Costa Rica boasts a peaceful history compared not only with other Central American nations, but with most countries.
With few disturbances after its foundation as a nation, the shock of the 1948 civil war proved enough for the country to dismantle its military in its new constitution a year later.
In 1988, President Oscar Arias, during his first term as president, was distinguished for his efforts to bring peace to the region with a Nobel Peace Prize. He used the funds to establish the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress.
But according to two young filmmakers and their crew, the country is now hiding behind its peaceful history to camouflage a violent trend that is growing among the country’s disenfranchised youth.
Costa Rica is the leading importer of guns in Central America, according to the United Nations Development Programme in Costa Rica – not exactly something most people think about when Costa Rica is brought up in conversation.
The crosshairs of the film the crew is producing, “Preparen, apunten, fuego,” (“Ready, Aim, Fire”), are aimed at confronting the nation’s problems controlling the movement of guns within its borders.
Slackened gun laws, combined with expanding social inequalities, have caused an influx in personal weapons in the country, co-producers Alexander Araya and Juan Manuel Montero say. And guns that enter the country legally sometimes end up stolen, sold illegally and used in crimes.
“I think the main idea is that people want to protect themselves,” says Araya, assistant director of the documentary and a sociologist at the University of Costa Rica (UCR).
Araya says an increased sense of insecurity has led to a higher rate of gun ownership in the country.
“But that’s a huge mistake, because a gun is not a good way to protect yourself,” he says. Araya and Montero, director of the project and a fellow UCR sociologist, are working with close to a dozen other crewmembers on the preliminary research for the documentary, which they expect will be finished by the end of the year.
In the coming months, they plan to travel from border to border, stopping in some of the most troubled areas, such as Peñas Blancas on the Nicaraguan border and the Caribbean port city of Limón, Araya says.
“It’s not something that is only in San José; it’s a problem in the whole country,” Montero says.
And many people’s stories have yet to be told.
“We need to get the information from people,” Araya says. “Because there are a lot of incidents when people don’t tell these stories related to guns because they’re afraid.”
Their company, G-Noma Productions, is trying to bring the subject to the front lines of the Costa Rican media to spur discussion.
“There are a lot of investigations into the subject, but they don’t get published by the organizations – only in academic journals, not the common press,” Araya says.
To be able to release the documentary without any sponsor censorship, they are trying to finance the film through private funds, Montero says.
The two filmmakers say the gun surge began in the mid-1990s, after the country’s gun law was changed, allowing Costa Ricans with licenses to have up to four guns each. A combined rise in the drug trade and a widening inequality gap led to gun violence among Costa Rican youth, they say.
Close to 16 percent of the population lives below the national poverty line, according to the Economy Ministry.
“Violence is a direct consequence of inequality,” Montero says.
Most gun violence is perpetrated by teenagers and males in their early 20s, while most victims tend to be slightly older, according to statistics from the National Violence Prevention Plan.
The two filmmakers say they have been working with the Justice, Health and Public Security ministries to gather their information.
Once the documentary is completed, Montero and Araya plan to broadcast it on the University of Costa Rica’s TV channel.
With help from the Justice Ministry and the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress, they hope to show the documentary in some of the nation’s film festivals.