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Costa Rica’s Challenge: Maintaining Internal Security without an Army

Dr. Sanjay Badri-Maharaj was a Visiting Fellow at IDSA. He is an independent defence analyst and attorney-at-law based in Trinidad and Tobago. He holds a PhD on India's nuclear weapons programme and an MA from the Department of War Studies, Kings College London. He has served as a consultant to the Trinidad and Tobago Ministry of National Security.
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  • March 23, 2017

    On 1st December 1948, Costa Rica (pop. 4.5 million), under the leadership of President José Figueres Ferrer, abolished the Costa Rican army.1 Figueres, leader of the Social Democratic party had emerged victorious in a 44-day civil war during which time his forces – based in part around the 700 strong Caribbean Legion – defeated Communist guerillas and the Costa Rican army and established an 18-month old provisional junta known as the Junta Fundadora (Founding Junta). This junta enacted a series of far reaching reforms to Costa Rica’s social and political structure before voluntarily demitting office (paving the way for democratic elections).

    One of the most far reaching reforms was the abolition of the army which was later enshrined in Article 12 of the Costa Rican Constitution which states:2

    The Army as a permanent institution is proscribed.

    For the vigilance and conservation of the public order, there will be the necessary forces of police.

    Military forces may only be organized by a continental agreement or for the national defense; one and the other will always be subordinate to the civil power: they may not deliberate, or make manifestations or declarations in an individual or collective form.

    This single step, never altered by successive governments, has ensured that Costa Rica, unique among the countries of Central America, has never been plagued by the bane of civilian or military dictatorships in its political history post-1948 and has been viewed as having established strong democratic and constitutional credentials supported by independent institutions.3 Through the darkest days of the Cold War when guerilla movements, insurgencies and death-squads plagued many of its neighbours, Costa Rica remained a bastion of stable democratic governance that served as a peacemaker and mediator with its neighbours.

    Yet Costa Rica is far from immune to the security challenges that plague South and Central America. The country has become a major hub for transnational crime and drug cartels, moving away from merely being a transit point to becoming a storage and collection point for Colombian and Mexican drug cartels. Colombian cartels ship drugs to Costa Rica where they are stored and then retrieved by such groups as the Mexican Sinaloa cartel.4 With rival Mexican cartels sensing opportunities in a country which lacks an army or a large cadre of paramilitary police and which is mindful about the rights of its citizens, the courts and security establishment of Costa Rica are facing an unprecedented challenge.5

    It should be noted that while Costa Rica faces no serious threat of external aggression, it does have a border dispute with its northern neighbour – Nicaragua. Nicaraguan troops have established a camp on Portillos Island which was deemed to be within Costa Rican territory by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in a ruling issued on 16th December 2015.6 The new incursion led to Costa Rica approaching the ICJ with a fresh complaint in January 2017.7 However, even this apparent territorial violation has sparked no moves in Costa Rica to develop any sort of viable military capability. This is in perhaps in recognition of the fact that the country would always be overwhelmingly outmatched by the large and well-equipped Nicaraguan army but is perhaps more a reflection of Costa Rica’s view that this dispute is one which should be settled through the arbitration mechanisms of the ICJ.

    Costa Rica’s Southern border with Panama is free from such disputes but the peaceful relationship between the two countries as well as a border that has little by way of demarcation has made this frontier a major route for narcotics and human trafficking.8 The thinly spread Policia de Fronteras are unable to do much more than token patrols along this frontier with a free flow of people – legal and illegal – being nearly impossible to halt.

    With no tangible external threat, it is understandable that Costa Rica has felt no need to break with its antipathy towards military forces. What is puzzling is the decision not to develop paramilitary police forces to deal with the scourge of narcotics trafficking and the epidemic of violence that inevitably follows. Costa Rica’s decision not to adopt this approach was a conscious one and done with due regard to the country’s concern to preserve the civilian identity of its police force. Indeed, a decree by then President Oscar Arias in 2008 to allow the police to carry automatic weapons was nullified by the courts.9 Costa Rica is therefore unique among its neighbours in having neither an army nor a fully militarised police force.

    Since the abolition of the army in 1948, the closest Costa Rica came to reestablishing any form of military force was during the 1980s when, in response to the turmoil in neighbouring Nicaragua, the then Civil Guard provided the nucleus for two USSF-trained border rapid reaction battalions (Relampago, and Binicio Battalions). 10 These two Rapid Intervention Infantry Battalions were followed by a third (Batallón Frontera Sur).11 The Costa Rican Guardia Civil had some M113 APCs, 1 UR-416 APC and 2 M3A1 armoured cars but these have not been seen in use for close to three decades.12 Old 20mm anti-aircraft guns that were briefly deployed to counter aerial incursions by the Sandinista regime’s air force have long been discarded. In the aftermath of the Nicaraguan conflict (which ended in 1990), Costa Rica began a major overhaul of its Guardia Civil and the resulting formation continues to shoulder the security burden of that country.

    In 1996, the Costa Rican Fuerzas Publica (FP - Public Force) was formed under the Ministerio de Seguridad Publica (MSP). The FP has grown into a force that combines police, coast-guard, air surveillance and quasi-military functions. With a strength of some 12,600, the FP has incorporated the old Civil Guard, the Rural Guard and the two border security battalions.13 The FP principally functions as a police force and within the region, it enjoys a good reputation for professionalism and while not immune from corruption, is noticeably less so than its counterparts in the rest of Central America.14 The general human-rights environment in Costa Rica is much better than anywhere else in Central America and despite some lapses, the FP is not viewed as a predatory force by the Costa Rican population Nonetheless, the FP suffers from chronic shortages of equipment and despite strenuous efforts to improve and sustain training, the FP is still under-resourced.15 It is noteworthy that the FP is roughly as large as the Mauritius Police Force which is responsible for a population three-times smaller than Costa Rica’s.

    Military capabilities of a very modest degree are retained by the successors of the two border security battalions which are now constituted into the Policia de Fronteras which comprises seven border security companies distributed between the Southern and Northern Commands.16 While usually clad in variations on police apparel, the Policia de Fronteras have been known to don military-style camouflage and carry assault rifles and machine guns while being supported by a limited number of 60mm and 81mm mortars. While the Policia de Fronteras has a small but effective riverine force, it lacks organic air support.

    The Policia de Fronteras also has control of Costa Rica’s small air and naval components. The latter, termed the Servicio de Vigilancia Aérea (SVA – Air Vigilance Service) has 13 light liaison-cum-transport aircraft and two helicopters. Some of the aircraft were seized from narcotics traffickers and while useful assets, none of the SVA’s aircraft have specialized surveillance equipment.17 The shortage of helicopters is an acute problem given the inaccessibility of some parts of the country and the potential need for rapid deployment of forces to such regions.

    The Costa Rican Servicio Nacional de Guardacosta (SNG – National Coastguard Service) comprises 10 obsolete patrol boats, the most capable of which are 3 82-foot Point-class cutters.18 This modest force will receive a significant boost in capability when two Island-class 110-foot vessels are transferred from the United States in 2017.19 While the larger vessels of the SNG can be armed with 0.50-cal M2HB heavy machine guns and/or 20mm Mk68 Oerlikon cannon, it was revealed in 1995 that none of the personnel assigned to the vessels knew how to operate the weapons. It is not known whether this situation has changed.20

    Augmenting these units are two elite police special operations units - Comisaria 9 - Unidad de Operaciones Especiales (Special Operations Unit), and Comisaria 5 - Unidad Tactica de Policia (Police Tactical Unit). The former is largely American trained while the latter has close training ties to the Chilean Carabineros.21 These units are akin to elite riot control and Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams and provide support to the FP constabulary units which, while armed, do not normally carry automatic weapons.

    Outside the MSP and under the control of the country’s Departamento de Inteligencia y Seguridad (DIS - Department of Intelligence and Security) is Costa Rica’s elite Unidad Especial de Intervención (UEI - Special Intervention Unit) which is a company-sized commando unit with a high standard of training and equipment.22 Despite its militarised nature, the Costa Rican government seeks to downplay its capability and insists it is a police rather than a military unit.23 Yet the UEI has an excellent regional reputation and is one of the region’s finest special forces units and exercises regularly with their Central and North American counterparts where it has consistently proven to be a capable outfit.

    As has been noted, Costa Rica is facing a major challenge from violent transnational organised crime largely linked to the trade in illegal narcotics. Though the country registered a decline in homicides between 2010 (527) and 2012 (407), by 2014 that figure had increased to 471.24 This prompted calls for the establishment of a dedicated unit to combat organized crime but to date this has been limited to the 50 strong Policia de Control de Drogas. This unit relies heavily on support from other units – in particular the Policia de Fronteras and the SNG – to deal with the dual threat of Colombian and Mexican cartels using Costa Rica as a transit, storage, collection and trans-shipment point.

    In recognition of these challenges, Costa Rica boosted its security budget by 123% between 2006 and 2012.25 However, unlike its neighbours, Costa Rica declined to deploy its elite and/or militarised police units in anything more than a supporting role with the FP constabulary bearing the brunt of the fight against organised crime. This has been accompanied by aggressive social programs in local municipalities aimed at conflict resolution and providing training and employment opportunities.26 Whether this enlightened approach will produce the desired results is as yet an open question but what is not in doubt is that Costa Rica is intent on maintaining a demilitarised approach to internal security challenges, maintaining at all times the country’s reputation of being a stable and democratic country with an enviable reputation for the protection of the human rights of its nationals.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

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