SAN JOSE, Costa Rica (AP) — President Rodrigo Chaves promised Wednesday to put more police in the streets and demanded changes in Costa Rica’s laws to confront record-setting numbers of homicides that have shaken daily life in a country long known for peaceful stability.
Choosing to make his speech in the plaza in front of the country’s Congress, Chaves said too many violent criminals are allowed to walk free and called for more flexibility to extradite Costa Ricans to countries where they are wanted for drug trafficking crimes.
Costa Rica recorded 657 homicides last year, the majority blamed on violence related to drug trafficking. The country has moved on from just being a passthrough for drugs moving from South America to the United States. It has become an important hub for drugs being shipped to the U.S. and Europe and there is also a growing domestic drug market.
“I want people to be able to walk peacefully in the street, that kids go to the park safely, that children go to school without fear that at any moment they could be caught in the middle of a shootout,” Chaves said.
The president complained that only 1 out of every 22 people arrested for violent crimes ends up in jail. He said judges too often let suspects out on bail even if they have a prior record. He also wants the ability to prosecute minors as adults in cases of drug gang killings.
Chaves also wants to tighten control over gun purchases and improve the government’s capacity to tap suspects’ communications in order to dismantle organized crime groups.
He said he will bolster policing by restructuring the national police force to put more officers in the streets and by hiring 700 more officers.
Previously, Colombian and Mexican drug cartels moved their drugs through Costa Rica, but experts say that in recent years homegrown Costa Rican gangs have gotten into the business as well, fueling more violence with their territorial disputes.