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Costa Rica was one of the last stops on our road trip through Mexico and Central America. After all of the warnings and horrifying stories about violence in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, Costa Rica seemed like a place to relax, a country that I thought would have no fenced houses or military checkpoints, but rather white sand beaches, coconut palms and colorful tropical birds. Pura vida — this is how Costa Ricans approach the world. We were surprised therefore to hear similar warnings in the country known as “The Switzerland of Central America.”

“Don’t walk in this neighborhood with your cameras, it is not safe for you,” warned a security guard at the SOS Village located in Limon, where we were filming a documentary. I assured him that we would be careful and that nothing could possibly happen to us in broad daylight.

I guess I didn’t get his point.

“First, they will ask you for money; even if you give it to them, they will ask you for more, and then, they will kill you,” the guard explained. The word “kill” seemed too strong to me. But after several locals, including children living in the area, repeated the guard’s warning, taking a taxi from the fenced territory to the center of Limon seemed to be the best idea.

With a thriving Afro-Caribbean community and a population of 60,000, the Caribbean port city made international headlines in June. Turtle conservationist Jairo Mora was killed at night while checking on leatherback turtles. (Their eggs are popular contraband for poachers.) A month before, Mora told La Nacion, the national daily newspaper, about the presence of drug dealers and turtle-egg traders in Limon province. A week after his death, the paper reported that the killing of two other men in the same province was motivated by drug gang rivalries.

Murder in Costa Rica is no longer rare. La Nacion counted a rate of six drug-related murders per month in 2012. The number of homicides in Costa Rica increased by 8 percent in the first seven months of this year compared to the same period in 2012 and reached 227 in total, according to the Organismo de Investigacion Judicial. Next to Limon, in terms of Costa Rica’s homicide rate, is the capital San Jose. The number of assaults — the most frequently committed crime in the country — increased by one-fifth. Citing recent cases of assaults of American citizens, the U.S. embassy in Costa Rica issued a warning for travelers in the province of Limon.

The alert could signal the beginning of a nightmare for Costa Rica’s tourism industry. Tourism brings in around $2.1 billion a year, nearly 5 percent of the country’s GDP, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. Americans in particular flock to Costa Rica to relax on its beaches, hike in its mountains, and enjoy its tropical rainforests. But, it seems, that the things that attract tourists – lots of nature parks, few uniformed soldiers and a stable democracy – attract drug traffickers as well.

Prisoners to geography

For several decades, drug-related problems were restricted to countries where drug cartels were based, which means Colombia and Mexico. In the past 10 years, drug violence has spread into the so-called Northern Triangle of Central America – Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

“The government of Costa Rica was initially reluctant to come to the conclusion that the country was also invaded by drug cartels because of the expansion of what was happening in Mexico,” University of Miami professor Bruce Bagley told me after I returned to the U.S.

Earlier this year, however, Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla told the Wall Street Journal: “We are prisoners to our geography.” Chinchilla was referring to her country’s location between the cocaine producers of South America, the powerful drug cartels of Mexico, and the consumers in the United States.

But Costa Rica’s location is not the only liability.

“Costa Rica’s very long unprotected coastline and lack of an army was seen favorable for drug traffickers,” Bagley explained.

“It’s getting worse because we don’t have an army; there is nobody to fight,” a security guard near our hotel in San Jose said to me. He repeated the same warning not to step outside the hotel fence. He also used the word “kill” and talked about the recent murder of people around the street corner. It was only 9 p.m., and I was hungry. But I stayed in and went to bed early that night.

Costa Rica has had no standing army since 1948. According to many Costa Ricans, the country benefits from the investments that were made instead in education, social programs and environmental preservation. However, for drug traffickers, a country without an army has another meaning.

“Militarization created a ‘cockroach effect’,” Bagley said. “When they hit drug production in Colombia, drug violence heads north to Mexico. When you hit Mexico, it spreads to Central America.”

Caribbean drug routes have shifted overland to Central America, according to InSight Crime, a research organization based in Washington, D.C., Costa Rica is used mainly as a temporary “warehouse” to store narcotics on their trip north. Drug cartels have even used Costa Rica’s national parks for their smuggling routes. For the local help, they often pay with drugs instead of money, which leads to domestic drug use, especially crack cocaine.

Fighting in its own way

The Costa Rican government is confronting the drug problem. In 2010, it announced plans to add 4,000 national police officers by 2014, according to the 2013 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report issued by the U.S. Department of State. Costa Rica also opened a new coast guard station on the Caribbean coast and recently introduced a special tax on businesses to raise $70 million for anti-drug efforts, including special police units.

The U.S. assists Costa Rica. It spent more than $18.4 million in direct security to the country in 2012. The U.S. helped building two other coast guard stations on the Pacific coast, donated boats and equipment, and organizes police training.

Some critics fear that by helping Costa Rica in this way the U.S. seeks to militarize the region. They also fear that strengthening Costa Rica’s fist to fight against drug cartels will increase the number of violent crimes in the country.

“If you militarize and criminalize, levels of violence will rise because there will be more confrontation,” professor Bagley said. “But I don’t think that Costa Rica could become like Mexico. It’s a small country. It’s a transitory country and not home to the most powerful drug cartels.”

Police force isn’t their only tactic to combat the problem. President Chinchilla is openly suggesting legalization or decriminalization of marijuana as a possible solution for the region, as is her counterpart, Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina. Bagley said that legalization would reduce illicit profits, at least partially, and could be considered as a step forward.

Honduras is still the most dangerous spot

Notwithstanding growing homicide rates in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, Honduras is still the most dangerous country in the region, with nearly 91.6 murders per 100,000 people in 2011, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. El Salvador (70.2 murders per 100,000) and Guatemala (38.5) are also well above Nicaragua (12.6) and Costa Rica (10).

People in Central America seem to have gotten used to everyday warnings and actual violence. “I say that it’s a matter of luck and destiny,” Alejandra Trejos, 18, from Limon, explained with a smile. “If something is supposed to happen, it will. If you have to die today, it will happen. It will find you even if you stay in a small cube.”

 

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