Costa Rica continues to grapple with escalating homicide rates, with official statistics showing a 40% increase in murders so far in 2023 versus the same period last year.
As of Monday, the Judicial Investigation Agency (OIJ) has registered 587 homicides since January 1, up from 411 at this point in 2022. Authorities estimate the year could conclude with 850 to 900 total murders if current trends persist.
The provinces of Limón and San José have been hardest hit, recording 148 and 146 homicides respectively. Puntarenas follows with 90 murders, while Alajuela has seen 67, making it the only province with fewer killings than last year.
The climbing death toll comes as veteran OIJ agent Randall Zúñiga was appointed as the agency’s new director on Monday, replacing Wálter Espinoza who passed away last November.
In his inaugural press conference, Zúñiga stressed the need for more resources to combat worsening violence. He called for exempting the OIJ from the fiscal rule that has left funds unused in recent years, arguing the agency’s budget must match the severity of the situation.
“We have a moral obligation to ensure that residents of this beautiful Central American region feel safe. As the judicial police, we’ll do whatever is necessary,” Zúñiga said.
With homicides occurring every 10 hours on average so far in 2023 versus every 14 hours last year, Zúñiga warned it was unwise to restrict OIJ’s capabilities. He said the country desperately needs a robust judicial police force, even suggesting a special tax if required to access additional funding.
Since the start of the year, OIJ has sought to confront the challenge by transferring personnel and providing specialized training on victimology and homicide investigation techniques. But Zúñiga admitted bringing homicide rates down will be a major ongoing challenge.
“Training a homicide investigator is akin to training a medical specialist – it doesn’t happen overnight. It requires extensive training and knowledge,” he explained.
Critics have accused consecutive governments of inadequately prioritizing public security, allowing organized crime and endemic violence to spiral. While homicide rates remain relatively low globally, the dramatic surge has struck fear across Costa Rican society and threatens the nation’s reputation as an island of stability in turbulent Central America.
With over 1,100 more murders projected by year’s end, authorities face immense pressure to staunch the bleeding. But short-term suppression alone may prove ineffective without addressing root causes. Holistic violence reduction encompassing initiatives on education, employment, corruption and community development will likely be key to creating lasting change.