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Rising homicides in Costa Rica threaten Caribbean tourism industry, cargo theft risks increase near Limón port

8 Aug 17

Media reported on 6 August that the Costa Rican National Police was preparing a pilot plan in partnership with the Tourist Police and Public Security Ministry to offer greater security to foreign tourists.

IHS Markit perspective

Outlook and implications

  • Homicide rates are likely to continue rising while ongoing fiscal crisis limits government resources for increasing the security forces' capacity.
  • Rising violent robberies in Talamanca canton, Limón province, raises the likelihood of declining popularity for Caribbean beach and ecotourism resorts.
  • Ground cargo between Limón port and San José and Alajuela more likely to be targeted for theft because of increasing sophistication of armed criminal groups.


Death and injury; Terrorism

Sectors or assets

Tourism; Ground cargo; Marine

On 2 August, the Judicial Investigation Organism (Organismo de Investigación Judicial: OIJ) reported that homicides in Costa Rica had risen to 336 in January–July 2017 from 322 in the equivalent period of 2016, continuing the steady increase since 2014. The national homicide rate in 2016 was 11.8 per 100,000 people, higher than in neighbouring Nicaragua (7) and Panama (9). Security Minister Gustavo Mata has attributed the rising levels of violent crime to an increase in cocaine trafficking volumes and greater sophistication of local criminal groups influenced by Mexican cartel members, which have led to greater organisation and violence among these groups. The government has responded this year by training 1,500 new police officers, creating a new Organised Crime Jurisdiction and raising approximately USD82 million in additional funds for public security through a new corporation tax effective from September. However, its response is not yet having an impact on homicide rates, and the resources and police presence available remain insufficient for the scale of the problem.


A Costa Rican Coastguard seaman keeps watch at the Punta Arenas naval base near a midget submarine seized for drug trafficking in 2016 off the Pacific coast.

Getty Images: 72607644

One of the sectors most vulnerable to rising crime levels is tourism. Contributing around 5.5% of GDP and with 2.9 million visitors in 2016, tourism is the country's main source of foreign currency and 27% of registered businesses are dedicated to the sector. There is a risk that rising violent crime will damage Costa Rica's traditional image as a safe destination for foreigners, and that it will therefore lose competitiveness to its neighbours. Although violent robberies of foreigners are infrequent, they increased during the first half of 2017, especially in the Talamanca canton to the south of Limón port on the Caribbean coast. According to OIJ statistics, 50% of all reported assaults against foreigners in January–March this year took place in Cahuita and Bratsi in Talamanca, while a Canadian tourist was stabbed and killed for his camera in March near Puerto Viejo, Limón. The latter incident was relatively unusual, but Vice-President of the Tourist Chamber of the Southern Caribbean Jorge Molina said that the scarce police presence in the area meant that it was a situation "waiting to happen". A high proportion – 17% – also took place around Bahía Ballena in Pacific province Puntarenas. However, nationally, violent robbery rates are not increasing and are mainly concentrated in the Hospital, Catedral, and Merced districts of capital San José. Limón accounts for a growing proportion of national homicides. The province attracts fewer tourists than Puntarenas and Guanacaste, but hosts popular ecotourism and beach destinations including Cahuita, Manzanillo, and Puerto Viejo.

In May, intelligence reports from the United States and Costa Rica indicated that there was no beach in the country unaffected by maritime cocaine trafficking, with reports of boats suspected of transporting drugs doubling since 2013 to 254 in 2016, according to National Coastguard Service data. This far surpasses the Coastguard Service's capacity to effectively patrol coastal areas, with just 300 coastguards and 70 patrol boats.

Cargo theft

Despite the lack of official statistics on cargo theft, anecdotal evidence and events collected by IHS Markit show increased reports of armed robberies of lorries and containers in Costa Rica in 2016. In March 2017, the head of the Central American Federation of Transport (Fecatrans) said that criminal groups were operating in similar ways to those in northern Central America, adding that there was now more cargo theft occurring in Costa Rica than in Honduras, which has much higher overall levels of violent crime. Cargo theft incidents typically involve a small group of robbers carrying either small firearms or knives who threaten the driver to stop, then restrain him or her while offloading the cargo into their own vehicles. Preferred targets are white goods, coffee, spirits, or meat, and OIJ officials believe that the groups have access to intelligence regarding container contents that allows them to intercept those of greater value. Hotspots include highway route 32 from Limón port, route 1 from Caldera port, and border areas including route 2 to the Paso Canoas border crossing with Panama. There are also risks of cash robberies from vans in urban centres, particularly Cartago, Alajuela, and southern San José.

Despite low overall levels of corruption compared with the rest of Latin America, there have been cases of complicity within the police. In November 2016, five police officers were arrested for connections with cargo theft operations and for forming part of organised groups. In June 2017, former national police (Fuerza Pública) head José Fabio Pizarro was arrested for cocaine trafficking and arms possession, and is under investigation for providing transit routes and protection for international drug trafficking groups. If he is found guilty, this would be a high-profile example of organised criminal groups' ability to influence and co-opt security personnel.

Outlook and implications

The changing dynamics of drug trafficking in Costa Rica are fuelling greater volumes of trafficked drugs into Costa Rica as a transhipment point and propelling increasing organisation of local criminal groups. The government response has so far been insufficient to address these changes. In efforts to control the rising volumes of maritime drug trafficking, the US government has agreed to deliver two patrol boats in February 2018. However, this is unlikely to substantially deter drug shipments where far higher volumes of patrol boats are needed.

Currently facing a fiscal crisis, the government's ability to invest more in increasing security forces' capacity will be severely limited for at least another 12 months. Increased police deployment and improved judicial mechanisms for dealing with organised crime already put in place will, in the best-case scenario, contribute to containing the homicide rate from 2018; though it is unlikely to fall in the next 12 months. Further measures are also needed to address organised criminal groups' increasing influence and ability to penetrate security forces, in order to improve the latter's overall effectiveness and impartiality, decreasing violent robbery and homicide risks nationwide.

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