Costa Rica President Rodrigo Chaves says the Central American country is no longer free of the organized crime that has ravaged neighboring countries.
Known for its eco-tourism and stunning beaches, Costa Rica has long been seen as a beacon of democracy, peace and stability in the crime-ridden region.
The little country of just over five million people even disbanded its army following a short civil war in 1948.
But organized crime linked to drug-trafficking has increased in recent years.
“What we have to do is root out this problem,” Chaves told AFP this week.
Costa Rica may seem a world away from the wars on crime declared in El Salvador or Honduras, but it recorded 656 murders in 2022, the most since records began.
“We will do what is necessary to avoid calling a state of emergency,” added Chaves.
He has launched an anti-crime operation that has seen 5,000 people arrested in two weeks, with 2.5 tons of drugs and 104 firearms seized.
But Chaves complained that too often in Costa Rica, those arrested are quickly released.
“We have to change the laws and the judiciary needs to take action too” to ensure that those guilty of crimes are punished.
He also wants to get tougher on drug trafficking given that much of the cocaine that is sent to the United States and Europe is hidden in containers that leave from Central American ports.
“If they (traffickers) cannot get (the drugs) out of Costa Rica, they won’t bring it here” in the first place, said Chaves.
Despite fierce domestic criticism, the government has proposed a bill to legalize recreational cannabis, in a country in which medicinal cannabis is already permitted.
“I’m not promoting the use of marijuana. What I’m saying is that there is a reality: if we legalize it, formalize it …. consumers, non consumers and the state will all be better for it.”
Chaves pointed to examples such as Uruguay, the Netherlands and certain US states where recreational cannabis has been legalized.