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Country Reports

Spiral of violence in Costa Rica

No end in sight?

2022 was the most violent year in Costa Rica's history. The number of homicides reached a record 656, which corresponds to a murder rate of 12.6 per 100,000 inhabitants, twelve percent higher than the previous year. In comparison, Germany recorded a homicide rate of 0.25 in 2022. It is to be feared that the increase in violent crimes is a longer-term trend that is far from having reached its peak. This year, the number of killings is already 43 per cent higher than last year. Experts fear that homicides will rise to 900 by the end of 2023. What is the reason for this surprising development in the Central American showcase country Costa Rica?

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Costa Rica is considered a model nation in Latin America in terms of democracy and environmental protection and could be called a safe haven in the region for a long time. The OECD member, which abolished its army in 1948, had significantly less to fight with organised drug crime and homicides than, for example, the Central American countries of the so-called Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador). This has changed drastically in recent years. Within a decade - between 2012 and 2022 - the murder rate in the country of "pure life" increased by 66.5 percent.  In 2022, some cantons had murder rates that were twice as high or much higher than Honduras, which is notorious for its insecurity. The main reason for this is drug-related crime, which has spread rapidly in recent years. 62 percent of the murders recorded in 2022 are due to "settlements" in the drug milieu. Costa Rica is on the transit route for drugs from South America to Europe and the USA. In the 1990s, the country was initially dominated by cartels of Mexican (and to a lesser extent Colombian) origin. With the storage of larger quantities of drugs in the country and the payment of couriers with drugs, more and more illegal substances were circulated within Costa Rica - especially in the last ten years. As a result, from 2010 onwards, small cartels emerged, mainly consisting of Costa Ricans (so-called "minicarteles criollos") and modelled on the structures of the Mexican drug cartels. The emergence of a domestic drug scene and the increasing consumption of cocaine in the country eventually led to turf wars between drug traffickers and the different groups to which they belong. Costa Rica thus evolved from a transit country to a home for indigenous drug gangs, which expand their territories with gang wars and whose funds are increasingly laundered in the legal economy. Today, there are about 300 organised crime organisations in Costa Rica. On the one hand, the growing social inequality and lack of perspective, which is particularly present in the poverty-stricken and structurally weak regions of the country, are seen as the cause of the increase in drug trafficking.  On the other hand, savings in security forces and prevention measures are used as an explanation for the spiral of violence.

The full-length publication is only available in German.



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Evelyn Gaiser

Evelyn Gaiser bild

Head of the KAS office in Costa Rica +506 2296 6676


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