Costa Rica Country Profile


Key Statistics

Population: 4,69 million (Military Balance, 2014)

Capital: San Jose

Languages: Spanish (official)

Major Ethnic Groups: white or mestizo 83.6%, mulato 6.7%, indigenous 2.4%, black of African descent 1.1%, other 1.1%, none 2.9%, unspecified 2.2%

GDP per Capita (current US dollars): 11,246 (IMF World Economic Outlook, 2015)

GDP per Capita PPP (current international dollars): 15,534 (IMF World Economic Outlook, 2015)

Security Sector Stats

Active Armed Forces: Costa Rica has no standing formal armed force. It relies on moderately sized paramilitary organizations, numbering 9,800 (Military Balance, 2014)

Small Arms: The estimated total number of guns (both licit and illicit) held by civilians in Costa Rica is 400,000; Police in Costa Rica are reported to have 5,000  (Gun Policy, 2015)

Military Expenditure: n/a

Executive Summary

Compared with its Central American counterparts, Costa Rica has enjoyed comparatively low rates of violent crime. However, in recent years there are signs that crime is increasing. Some of this can be attributed to petty theft, but it is also spurred in part by the country’s increasing importance in the transnational drug trade, particularly as a transit point for cocaine coming from South America and heading to the United States.

Crime is driven both by local gangs and transnational drug trafficking organisations which have a presence in the country, with violent crime increasing, particularly in the capital, San José.

Costa Rica has an independent judiciary and its corruption levels compared to the rest of the region are relatively low. However, inefficiency in the courts system has led to a serious backlog of cases and high impunity rates. This has exacerbated a serious problem within the penitentiary system; that of overcrowding.

The police force suffers from corruption and a lack of funding, particularly with  police salaries, which has led to low morale and left officers vulnerable to being bribed and/or co-opted by criminal gangs.

Improving the resources and functioning of the national police, the country’s investigative unit and the court system will all help to combat the increasing crime levels, speed criminal investigations and drive down corruption levels. The government has embarked on initiatives to improve efficiency in tackling crime and appears open to engagement with outside actors.

Security and Justice Context

Costa Rica’s murder rate is substantially lower than that of its neighbours, though it almost doubled between 2000-2010. During this decade the homicide rate climbed from 6.3 murders per 100,000 inhabitants to 11.4. Since 2010, however, the rate has fallen for consecutive years, and in 2012 the preliminary rate was closer to the 2000 level at 8.3 homicides per 100,000 (See Figure 1.).


Fig. 1 Costa Rica Homicide Rate 2000-2012

The capital, San José, has been cited by the US State Department as an area of particular concern, with the criminal threat rated as “high,” and violent crime noted as a rising problem. Of the country’s 474 homicides in 2011, 459 occurred in the capital, where petty crimes and home invasions also reportedly increased.

The number of crimes committed using firearms increased significantly from 2005-2009, with over 2,000 more crimes reported to have involved guns in 2009 than in 2005. The number of homicides committed with firearms also saw an overall increase in this period, with 338 of 525 homicides—64 percent of reported cases—attributed to firearms in 2009. Of these, only 8 percent were reportedly drug-related, while 25 percent occurred as a result of robbery or assault. According to estimates, there are at least as many illegal firearms as legal firearms circulating in the country (around 200,000), indicating that arms trafficking is a problem.

According to the Costa Rican Drugs Institute (Instituto Costarricense sobre Drogas), drug trafficking, in particular cocaine trafficking, represents the biggest organised crime threat to the country. Costa Rica serves as an important transit point for illegal drugs on their way to North America, Asia and Europe, due in part to its geographic location and porous borders, as well as to its limited security institutions—the country has no military and an underequipped police force.

As drug trafficking in the Central American isthmus has increased in the past decade, Costa Rica has experienced significant increases in cocaine seizures, up from 1,749 kilos of cocaine in 2001 to 32,435 kilos seized in 2007. Seizures from 2011-2012 increased from 9.6 tonnes to 15.5 tonnes (See Figure 2.).


Fig. 2 Costa Rica Cocaine Seizures 2000-2012

Costa Rica has the presence of transnational criminal groups, particularly those from Mexico. Along with the Sinaloa Cartel, the Familia Michoacana and the Gulf Cartel are believed to operate in Costa Rica, and it is believed that the Zetas may have a presence as well. Roughly 98 percent of all drug seizures are connected to the Sinaloa Cartel, according to the United States.

There are also a number of local networks in operation.  Anti-narcotics police reportedly dismantled over 109 drug trafficking organisations in Costa Rica in 2012, 97 of which were local networks.

The rise in Costa Rica’s importance as a cocaine transit point has in part fuelled the increase in domestic drug consumption and appearance of “sicarios,” or hired assassins. It is common practice for transnational criminal groups to pay their local partners in Costa Rica in product (cocaine) as well as cash.

In a 2010 National Survey on Drug Consumption in Costa Rica[1] (Consumo de Drogas en Costa Rica Encuesta Nacional 2010), 0.8 percent of Costa Ricans[2] reported using coca-derived substances within the past year, up 0.5 percent from 2006. Consumption reported by men was much higher (1.6 percent) than for women (0.3 percent). The United National Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates that cocaine is used globally by approximately 0.3-0.4 percent of the population.

The Costa Rica-Panama border has been cited as an area of particular concern, due in part to its economic and geographic vulnerability and various uncontrolled border crossing points. The town of Golfito, alongside the Gulf of Dulce and close to the Panamanian border, is one important stopping point for traffickers, who pay poor local fisherman in exchange for docking and refuelling their boats, demonstrating significant gaps in local governance in this area.

Aside from drug trafficking, criminal organisations operating in the country deal in the stealing of cars, burglary and petty theft. Kidnapping is a relatively minor problem, with 10 reported kidnappings in 2011, according to the US State Department, and a 100 percent resolution rate.

Perceptions of Insecurity

According to Vanderbilt University’s Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), citizen perceptions of insecurity decreased between 2008 and 2010, falling from a score of 34.2 points to 32 points[3] . This gave the country the third best score for perceptions of insecurity in 2010, behind only Canada and the United States.

However, the perception of insecurity rose from 2010 to 2012 to a score of 36.5 (See Figure 3.).

Fig. 3 Perception of Insecurity 2010 and 2012

A 2009-2010 public opinion study performed by the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales – FLACSO) showed that 74 percent of Costa Ricans believed that there are always, or almost always, drug sales occurring in their community. Despite a current lack of serious violence or insecurity this could pose problems in the future.

Security and Justice Institutions

Justice Institutions

Costa Rica’s judicial branch is fully independent, as mandated in the 1993 constitution, and is divided into three spheres. The highest court is the Supreme Court (Corte Suprema de Justicia), below which sit appeals courts (Tribunales de Apelaciones)and district courts (Juzgados de Distrito). There are 22 Supreme Court judges, elected to eight year terms by the Legislative Assembly (Asamblea Legislativa).

The Supreme Court is divided into four chambers. The first three chambers’ primary responsibilities are to review decisions of the lower courts and, in extraordinary cases, to hear cassation appeals, with the Third Chamber (Sala Tercera) in charge of reviewing criminal cases. The fourth chamber is the Constitutional Court (Corte Constitucional), which is responsible for ensuring constitutional supremacy.

There are no juries in Costa Rican courts.

Since December 2011, Costa Rica’s court system has Appeals Courts, which replaced the former system of Cassation Courts (Tribunales de Casación), allowing for those unhappy with a court decision in any part of the country to appeal the decision.

Two important judiciary bodies are the Public Ministry (Ministerio Público), which helps to determine the scope of investigations and prosecutions, and the Judicial Investigation Agency (Organismo de Investigación Judicial). The latter is responsible for criminal investigations, including anti-drug trafficking investigations and operations, and has a special unit, the Immediate Intervention Unit (Unidad de Intervención Inmediata), which assists in raids. The Public Prosecutor’s Office (Fiscalía General) is the highest body in the Public Ministry, and is responsible for representing the Public Ministry during Supreme Court hearings, investigating criminal cases and ensuring the law is correctly applied.[4]

Since 1998 there is also a cost-free Victims Advocacy Office (Oficina de Atención a la Víctima), powered by the Public Ministry, which provides legal representation for victims.

The Superior Council (Consejo Superior) is responsible for handling the resources of the judicial branch.

Costa Rica is also home to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, established by the Organisation of American States (OAS) in 1979 to ensure the appropriate application of the American Convention on Human Rights. The court is located in San Jose.

A 2010 legislative branch mandate instated a Special Permanent Human Rights Commission (Comisión Especial Permanente de Derechos Humanos), run by the Legislative Assembly, which, among other things, is responsible for promoting sexual and gender-based rights. In regard to this, the commission has run into some initial resistance for the current commission president’s anti-gay rights stance.

The Costa Rican equivalent of the Ombudsman’s Office is the Defender of the Inhabitants (Defensoría de los Habitantes), controlled by the legislative branch. The body, which replaced previous institutions in 1993, is responsible for promoting and protecting the rights of the country’s citizens.

According to both the US State Department and the US NGO, Freedom House, the independence of Costa Rica’s judiciary is generally respected, as is the right to a fair trial. The government also generally respects constitutional laws preventing arbitrary arrest and detention. However, the State Department’s 2011 human rights report noted that according to the Ombudsman, pre-trial detention was being used more frequently than necessary, with nearly 13 percent of the prison population in pre-trial detention. Freedom House also noted that prisoners often experience long pre-trial detention periods and that the judicial process is often delayed.

According to a report by the NGO Jurisis Victomologia , less than 2 percent of criminal cases that arrived before the judiciary in 2010 actually resulted in a sentence, pointing to a high level of impunity. For homicides, the resolution rate was 15 percent and for drug trafficking it was only 0.4 percent.

Costa Rica’s prison system is controlled by the Justice and Peace Ministry (Ministerio de Justicia y Paz) and managed by the General Directorate of Social Adaptation (Dirección General de Adaptación Social). The Ombudsman monitors and reports on prison conditions.

The system is marred by overcrowding, leading to poor conditions and sanitation, violence among prisoners and shortages in personnel. Official prison capacity was placed at 8,536 in 2010, while the 2012 population stood at 14,963. The prison population, as well as the percentage of overcrowding, has been steadily rising. According to Freedom House, there have also been reports of abuse by prison guards.

Security Institutions

Since 1996 Costa Rica has had a centralised police force, the Public Force (Fuerza Publica),which is controlled by the Ministry of Public Security (Ministerio de Seguridad Pública). In 2011 the force was estimated to consist of approximately 10,000-12,000 officers and an additional 4,500 Civil Guard members. The Public Force is responsible for general law enforcement and security as well as participating in counter-narcotics operations and border patrol, and works with prison police, municipal police, judicial police, and special immigration police.

The use of force by the national police is fairly limited, and it is the justice department, not police, who usually perform investigations and question suspects.

Costa Rica also has a number of special police units in charge of anti-narcotics operations. These include the Narcotics Team (Sección de Estupefacientes), the Drug-Control Police (Policía de Control de Drogas—PCD), the Special Intervention Unit (Unidad Especial de Intervención), and the Immediate Intervention Police (Servicio Policial de Intervención Inmediata).

Police corruption continues to be fairly moderate compared with many other countries in the region; however, it is still a concern. In June 2012, seven police were each sentenced to 22 years in prison for drug trafficking, and 13 were arrested for bribery in September. The previous year, the government reported that 27 officials were arrested for criminal behaviour, though it was unclear what types of crimes.

Costa Rica’s police salaries are better than in the rest of the region, but still barely adequate for maintaining a family, with the base salary for a Public Force officer currently standing at around US$340 per month. In 2011, police protested low salaries and inadequate working conditions, and this kind of unrest could lead to increased corruption levels in the future if it is not addressed.

According to the 2012 LAPOP survey, public confidence in the Costa Rican police is relatively low, with the country registering a score of 45.5 points[5] (See Figure 4.). This placed it above Argentina and Mexico, but below countries like Colombia, Ecuador and El Salvador.


Fig. 4 Confidence in Police 2012

Costa Rica has had no standing army since it was abolished by the 1948 constitution. The country does have a National Coast Guard (Servicio Nacional de Guardacostas) and Air Surveillance Police (Servicio de Vigilancia Aeria); however, according to the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), as of April 2011 these forces were very poorly equipped, with a dozen outdated boats and only two helicopters. In December 2012, Costa Rica announced the purchase of two new helicopters, at a total cost of $7.3 million.

Since 2010, President Laura Chinchilla has shifted the focus of Costa Rica’s government to an increased emphasis on security, which has included close collaboration with the United States and other international partners on drug interdiction efforts.

The 2010-2014 Government Plan (Plan de Gobierno 2010-2014) includes plans to increase the amount of national revenue directed toward security. The president proposed increasing the Public Force and Transit Police by 50 percent, purchasing new equipment, and creating new police training schools, with the aim of professionalising the force.  The document also announced plans to increase the number of judges in certain courts in order to speed the judicial process, and to create specialised work groups composed of police, judges and prosecutors in order to better combat theft and other crimes with serious social impact.

The plan notably included a focus on social measures to reduce violence levels, including the strengthening of the country’s Violence Observatory[6] (Observatorio de Violencia), improving formal and informal educational opportunities, and “cleaning” school environments of drugs.

State of Security and Justice Sector Reform

Justice Sector Reform and Initiatives

A 2010 peace and security report titled “Integrated and Sustainable Policy of Citizen Security and Promotion of Social Peace”[7] (Política Integral y Sostenible de Seguridad Ciudadana y Promoción de la Paz Social-POLSEPAZ) highlighted the need to improve coordination between the three government branches, while strengthening the capacities of each one. 

In the justice sector, this included the strengthening of the capacities of the Judicial Investigation Body and the Public Ministry, and in particular, providing them with more resources to investigate and detect criminal activity.

Regarding criminal prosecutions, the report discussed the need to quicken judicial processes and increase the rate of resolution of crimes. One goal mentioned in the 2010-2014 government plan is to create three new flagrancy courts in the provinces of Limón, Guanacaste and Puntarenas.

At the time of writing, it was unclear as to whether these goals had been achieved or put into practice.

The government also placed a focus on strengthening the capacity and functioning of the prison system. In a report of its 2011-2012 accomplishments titled “We Are Advancing on the Road to Human Security: 2 Years of Achievements” (Avanzamos en la Ruta de la Seguridad Humana: 2 Años de Logros), the government announced that it had created 1,690 new spaces in jails, with the presumed aim of addressing the problem of overcrowding. However, the government also had planned to provide work training and other activities to prisoners, and at the time of writing it was unclear what progress had been made in this regard.

Security Sector Reform and Initiatives

President Chinchilla has made security a top priority of her administration. Part of this initiative is to greatly increase funding for resources placed towards security.

According to the 2011-2012 report of government accomplishments, the Chinchilla administration has made some progress in professionalising the police force. The report stated that the government had increased the police force to 14,000[8] , created a new police training school in Santo Domingo in the Heredia province[9] , invested 450 million colones (approximately US$900,000) in a migration post in Peñas Blancas[10] , and acquired over 250 new police vehicles. As of December 2012, there were also plans in place to increase Public Force officers’ monthly salaries for 2013 by 21,000 colones (approximately US$42).

One of Chinchilla’s more controversial security plans, which at the time of writing had not been implemented, involves the loosening of wiretapping laws, which would allow the police to intercept phone calls without the third-party participation of a judge, as is currently mandated under the constitution. Another is the proposition to legalise the extradition of Costa Rican citizens to the United States if a US indictment is issued.

To date, the president has not been able to achieve some of her financing goals, possibly hindering some of these initiatives. One of her key funding ideas was to implement a tax on casinos that would have brought in revenue to be placed towards security. However, the initiative was toppled in 2011.

Costa Rica has been the recipient of US aid in the form of the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), an aid program that has sent $496 million to the region since 2008 to assist law enforcement and justice institutions and promote community policing programs, among other measures. CARSI has focused less on taking on sweeping reform measures, though, and more on increasing the capacity of forces to bolster citizen security. Costa Rica received more than US$18.4 million in security aid from the US in 2012, including equipment such as night vision goggles, a high-tech satellite and radio communications station, two coast guard stations and new interceptor boats, as well as increasing US patrol presence.

President Chinchilla appears to be working to strengthen international ties with other governments on the issue of tackling crime. In a November 2012 meeting with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Honduran President Porfirio Lobo, the three agreed there was a need to strengthen alliances in police-related matters.

Parliamentary/Congressional Capacity for Oversight

The Legislative Assembly is unicameral and is comprised of 57 members, elected to four-year terms by seven multi-member constituencies (one for each province) using a closed-list proportional representation system. They cannot be elected to a consecutive term. The legislature is constitutionally independent from the executive and the judiciary. Costa Rica’s legislature has the power to provide oversight of the executive and is considered be stronger than its Central American counterparts.

The Legislative Assembly’s power to elect Supreme Court judges also means that they have oversight over the judicial process. If there are no attempts to remove them, judges are automatically re-elected after the first eight year term, but the Legislative Assembly, though it occurs extremely infrequently, can choose not to re-elect them, as they did to one judge in November 2012.

Security and Justice Opportunities

Costa Rica was ranked 48 out of 176 countries in Transparency International’s 2012 corruption index, with a score of 54[11] . This was a significantly better rating than any of the country’s Central American neighbours, as well as the majority of countries in South America. Costa Rica’s 2012 ranking among other countries represented a slight improvement from 2011.

Costa Rica’s relatively clean record in comparison with its neighbours, as well as the stability of its democracy, provides a number of opportunities for engagement with the justice and security sectors. Though the homicide rate has fallen in recent years, it is important to work toward the strengthening of judicial and security institutions to ensure crime does not become a serious issue, as the incidence of drug trafficking appears to be on the increase again.

Justice Sector Opportunities

Focusing attention on strengthening the capacity and improving efficiency within the courts system is vital, as indicated by allegations of high impunity rates. Based on various reports, even when cases are processed and/or solved, the rate is slow, placing an added burden on the prison system due to the problem of pre-trial detention.

Aiding the Judicial Investigation Agency (OIJ) could also be a key area of focus as it is the body responsible for many of the country’s criminal investigations and works closely with security forces. In an environment of increasing organised criminal activity, this institution will be essential to tackling drug trafficking and violence.

Prison reform is another important area of focus for Costa Rica. The government has already taken steps to increase capacity, but further resources and assistance should be directed towards improving conditions and increasing prison personnel. At the current occupancy level, the penitentiary system still appears a long way off from being able to house the number of inmates, and addressing the problem of pre-trial detention alone will not ease this problem.

Security Sector Opportunities

Improving the functioning of the police force, as President Chinchilla has already begun to do by increasing police numbers, is an important security step. More than anything, proper resources and training need to be provided to the force, as well as salary increases to boost morale and cut corruption before it reaches the levels seen in other Central American countries, notably Guatemala and Honduras. This is especially pressing if the presence of transnational drug traffickers continues.

New forces and operations should be trained particularly on border and coastal regions, where the threat of increased drug trafficking is highest.

Additionally, attention should be paid to the president’s socio-economic goals. It was noted that poor areas of the country are places that traffickers tend to infiltrate—for example, in the poor fishing villages—therefore increasing educational and work opportunities could serve to curb crime in the future.

Civil Society Actors to Engage With

Costa Rica has a large number of active NGOs. One of the most prominent in the justice, human rights and nonviolence sector is the Justice and Peace Service of Latin America[12] (Servicio de Paz y Seguridad en America Latina – SERPAJ), which  promotes human rights through institutional transformation and nonviolence.

A second noteworthy NGO is the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress[13] (Fundacion Arias por la Paz y el Progreso Humano)—founded by former Costa Rican President Oscar Arias Sanchez—which is dedicated to violence prevention and the promotion of a strong democracy.


Council on Hemispheric Affairs, “Costa Rica: An Army-less Nation in a Problem-Prone Region,” June 2011

Freedom House, “Freedom in the World 2012–Costa Rica,” June 2012

Instituto Costarricense Sobre Drogas, “Boletin Informativo: Crimen Organizado 2012,” 2012

Instituto sobre Alcoholismo y Farmacodependencia, “Consumo de drogas en Costa Rica, Encuesta Nacional 2010: Consumo de cocaína y crack,” 2012

Observatorio de la Violenciadel Ministerio de Justicia y Paz de Costa Rica, “Informe Estadistico 6: Armas de Fuego y Violencia en Costa Rica,” December 2011

Partido Liberacion Nacional, “Laura Chinchilla: Plan de Gobierno 2010-2014,” 2010

Porth, M, “Costa Rica in the Crosshairs,” December 2011, published via InSight Crime

Presidencia de la Republica de Costa Rica, “Informe de Labores 2011-2012,” 2012

Programas de las Naciones Unidas para el Desarrollo, “Política integral y sostenible de seguridad ciudadana y promoción de la paz social,” May 2010

Transparency International, “Corruption Perceptions Index 2012,” December 2012

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “Transnational Organized Crime in Central America and the Caribbean, a Threat Assessment,” September 2012

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “Homicide Statistics 2012,” Data set retrieved from

U.S. Department of State, “2012 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report Volume 1: Drug and Chemical Control,” March 2012

U.S. Department of State, “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2011,” May 2012

U.S. Department of State Bureau of Diplomatic Security, “Costa Rica 2012 Crime and Safety Report,” March 2012.


[1] Survey performed by the Alcoholism and Drug Dependency Institute (Instituto sobre Alcoholisma y Farmacodependencia).

[2] The survey was based on persons between the ages 12-70 living in houses.

[3] LAPOP recodes respondents’ answers into a scale of 0-100 with a higher score representing a higher perception of insecurity.

[4] In Costa Rica, the Attorney General’s Office (Procuraduría General de la República) formerly served  the function of the Public Prosecutor’s office, but is now part of the executive branch and advises the government in legal and technical matters.

[5] LAPOP recodes respondents’ answers into a scale of 0-100 with a higher score representing a higher degree of confidence.

[6] The Observatory comes under the Ministry of Justice and Peace (Ministerio de Justicia y Paz).

[7] The report was submitted by a committee directed by President Chinchilla and assisted by the United Nations Development Program.

[8] Chinchilla’s goal is to increase the force to 20,000, and 1,000 police were added in the first year of the administration.

[9] Santo Domingo is located just north of the capital, San José.

[10]  Peñas Blancas is located along the Pan-American highway on Costa Rica’s border with Nicaragua.

[11] Transparency International scores countries between 0 and 100, with 100 being the least corrupt.

[12] More information on their website:

[13] More information on their website:

Igarapé Institute

The Igarapé Institute is a southern think tank devoted to evidence-based policy and action on complex social challenges including global drug policy, citizen security and international cooperation. Its goal is to stimulate humane engagement on emerging security and development issues. Across all its programs, the Institute adopts a three-prong approach:

  1. Diagnose challenges through cutting-edge research;
  2. Trigger informed debate and action across public and private spheres; and
  3. Design tailor-made solutions that are people-centered.

The International Security Sector Advisory Team

The International Security Sector Advisory Team (ISSAT) provides practical support to the international community in its efforts to improve security and justice, primarily in conflict-affected and fragile states. It does this by working with a group of member states and institutions to develop and promote good security and justice reform practices and principles, and by helping its members to build their capacity to support national and regional security and justice reform processes.