Updated February 14, 2021.
Statistics matter and how statistics are presented matter. Here we talk about how the Costa Rica murder rate in 2020 compares with its Central American neighbors.
This article has been updated in February 2021 to look at the situation in 2020.
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.
Costa Rica has experienced a considerable rise in its homicide rate since 2014. What’s behind this increase? InSight Crime explains. https://t.co/RQy9ifMgk1
— InSight Crime (@InSightCrime) March 21, 2020
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, although it’s worth pointing out that homicide rates are dropping around the region.
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, say, car thefts in the world (New Zealand) but it’s homicide that seizes people’s attention.
Costa Rica’s homicide rate in 2020 was 11.2 per 100,000. That means for every 100,000 people, 11.2 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.
Jamaica had the highest murder rate per capita in Latin America & The Caribbean in 2020: https://t.co/z6Nf9eC2ua
— InSight Crime (@InSightCrime) February 4, 2021
That 11.2 is up slightly on 2019’s 11.0 figure, 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 and 2019, rising slightly in 2020. Overall, since 2015, it’s remained steady at around 11 per 100,000. Note that any homicide rate over 10 per 100,000 is considered endemic by the United Nations.
But compared to other countries in Central America, Costa Rica is doing okay (ish).
El Salvador’s 2020 homicide rate was 19.7 per 100K, Honduras’s 37.6, Belize’s 24.3, and Guatemala’s 15.4. All these countries have managed to get their homicide rates much lower over the past few years, especially El Salvador, which has seen year-on-year dramatic drops since 2018.
Say what you like about #ElSalvador president @nayibbukele, but he’s got the homicide rate WAY down since taking office in 2019. Which can only be a good thing for post-lockdown tourism, says @GaldyINFO:https://t.co/yrRnLckH8X
— CentralAmericaLiving (@VidaAmerica) August 28, 2020
Only Panama saw a raise in its homicide rate rise in 2020, with 9.6 homicides per 100,000 people.
Nicaragua should be taken with a pinch of salt when it talks about its homicide figures, especially since 2018 when no data was available. Since then, the Ortega regime has released figures, 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 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 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. Although the final numbers for the United States aren’t in yet, we’ll see a much higher rate for 2020 than for previous years (the 2019 US rate was down from the 6.2 mentioned above – it was 5.8.).
We still don’t – amazingly – have solid homicide figures for Spain for 2019 or 2020, although in 2018 it was 0.62 per 100,000. I’d wager a bet that Spain’s homicide rate hasn’t gone up above 1.0 per 100,000 since then.
But although the numbers have changed, the premise has not. Central America (and Costa Rica) still have far higher homicide rates than the US, which in itself has far higher rates 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 US. 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 that of Spain. Does that mean 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. Washington DC’s homicide rate in 2019 was 23.5 per 100,000. Similar to Belize’s 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 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 DC’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, 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.