Costa Rica is regularly depicted as Central America’s Switzerland to the extent that it has become a cliché. This image is the result of a decades-long self-fashioning effort through which the Costa Rican state has sought to make itself known as a place of stability, safety, and peace. And indeed, the country’s record is outstanding, especially when compared to its Central American neighbors.
Yet since the abolition of the Army 75 years ago, the longstanding military pedigree of local law enforcement reveals the idea of “demilitarized” Costa Rica is more of a myth than reality.
Once its 44-day-long civil war concluded in April 1948, Costa Rica outperformed other Central American countries on the economic front and built a welfare state that is second to none in the region. Not unrelated, Costa Rica, together with Colombia, exhibits the longest democratic track record in Latin America. Maybe even more remarkably, the country has been an enclave of peace. This makes Costa Rica an outlier in a region whose recent past was tainted by violent internal strife and military dictatorships, infamous for their unaccountable state repression, severe human rights violations, and terrorizing of entire societies, at times with genocidal proportions.
Costa Rica’s exceptional record of historical peacefulness and political stability is widely believed to have originated in a December 1, 1948 decision, when a junta under the leadership of José Figueres Ferrer abolished the Costa Rican Army. Demilitarization, the story goes, ruled out the possibility of military coups and bloodshed. Decades later, President Óscar Arias Sánchez became a key player in resolving the Central American conflicts of the 1980s, receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 and bolstering Costa Rica’s reputation as an island of peace.
“Costa Rica has made itself a center for the study of conflict resolution and prevention,” said the World Bank’s former chief economist Joseph Stiglitz in 2018. As Stiglitz praised the country’s “progressive legacy,” other voices noted that this legacy had come under increasing pressure. As crime rates mounted from the mid-2010s onwards, Costa Rica appeared to be catching up with Central America’s violent norm. Some observers attribute the start of the country’s security woes to Central America’s 2007 free trade agreement with the United States, which allowed illicit economies to expand against the backdrop of neoliberal globalization and mounting social inequalities.
By 2015, local drug gangs, many allegedly with ties to Mexican and Colombian cartels, were clashing in Costa Rica, leaving 399 people dead that year. Costa Rica’s homicide rate reached 11.5 per 100.000 residents in 2015—nearly double what it was in 2000. Then Deputy Chief of the Public Ministry Celso Gamboa stated that criminal groups had the country “on its knees,” causing a “blood bath” unparalleled in Costa Rica’s history.
This trend continued and was exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, which led to a transformation of drug trafficking markets and structures. At the end of 2022, homicides in Costa Rica reached an all-time high, with 12.6 killings per 100,000 inhabitants. During the first 100 days of 2023, homicides increased by 41 percent. In a country of 5.3 million residents, this is equivalent to one killing every 10 hours.
Facing what many Costa Ricans—including the business community fearful of a deteriorating investment climate—perceive as the country’s “most serious security crisis in its history,” as a May 2023 editorial in the Tico Times put it, politicians responded by toughening penal law. New policies extended maximum sentences from 25 to 50 years of imprisonment, and new regulations on drug sentencing characterized all actions linked to the production and distribution of illegal drugs as a major felony, irrespective of the specific offense involved. These developments spiked the country’s prison population, disproportionately impacting marginalized and poor people. With 301 prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants, Costa Rica now has the fourth highest prison rate in Central America.
Displaying the impact of regional spillover effects, public discourse in Costa Rica has turned increasingly authoritarian, with politicians championing iron-fist security solutions for electoral gain. In January 2023, Jorge Torres, then Costa Rica’s minister of public security, expressed support for the state of emergency implemented by President Nayib Bukele’s authoritarian regime in El Salvador in the name of cracking down on gangs. A public security “system like Bukele’s would be great for lowering homicides,” said Torres.
In this context, Costa Rica could appear poised to catch up with the militaristic tenets that underpinned the punitive turn in the rest of Central America— from joint military-police patrols and vigilantism to the creation of U.S.-sponsored special police units that bear a greater resemblance to counterinsurgency than democratic policing.
Calls for a militarization of policing have long accompanied the country’s security crisis, leading, for instance, to the creation of heavily armed special police units such as the Fuerza Especial Operativa, founded in 2015 to suppress organized crime and violence. More recently, in cooperation with Colombia and with funding and guidance from Washington, Costa Rica boosted its repressive state apparatus to tackle internal challenges to state authority such as protests, as well as so-called “convergent threats” like drug trafficking and migration. “A police officer today requires military skills,” a high-ranking Costa Rican police officer told us. “They will need to move in the mountains. They must face complex situations at sea, on the coast—drug trafficking [and] the issue of human trafficking.”
However, far from representing a break with the country’s acclaimed history of nonviolence, these developments unfold against the backdrop of an extended, yet widely overlooked, militarized history of security governance.
Cold War Militarization “By Other Means”
In March 1948, Costa Rica’s Legislative Assembly nullified the results of the presidential election, alleging the opposition win had been secured through fraud. In response, insurgents led by social democrat José Figueres Ferrer rose up, toppling the government of Teodoro Picado Michalski and its communist allies of the Vanguardia Popular. A junta led by Figueres took power.
The new leaders understood that a military was not needed to protect the country’s external sovereignty and domestic order. By the end of the six-week civil war, the Costa Rican Army—whose political role and power were rather limited in comparison to that of its counterparts in the region—had already been weakened. The 300 poorly trained and under-equipped soldiers put up little resistance to the force’s abolition.
Ultimately, the decision to abolish the military was driven more by political and financial concerns than by pacifist idealism, as political scientist Cristina Eguizábal has demonstrated. As the global Cold War enveloped Latin America, Costa Rican leaders found they could rely on security guarantees provided by U.S.-dominated regional institutions. These institutions included the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, signed in 1947, and the Organization of American States (OAS), founded in 1948, which historian Victor Bulmer-Thomas aptly called “a crude instrument of American empire.” Costa Rica was placed under Washington’s protective umbrella against external threats, from Soviet-backed hemispheric communist encroachments to insurgency in neighboring Nicaragua. In the words of Carlos Cascante Segura, a professor of history of international relations at the University of Costa Rica, “It made very little sense to have a large army if you know that, in the end, the one who will solve all problems is the United States.”
Washington was all too willing to solve Costa Rica’s problems. Already during the civil war—the first U.S. intervention in Cold War Latin America, according to some observers—U.S. support contributed to the conflict’s anti-communist outcome. By March 1948, the U.S. Embassy assumed that 70 percent of Costa Rican soldiers were “communist elements.” The disbanding of the Army can best be understood within this broader counter-communist conjuncture and the related institutional clean-up: Costa Rica broke diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union and promulgated the 1949 Constitution, which outlawed the Communist Party. On such footing, Costa Rica began to promote itself internationally as the hemisphere’s posterchild of pro-U.S., anti-communist forces.
And Washington approved. A classified CIA report from 1950 underscored: “Costa Rica recognizes the U.S. as the dominant power in the Caribbean.” The report also recognized the desire for a “satisfactory working relationship with the United Fruit Company”— Costa Rica’s most important U.S. investor. But the island of peace did not disarm. Once the military was abolished, the national law enforcement body Fuerza Pública took its place as a hybrid institution that, according to the same 1950 CIA report, performed “both military and police functions.” This move both recognized and institutionalized the very same inward-looking constabulary tasks that were executed by the military forces in other Latin American countries, first and foremost the coercive protection of the status quo against any political activity deemed subversive. The creation of the Fuerza Pública epitomized the Janus-faced character of Latin American military institutions acting as guardians of the domestic order.
Markus Hochmüller is a visiting professor of Political Science at Freie Universität Berlin and a senior associate of the Global Security Programme, Pembroke College, University of Oxford.
Markus-Michael Müller is a professor with special responsibilities in International Development Studies at Roskilde University.