Editor's note: This article is part of "Underworld: a global crime blotter," a semi-regular series covering crime and punishment around the world.
SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — The slogan is included on all government communiques, per order of the president: “Construimos un pais seguro,” or “We’re building a secure country.”
But Costa Ricans are losing faith that security can be restored. Economic woes used to be what most kept them up at night; nowadays, crime wobbles the nation’s worry jar.
Nearly half of Costa Ricans consider citizen security the worst problem facing the country, the highest rate since the firm Unimer began polling on the issue in 2005.
From a global view, Costa Rica ranks among the safest, happiest countries in Latin America. But it has fallen prey to international organized crime and drug rings that authorities blame for a spike in violence, drug abuse and murder.
As drug gangs carve bloody swaths across Central America, seeds of cartel crime are sprouting in this country once believed to be a bastion of peace. The United Nations called it the world’s most violent region besides war zones.
Costa Rica joined other Central American countries at a June summit in Guatemala where the United States, World Bank and other international donors pledged a combined $1.8 billion to help bolster the region's security. It is not clear how much of that will go to Costa Rica, a middle-income country that generally receives a smaller share of foreign aid than its poorer neighbors.
Some politicians have downplayed Costa Rica's crime problem as more perception than reality, fueled by blood-spattered images splashed across top-selling tabloids and television news programs.
But the percentage of Costa Ricans who were victims of a crime doubled from 1997 to 2008, according to a recent World Bank report. One in five households surveyed in 2008 was home to at least one victim of crime committed within the previous 12 months. Now it’s one in four households.
The homicide rate last year was 11.5 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. That figure trails far behind that of many U.S. cities and pales in comparison to some Central American neighbors. But it appears alarming next to the six deaths per 100,000 registered in Costa Rica in 2004.
(GlobalPost in Guatemala: A tiny country with a big crime problem)
Earlier this month, throngs of fed-up Ticos took to the streets in separate, simultaneous marches. Residents demonstrated for an end to violence in a town in the Heredia province, north of the capital San Jose, after three women were shot dead during a purported attempted robbery of a family-run clothing shop.
Another anti-crime protest took place in Cariari de Pococi, near the popular tourist destination of Tortuguero. In June, a hotel guest was killed trying to fight off gun-toting robbers during a stickup of the lodge where he was staying.
Although Costa Rica remains a relatively safe travel destination, its criminal underworld has encroached on the travelers' patch. Incidents abound of crimes committed against foreign tourists, whether in downtown San Jose or near a popular eco-paradise. The police opened a tourist patrol unit that has seen some success at stopping criminals who prey on travelers.
Concerns over insecurity prompted the United Kingdom this year to amend its travel advice for Costa Rica, warning that “gang muggings and armed robberies can occur even in daylight on busy streets” and that foreigners have gone missing.
Frequent muggings keep San Jose city sidewalks virtually empty after sundown. Break-ins and stick-ups have pushed up fort-like cement walls and barbed-wire fences around homes and businesses, with armed private security guards standing vigilant sometimes 24 hours a day. Business-owners collectively spent more than $190 million on private security costs over the last 12 months — about 85 percent of the government's public security expenditure, according to a study by the Costa Rican Chamber of Commerce.
(GlobalPost in Guatemala: Need security in Guatemala? Hire a private guard)
Factoring in law enforcement, public and private security and related health care, crime and violence cost Costa Rica 3.6 percent of GDP, according to the World Bank report.
Costa Rica is still not Guatemala, where drug gangs have left scores of victims decapitated and recently riddled a car with bullets killing celebrity Argentine folk singer Facundo Cabral.
The World Bank report urges the region to focus more effort on prevention. "Marginal funds that countries have should be redirected for use in drug prevention and youth-at-risk programs, in reforming weak criminal justice institutions and in passing legislation to curb easy access to firearms," Lorena Cohan, one of the report's authors, said about security-spending in Central America.
Drug wars, spilling south from Mexico, are not the only factor putting Costa Rica's tranquility in jeopardy. A widening gap between rich and poor, people trafficking, a bustling sex trade and readily available crack also feed the country's criminal underbelly.
Unrelenting daily news of crime has soured most Costa Ricans’ opinion of their first female president, Laura Chinchilla, whose approval rating sunk to 26 percent in the latest poll.
The good news: Homicides, after several years of escalating, are now diminishing. Costa Rica's homicide rate slid by 2.5 percent last year from 2009 and the downward trend appears to be continuing this year. It fell by 18 percent in January to May compared with the same period in 2010, according to the newspaper La Nacion.
While Costa Rica has yet escaped the brutal levels of outright carnage playing out in Guatemala, government officials are bracing themselves for the worst.
The president's drug czar, Mauricio Boraschi, said investigators have detected signs of three different Mexican gangs setting up drug logistical, storage and export facilities in the country.
Asked if Chinchilla expects the cross-gang violence to spill over to Costa Rica, the president told GlobalPost, "We need to see ourselves in the reflection. I think it's closer than we can imagine."
(More on crime and punishment around the world)