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Costa Rica murder rate

A Few Words About The Costa Rica Murder Rate

Statistics matter and how statistics are presented matter. In this annually updated article, we talk about how the Costa Rica murder rate in 2021 compared with its Central American neighbors.

One of the most frequent discussions on the expat social media groups in Costa Rica is about crime and safety. Time and time again someone not in Costa Rica asks about crime and it sets off a gigantic controversy among those of us here in-country.

You see a chasm opening up between those who say Costa Rica has very little or no crime and those who say Costa Rica is a crime-ridden hellhole.

The crime-ridden-hellhole guys deride the no-crime guys as “unicorns” and the no-crime guys call the crime-ridden people “angry” or “bitter”. They’re told they hate Costa Rica and need to leave. Ludicrous. Talk about contentious.

I mean, I can love Costa Rica and also talk about crime. Costa Ricans do it all the time. Loving something means being honest about it, not pretending it’s something it’s not.

The truth lies somewhere between no-crime and crime-ridden, and is also very subjective.

If you’re coming from a village in rural Maine, for example, you’ll think Costa Rica more dangerous than your last home. But if you’re coming from, say, Baltimore, most parts of Costa Rica will feel like an oasis of tranquility.

The key is to remember that more often than not, the crime-denying “unicorns” are trying to sell something (usually real estate, but sometimes just their own peace of mind) and the crime-ridden-hellhole expats have personal experiences that skew their subjective.

The honest answer is that Costa Rica is part of Central America, and Central America is one of the most dangerous regions on earth.

And although in our last update of this article talking about homicide in 2020, we reported that homicide was generally down throughout Central America in that year, in 2021, it rose again in all countries except for El Salvador, and that’s a concern.

Now, Costa Rica is one of the safest countries in Central America, but it’s still in the neighborhood and no one should sugarcoat that.

Is crime a concern in Costa Rica? Absolutely. Speak to any Costa Rican and they’ll tell you. Are you going to get murdered in your bed if you move to Costa Rica? The chances are overwhelming you won’t.

And it’s murder that’s key here. The conventional means to determine a country’s safety is by its homicide rate. Sure, a country can have the highest rate of, say, car thefts in the world (New Zealand in 2018 – may have changed sine then, but honestly can’t be bothered to look for the sake of a point) but it’s homicide that seizes people’s attention.

Costa Rica’s homicide rate in 2021 was 11.5 per 100,000. That means for every 100,000 people, 11.5 of them met their demise at the hands of somebody else (hey, statistics are rarely to the whole number).

It’s the standard way of measuring safety throughout the world, used by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

That 11.5 is slightly up on 2020’s 11.2 figure, which in itself was slightly up on the 11.0/100K reported in 2019, which is a pity. The 2017 rate of 12.1 was the highest we’ve ever had here in Costa Rica, but it dropped in 2018 to 11.70, then another drop in 2019, and a slight, steady, year-on-year rise ever since. Overall, since 2015, it’s remained steady in the 11-12 per 100,000 range, with only 2017 being outside of that. Note that any homicide rate over 10/100K is considered endemic by the United Nations.

But compared to other countries in Central America, Costa Rica is doing okay (ish).

El Salvador’s 2021 homicide rate was 17.6 per 100K, the only country in the region to record a drop from the previous year when it was 19.7/100K. Honduras’s was 38.6/100K, by far the highest in the region. Belize saw the biggest regional increase in its homicide rate, with a leap from 24.3/100K in 2020 to 29/100K in 2021. In Guatemala they recorded another raise from 2021, from 15.4 to 16.6. Panama was the only country last year to record a raise, and than trend continues this year with a rate of 12.8 per 100K.

Even Nicaragua, a country where you can’t believe a word that comes out of the government, and where homicide figures should be taken with a pinch of salt (especially since 2018, when no data was available) has recorded a rise. But like I say, take them with a pinch of salt.

But going back to the social media groups, the point I wish to make is that no-one seems interested in giving out accurate data.

Perhaps accuracy is a dirty word in this world of “misinformation” and “fake news”, but facts matter. Not only do facts matter, but the way we present facts matter. When we cherry-pick our facts to fit our narrative, we might as well be making them up.

With the murder rates, a common thing people in the social media groups do is compare the country of Costa Rica to individual towns or cities in the US.

Costa Rica has fewer homicides than Chicago, LA, Florida, Dallas, New York”, wrote someone on a Costa Rica expat page on Facebook in 2018. It compelled me to write back to him on the thread:

Average global homicide rate: 6.2 per 100,000. US homicide rate: 5.3 per 100,000. Costa Rica homicide rate: 12.1 per 100,000. Comparing countries to individual cities or states are disingenuous. Compare cities to cities, states to states, and countries to countries, please. Oh yeah – Spain homicide rate: 0.9 per 100,000.”

I wrote the above in 2018, talking about 2017, so the numbers have changed since then. In 2021, the U.S. homicide rate was 6.9 per 100K, according to the data from the FBI published by the New York Times.

We still don’t – not that I can find – have solid homicide figures for Spain for 2021, but in 2020, Spain had a rate of 0.6 per 100K. I’d wager Spain’s homicide rate hasn’t gone up too much above that in 2021.

So although the numbers have changed, the premise has not. Central America (and Costa Rica) still have far higher homicide rates than the U.S., which itself has a far higher rate than Spain.

My point is so many people in their eagerness to bring down the homicide rate in their own heads compare apples to oranges.

It’s just a fact that the murder rate in Costa Rica is higher than the U.S and Europe. That so many people deny this is frustrating. Does it make Costa Rica a bad country? No. Does it make it unsafe? No again. The U.S. homicide rate is much greater than that of Spain. Does that mean Spanish travelers avoid the United States? Or any European travelers, for that matter? Of course not.

If you wanted to compare cities and states in the U.S. to Costa Rica overall, then you can. Washington DC’s homicide rate in 2019 was 23.5 per 100,000. Similar to Belize’s in 2020, and way higher than Costa Rica’s. The state of Mississippi had a murder rate of 11.2/100k that year, similar to Costa Rica’s.

But if you consider the province of Limón on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, the homicide rate shoots up to 22.4 per 100K. That’s not a million miles away from DC’s. So it goes both ways.

For someone who claims Costa Rica is safer than the U.S. because certain cities in the U.S. have higher murder rates, I can flip it around and compare Limón’s murder rate with that of, say, Maine’s (1.5 per 100K if you’re interested).

All I ask is that we keep things level. When you’re comparing a nation’s homicide rate, it’s only worthwhile if you’re comparing it to another nation with its various cities and demographics. As I told the fellow on Facebook back in 2018, don’t be disingenuous with this stuff. Please.

James Dyde is the editor of CentralAmerica.com. He lives in Escazu, Costa Rica.

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