San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Homicide rate drops to lowest in region

From the print edition

By Isabella Cota Schwarz | Special to The Tico Times 

Costa Rica now has the lowest homicide rate in Central America and could become the first country to rid itself of the “violence epidemic” label that haunts the region.

A government report released last week showed the murder rate fell from 11.5 homicides for every 100,000 inhabitants in 2010 to 10.3 in 2011, the first drop in six years.

And preliminary numbers from the Public Security Ministry for the first months of this year show that the murder rate is dropping even further.

“In 2012, we want to pull the country out of what the World Health Organization calls a ‘violence epidemic,’ which refers to a homicide rate of over 10 for every 100,000 inhabitants,” Public Security Minister Mario Zamora said. “So far, we think we’re getting closer to that goal.”

His optimism comes at a time when Central America is perceived as a region increasingly held hostage by organized crime and drug-related violence. 

Headlines around the world tell stories of villagers getting caught in a gun battles, murdered journalists and riots in overpopulated prisons. In the last few years, U.S. officials visiting the region have focused on this issue, addressing it as the most pressing one.

The new figures show Costa Rica bucking the trend, with the lowest murder rate on record in the isthmus. Nicaragua follows with a rate of 14, while Panama has a rate of 19.

At the other end of the spectrum, the countries with the highest rates are El Salvador, with 71, and Honduras, which holds the title of murder capital of the world, with a staggering rate of 82 per 100,000 inhabitants.

Costa Rica’s improvement and ability to remain the least violent in the region comes with a price tag. Last year, the Public Security Ministry broke its spending record, using up to 94 percent of its $312 million budget.

Everything from new uniforms and bulletproof vests to 280 patrol cars equipped with GPS systems have been added in the last year. And while a policeman in Nicaragua earns an average of $120 a month, the lowest salary for an officer here is $697.

But for Zamora, resources alone do not explain the good news.

“I would point to our relationship with justice,” said the minister.

The country’s justice system is perhaps stronger here than in neighboring countries, he said, and recent arrests of police officers have strengthened the system’s integrity.

Yet while police work to prevent homicides and put criminals behind bars, prisons struggle to keep up.

Most worrying is the number of incarcerated people under 25, which, according to the Justice Ministry, grew by 300 percent in the last two years. Most of them are charged for crimes related with drugs or violence.

After incidents in Honduras and Mexico early this year, deadly prison riots have become indelible in the Latin American imagination. While it’s possible to see Costa Rica eventually standing out as the only spot in the region where violence is no longer an epidemic, a question mark hangs over the country’s capacity to deal with the next big problem, overcapacity prisons.

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