San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Costa Rica suffered through most violent year on record in 2016

Not even Costa Rica could avoid the curse of 2016, as it marked the most violent year in the country’s history. Annual statistics confirm that Costa Rica continues to show alarming trends in violence, specifically when it comes to homicide and traffic mortality rates.

End-0f-year statistics from the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) show that the country set an unenviable record for murders in a single year, with 577 reported homicides in 2016, up 19 killings from last year’s previous record high.

Among these figures were notable murders of international residents, including the shooting of U.S. citizen John Lonergan outside of a night club in Jacó last September, as well as the brutal slaying of 56-year-old U.S. businessman Dirk Beauchamp alongside four members of his family in Matapalo, Guanacaste in February.

Compiled with the latest census numbers, that leaves Costa Rica with a murder rate of 12 killings for every 100,000 people in the country. That rate has nearly doubled since 2002, though it still remains a far cry from neighbors in the Northern Triangle such as El Salvador (104 killings per 100,000 people) and Honduras (61 killings per 100,000 people), according to 2015 World Bank data.

Meanwhile, on Costa Rican roads, numbers from the Traffic Police show that there were 448 accident-related deaths in 2016. That is up a staggering 50 “on-site” fatalities from the previous record rate set in 2015. More than a quarter of those killed on the roads were between the ages of 21 t0 30.

A recent survey from Australia’s Global Positioning Specialists listed Costa Rican roadways as the fourth most dangerous in the world for drivers, taking into account the poor road conditions and high mortality rate.

In terms of both homicides and traffic deaths, the deadly trend has begun spilling into the new year, according to a OIJ report that listed nine people killed in traffic accidents or murders on Sunday alone.

Rising rates of violence have also led people to become increasingly worried about safety throughout the country, according to a University of Costa Rica School of Statistics report from December. The report showed that more than half of those polled consider Costa Rica’s level of insecurity to be either high or very high.

Contact Michael Krumholtz at

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Don Blake

And what is the government doing about it?….absolutely nothing!

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Ken Morris

Some may see this as linguistic hair-splitting, but I’m not comfortable referring to the 448 killed on the roads as “traffic accidents,” or with saying that Costa Rica’s roads are especially dangerous for “drivers.”

I haven’t seen the final tally, but I’m thinking that around 70 of those killed “on the spot” in 2016 were pedestrians. While I guess these killings can be categorized as “traffic accidents,” since presumably the motorists didn’t intend to hit the pedestrians, I doubt that the pedestrian victims thought of themselves as part of “traffic.” To refer to them this way is to view them from the perspective of the motorists, which to my mind is a biased perspective.

And while regarding these pedestrain fatalities as part of the dangers “drivers” face is also technically true, since the drivers who kill pedestrians usually endure some hassles afterward, it’s a bit insulting to equate these hassles with the dangers of being killed that pedestrians face. Indeed, while I didn’t myself check the math, one website reports that pedestrians in Costa Rica are 500 times more likely to be killed by motor vehicles than pedestrians in either North America or Europe. Even if this number is grossly inflated, the emphasis I think should be on the dangers to pedestrians, not to drivers.

And for every pedestrian killed by a motor vehicle, how many are merely hurt? The ratio is usually in the range of ten-to-one, which amounts to a lot of harm done to the 75% of the population that must navigate without protective steel or airbags.

Meanwhile, there’s the fact that after pedestrian deaths are substracted from the total number of fatalities, nearlly half of the remaining fatalities are motorcyclists. Of course, these aren’t good either, but usually the word “driver” isn’t used for motorcyclists. More to the point, half of the motorcyclists on the roads in Costa Rica are unlicensed, there are no programs available to anyone who wants to learn how to ride a motorcycle (in fact, motorcyclists are in a Catch 22 when it comes to being licensed, since they must first learn how to ride on their own and then illegally ride to the location that gives out the licenses), and both the law and custom permit incredibly dangerous motorcycle practices, such as riding between traffic lanes.

If we substract out the motorcyclists as well as the pedestrians from the traffic fatality count, we therefore come up with a death tally for the drivers of vehicles with four or more wheels less than half as high as the reported total. But guess what? A good portion, I think over half, of these drivers are drunk . The death risks for ordinary sober drivers are actually fairly low. In fact, the number of deaths among ordinary sober drivers is darn near the same as the number of pedestrians motorists kill.

Finally, there’s that pesky word “accident.” This term is still quite popular among the traffic gurus in Costa Rica, but has fairly successfully been challenged in the US by opponents of drunk driving, who prefer to call these incidents “crashes.” Their argument is that the term “accident” tends to deflect responsibility from drivers that drivers should shoulder. Specifically, when a drunk gets behind the wheel and crashes, that is no accident but a predictable outcome. By extension, drivers who neglect to turn on their headlights at night or run red lights and so on don’t merely have accidents but rather cause crashes for which they are responsible. By further extension, there’s a certain predictable risk of crashing by anyone who gets behind the wheel, and these risks should no more be discounted as mere accidents than should the instances in which lifelong smokers develop lung cancer. When people choose to do something with known and predictable risks, calling the outcomes “accidents” is a bit irresponsible.

Sometimes it is said that there’s a culture of irresponsibility in Costa Rica, such that buck-passing and blaming the other guy is business as usual. I won’t offer an opinion about whether or not this culture exists generally, but will say that it plainly pervades discussions of traffic safety. The very language of these discussions does this, as also does the loose and misleading reporting of data.

Once you parse the data, the problem areas reveal themselves quite clearly, and point to clear areas of irresponsibility. But when the data aren’t parsed, a misdirected compassion for drivers tends to be implied. In reality, responsible sober drivers in Costa Rica are quite safe. Those who aren’t safe are the motorcyclists and pedestrians, while most of the rest of the drivers who crash are either drunk or otherwise have only themselves to blame. Not much of this is accidental, I don’t believe.

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Charles House

But we’re the happiest people on Earth!

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Don Blake

And what is the government doing about it?….absolutely nothing!

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