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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 2023 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 open and direct 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 to themselves, justifying they’ve made the right move) 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 still one of the most dangerous regions on earth, although gradually getting safer.

In last year’s update, we reported that homicide rates were down in four countries – Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, and Panama. Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Nicaragua all posted higher rates than than 2021. This year, we can say that Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua all came in lower in 2023 than 2022. Panama’s homicide rate remained unchanged from last year, and Costa Rica’s… well, Costa Rica’s homicide rate rocketed to its highest ever level.

This makes Costa Rica the only country in Central America to report a rise in its homicide rates last year. Not good.

Is crime a concern in Costa Rica?

Absolutely. Speak to any Costa Rican and they’ll tell you. Most Costa Ricans are appalled at the homicide rate which puts a country which traditionally had one of the lowest rates in the region to the third highest, after Honduras and Belize. But for expats and tourists, it’s important to remember that Costa Rica is still safe. Are you going to get murdered in your bed if you move to Costa Rica? The chances are overwhelming you won’t.

Costa Rica’s homicide rate in 2023 was 17.3 per 100,000 people, up 41% from 2022. As stated, 2023 was Costa Rica’s worst ever year for homicides. The murder rate in Costa Rica has been on a steady year-on-year rise since 2019. Note that any homicide rate over 10/100K is considered endemic by the United Nations.

How does Costa Rica compare with other countries in Central America?

The massive success story in Central America has been El Salvador, without question. It’s homicide rate last year was 2.4 per 100K, the lowest in its history and the culmination of seven successive years of declining numbers since 2015, when it had one of the highest rates in the world at 105.2. El Salvador’s rate is now the lowest in Central America, after Nicaragua at 6.2.

In El Salvador, President Nayib Bukele will obviously, and deservedly, take the credit for making his country safer. His anti-gang crackdown is a huge part of what makes him so popular, and he regularly tweets about days when no homicides happen. But it’s worth noting that Bukele came to power in 2019, and homicide in El Salvador has been on a steady decline since 2015. That said, a drop from 36.0 in 2019 to 2.4 in 2023 is marvelous news for Bukele and his country.

Other countries recording a drop in homicide include Belize, which continued its trend, dropping from 25.0 to 21.5, a decent fall. Honduras also posted a drop last last year, from 35.8 down to 31.1. This is still the highest in the region, but way better than it used to be, and also comes as a result of a gang crackdown.

Going back to the Costa Rica social media groups, the point 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 a few years back. 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 6.6 per 100K.

We still don’t – not that I can find – have solid homicide figures for Spain for 2022, 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 since then.

So although the numbers have changed, the premise has not. Aside from El Salvador, 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 2022 homicide rate was 17.0 per 100,000. Similar to Costa Rica’s 2023 rate.

But if you consider the province of Limón on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, the homicide rate goes up to 35.9 per 100K. That’s higher Honduras, and not a million miles away from places like Detroit and Cleveland. 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 (1.6 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 He lives in Escazu, Costa Rica.

James Dyde

James Dyde

James Dyde is a British immigrant to Costa Rica and the editor of this website. He has lived in Central America since 2000 and retains a deep love for the region. He lives in Escazu, Costa Rica.