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Costa Rica - Introduction

Since 1948 there has been no armed force in Costa Rica. The Constitution abolished the army, except in the case of war, in which case the United States offered assistance. After victory in the civil war that year, the Jos Figueres Ferrer, president of The Republic of Costa Rica at the time, abolished the army. Every year on December 1, Costa Ricans celebrate this historic event. The absence of a military establishment is seen as one reason for the notorious civil institutional stability in Costa Rica in recent decades. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated that "for decades, Costa Rica has been a worldwide example in rejecting unnecessary military expenditures. Instead, the country bravely invested in health and universal education. The result has been less inequality and greater social peace."

In most of Central America - the winding isthmus connecting the North American continent with its South American counterpart - turmoil and instability have increasingly become the commodities of modern political life. Yet the Republic of Costa Rica, boasting long-term survival as the region's doyen of democracy, has gained an international reputation for its anomalous image in this arena of endemic unrest. Although much of the country's claim to uniqueness is attributable to its democratic traditions, careful examination reveals problems of disturbing magnitude in this most peaceful of Central American nations.

Discovered in 1502 by Christopher Columbus on his fourth and last voyage to the New World, the territory was designated Costa Rica (rich coat) by the Spanish explorers. Although visited soon after by greedy conquistadores, Costa Rica proved to be a oilsnomer because the virgin land lacked the wealth in gold and silver of the sort the Spaniads exploited in Mexico and other parts of Latin America.

Since 1948, Costa Rica has not experienced significant domestic political violence. There are no indigenous or external movements likely to produce political or social instability. However, Costa Ricans occasionally follow a long tradition of blocking public roads or ceasing port operations for a few hours as a way of pressuring the government to address grievances; the traditional government response was to react slowly, thus giving the grievances time to air. This practice on the part of peaceful protesters can cause logistical problems.

For much of its history Costs Rica has managed, with the ibtable exception of the 1948 civil war, a degree of internal cohesion that has distinguished it from other countries in the region and has provided its best defense against foreign aggression. In the 1980s Costa Rica appeared to have maintained its social cohesiveness, but it was seriously tested by regional and domestic security problems. Costa Rica's defense against aggression has been strengthened by its internal stability, relative social harmony, and a national pride deriving in part from the fact that these characteristics have made the country unique in Central America.

In 1987, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias spoke before the US Congress. "I belong to a small country," he said, "that was not afraid to abolish its army in order to increase its strength. In my homeland you will not find a single tank, a single artillery piece, a single warship or a single military helicopter.... Today we threaten no one, neither our own people nor our neighbors. Such threats are absent not because we lack tanks but because there are few of us who are hungry, illiterate or unemployed."

Costa Rica is a vulnerable drug transshipment point for South American cocaine and heroin destined primarily for the United States due to its location on the isthmus linking Colombia with the United States via Mexico, its long Atlantic and Pacific coastlines, and its jurisdiction over the Cocos Islands. Directly related to the problems of drugs flowing through Costa Rica to the north is the problem of cash and weapons flowing through Costa Rica to the south. One of the epidemics in Costa Rica is the rapid growth of the use of crack cocaine. Drug traffickers, moving their product by sea, need refueling and supplies for the trip north. Instead of paying for their provisions with cash, they pay in cocaine. It is this cocaine that often ends up on the streets of Costa Rica.

The pace of the deteriorating domestic security situation in Costa Rica increased over the three to four years since 2005 and forced the Arias Administration to pay more attention to it. Security did not deteriorate overnight. Rather, inadequate security policies, insufficient provisioning, and half-measures were the norm for at least 30 years. While the Arias Administration has dedicated more resources and provided better legislative tools to address these issues, more equipment and better-trained personnel were needed immediately to halt Costa Rica's downward spiral.

Personal security in Costa Rica continued to deteriorate as criminals believed that they face little serious threat from law enforcement agencies and relatively low chances of being convicted in the legal system. Armed robbery and murder are regular features of the evening news, contributing to a groundswell of public dissatisfaction with the national uniformed police (known as the Fuerza Publica) and a growing disaffection with the judiciary.

Along with narcotics smuggling, Costa Rica faced an increase in use of its territorial waters for alien smuggling. Two groups of illegal migrants were apprehended in the last quarter of FY 2009. Both groups were apparently organized in South Africa and transported to Colombian waters by ship, then offloaded into smaller boats for the trip north via the Caribbean coast of Central America. In addition, local immigration officials pursued evidence that passengers transiting San Jose's international airport were obtaining false documents from U.S.-based smugglers who arrange document switches in the international departure lounge, thus avoiding scrutiny by immigration authorities.

Costa Ricans generally do not consider other Central American countries, with the exception of Panama, to be reliable partners for addressing security issues. They demonstrate little interest in collaborating with neighbors that have more serious crime and less stable political situations. They are willing to receive training under the auspices of the OAS and SICA but do not perceive them to be the appropriate fora for working collaboratively with their neighbors to address common challenges.

The people take great pride in their status as Costa Ricans rather than as Central Americans or even Latin Americans. The concept is readily demonstrated in the common use of the term Ticos, the familiar self-appellation by which citizens of the country are known. The label derives from the people's frequent use of the diminutive Spanish ending -ico or -tico. (For example, where most Spanish speakers would say momnento, Costa Ricans soften it to nmmentico.) The term is used affectionately and conveys a feeling of national pride.

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