San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

WikiLeaks: As crime rises, Costa Rica ‘no longer safe’

The cable was straightforward. Crime in Costa Rica was worsening. The country considered the most secure in Central America “is no longer safe.”

That was the message sent by a U.S. diplomat on Nov. 10, 2009, in a WikiLeaks cable on security in Costa Rica. The U.S. official elaborated on the situation, saying in five to 10 years, public security could “deteriorate to a level similar to El Salvador.”

A series of cables first published by the daily La Nación cited Costa Rica’s losing battle in public safety efforts in the country. The cables discussed policy weaknesses and how the U.S. could help to improve the situation. The statement was sent during the administration of Oscar Arias.

U.S. diplomats credited Arias for paying more attention to crime (at the time of the cables’ release, Arias’ government requested a 27 percent increase in funding for law enforcement), and added: “Security did not deteriorate overnight. Rather, inadequate security policies, insufficient provisioning, and half-measures were the norm for at least 30 years.”

Statistics used to demonstrate the growing crime rate included an increase in homicides from 2007 to 2008. The number of murders rose from 369 to 512 the following year. Robberies and carjackings also happened more frequently.

San José, Limón and the Caribbean coast registered the highest crime rates.

A former security minister told embassy staff that over the past decade only 10 percent of “filed criminal complaints had been resolved, either by conviction or other settlement.” Another cable sent on Aug. 30, 2007,    described the National Police as ineffective and corrupt. It did acknowledge that Costa Rica has the least corrupt police force in Central America, but the cable added that, “[police] are significantly under-funded and under-trained.”

A cable sent on Nov. 10, 2009, highlighted Costa Rica’s drug problem that year. The variety of substances seized by authorities reads like a passage out of a Hunter S. Thompson novel.  “As of mid-October 2009, Costa Rican authorities had seized 14.7 metric tons of cocaine… The [government] also seized over 175,805 doses of crack cocaine, 10 kg of heroin, nearly 700 kilograms of processed marijuana, and eradicated over 600,000 marijuana plants. They also seized 268 doses of ecstasy and 34 kgs of ephedrine.”

As drugs are trafficked through Costa Rica – or through the waters on the Pacific coast – some drugs, usually cocaine, were used as payment for services. The cables blamed that payment system as the “root cause for the national crack cocaine epidemic” seen in Costa Rica.

It also described border security at the Paso Canoas area in Panama as “porous,” which created an influx of drug trafficking.

Statistics, however, showed that drug-related arrests increased from 17,000 in 2008 to 52,000 in 2009.

Another cable from April 5, 2009, also said Costa Rica was vulnerable to financial crimes. A team from the U.S. Treasury Department met with Costa Rican officials and discovered “an environment ripe for financial crimes due to untaxed and unregulated casinos, legalized prostitution and increased narco-trafficking.”

Still, in the Aug. 2007 cable the U.S. government displayed some confidence that it could “nudge” Costa Rica’s government in a direction that could “serve as a regional model for combating transnational criminal activity and violent domestic crime without a military.” Costa Rica relies on assistance from the U.S. government, meaning the United States could influence how money coming into Costa Rica is used.

Costa Rica remains a significant transit point for not only drugs, but also people,  currency and weapons. But it is clear that U.S. diplomats believe Costa Rica is willing to tackle its problems with help from the U.S.

“A successful comprehensive regional security strategy for Central America therefore must include appropriately trained and equipped Costa Rican forces, willing and able to cooperate with counterparts in neighboring countries, both civilian and military,” a cable stated. 

In a slight jab at Costa Rica – neither related to drugs nor security – a cable author pondered if Costa Rica would be willing to accept these changes in spite of the country’s feelings of superiority in comparison to the rest of Central America.

“Costa Rica’s sense of exceptionalism has made them historically reluctant to embrace regional initiatives,” the U.S. government said.

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