San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Crime Rates Drop, But Insecurity Reigns

The number of officers in Costa Rica’s National Police force has been increasing. The Public Security Ministry’s budget has almost doubled in two years.

New crime laws have been written and passed.

And Costa Rica’s homicide rate has grown right alongside this increased attention to national security.

From 2000 to 2008, the number of homicides in Costa Rica per 100,000 people per year increased from six to 11.

Across Central America, murder rates have climbed every year since 2000 with few signs of decline. Some countries reached close to 60 homicides per 100,000 people per year, according to a 2009-2010 security report released by the United Nations Development Program (PNUD) on Monday.

On average, Central America reported more than 33 murders per 100,000 people per year in 2008, making the isthmus the most murderous region in the world when it comes to non-political homicides, PNUD officials say.

The world as a whole averaged nine murders per 100,000 people in the year 2006, the latest year for which statistics are available.

Ricardo González, a spokesman for the Ministry of Public Security, said that the report is worrisome for the region, but Costa Rica should be commended for its actions in keeping its homicide rate lower than the rates of the other six countries in the region.

He said homicides in the Caribbean port city of Limón are down to two murders per month, adding that in years past, that number was as high as seven or eight per month.

While Costa Rica may boast the lowest homicide rate in the region, 59 percent of its citizens believe murder to be the biggest threat to citizen security. This represents the second highest percentage among the seven surveyed countries.

Some may consider this response to be merely a perception problem, but security expert Paul Cháves, who worked as an advisor to former Security Minster Rogelio Ramos, said that Costa Rica has crossed a critical line.

“The universal standard is 10,” he said. “When a country passes 10 homicides per 100,000 people, that country has a serious problem. In Costa Rica, it’s not a problem of perception. It’s a real problem.”

The PNUD report primarily blames spikes in drug trafficking and a growing number of gangs as the main culprits for the rising assaults, and few experts disagree.

Sill, an additional 4,000 national police officers, who were commissioned this year, and a $180 million annual budget, which was doubled in 2006, haven’t stopped murder rates from rising.

A poll published in the report indicates that Costa Ricans, along with most all of their Central American counterparts, believe that a lack of programs for youngsters is the main factor for the rise in murders.

For Cháves, however, the solution to the problem is more profound than adding a few after-school programs. “The corruption is worse than ever,” Cháves said. “I worked for 15 years in the Ministry of Public Security, and I have never seen worse corruption than in this government.”

Police officers have gained notoriety in the past year for accepting money to turn a blind eye as drug traffickers cross the border.

The Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) reports that 120 National Police officers were investigated for corruption charges between January and June 2009.

González noted that part of the problem is that police officers don’t receive a high enough salary. With an average pay of $600 per month, it is inevitable that policemen will accept bribes to look the other way, he said.

And Costa Rica’s lax gun laws don’t seem to help much either. An aging gun law allows citizens to own up to five guns per person.

A new, more restrictive law is making its way through the Legislative Assembly, although is seems unlikely to pass before the end of the term of President Oscar Arias. According to the OIJ, 70 percent of all homicides in Costa Rica are gun-related, while the country has seen a spike in arms purchased for personal use between 2005 and 2008.

But a law to completely ban guns seems highly improbable because of the outcry that would ensue.

“It would be political suicide to back a law like that,” Cháves said.

So What Works?

Whether the solution involves weeding out corruption, increasing surveillance, adding more educational programs, restricting gun access or any other of a number of ideas that governments have tossed around, one thing seems certain in the eyes of many: harsher penalties and strict punishments don’t work.

“Solutions to security problems don’t come from the hard fist, but from strategy, knowledge and the development of adequate tools,” said Luiza Carvalho, Costa Rica’s resident representative for PNUD.

Colombia, which was long viewed as among the most homicidal countries in Latin America, has drastically reduced the number of murders in the past two decades.

The number of homicides per 100,000 people per year in Colombia has fallen from 330 in 1990 to 34 in 2007.

In 1994, the country’s capital city of Bogotá decided that the city, rather than the national police, should be in charge of reducing crime. After implementing a municipal police system in 1994, the capital city’s homicide rate has fallen every year, from 80 per 100,000 to 19 in 2007.

In 1998, Sao Paulo, Brazil went through a similar overhaul and appointed several experts in newly created government positions to implement new strategies.

Since then, Sao Paulo’s crime rate per 100,000 per year has been consistently falling – from 35 in 1998 to 11 in 2008.

In Costa Rica, some new plans have been devised, but most have stalled as the election season approaches.

“Whatever they are trying to do now is completely symbolic,” Cháves said. “Politicians are worried about elections. We will have to wait for the next administration to really overhaul the security problems in this country.”


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