Following an accelerating trend in the region, self-described anti-establishment candidate, Rodrigo Chaves, won Costa Rica's runoff presidential election with nearly 53 percent of the vote on April 3rd.
Chaves briefly served as finance minister under the outgoing administration, but otherwise has little experience in the political arena. This turned out to be an asset as he positioned himself as an outsider ready to rid Costa Rica of its "corrupted elites."
He will though, kick off his administration with several disadvantages. His party, the Democratic Social Progress Party (Partido Progreso Social Democrático - PPSD) holds few congressional seats and his reputation as a combative manager does not inspire confidence in his coalition-building potential. Additionally, Chaves carries multiple allegations of sexual harassment and a campaign financing scandal to boot.
Chaves will inherit a political system that has been heralded as one of the strongest democracies and institutionally sound countries in the region. Be that as it may, burgeoning gang violence, drug trafficking and corruption scandals are beginning to reveal chinks in the armor.
Here, InSight Crime looks at four major security challenges Chaves may face.
Cocaine in Spades
Costa Rican ports are awash in record-breaking levels of cocaine. The country seized over 142 tons of cocaine in the last two years, with the majority of the narcotics passing through the Port of Moín in Limón. Considered the epicenter of drug trafficking in the central American nation, previous administrations have consistently failed to decrease the flow of cocaine through shipping containers.
The government has taken steps to improve port security and scanning capabilities, introducing improved technology at the start of April. The Ports of Moín and Caldera in Puntarenas will be equipped with Non-Intrusive Inspection Systems (Sistema de Inspección No Intrusivo – SINI), allowing customs officials to scan cargo without having to open individual containers and disrupt the flow of commerce.
However, growing demand for cocaine in Europe means that the Port of Moín will likely see higher quantities of cocaine passing through, as it presents a useful launching pad for the European pipeline. A central tenet of Chaves’ campaign was in defending Costa Rica against the “international mafias” facilitating this pipeline, but his toolbox for doing so will be limited by his ability to curb corruption, especially at the regional level.
Surging Gang Violence
Historically, Costa Rica has managed to avoid the bloody gang wars so firmly entrenched in its Central American neighbors. Chaves however, will inherit a new security reality as the country can now point to its own homegrown gang conflicts, fueled largely by the allure of rising drug trafficking profits.
In 2021 the country registered a homicide rate of 11.5 per 100,000 people, one of the lowest in the region. However, that rate doubles in the coastal province of Limón, where local drug trafficking gangs have upped the tempo in targeted killings as they feud over strategic trafficking zones.
Two gangs led by Alejandro Arias Monge, alias “Diablo” and Moreno Borbón, alias “Pechuga” have drawn national attention for their shootouts throughout the impoverished province. According to local media, hitmen can charge as little as $80 USD for killings that often target rival gang members.
Limón is perhaps the most egregious example of gang violence besetting Costa Rica, but it is not alone. On the Pacific coast, Puntarenas weathered an unprecedented year of assassinations with as many as 94 in the first ten months of 2021. As with Limón, authorities blamed the influx of cocaine from international criminal groups raising the levels of violence among local organized crime.
The Pacific passage for cocaine has been surging in recent years with greater quantities of cocaine and marijuana flowing north from Colombia and Ecuador, which has made coastal zones like Puntarenas and Limón all the more strategically valuable for drug traffickers.
Worryingly, this trend mimics in many ways what took place in Panama, as local gangs grew in size and eventually conglomerated into two powerful federated crime groups that today jockey for criminal dominance in the country. Though Costa Rican gangs are a far cry from their Panamian counterparts, their current trajectory could put them on a course for becoming similarly violent and prolific.
A Troubled Border
Costa Rica maintains strong collaboration in combatting smuggling from Panama, El Salvador, Honduras and Colombia. Absent from that list is Nicaragua. The 309-kilometer northern border between the two countries is a thoroughfare for smugglers bringing everything from livestock to drugs, and increasingly people.
The lack of any coordination between the governments has left Costa Rica flying solo in its efforts to stamp out human smuggling on the border. According to the country’s Security Minister, Michael Soto, this problem only worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic, as Nicaraguans fled the economic and political problems in their home country.
The president-elect campaigned on the promise that he would destroy the corrupt structures afflicting the nation. Such declarations were a welcome rallying call to Costa Ricans who are seeing corruption strain the very limits of the justice system.
Under his predecessor's tenure, a string of high profile bribery schemes tarnished Costa Rica's reputation as an island of government morality in Central America.
The Cochinilla case, as it is known, involved some $125 million USD in misappropriated public funds that implicated government functionaries, elite businessmen and an advisor to President Alvarado. Furthermore, the strength of Costa Rica's economy, judiciary and other political institutions were thoroughly tested by the Covid-19 pandemic.
In May of last year, the country set in place anti-corruption measures in order to gain entry to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and Chaves will be held responsible for the implementation of such efforts.