This article is the second in a three-part series on Costa Rica's battle with the drug cartels. Together with GlobalPost's interview with President Laura Chinchilla, the series also explores the growing problem of money-laundering, and the rising rate of crack addiction in the country.
SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — Costa Ricans are peaceful people. For years, they have had no army.
They built schools and hospitals instead, and that helped them stay that way.
But now, as narco gangs reach their tentacles inside this once-peaceful paradise, a get-tough attitude permeates the nation, from the streets to government halls.
Her predecessor once lambasted world leaders who overspent on weapons. Now, President Laura Chinchilla recently begged the United Nations for help to stop “this scourge eroding the basic fabric of our social coexistence.”
After a decade of escalating violent crime, and amid an ongoing row with neighboring Nicaragua, are the “Ticos” — as the Costa Ricans call themselves, in a self-effacing habit — losing their peaceful way?
“There’s a new reality and there has to be a new response,” Michael Shifter, president of Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington, D.C.-based think-tank for Western Hemisphere affairs, said of Costa Rica’s new tone. “It would be out of sync to talk about lofty ideals of peace while you see the penetration or appearance of organized crime.”
Drug-fueled international crime rings use this jungle-cloaked country as a financial base and transshipment hub, which authorities blame for a spike in crime. The U.S. government added Costa Rica last year to its list of world’s top drug transit countries, claiming the country hosted organizations linked to powerful Mexican gangs such as the Sinaloa cartel.
(Read the U.S. ambassador’s speech here.)
Being stuck between cocaine-producing countries to the south and voracious users to the north is nothing new for Costa Rica. But violence has risen as drug gangs vie for control of the transit routes now dominated by Mexican cartels instead of the Colombians of years past, security officials say.
Read more: The cost of security in Costa Rica
“It’s not this kind of oasis in the midst of criminality,” said Shifter of the nation’s fading reputation. “It’s showing that it’s not immune, and along with that comes a lot of public frustration and pressure to be more forceful.”
Petty thievery, home invasions and assaults are common, but bloodier crimes are rising. A report by the Costa Rican judicial department suggests the number of suspected contract killings — which authorities say are a signature of mafia activity — were on the rise in 2010.
The overall homicide rate remained steady at about 11.5 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, almost double what it was in 2004.
The situation is tipping public opinion.
Costa Rica is far from being the most dangerous country in the region, but its perception of insecurity has risen faster than any other in Latin America, according to Marta Lagos, director of regional pollster Latinobarometro.
Read more: Crack addiction on the rise
Polls show most Ticos think Chinchilla has no answer to the scourge in spite of promises to add officers and equipment to the country's meager national police.
Some are calling for harsher measures. “Forget all the human rights mumbo-jumbo, what this country needs is the death penalty,” a taxi driver recently said.
A surprising number of Ticos, including popular blogger “El Chamuko” (the Devil), agrees.
A survey by a local television news network in September found that six out of 10 viewers support reinstating the death penalty, which was banned in 1882.
The country relies on a special relationship with the United States to help rid Costa Rica’s vast oceans of drug shipments.
“We have an understanding of sovereignty that allows us to set up a joint patrol system with the United States in which its Coast Guard ships can patrol our waters to intercept (drug smugglers),” said Mario Zamora, public security minister.
Read more: Interview with President Chinchilla
In addition to the joint patrols as well as equipment and infrastructure donated by its close American allies, Costa Rica increasingly looks to China for aid. The Chinese have offered hundreds of police cars and are helping to build a new police academy.
Zamora says improved policing and surveillance technologies have already shown effectiveness. Costa Rica is seeing a slight drop this year in murders, theft, rape and registered assaults on tourists, he told reporters this month.
President Laura Chinchilla wants to step up efforts by hiring and training more police, including a professional border security force. But her administration is also under pressure to cut spending, which has grown faster than state revenue. The International Monetary Fund estimates Costa Rica’s national deficit, compared to gross domestic product, to be the highest in Latin America. Chinchilla sees the need to raise funds to ramp up further anti-crime efforts.
“We’re fighting hard to raise taxes for security,” Vice President Alfio Piva told GlobalPost in early November on the sidelines of a Latin America anti-corruption forum.
However, Costa Rica already dishes out more than four times as much on security as militarized Nicaragua spends on an army, navy and air force, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, an influential London-based think-tank.
“Unfortunately there is a process of militarization in Central America and Costa Rica is not removed from that process,” said Nicaraguan security consultant Roberto Cajina.
Besides narcos, nobody stirs Ticos' inner tough guy like the Nicaraguans. The ongoing tussle over a Nicaraguan river development project stoked tensions at the countries' common border. Costa Rica deployed a camouflaged police brigade to protect the country from what San Jose considers an “invasion.”
No battle ensued and the countries have fought it out in diplomatic venues, first the Organization of American States and then the International Court of Justice at the Hague, the Netherlands.
The dispute, still under review at the world court, has tested Costa Rica's penchant for peace like none other.
“If Costa Rica had had an army, that would probably be a war zone,” said Rene Castro, then foreign minister, in an interview with Dutch radio that sparked huge controversy at home.
“Being pacifists is in the Costa Rican soul, but external forces are obligating us to consider our historic stance,” he said.