Statistics matter and how statistics are presented matter. Here we talk about how the Costa Rica murder rate in 2019 compares with its Central American neighbors.
This article has been updated for 2019.
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. But I digress.
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.
That’s a simple fact.
Now, Costa Rica is one of the safest parts of 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 car thefts in the world (Switzerland) or robberies (Belgium (wait, what?)), but it’s homicide that seizes people’s attention.
Costa Rica’s homicide rate in 2018 was 11.7 per 100,000. That means for every 100,000 people, 11.7 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 11.7 was down slightly on the previous year, which is great. The 2017 rate of 12.1 was the highest we’ve ever had here in Costa Rica. Even a slight dip is great news and we hope this continues in 2019.
But compared to other countries in Central America, Costa Rica has it good. El Salvador’s 2017 homicide rate was 51.0 per 100K, Honduras’s 40, Belize’s 35.9, and Guatemala’s 22.4. Panama had a lower homicide rate than Costa Rica last year with 9.6 homicides per 100,000 people.
These are some of the highest homicide rates in the world, although it’s worth noting that all Central American countries have brought down their homicide rates since 2017. Things appear to be getting better all across the region.
Nicaragua has no data for 2018, presumably due to the political violence that plagued that country last year. If you included that (and you should), I would imagine Nicaragua’s homicide rate would be the worst in the region.
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 fake news and alternative facts, 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. 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.”
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 US‘s. That so many people deny this is frustrating. Does it make Costa Rica a bad country? Hell no. Does it make it unsafe? No again. The US homicide rate is much greater than Spain. Does that mean that Spanish travelers avoid America like the plague? Or any European travelers, for that matter? Of course not.
If you wanted to compare cities in the US to Costa Rica overall, then you can. Chicago’s homicide rate last year was 24.1 per 100,000. Similar to Guatemala’s and way higher than Costa Rica’s. The state of Louisiana had a murder rate of 12.4/100k, similar to Costa Rica’s.
But if you consider the port of Limon on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, the homicide rate shoots up to 22.4 per 100K. That’s not a million miles away from Chicago’s. So it goes both ways.
For someone who claims Costa Rica is safer than the US because certain cities in the US have higher murder rates, I can flip it around and compare Limon’s murder rate with that of, say, New Hampshire’s (1.0 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, don’t be disingenuous with this stuff. Please.
James Dyde is the editor of CentralAmerica.com. He lives in Escazu, Costa Rica.