As crime increases in Costa Rica and serious punishment for criminal acts is rarely imposed, many Costa Ricans have begun to look beyond the state-provided instruments of public security for new ways to protect themselves.
From massive growth in the number of private security guards, to a similar obsession with private security alarms, to fragile neighborhood watch programs, Ticos are not taking the crime wave sitting down.
Perhaps the best example of this is the interest that Ticos have developed in personal firearms. According to the Armaments Administration of the Public SecurityMinistry, the number of firearms registered in Costa Rica rose from 9,187 in 2007 to nearly 15,000 the following year. And, despite the economic downturn, personal armament this year is on its way to mirroring the highs of 2008.
In fact, Costa Rica was the leading importer of guns per capita in Central America in 2005, according to the latest figures available from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in Costa Rica. In 2003, Costa Rica ranked fourth out of the six countries in gun imports.
Between 2005 and 2008, there was a dramatic rise in the number of arms bought for personal use, said William Hidalgo, general director of the Armaments Administration.
But most of these weapons are bought by private security firms, which are experiencing exponential growth – having more than tripled the numbers of the National PoliceForce over the past four years – said Paul Chávez, a security expert and consultant.
Lara Blanco, the United Nations human development coordinator in Costa Rica, confirmed this trend, saying, “The increase in private security firms is the primary reason the number of firearms has increased in the country.”
But security firms – which employ some 36,000 private guards, according to the Public Security Ministry – are only seeing the growth because of public interest in protection.
The spike in gun sales echoes the drastic rise in crime over the past decade. Between 2000 and 2008, the homicide rate almost doubled, according to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). There were 303 homicides in 2005, while homicides in 2008 approached 500, the latest numbers from Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) show. And both OIJ and UNDP statistics say guns have been used in more than 60 percent of homicides in the most recent years.
The number of reported assaults, from January through April of 2009, already have well surpassed the total number of assaults reported in all of 2008, according to the Public Security Ministry. And there is a widespread feeling that the National Police Force is severely understaffed.
With approximately 12,000 officers who split the days in three shifts, there could never be more than 4,000 officers on duty at one time, said Chávez, who worked for 15 years as a consultant with the ministry. He said that number drops closer to 3,000 officers on active duty countrywide at any given time when officers working on the borders and guarding embassies because there is no army are taken into account.
“The issue here is that, right now, the police are unable to protect the citizens,” he said. In addition, delinquency is facing a lax judicial system that seems unable to convict criminals. Between 1997 and 2007, drug-related charges filed increased eight-fold, while the conviction rate dropped from one in five to one in 40 – all despite a doubling of the number of judges (TT, 2008 Review). Criminals caught red-handed with stolen property often are freed due to insufficient evidence.
When questioned about the rise in crime, many experts and security officials reference the daily Extra – one of the most widely read newspapers in the country – which is replete with sensational stories on drugs, violence and murder set against pages sporting images of scantily clad women.
Chávez said such sensationalism, combined with public security as a primary political issue in electoral campaigns since the mid-1990s, has increased the public’s fear and made gun sales and private security a self-sustaining industry.
“You just need to buy a newspaper, and that’s all the advertising (a gun salesman or security firm) needs,” he said.
In some areas, such as San José’s infamous León XIII neighborhood, reports are that people looking for the quick use of a handgun can get a four-hour rental for ¢10,000, or close to $20 (TT, Nov. 7, 2008).
The Public Security Ministry said such activities are illegal under Costa Rican law, but they could be plausible in León XIII, which is known as “a troubled zone.”
The Arms and Explosives Law, passed in 1995, insists that all citizens must register their weapons with the General Arms Administration, and failure to do so is a criminal offense.
Both Chávez and Chavarría said guns provide a false sense of security, however, and their proliferation – which leads to the stealing of many legal firearms that end up on the black market – is a troubling trend.
“With fewer guns, fewer problems,” the director of armaments said. And while Chávez, the UNDP and the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress all have backed ideas to make gun ownership illegal or, at least, to impose tougher restrictions, no politician is supporting such a cause.
“It’s politically incorrect,” Chávez said. “For a Costa Rican (politician), it would be suicide. People believe guns mean security… It’s the same as in the U.S.”
But unlike in the U.S., Costa Rica doesn’t have a long history of gun ownership or, indeed, any kind of constitutional guarantee supporting gun ownership upon which to rest the butts of their rifles.
According to Chávez, Costa Rica’s gun history was catapulted to the forefront by political candidates and the failings of governmentbacked job initiatives in the mid-1990s. While Chavarría agreed the proliferation of firearms is a recent phenomenon, he said he believes that complete disarmament would be foolhardy and unrealistic.
“I believe it would be better to make the law stricter,” he said, adding that exams, psychological evaluations, enforcement and training requirements should be stricter.