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Laura Chinchilla: "Costa Rica Lowered Its Guard" Against Drug Trafficking

"If something isn't done right now, this government will condemn Costa Rica to a path similar to that of Ecuador," says the former president

Laura Chinchilla

28 de noviembre 2023

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As Costa Rica's inhabitants become increasingly alarmed by the current unprecedented security crisis, President Rodrigo Chaves has not responded to the serious problem, says Laura Chinchilla, former president of Costa Rica (2010-2014) and also former Security Minister (1996-1998). 

In an interview with Esta Semana and CONFIDENCIAL, the former president offers an analysis what has caused Costa Rica –until recently one of the most peaceful countries in the region– to experience the most violent year in its history, with a projected 900 murders by the end of 2023, and a homicide rate of 17 per 100,000 inhabitants.  


Chinchilla is critical of President Chaves for focusing –in the midst of presenting his National Security Policy on November 22, 2023– on placing responsibility for fighting crime on the Legislative Assembly and the Judiciary. Furthermore, she believes that if the president does not do enough, Costa Rica could follow the path of Ecuador, whose last presidential election campaign was marked by the assassination of candidate Fernando Villavicencio, whose discourse focused on combating drug trafficking. 

The former president also stressed the importance of social policies directed at young people in poor communities –where a large part of the Nicaraguan migrant population lives– to prevent them from becoming easy prey for recruitment by criminal gangs operating in Costa Rica. 

Authorities attribute the increase in malicious homicides in recent years to drug trafficking, but this is not a new phenomenon, neither in Costa Rica nor in the region. What has changed? 

In the case of Costa Rica, when we analyze, for example, the allocation of resources to public security, the recruitment of police personnel, the allocation of resources to judicial institutions –especially the Public Prosecutor's Office–, and the investigative police, we see that resources have been decreasing, weakening [the institutions]. 

Adding to this, the guard was lowered in the fight against organized crime. It took seven years to operationalize a special jurisdiction on this issue because the law that we approved at the time lacked resources for some time. 

The Costa Rican government lowered its guard and organized crime is clearly looking for opportunities to move in at a time when our region is becoming an exporting power of cocaine, opium and also fentanyl. Pressure and threats are increasing in our countries, and now Costa Rica is experiencing them with particular severity. 

Why is 2023 the most violent year in Costa Rica's history? 

Because when we analyze the homicide rate –an indicator that allows us to measure which countries are more or less violent–, by the end of this year, we will have seen a terrible increase of almost 40% in the number of violent deaths. 

This will potentially take us from 12 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, which was already high for Costa Rica, to almost 17 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. 

This is a warning sign, particularly when we see that in some regions of the country –especially the coastal regions– these rates are doubling and even tripling.

The perception is fueled by the increase in malicious homicides, and also by the media's coverage of how they are occurring in places where these kinds of crimes were not seen before: on soccer fields, near schools, outside a hospital. But which are the areas that are in fact most affected by this situation, and who are the victims?

There are two main factors: One is that the majority [of these homicides] –over 60%-- are committed in gang fights. Another striking factor is the use of firearms. Almost 70% are committed with firearms. 

The greatest number of victims continue to be members of these gangs and [the homicides] tend to occur in those areas where gang members have preferential routes for the distribution of their drugs. That is why the coasts generally have a greater presence of these gangs and higher levels of violence, because it is on the coasts where many of the drugs that are marketed internationally enter and leave the country, and it's also from where [the drugs] are transported to the interior of the country. 

At the same time, we've also been seeing that the number of collateral victims –those people who die as a result of being in the middle of a shooting they were not involved in– is increasing. Criminal gangs are extending their territorial control and, by the time we realize it, they're already fighting for control of distribution around schools, or gang members are in discos or restaurants where [their enemies] then go to kill them. 

Are these gangs international cartels or are they local?

The origin of the current organized crime is transnational; that is, from the large cartels operating in Latin America. Some years ago it was coming from Colombia and now especially the Mexicans are competing. Criminals of other nationalities are also present [in Costa Rica]. However, their collaborators are fundamentally Costa Rican and much of this kind of violence that we're seeing involves Costa Ricans who are members of the gangs that play a very important role in the larger organization, which is to facilitate all the transnational gangs' operations to pass the drugs through the country. But these local gangs are also paid with drugs, and so are forced –in order to generate wealth from these in-kind payments– to open up the internal consumer market. So it's the competition to establish control in the internal market that is generating areas of violence, and most of this is being caused by Costa Ricans.

Is there any other particularity in terms of how drug trafficking is gaining traction in Costa Rica in comparison with other countries of the isthmus?  

From the point of view of the external threat that reaches all of us Central Americans, it is the same thing. Let 's remember that Central America is the most dangerous "neighborhood" in the world, and has been for many years and for many reasons: from the internal armed conflicts that hit so hard to how the demobilized armies have turned to criminal behavior. The region has also been a transit zone for the largest flow of drugs and, from there, it has also become a region of consumption and internal distribution. 

Costa Rica is subject to the same patterns. What has differentiated us in the past? Because we don't have an army, we have relied much more on prevention policies and the administration of justice and a professional police force. These bastions [of security] have gotten weaker over time, and that is why we are now seeing such an increase in this kind of violence. 

But if we look at how violence is playing out in Costa Rica, I would say it is very similar to the traumas that other Central American countries have already faced.

"There is no public policy" to fight organized crime

On November 22, the government of President Rodrigo Chaves presented its National Public Security Policy. How do you assess it? Does it contain the necessary actions to reduce murders and deter organized crime?

It was good news that the Minister of Security and his team presented a policy, because 18 months after this government had taken office and security had become the main concern of Costa Ricans, there was still no strategic proposal, no articulated proposal. 

So, in principle, we welcomed that policy, but the president took it upon himself to bury it when, instead of concentrating on reinforcing his [security] minister's message, he instead put on a staged, premeditated show to blame the legislature for what is going on. 

This has discouraged many of us from reading the policy [that was presented] because we doubt whether they have any real or effective intention of implementing it. So I am not yet familiar with it. Besides the fact that they presented it only 48 hours ago, they also put a tombstone at the same time. I have not been able to read it yet. Of course I will, but I can't yet give an opinion on the substance of the policy.

And what is the position of the Legislative or Judicial Power? Is there a front, a common strategy to face the problem?

What does not exist at the moment is the convening of the Executive Power, which is called to coordinate in accordance with the General Police Law.

It is the Executive Power, the President, who directs the National Security Council and this Council is not convened on a regular basis. 

There is no State policy at the moment. However, I must acknowledge that both the deputies and the Judicial Branch have been making an effort to do their part in addressing the problem. 

In the case of the Legislative Branch, they have been promoting some legislation, they have been providing more resources to Security through the budgets they approve. In the case of the Judiciary, they are making a great effort despite the lack of resources, to coordinate actions to dismantle criminal gangs. 

But, clearly, if the Executive Branch does not play its role, we are not going to have a significant change in the next few years.

And what is the reaction of the population to this wave of insecurity and the position of the authorities?

Surveys tell us three things. First, they tell us that insecurity went from being the second, and third concern, to becoming the number one concern of Costa Ricans. 

Secondly, for 80% of the population, the problem, instead of improving, is deteriorating. 

And thirdly, it tells us that the president is losing popularity. That is to say, the Government would do well to study the reasons for this loss of popularity. I am convinced that it has a lot to do with the fact that the government is not responding to this serious problem in Costa Rica.

Preventive social policy is necessary in Costa Rica

During the term of office of former Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla (2010-2014), the homicide rate dropped from 11 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2010 to 8 per 100,000 inhabitants. Photo: Archive | Presidency of Costa Rica.

In the report we published in CONFIDENCIAL, focused on the vulnerability of the Nicaraguan migrant population, we identified that in many cases migrants, due to lack of money, must rent housing in precarious areas, among constant shootings and bunkers. What kind of actions would be worth taking with respect to these particular communities, which are more vulnerable, not because of their nationality, but because of their condition of poverty?

When we look at who are the biggest victims of violence, we see that they are the most vulnerable populations, because they are those who are exposed, precisely, to their children being recruited by criminals, who end up getting involved in crime, not because they want to, but because they are neither studying nor working at the moment. We estimate that there are more than 120,000 young people in Costa Rica in this condition. 

They are also the ones who are most exposed to the problem of addictions, which is also a way for these criminal gangs to recruit collaborators. 

In the past, what did we do? My government's policy, which was successful, not only focused on dismantling gangs and putting people in jail, but we also selected about 40 communities in vulnerable situations. We entered with a comprehensive proposal, that is, to try to bring alternative activities that could distract young people in a healthy way, while we were doing something that would have a positive impact on schooling and employability problems. If we don't do something about this, it will be difficult to change the situation.

What is the future of Costa Rica if it does not manage to stop the advance of drug trafficking?

I think we should look at ourselves in the mirror of Ecuador. It seems to me that we would follow a trajectory very similar to that of Ecuador. In Ecuador, one of the most peaceful countries in the Americas, with very low levels of crime, in just five years the homicide rate has almost quintupled. 

By the time they wanted to do something (in Ecuador), the problem had exploded to the point that criminal gangs began to assassinate presidential candidates who were very rigorous in combating this problem. If something is not done now, this government is going to condemn Costa Rica to a similar trajectory to what happened to Ecuador.

This article was published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by our staff. To get the most relevant news from our English coverage delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe to The Dispatch.

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Cindy Regidor

Periodista nicaragüense desde 2007, con experiencia en prensa escrita, televisión y medios digitales. Tiene una especialización en producción audiovisual y una maestría en Medios de Comunicación, Estudios de Paz y Conflicto de la Universidad para la Paz de las Naciones Unidas. Fundadora y editora de Nicas Migrantes, proyecto por el cual ganó el Impact Award 2022 del Departamento de Estado de EE. UU. Ha realizado coberturas in situ en Los Ángeles (Estados Unidos), México, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua y Costa Rica. También ha colaborado con France 24, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, BBC World Service. Ha sido finalista y ganadora de varios premios nacionales e internacionales, entre ellos el Premio Latinoamericano de Periodismo de Investigación Javier Valdez, del Instituto Prensa y Sociedad (IPYS), 2022.

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