The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) works to keep Americans safe at home by countering international crime, illegal drugs, and instability abroad. INL helps countries deliver justice and fairness by strengthening their police, courts, and corrections systems. These efforts reduce the amount of crime and illegal drugs reaching U.S. shores.
For the last two quarters of 2019, Costa Rica ranked number one in the Western Hemisphere by tonnage as the first stop for transshipment of cocaine to the United States. Once a problem mostly confined to fast boats operating miles off shore, the drug trade in Costa Rica has morphed into a proliferation of illegal air tracks, warehousing operations, land smuggling networks, tainted fishing vessels, and suspect shipping container traffic. The presence of criminal elements in Costa Rica has increased apace with drug trafficking trends, and nearly half of all homicides in the country are linked with the illegal narcotics trade.
The Alvarado administration has prioritized security and is a close and capable partner of the United States. However, shortfalls in tourism proceeds and the broader economic challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic will hamper security sector advances in the near term. While the capacity of the Costa Rican security forces and judicial institutions is high and levels of corruption are low, the corrosive effects of the drug trade and associated transnational crime threaten to erode the integrity of these institutions.
In Costa Rica, INL seeks to stem illegal drugs transiting the country en route to the United States, decrease associated violence, improve internal and regional security coordination, support citizen security, and enhance institutional resilience against transnational crime by building law enforcement and judicial capacity. INL works closely with Costa Rica on border security and migration issues. Through initiatives that include a joint operations center and law enforcement training reform, INL enhances security coordination within Costa Rica and with partners throughout the region. These efforts are consistent with the security and governance priorities of the U.S. Strategy for Central America and the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI).
Borders and Ports/Counternarcotics – INL supported the Costa Rican Coast Guard’s capacity to control its maritime domain and help with U.S. interdiction efforts through training and the donation of equipment. In April 2018, INL and the U.S. Department of Defense, working with the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), donated three former USCG 110-foot cutters, enabling Costa Rica to establish its first blue water capability. INL supports a 20-person Maritime Interdiction Unit and an inter-service joint operations center, both of which enhance Costa Rica’s counternarcotic capabilities. In 2019, Costa Rica seized 35.1 metric tons of cocaine, the majority via maritime interdictions, setting a new record.
INL also assisted Costa Rica to build up a dedicated Border Police and Customs office and advance its Aviation Service. INL supports U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) advisors to mentor and train the Costa Rican Border Police and Customs agents to improve port security protocols. INL partners with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to train Costa Rican officers on biometric data collection, modernizing border controls, and improving interdiction practices. INL is transforming the capabilities of the small but impressive Costa Rican Aviation Service, donating four twin-engine multi-mission helicopters to its fleet in 2019, training to double the number of advanced mechanics and increase the number of pilots by one third, and helping the country reinforce its borders and support remote law enforcement operations. INL expanded a multi-service Costa Rican police canine program that enabled a significant portion of Costa Rica’s land-based drug seizures since 2017.
Community Security and Crime Reduction – In August 2018, President Alvarado announced the launch of “Sembremos Seguridad,” establishing the INL collaborative community security (CCS) program as Costa Rica’s central crime prevention and reduction initiative. At its core, the CCS program seeks to establish a whole-of-government, whole-of-community security model that emphasizes a coordinated effort to tackle both the symptoms and root causes of crime. “Sembremos Seguridad” is active in nearly half of Costa Rica’s municipalities. In its first year, “Sembremos Seguridad” led to an average 22% drop in homicides within participating communities, with similarly impressive results in property crime and key social indicators. INL bolsters such citizen security efforts with initiatives to combat gender-based violence, reclaim public spaces, and provide healthy outlets to at-risk youth through music and sports.
Disrupting Transnational Crime – The Costa Rican National Forensics lab achieved international accreditation in ballistics in 2018. In October 2017, Costa Rica earned accreditation in DNA testing, chemical analysis, toxicology, and biochemistry. INL helped establish and train a dedicated Judicial Investigative Police (Costa Rica’s FBI-equivalent) Organized Crime Unit.
Police Training – INL assists to reform and modernize training for Costa Rican law enforcement, an effort that goes hand in hand with major infrastructure improvements underway at Costa Rica’s multi-service National Law Enforcement Training Center. INL also helped Costa Rica to establish its first police dive team in support of maritime interdictions.