Costa Rican authorities have expressed grave concern over the increasing recruitment of minors into the country’s hitmen networks. Some individuals as young as 12 and 13 are now being identified in contract killing operations according to Mario Zamora, Minister of Public Security.
“I can confirm these are the ages we’re seeing nowadays. The inclusion of such young people is extremely worrying – it’s as if crime is snatching away our kids,” remarked Minister Zamora.
He estimates around 1,000 people currently participate in the hitmen business, with 90 arrested so far this year. While most are 18 or older, the recruitment of underage youth continues rising alarmingly.
The Pacific coast province of Puntarenas in particular is seeing a major uptick in adolescents joining criminal groups. Randall Zúñiga, Director of the Judicial Investigation Agency (OIJ) believes factors like poverty and lack of opportunities make youth vulnerable to gang recruitment.
“A minor should be focused on education, not criminal activities,” emphasized Zúñiga, pinpointing the root issues as limited access to schooling and jobs. He explained that while 10% of minors nationwide live in extreme poverty, the rate is 22% in Puntarenas and 23% in Limón.
Additionally, 55% of coastal youth aged 9-19 lack access to education opportunities. A staggering 77% don’t even complete 9th grade.
“Devoid of education and formal employment options, these adolescents often end up enticed by gangs into illicit activities,” Zúñiga added.
For many minors, these criminal groups fill voids in their lives. “In place of family, the gang becomes their family. Without schools, the gang becomes their school. Lacking other social networks, the gang plays that role,” described Minister Zamora.
He called the situation a grim reality, noting the attraction is not just financial but also a sense of belonging and identity.
Meanwhile, OIJ Director Zúñiga stressed accountability for the adults recruiting minors into crime. “Who’s holding adults accountable for bringing these children into this?” he questioned, pointing out underage youth couldn’t independently afford weapons like the AR-15 rifle.
With opportunities and support structures insufficient in many communities, Costa Rica’s youth remain dangerously exposed to the lure of organized crime. Authorities emphasize that beyond just policing, establishing greater access to education and social services is crucial to shield the nation’s adolescents.