ASK any Costa Rican why the country has seen an increase in violence in the last 10 years and he or she will likely come back with the same answer – immigration.
This is just one myth Kevin Casas and a United Nations program hope to dispel during the next year with an intensive analysis of violence in Costa Rica.
The study was kicked off last week at a conference of representatives from various government and non-government agenciesthat focus on the causes and effects of violence in society.
Coordinated by the United Nations Program of Development (UNPD) and Casas, this network of groups will ultimately contribute to Costa Rica’s first National Report on Human Development with a focus on violence.
BEYOND dispelling myths, the UNDP study hopes to offer concrete solutions and propose policy changes to reduce violence in the country, thereby promoting development.
Although the country has seen an increase in violence, the perception may not be proportionate to the reality and may ultimately worsen the problem, Casas told the conference’s audience at the Hotel Radisson in San José Feb. 26.
From 1990 to 2002, the number of property crimes in Costa Rica doubled from 62.7 per 100,000 habitants to 125.2 per 100,000 habitants.
During the same time period, the number of sex crimes more than doubled, from 52.3 per 100,000 habitants to 113.3 per 100,000 habitants, and the number of homicides increased from 4.8 per 100,000 habitants to 6.3 per 100,000 habitants.
“PEOPLE aren’t crazy, there is a visible increase in violence,” Casas said. In polls from May 2000 to October 2003, Costa Ricans listed violence as one of their top three concerns, usually their primary concern, among poverty, unemployment, corruption, high cost of living and drugs.
Still, Costa Rica is hardly the next Colombia, as some may be anxious to believe, Casas told the conference.
A comparison to other countries reveals the level of violence to be much lower, he said.
Comparing the most recent available figures before 2000, Costa Rica had a homicide rate of 6.8 per 100,000 habitants – much less than the 70.6 in Colombia, 64 in El Salvador, 18 in Venezuela and 10 in the United States.
With the exception of the United States, most developed countries had homicide rates of less than 3 per 100,000 habitants.
“THE problem is, when it comes to crime, perceptions do matter a lot,” Casas told The Tico Times. “Patterns of behavior derive from those perceptions. One obvious example is that people are buying guns, just because they feel terribly unsafe.”
In eleven years, the number of permits granted to carry a gun nearly quadrupled, from 5,609 in 1990 to 21,049 in 2001.
These numbers are a gross underestimation of the number of guns actually out there, Casas added.
“I can assure you that if we continue along this path (buying guns), in five years time, ten years time, the results are going to be perverse,” he said. “We are going to have more violence that way.”
Casas and the UNDP also hope to dispel the myth that nothing can be done to combat violence except buying a gun and hiding behind barred windows.
ONE of the main functions of National Reports on Human Development – which have been conducted in more than 135 countries since 1990 – is to propose real, concrete solutions. The report will look at how Costa Rican communities have approached the problem, and evaluate what other countries and cities, such as New York City and Colombia’s Cali, have done to decrease violence.
This is one of the advantages of the UNDP, Casas said. It is part of a worldwide network of people working on development issues.
The reason violence was chosen as a topic for the study is that it is ultimately a development issue, according to José Hermida, UNDP resident representative.
“Development can only happen when people are living without fear,” he said.
VIOLENCE can have not only very measurable effects on development – such as loss of work time by injured individuals, investment of government resources in crime prevention and punishment at the expense of other programs, and decrease in foreign investment – but also less palpable effects.
These include the spontaneous creation of these types of myths and erosion of tolerance, Casas said.
“I think at the end of this, we are going to be very surprised,” he said. “There are relatively few things a collective society believes that turn out to be true.”
“My initial impression, and there is some evidence to back it up, is that the effect of immigration on crime figures is negligible at best,” he later added.
The report will attempt to determine what has produced the increase in violence by exploring the last 20 years in Costa Rica, Casas said.
ANOTHER powerful impact v iolence can have on a society’s development is the disintegration of faith in democracy, conference leaders stressed.
To illustrate this effect, Casas cited an opinion poll in El Salvador that said two-thirds of people would be willing to live under a dictatorship if it meant less crime.