crime and drug trafficking cases.