Costa Rica is hailed for its sandy beaches, its booming economy and eco-tourism, and it’s looked up to as one of the most democratic states in Central America. Despite all these accolades that point to a nearly perfect Central American country, Costa Rica is plagued by one huge issue: human trafficking. According to the United States Department of State report on human trafficking, Costa Rica classifies as a Tier 2 watch list for human trafficking in 2016. Tier 2 classifies Costa Rica as a country that is not necessarily compliant with human trafficking, but that also does not completely abide by the international standards against human trafficking set by the UN and later refined by the Sustainable Development Goals of 2015 (SDGs). The sad truth to this status quo is that this rating is the result of vast improvement in the efforts against human trafficking in Costa Rica.
When the UN and the United States Department of State first began recording information on human trafficking across the globe in 2008, they estimated off of their findings that tens of thousands of Costa Rican women and children were being subjected to sex trafficking within the country –mostly living in the north and central Pacific coastal zones. In addition to sex trafficking, they found that authorities identified adults in organized crime also using children to transport or sell drugs throughout the country and across borders.
By far—and most ironically given it’s a form of Costa Rica’s most lucrative businesses—child sex tourism is a serious problem in the country. Many of the predators, or child sex tourists as they are identified by the Costa Rican government, arrive mostly from the United States and Europe. Much like many of the agricultural goods that the Costa Rican economy exports, wealthy foreigners are a major driving force for the development of the “industry.” Costa Rican human traffickers are noted as often use coercion as a method to draw in young, female victims. Promises of well-paid lives in exchange for prostitution draw many of the victims in, and then when they try to leave, they are physically threatened.
Unfortunately, the Costa Rican victims of sex and labor trafficking are not only constrained to within its own borders. The U.S. Department of State identified victims from Costa Rica in the Bahamas and Guatemala. They also found that Costa Rica serves as a transit zone for Nicaraguan men and women in route to Panama, where they are either subjected to forced labor or sex trafficking. Men and children from other Central American and Asian countries are typically subjected to forced labor within Costa Rican borders. The most vulnerable foreigners to enslavement within Costa Rican borders are the Indigenous Panamanians who are frequently found working in the agriculture, construction, fishing, and commercial sectors.
The Government of Costa Rica, in general, has unfortunately been very unconcerned with this major issue its country faces. In the past it has come nowhere near minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking. The government has even been known to turn a blind eye, for example in a situation where the U.S. State Department reported that, “a government official was investigated for using an official vehicle for unauthorized personal use; this official was visiting an establishment where, according to media reports, sex trafficking occurred” –a case that came to no conviction and the media quickly swept under the rug. Costa Rica, to this day is still classified as a Tier 2 country mostly because its definition of human trafficking does not comply with the Palermo Protocols.
The surprisingly fervent issue of human trafficking in such a highly-developed Central American country like Costa Rica can be traced back to the poor acknowledgement of the issue in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of 1999. Sarah E. Mendelson, in her journal Born Free, explains how the goals set in the MDGs were primarily concerned with economic development of LDCs and how she thought that the then upcoming SDGs could finally put an end to the issue of modern slavery. Though the article was written before the passing of the SDGs, it is evident that they have had an impact on Costa Rica’s human trafficking. Leading up to the SDGs, Costa Rica passed Law 9095, which prescribes penalties of four to 20 years’ of imprisonment for any sort of human trafficking. The country then strengthened its National Coalition against Migrant Smuggling and Trafficking in Persons (CONATT) and the National Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Smuggling of Migrants Fund (FONATT). Part of this “strengthening” by funds included allocating $1.7 million from the FONATT to 10 projects aimed at public awareness activities. These government and NGOs awareness activities included anti-trafficking training to 25 Costa Rican diplomatic personnel. On top of promoting awareness within borders, the government reported denying entry to 53 foreign registered sex offenders attempting to travel to Costa Rica as tourists—hopefully eliminating the demand for sex tourism.
Unfortunately, despite the government making significant efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts, it has not reported efforts to reduce forced labor. The issue of human trafficking remains Costa Rica’s Achilles heel, most likely until they finally completely adopt international standards that prohibit human trafficking.