Costa Rica: An Army-less Nation in a Problem-Prone Region

By: COHA Research Fellow Alex Sanchez

The Central American nation of Costa Rica is one of the few countries in the world that does not possess a standing military. Nevertheless, Costa Rica, like other Latin American countries, faces a variety of security threats that test the country’s security capacity. Major national security issues include border control, drug trafficking and the expansion of international criminal organizations into the country, like for example, the Mexican Sinaloa drug cartel.  On the international front, Costa Rica is currently involved in a border dispute with Nicaragua, which includes the occupation by a contingent of Nicaraguan army troops of disputed territories along the San Juan River since last year.  The river traditionally has served as a natural border between the two countries, but Nicaragua altered the river’s course last year, resulting in a newfound control of the disputed Calero Island, at least for the time being. In response, San José has created a new elite border unit. The combination of rising criminal activity and the current border dispute with a state that possesses a relatively strong standing military means that Costa Rica will have to develop a stronger defense capacity  to tackle growing security-related issues.

The History

Costa Rica’s revered president, José Figueres Ferrer, abolished the country’s military on December 1, 1948. The following year, Article 12 of the new constitution codified the abolition of the military. The armed forces’ budget was then shifted to internal security goals by redirecting funds to the police force, education, environmental protection and cultural preservation.

As a result, the country became known as a ‘civilized nation’–a label that it could not have claimed before the abolition of the armed forces. Prior to Figueres’ landmark initiative, Costa Rica,  had suffered from a series of unstable governments.  From 1917 to 1919, the country was under the dictatorial grip of General Federico Tinoco Granados, until he was overthrown and forced into exile. Figueres himself came to power through an armed insurrection that pitted him against Rafael Ángel Calderón Guardia, a former president (1940-1944) who was trying to regain power through fraudulent elections and, ultimately, violence. Some 2,000 people died during the 44-day uprising, and it has been argued that Figueres abolished the military in order to avoid a future potential military coup against him. Today Costa Rica, considered by some, perhaps naively, as the “Switzerland” of Latin America, serves as the host for the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the United Nations’ University for Peace, and is a member of other organizations related to international justice and human rights, including the International Criminal Court.

The Equipment and Organization of Costa Rica’s Police Force

Even though it does not possess a standing military, Costa Rica does have extensive security forces meant to tackle internal issues of law and order. With a population of around 4.5 million, the country has a police force of approximately 10,000 officers, as well as a Civil Guard consisting of 4,500 troops. Compared to other Central American police units, Costa Rica’s police establishment appears to be fairly well-equipped and trained. However, this comparison might be somewhat deceiving, since Costa Rica’s police reportedly have insufficient training, a shortage of service men, and a lack of resources (including vehicles, weaponry, etc).

Without a formal military force, Costa Rica had no need to regularly invest in naval vessels, warplanes, or tanks, which typically make up the heavy equipment of any traditional armed forces.  Hence, in theory, the country could focus its financial resources on developing the best possible police force to maintain internal order, at the lowest cost. In fact, in early 2008, as reported by the Spanish defense-news agency, Infodefensa.com, the Spanish company, FEDUR S.A., was awarded a contract by the Costa Rican Ministry of Security to provide new equipment to the nation’s police force. The total bill for the upgrade was close to €2.1 million (almost USD 3 million).  The contract included 5,000 bulletproof vests, 10,000 police sticks, 1,000 helmets and 1,000 shields. However, more acquisitions are badly needed, According to an April 2011 report in The Economist, the country has only two helicopters, and the Coast Guard has only a dozen World War II-era patrol boats to police Costa Rica’s two coasts. In an interview with COHA, Mr. Kevin Casas-Zamora, former vice president of Costa Rica and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, explained that the country has not spent enough of its resources on security for the past forty years.

However, San José has made efforts to improve the training of its police force. For example, in November 2010, after the 12th Summit of Heads of State and Government of the Mechanism of Tuxtla Dialogue and Agreement, Costa Rica and Colombia signed an agreement whereby Colombian authorities would train and advise the Costa Rican police in order to improve its capacity for fighting drug trafficking. Costa Rican president Laura Chinchilla insisted that the police force was not being militarized. She emphasized to the press that “the Colombian police are a civilian police; we are not asking for assistance from the Colombian Army, or from any Central American army.” In addition, the country has a special elite police unit known as Unidad Especial de Intervencion (Special Forces Unit).

In March 2011, President Chinchilla announced the creation of a special unit of the border guards. Several reports, including an article that appeared in the Nicaraguan daily El Nuevo Diario, reported that the elite guards would be financed by USD 1 million, and would soon be equipped with automatic rifles. The first unit will consist of 150 police officers and will be deployed along the country’s borders with Panama and Nicaragua. In statements made to the media, José María Tijerino, a former Minister of Public Security, explained that the elite guards will be provided with 18 “pickup” vehicles, speedboats, communication equipment and other high-tech gadgets.

In terms of political developments, this past February, President Chinchilla and the heads of the country’s judiciary and legislature agreed on a 10-year plan to tackle Costa Rica’s internal crime. The plan itself was created by the United Nations Development Program and other experts. According to reports, the goal is to improve the training of the police forces and the creation of new prison facilities. Opposition parties have criticized the plan, claiming that it offers generalized goals instead of concrete solutions. There are also concerns that, in order to carry out these objectives, the legislature will have to approve of new taxes. As part of its strategy, the Costa Rican government has created the position of Drug Czar (Comisionado Nacional Antidrogas), and appointed lawyer Mauricio Boraschi as its new head.

In spite of improvements in training and equipment, there are other problems that have yet to be tackled, including police corruption, alleged human rights abuses and low wages for police officers. In 2008, 11 officers in the city of Heredia were arrested for drug trafficking. At the time, local media reports explained that the salary of a national police officer was about USD 328 a month, a modest salary which barely allows for maintaining a family, but is not enough to protect an officer from the temptation of possibly accepting bribes. In addition, in 2009, there were also accusations that members of the Dirección de Inteligencia y Seguridad (Intelligence and Security Directorate – DIS), the police intelligence unit, had been spying on anti-government political groups.

The latest development regarding Costa Rica’s security situation was the mid-May approval of a USD 132 million loan from the Inter-American Development Bank to improve the country’s security. According to a report by Associated Press reporter Luis Alfonso Lugo, the goal of the loan is to build 2,700 cells in Costa Rican prisons and hire new staff for the national police academy.

The Costa Rican Police: Better than its neighbors

With that said, the Costa Rican Fuerza Publica, is seen as being better trained and equipped than the police forces of other Central American states. In an interview with COHA, Dr. John Booth, a regents professor at the University of North Texas, said that “I’d rather be arrested in Costa Rica than anywhere else in Central America because the general human rights climate is much better– there is less abuse by the Fuerza Publica.” Former Vice President Casas-Zamora believes that, despite the bad image the Costa Rican security forces may be experiencing, they are not perceived as a threat by the local population; “they are not regarded as a predatory police,” he explained to COHA.

Other Latin American police forces do not enjoy such a positive perception. El Salvador, for example, carried out a major crackdown on gangs through an operation known as Mano Dura (Strong Hand), which has been widely condemned by human rights organizations as being too violent and ineffective. The Guatemalan police also suffers of a bad name, particularly after the country’s chief of national police and the country’s top anti-drugs official (Baltazar Gomez and Nelly Bonilla), were arrested in March 2010 over drug trafficking connections.

U.S. Offers Support to Costa Rica

The U.S. military has recently taken a keen interest in Costa Rica’s war on drugs. In July 2010, a fleet of U.S. warships and 7,000 servicemen arrived in Costa Rica. The American naval deployment included the carrier USS Making Island, several frigates, submarines and a hospital ship. Costa Rican opposition parties like Partido Acción Ciudadana (PAC), Unidad Social Cristiana and the Frente Amplio objected to the port call, stating that “the destructive force of the ships, helicopters and marines is disproportionate to combating drug trafficking.”  The Chinchilla administration was quick to respond that the U.S. forces would not be permanently deployed on Costa Rican territory or take part in security operations beyond traditional policing. However, it is worth mentioning that the close relations between Washington and San José have attracted criticism. In September 2010, outspoken Bolivian president Evo Morales quipped that Costa Rica does in fact have an army, referring to the U.S. military. The Andean president eventually issued an apology and retracted his comments.

In fact, Anne S. Andrew, U.S. Ambassador to Costa Rica, has asked that the Costa Rican legislature allow U.S. warships to make a port call. So far, the local legislative body has only allowed U.S. Coast Guard vessels to dock in Costa Rican ports. Juan Carlos Mendoza, an opposition deputy for the PAC, stated that his party opposes the docking of American naval warships because “it is not clear what other strategic military goals they have, besides combating drug trafficking.” In comments reproduced by Infodefensa.com, Paul Trivelli, a consultant for SOUTHCOM, stated that the Pentagon wants to repair Costa Rican patrol boats so they can be used in drug trafficking operations. Trivelli stated, “it is necessary to take into account that drug traffickers are now paying with cocaine and creating problems in many countries. Colombian and Mexican drug cartels are here and they must be combated [by the U.S.] as partners of Costa Rica.” San José signed a defense agreement with the U.S. in 1999, but many opposition factions would like to see it voided.

Internal Security Issues

Today, the Costa Rican police force faces several difficult dilemmas. Because of its geographical location, the country is part of a transit corridor (via land, air and sea) of drugs coming from South America to North America and, more indirectly, to Europe. In addition, an April 2011 article by Time reporter Tim Rogers explains that a booming tourism industry and immigration by Americans and Europeans have raised local consumer demand for drugs. Futhermore, there is a growing concern about the presence of Mexican cartels and even the possibility of the Colombian FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) operating within the country, which in fact, had an earlier presence in the country in the 1990s.

The December 21, 2010 edition of the highly regarded defense e-newsletter Southern Pulse quotes a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) representative, Phillip Springer, as confirming that the Mexican Sinaloa cartel had established control over drug trafficking in Costa Rica. Springer also predicted that other organizations would expand their networks in the country because of Costa Rica’s lack of a standing army and its sub-par police force. For the Costa Ricans, the major fear is that other groups like the Zetas cartel will try to enter their country and begin a turf war with the Sinaloa cartel, bringing about major levels of inter-cartel violence. This has already happened in Guatemala and the fear is that the situation will repeat itself farther south.

In recent months, there have in fact been a number of indications of a growing presence of transnational criminal organizations in the Central American country. The accurate daily publication, Latin News, has reported that Costa Rican security forces carried out several major raids in late February 2011 in Alajuela, Cartago and San José. Three Mexican citizens were arrested and up to 319 kilograms of cocaine were seized. Costa Rican officials believe that the three foreigners are members of the Sinaloa Cartel. Also in February 2011, local police found the bodies of a couple known to be drug dealers in the neighborhood of El Progreso, in the Pacific port of Puntarenas. It is believed that they were killed over a debt owed to their Mexican bosses.

Security experts explain that the flow of drugs partially operates like this: the drugs originate in Panama, go up the Pan-American Highway through Costa Rica, and enter Nicaragua through a number of remote crossings. In addition, Puntarenas port has become a major stopover for drug shipments by sea.

External Security: The Border Dispute with Managua

Costa Rica’s border dispute with Nicaragua, in one sense, has been going on for over a century, although the present conflict erupted in October 2010 when Nicaraguan workers began a dredging operation in the bordering San Juan River. This resulted in the flooding of Costa Rican territory, which effectively moved the border into Managua’s hands. In addition, several Nicaraguan troops (reportedly less than two dozen) have been stationed on a narrow stretch of the disputed land near Calero Island, whose ownership is also in dispute. Meanwhile, San José has dispatched its police to the border and raised protests to the Organization of American States (OAS) as well as the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague. As the plaintiff, Costa Rica has a December 5 deadline to present its case to the ICJ, while Nicaragua will have until August 6, 2012 to present its counter-arguments.

Somewhat ironically, the Nicaraguan government has taken advantage of some errant Google Maps to justify its altering of the disputed border. While utilizing data from the U.S. State Department for its global mapping, the internet giant mistakenly transferred 2.7km of Costa Rican territory to Nicaraguan jurisdiction. In November 2010, Google apologized for the incorrect cartographic projections and has since corrected the original error. Nonetheless, in early February 2011, the Nicaraguan Institute of Territorial Studies published a new “official” map of the country, with the boundaries of the disputed territory reflecting its own cartographic interests.

In early March, in a preliminary ruling, the judges of the ICJ decided that neither country should send military or civilian personnel into the disputed zone until the ICJ gave a final ruling on who has jurisdiction. However, it allowed Costa Rica to send civilian personnel to “protect the environment.”  Each country has claimed the interim ruling as a diplomatic victory.  Although Costa Rica remains reluctant to give up any of the territory, President Chinchilla declared that she is willing to “normalize” relations with Nicaragua. Meanwhile, President Ortega stated that the resolution is positive and that there are no hard feelings towards the neighboring state.  The resolution, from Nicaragua’s point of view, means that it can continue to divert some of the water of the San Juan River. Nevertheless, the presence of Nicaraguan troops on disputed soil remains an issue, as Costa Rica continues to demand that Nicaragua remove its troops. At the same time, Managua argues that its military is there to fight drug trafficking and organized crime. Both countries appear to want to normalize relations, but neither seems willing to give in to the other’s demands.

In early May, delegations from the two countries met in La Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala, to discuss inter-state police cooperation and how to combat drug trafficking across their borders. As reported by The Costa Rican News, the agreed protocol permits Costa Rican police boats to cross the maritime border while chasing drug-laden vessels without violating Nicaraguan sovereignty, and vice versa. The agreement states that the police forces on each side should notify the other side of pursuits across their common border. Such meetings and agreements are positive steps.

Not all of the developments for a peaceful solution have been positive, however. In early April, Nicaragua denied an international environmental commission (part of the Secretaria de la Convención sobre Humedales – Secretariat for the Convention on Wetlands) permission to assess potential environmental damage as a result of Nicaraguan dredging. As previously stated, the ICJ ruling said that Costa Rica could access the disputed area if it provided Managua with notification. Nicaragua argued that Costa Rica requested the authorization only two days in advance and did not sufficiently explain the reasons for the mission. Meanwhile, in Costa Rica, the PAC opposition party has complained to President Chinchilla about statements offered by now former Costa Rican Minister Tijerino, which insinuated that Nicaragua might resort to laying mines along its strategic delimitation and utilize its air force in order to more effectively secure the disputed territory.  Such comments did not go over well with some Costa Rican politicians, as they did not help to improve relations between the two countries.

At the end of January, the results of a CID-Gallup poll showed that Costa Ricans were more worried about the incident than the citizens of Nicaragua were.  According to Insidecostarica.com, 91 percent of Nicaraguans believed that the conflict was over nothing more than unclear border limits, while 73 percent of Costa Ricans were convinced that their neighbor wanted to invade the country. Interestingly, most Nicaraguans believe that Costa Rica has an army and it could invade their country, even though the “tico” security forces lack warplanes, tanks, or naval vessels to be a worthy foe.

A Regional Perspective

Costa Rica is trying to cope with several internal security issues in addition to the increased tensions with neighboring Nicaragua. It is important to consider that a state that has no military is by nature nonviolent. Simply put, it is hard to regard the country as aggressive, given its lack of traditional arsenal or weaponry and trained personnel.  Should the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border dispute escalate (which is considered highly unlikely by most experts), it could be difficult for Nicaraguan President Ortega to not appear as an aggressor; considering that he has a relatively professional standing army behind his rhetoric. In December 2010, President Chinchilla declared that “I want to remind ‘esos señores del norte’ (the gentlemen of the north) that only ‘cobardes‘ (cowards) are courageous against the defenseless.”

A Costa Rican lawyer interviewed by COHA explained that the Costa Rican-Nicaraguan diferendum is very old and that he is confident that in no way is there any degree of realistic prospects for a violent confrontation to take place between the two countries. He explained that the border dispute is a historical one and both sides already know what diplomatic parlance to use without it affecting overall inter-state relations. This is particularly true for Nicaraguan President Ortega who is up for re-election and appears to be using the issue with Costa Rica to rally support for himself and divert attention from some of his unpopular domestic policies. Dr. Booth explained to COHA that, “the country that has most threatened Costa Rica in the past is, in fact, Nicaragua, but the incidents [were] in 1948, 1953, and again during the Nicaraguan insurrection in 1978-1979 when Somoza was still in power.” So far, for all the tensions in 2010 and the presence of Nicaraguan troops in the disputed territory, all experts interviewed by COHA agreed that the ongoing situation will be solved diplomatically.

The Costa Rican lawyer concluded by explaining that the Iraq War showed that in modern times, even a global power needs to provide the international community with justifications for going to war with another country. In any case, there is no justification for Nicaragua to invade an army-less state. By abolishing its military and carrying out a pacifist international role, San José has almost a bulletproof national security strategy at its disposal.

Conclusions

Synchronizing the country’s peaceful persona with its purportedly “friendly” diplomacy, helps portray Costa Rica as one of the countries least likely to act aggressively towards another neighboring state. Certainly, the Costa Rican security forces with their present armaments and training arrangements cannot be regarded as an army.   So far, the Central American state has not considered re-instituting its military, although the creation of its special border guards does suggest that San José recognizes additional highly-trained security forces may be a necessity. While a re-militarization is generally not desired, it is clear that the police, border guard and other security departments of this de-militarized state have their work cut out for them.

Figueres symbolically destroying a portion of the military barracks. Source: The Arias Foundation

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Below is a response to this article:

Costa Rica: A Peaceful Nation in a Region in need of Peaceful Solutions

Your article entitled “ Costa Rica: An Army-less Nation in a Problem-Prone Region”
by COHA Research Fellow Alex Sanchez essentially encourages the re-militarization
of Costa Rica and advocates an armed solution to regional problems. Although it is
clear that problems in Central America have not been entirely resolved since the last
time the US advocated a military solution to Central American problems—arguably
the war against drugs in the region has even worsened the situation since the 1980s—
the fact that COHA is encouraging an armed solution to regional problems is appalling.
It is clear from the Mexican experience that an armed response to the regional drug
problem is inadequate and only exacerbates existing problems. In effect, it is unclear
whether Sanchez is advocating remilitarization of Costa Rica, the expansion of a U.S.
military presence in the country or a massive rearmament of the national police. Any
of these recommendations—coming from such a respected US think tank for the region
as COHA— are reminiscent of language that was used by the United States government
during the Central American war in the 1980s.

Alex Sanchez’ s mocking of Costa Rica’ s “ peaceful persona” undermines the importance
of the country’ s vanguard history. Costa Rica has become the most developed Central
American country and this is due mainly to the abolition of its military forces and the
reorientation of those funds towards education, health, environmental protection and
infrastructure. In 1869, the leaders of Costa Rica recognized the importance of education
and it was one of the first countries where primary education became constitutionally
compulsory and publicly financed. To brand Costa Rica’ s peaceful, institutionalized
approach to conflict resolution and international relations as “ purportedly friendly
diplomacy” that “ helps portray Costa Rica as one of the countries least likely to act
aggressively towards another neighboring state” is to ignore the facts of history and to
undermine the culture of peace that Costa Rica practices and that is so urgent all over the
world today.

In addition, the conclusion that Costa Rica should “ develop a stronger defense capacity to
tackle growing security-related issues” because of “ the current border dispute with a state
that possesses a relatively strong standing military” is quite a bold statement for COHA
to make. The border dispute with Nicaragua outlined in Sanchez’ s report, as well as the
internal crime situation and the drug war, are all issues that Costa Rica’ s government
must find ways to manage. However, to suggest that in order to find a solution to this
border dispute with Nicaragua, Costa Rica needs to compete with its neighbor’ s military
strength is preposterous.

A military solution has never been Costa Rica’ s prerogative and it has a strong history
of setting a precedent in the international community for considering alternative paths
to armed conflict. Indeed, in the case of the Nicaraguan border dispute, Costa Rica has
chosen first to find a peaceful solution within the Organization of American States and
the International Court of Justice. At the same time President Chinchilla has called on
Costa Ricans to abstain from offending or harassing the 500,000 Nicaraguans (12.5% of
the Costa Rican population), around 90% of who live and work in Costa Rica illegally.

To qualify Costa Rica’ s approach to conflict resolution as “ purportedly friendly” and to

suggest that the country is “ portraying” itself as a peaceful nation is insulting. Instead,
COHA should respect the reputation and history of Costa Rica and the Costa Rican
identity and use it as an example to other less developed countries in the region as a
manifestation of a nation able to solve problems without immediately grasping for a
military solution. COHA should first and foremost look at what peaceful institutional
solutions could be found for this border conflict, and other issues confronting Costa Rica
today, instead of advocating an arms race.

It seems that COHA has either been influenced by the few extreme right-wing individuals
in Costa Rica that want to use the current situation with Nicaragua to revive their
longstanding aim of reestablishing military forces in the country, or it has developed a
strategy to support US State Department and Pentagon bureaucrats in lobbying Costa
Rica to accept US military forces to fight drug trafficking, to militarize the Costa Rican
police by clandestinely training police personnel in military bases and to attempt to setup
a military training base in Costa Rica.

Otton Solis
Kellogg Institute for International Affairs, University of Notre Dame

Pamina Firchow
Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame

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COHA is currently drafting a response.