Costa Rica is experiencing an escalation of violence due to organized crime linked to drug trafficking. In 2023, it has become the most violent year in the country since records began, with 777 homicides reported until November. This number is 238 more than the same period in 2022, according to data from the Judicial Investigation Agency.
The Minister of Public Security, Mario Zamora, described this situation as a “cancer” that was not detected in time and needs to be prevented from spreading further. The insecurity caused by the rise in violence has become the people’s primary concern, according to the Center for Research and Political Studies at the University of Costa Rica.
Costa Rica serves as a bridge for drug transportation from South America to the United States and Europe. In this process, money, drugs, and weapons strengthen increasingly organized small cartels. Two-thirds of the homicides are related to disputes between gangs fighting for control of drug territories. Firearms, including military rifles like AK-47 or AR-15, were used in 81% of these killings.
The government initiated an anti-crime operation in May, which led to the dismantling of around 10 criminal structures. In Puerto Limón, an area historically affected by crime, scanners were installed in the port to detect drugs in cargo containers destined for the United States and Europe.
It is projected that Costa Rica will end 2023 with approximately 900 violent deaths and a homicide rate of 17 per 100,000 people. With a population of 5.1 million, last year’s record was already set with a homicide rate of 12.6. The global average is 8 homicides per 100,000 people, according to the United Nations.
To address the worsening situation, seven bills to strengthen public security are awaiting analysis in Congress. The Minister of Security, Zamora, noted the need to build a professional and well-trained police force to achieve effective results in the medium and long term.
Given the professionalization and high level of violence among criminal organizations, the current police force, with 17,000 officers, faces significant challenges. The director of the Judicial Investigation Agency, Randall Zúñiga, emphasized the need for more resources, training, and personnel. He stated that an additional 1,080 officers are needed in the agency, which currently has 3,500.
Experts have also pointed out the importance of investing in education, healthcare, prevention, and increasing police presence as a direct attack on organized crime. Neglecting these areas may lead to organized criminals replacing the role of the state. Socio-economic development and providing opportunities to those in poverty have been suggested as crucial strategies to combat crime in Costa Rica.