Drug Dealing in Costa Rica: A Perverse Path toward Social Inclusion

By Rodolfo Calderón Umaña*

Antonio / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Antonio / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Central America’s emergence as a principal transit route for illicit drugs from South America to the U.S. has given rise to local retail markets supplying users within the region.  A study of three Costa Rican communities – one in greater San José and two along the Caribbean coast – highlights several factors that determine the scale and consequences of these local markets.  Among the most important are the high levels of social exclusion experienced by households in these localities and residents’ motivation to become involved in the business because it offers resources (money, power and prestige) that cannot be achieved through the legitimate channels of education or quality employment.  Other factors include the proximity of the communities to drug trafficking routes and the extent of previously existing demand from local consumers.

One of the most significant characteristics of local drug markets in these communities, as elsewhere, is that they are socially and territorially bounded because trust is the key factor shaping relationships between suppliers, sellers and consumers.  Some local suppliers maintain direct ties to cartels, but they operate their businesses independently.  Youth are assigned the most vulnerable tasks and are thus disproportionately represented among those arrested and convicted of crimes.  Violence serves as the principal instrument for controlling and regulating the drug trade, and the result is that for youth in these settings violence becomes normalized as a routine form of behavior.  This spawns a generalized climate of fear and insecurity, and the typical response of community residents is to retreat from public space and to isolate themselves inside their homes.

These findings support calls for new responses to the drug trade at the community level.  Central American governments, encouraged to a significant degree by U.S. programs, have tended to emphasize repressing and “combatting” the scourge of drug trafficking, yet where this approach has been implemented – particularly in Central America’s Northern Triangle — social problems have only gotten worse.  In Costa Rica, it’s not too late to undertake a comprehensive strategic review of policies in this domain and to bolster programs to stabilize affected areas.  Particularly if designed and implemented from the bottom up, programs can identify and reach out to vulnerable residents before they are drawn into drug micro-markets as vendors, consumers, or both.  Vocational training programs matched to real employment opportunities are absolutely fundamental – to reduce residents’ social exclusion.  Our research findings indicate that enhancement of public spaces where community residents can congregate and initiatives focused on building trust between communities at risk and representatives of the state can also be highly productive.  Costa Rica is at a critical juncture: it can either sustain and expand the participatory policy frameworks that buttress community cohesion and resilience or run the risk of falling into the devastating spiral of delinquency and violence that has plagued its neighbors in the Northern Triangle.

*Dr. Calderón Umaña is a researcher at FLACSO-Costa Rica.  The study is being conducted by FLACSO-Costa Rica with funding from the International Development Research Centre.

Violence in Central American Urban Communities: Challenging Common Perceptions

By Juan Pablo Pérez Sáinz*

Urban storefront within a community of Sonsonate, El Salvador / Photo credit: Lon&Queta / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Urban storefront in a community of Sonsonate, El Salvador / Photo credit: Lon&Queta / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

A recent survey on urban violence revealed that several kinds of violence are more serious in Costa Rica than in El Salvador.  Common wisdom, buttressed by homicide rates and other traditional “hard” indicators, is that El Salvador suffers from violence similar to Guatemala and Honduras, while Costa Rica does not. Historical factors stand out as possible explanations. Conflict among Salvadoran elites in the 1930s left the country deeply polarized and politically closed, laying the groundwork for war in the latter half of the century – with violence continuing, albeit in new forms, after the war ended. Costa Rica, on the other hand, emerged democratic, and the Second Republic created a welfare state committed to development. The structural economic adjustments of the 1980s challenged that order, and the growing inequality resulting from “neo-liberalism” has been accompanied by a rise in violence, but violence in Costa Rica did not reach the levels of its Central American neighbors.

A survey conducted by FLACSO specialists in El Salvador and Costa Rica challenges those theses. Polls of families in nine urban communities cast new light on the problem of violence, revealing important differences in the occurrence of three main categories of violence.

  • Members of 15.1 and 18.4 percent of the families in two Costa Rican communities reported suffering from criminal violence against persons, while the highest figure registered in El Salvador – in a community in Sonsonate – was only 11.5 percent.
  • The three Costa Rican communities also reported a higher incidence of violence against personal property (household wealth), with 26 percent of families in Cariari (in Limón Province, on the Caribbean coast) reporting such violations, and only 12.8 percent reporting this kind of violence in El Salvador’s hardest-hit community.
  • Only in the case of domestic violence did Salvadoran respondents report a higher incidence than did their Costa Rican counterparts.

Several hypotheses may explain these findings. Costa Rica’s higher level of socioeconomic development may be a factor in its higher rate of crimes against property even in less-affluent communities. Another possible explanation is that violence is a relatively recent phenomenon there and has not yet induced attitudes of resignation and acceptance of crime as something natural, leading to more accurate reporting.  In the case of Cariari, where the highest levels of violence in Costa Rica are reported, the existence of a local awareness program may be prompting residents to be more forthcoming in expressing concerns about violence. In El Salvador, on the other hand, the existence of youth gangs – maras – and the government’s abandonment of these communities have given rise to an institutionalization of their role in violence. The maras don’t permit the presence of other actors, and some of their actions may be perceived by communities as legitimate (for example, extortion could be interpreted as an act of protection). In addition, it’s noteworthy that the poll was conducted during the truce among the gangs, which at least until recently appears to have reduced violence. FLACSO will explore these explanations more deeply in the next phase of our research, which is being supported by the International Development Research Centre of Canada (IDRC).

*  Juan Pablo Pérez Sáinz is a senior researcher for the Latin American Social Science Faculty in San José (FLACSO-Costa Rica) and lead researcher in this project supported by the IDRC. For a description of the project please click here.