Costa Rica's criminal underbelly


SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — Rifles and handguns let out a shrill wail and a shower of bright orange sparks as Costa Rican authorities took turns feeding more than two dozen of them into a power saw one December morning.

The event — which included gun-sawing by President Oscar Arias (a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize), the public security minister and the national police chief — was planned almost as a public lynching of guns, meant to remind the public of Arias’ campaign against the illicit international arms trade. 

But the symbolism of weapons destruction might have done little to ease the palpable fear here.

Armed violence has surged recently, and the murder rate rose last year to 9.6 per 100,000 inhabitants, up from about eight the previous year, a nearly 20 percent increase. In downtown San Jose, the increase is even starker: In 2008, the murder rate was nearly 28 per 100,000 inhabitants, up from 18.5 the previous year, a 52 percent increase. Three out of five homicides in Costa Rica are committed with a firearm.

To be sure, the 2008 murder rate, made public Jan. 28 by the Judicial Investigation Police, seems low compared with those of crime-plagued Central American countries such as El Salvador, or several cities in the U.S., which have homicide rates twice or even three times higher.

But violent crime isn't what Costa Rica — which is a haven for wildlife-seeking tourists — is known for. 

The country's crime problem stems from organized crime networks that have planted roots here, said Chief Prosecutor Francisco Dall’Anese. In the past 10 years, he said, organizations from countries such as Colombia and Mexico have put Costa Rica on the map for drug- and weapons-trafficking, outpacing the country’s “inadequate” crime laws. Ticos are forced to cope with a violent crime wave with ill-equipped law enforcement, he said.

Dall’Anese, a descendant of Italian emigres to Costa Rica, is an ardent supporter of a much-anticipated organized crime bill that is pending lawmakers’ approval. The legislation’s key measure would enable judges to listen in on tapped phone conversations in order to trace illicit connections and deals, a reform that has sparked contention in the Legislative Assembly, but which Dall’Anese said is crucial.

“If the law isn’t changed, we simply won’t have the right tools to pursue organized crime,” the chief prosecutor said, pointing to tougher legislation in other Central American nations such as Guatemala, Panama and Nicaragua, and iron-fist policies in Colombia and Mexico.

“What’s going to happen to Costa Rica? It’ll be like a building that gets fumigated on every floor except for one: All the rats go running to the non-fumigated floor. That’s what’s happening to us,” Dall’Anese said.

Some Ticos are taking their safety into their own hands. Losing faith in the authorities’ power to rein in crime, Ticos are purchasing weapons like never before to defend themselves. A record 14,125 guns were registered here in 2008.

Roxana Rojas, 44, said members of her family are preparing to carry guns after her son was shot and killed last year. “There hasn’t been a gun in my house for three or four generations,” she noted. “Now all my nephews, between the ages of 20 and 23, are going to the shooting range. So am I.”

On April 8, a thief shot Rojas’ 17-year-old son Josue Rojas while stealing his cell phone. The shooting took place in the northern San Jose district of Tibas at 2 p.m., in broad daylight, the grieving single mother said. The alleged shooter was 18 years old and had a record of repeated armed robbery arrests. His accomplice was a 14-year-old boy.

Tibas, where Josue Rojas was killed, had a murder rate of 39.17 per 100,000 residents in 2008, up from about 18.5 per 100,000 in 2007.

The Rojas’s are one of 50 San Jose families that form Asopaz, an association of families of victims that seeks to provide a support network for people who lose relatives to violent crime. Asopaz has also lobbied for a new witness and victims protection law. “Each of (Asopaz’s members) has had to bury a child, a wife or another loved one,” Rojas said.

At times, Rojas can sound like a vigilante. Citizens are fed up with “apologist judges favoring the criminal and who like to see criminals walk the streets,” she said defiantly. “We will take justice into our own hands." 

But William Hidalgo, the Public Security Ministry’s armament chief, said he is alarmed by the number of citizens arming themselves, noting that such purchases are fueling the number of illegal weapons trafficking the country, which the Arias Foundation estimates to be 340,000.

“People have made the decision (to buy a gun) based on the undeniable situation of crime in the country, to feel safer if they’re armed, something I totally disagree with,” Hidalgo said. “That same gun can serve to help delinquents commit more crimes, if they take it away. Then you’re putting yourself, your family and everybody’s lives in danger.”

Hidalgo added that thieves have broken into private security companies to steal weapons. The increasing number of private security agents — nearly 20,000 (excluding undocumented employees) — is more than double that of Costa Rica's police officers, at about 9,600, according to the Arias Foundation. 

While authorities round up illegal weapons — last year they seized at least 3,795 — Dall’Anese is eager for new legislation to conduct comprehensive investigations on those trafficking them.

“Costa Rica is a strategic location, partly because it’s narrow, you can drive from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and partly because … of the few tools the police have,” he said.


Read other news from Costa Rica:

Costa Ricans turn to social networking sites in the aftermath of an earthquake. 

Rain, mud and dead bananas

And in Venezuela, citizens turn to the spirits of dead criminals for protection amid rising crime levels.