Small Arms of the Costa Rican Paradise

By Julio A. Montes

Much has been said regarding the peaceful nature of Costa Rica. This small nation in Central America is said to have avoided the civil wars afflicting the other regional countries by abolishing its Army. Costa Rica has been heralded by some of those preaching the abolition of all Latin America armies. With this in mind, it is not surprising that the recent brutal murder of two young American girls shocked the tourist industry in the United States. This shameful and sad event has brought a new examination of Costa Rica as a tourist attraction.

To be fair, many Americans ignore the true nature of the nation, and fail to take even the most remote precautions during their travels. It is true that the country has not experienced the terrible internal struggles that afflicted Central America for the last twenty years. However, the Costa Rican government and many of its citizens were heavily involved in the fighting in Nicaragua. Costa Rica has been involved in several territorial disputes with Nicaragua. There have been periodical armed clashes along the borders, and these realities forced the establishment of paramilitary forces to defend the nation. Nevertheless, the society has tried to rid itself off the “military” image and ended up neglecting even the police. Many Costa Rican criminals profited from the illicit trade of guns and drugs, making both items abundant, so drug trafficking and other criminal activities by well-armed gangs are on the rise. Weapons for “civilians” are not allowed, but they are easily accessible from stocks left over from the regional wars. Corruption is as bad as in the other Central American nations.


Costa Rica maintained an Army from its foundation in 1838 to 1948. However, by 1948, this entity counted only 339 soldiers. The National Arsenal consisted of 3,800 Mauser and 1,000 Remington rifles, and there were 300 9mm Beretta M38/49 submachine guns. Support came from 65 machine guns of various types, 8 SKODA 75mm howitzers, and 4 BREDA 20mm AA guns.

In 1948, the government decided to abolish the Army. Defense duties passed over to the Civil Guard, which was in charge of police duties as well. To equip this force, the US assisted with a couple of hundred 0.45” M1911A1 and 0.38” S&W pistols, together with 0.45” M3 machine guns. Things got complicated in 1955, when a revolutionary war broke out. The dictator in Nicaragua was a troublesome puppet of the US. He wanted another right-wing dictatorship in neighboring Costa Rica, so he sent help to the Costa Rican Rebels.

The US quickly transferred 2000 M1/M2 Carbines, a couple of thousands 0.30” M1 Garands, along with 2 M3A1 White armored cars, 14 Jeeps, and a few M1919A4 machine guns to Costa Rica. The rebels were soon defeated, but weapons continued to be delivered from the US, and additional Carbines and 35 0.30” M1919A4 machine guns were delivered by 1964.

Costa Rica, however, continued to have problems with Nicaragua. In the mid-1970s, the Somoza dynasty found itself fighting against the Sandinista movement (FSLN). The Costa Ricans were not just vocal opponents to the Nicaraguan government, they were also material supporters of the Sandinista rebels attacking Somoza’s forces. Flights from Cuba and Venezuela brought in thousands of 7.62mm FN-FALs. The Cubans cannibalized FALs from Batista times, and hardware (5.56mm M16A1 and 7.62mm M60 MGs) left behind by the Americans in Vietnam. Venezuela delivered FALs and M14 rifles. The Costa Rican civil defense took weapons from these sources.

An air defense battery was deployed with 4 GAI-CO1 20mm pieces to deter Nicaraguan aircraft from entering territorial air space. In addition, two Venezuelan Panhards AML-S530 were deployed to defend assets landing in San Jose. The Panhards sported two 20mm HS-621 guns, each with 300 rounds. It is also possible that the single UR-416 armored vehicle reported during this time in the hands of the Civil Guard came from Venezuela. Assistance also came from the US, and by 1975, the total M1 and M2 Carbines received by Costa Rica added another 6000. The Sandinistas took power in 1979. Nevertheless, the disputes along the border with Costa Rica continued. The new Nicaraguan leaders found themselves involved in another civil-war, this time financed by the US. By 1984, the Sandinistas launched full-scale assaults against rebel strongholds well inside Costa Rica. The poorly equipped Civil Guard was no match for the formidable Nicaraguan Army, so several countries threatened to retaliate against Nicaragua. The Sandinistas learned how much and how long they could push.

More assistance arrived in Costa Rica in the following years. As the Costa Rican forces transformed into something resembling a militia army, the government took delivery of 5.56mm T-65 rifles from Taiwan. Galil rifles were also taken from former Nicaraguan National Guardsmen, and some came directly from Israel. A few MK-68 20mm mounts were also received from the US to equip the existing coastal patrol service.

During this period, the Costa Rican security forces gained limited intelligence, defense and antiterrorist capacities. US Special Forces organized, trained and equipped the Departamento de Inteligencia y Seguridad (DIS-Intelligence and SecurityDepartment) and the Unidad Especial de Intervencion (UEI-Special Intervention Unit)—an anti-terrorist outfit. These operated under the Presidential Security Council.

The Civil Guard provided the nucleus for two USSF-trained border rapid reaction battalions (Relampago, and Binicio Battalions). These two Rapid Intervention Infantry Battalions were followed by a third (Batallón Frontera Sur). The Relampago Battalion distributed its troops between Comando de Frontera Norte (Los Chiles) and Comando de Upala, while the Binicio Battalion distributed its troops to Comando Norte (La Cruz) and Comando de Peñas Blancas, with support units for both battalions stationed at Comando de Ciudad Quesada. Later, two other border units were raised within Batallón Frontera Sur with units deployed at Comando del Atlantico (Guapiles) and Comando de Sixaola. All these units received US equipment, including 5.56mm M16A1 rifles, and 40mm M203 grenade launchers. Surplus 7.62mm M14 rifles were delivered as well for the use of the Rural Guard.

For urban response and hostage rescue, the Civil Guard organized the Policia Especial de Apoyo (P.E.A.-Special Support Police) trained and equipped to US SWAT teams standards. This unit was equipped with the usual 9mm MP5 SMGs.

As guerrilla activity against Nicaragua increased from Costa Rican territory, more weapons destined for the rebels ended up with the Security Forces and criminal hands as well. Numbers of 7.62mm AKMs flooded the country. Including in this arsenal were 7.62mm Dragunov SVD Sniper rifles taken over by the P.E.A. for precision work.


In 1996, a complete overhaul of the Public Force took place. The Police General Direction was accused of corruption, and was disbanded in disgrace. New laws and regulatory measures were passed to alleviate the Ministerio de Seguridad Publica - MPS law enforcement position, and a General Police Inspector office was established to deal with labor disputes as well as internal affairs.

A structural study condemned several buildings housed by police precincts. With meager resources, the government was able to remodel or rebuild several installations. Some equipment has been replaced and improved.

The reorganization also left the Ministry of Public Security in direct control of the Public Security Forces. These Forces were in turn reorganized into the Civil Guard (urban police), the Rural Guard (rural police), the Immigration Police, the Border Police and the Drug Control Police.

The POLICIA DE CONTROL DE DROGAS is in charge of investigating and pursuing drug traffickers. It consists of only a core of some 50 investigators, and the unit must rely on other outfits for support. The POLICIA DE MIGRACION Y EXTRANGERIA is also a small outfit of only 20 members.

The GUARDIA CIVIL comprises some 3000 police agents distributed in fifteen “Comisarias” (precincts); nine of these are based inside the Capital, San Jose City, and one each for Guanacaste, Puntarenas, Alajuela, Heredia, Limon and Cartago Provinces. Comisarias 1, 2, 3 and 8 deploy their assets in normal community patrolling fashion; Comisarias 4 and 6 are charged with fixed security of economic assets and installations while Comisaria 7 operates a considerable fleet of police cruisers. There are two elite units within the Civil Guard: the Comisaria 9 - Unidad de Operaciones Especiales (Special Operations Unit/former PEA), founded under the leadership of Lt. Col. Robert Bacon, and Comisaria 5 - Unidad Tactica de Policia (Police Tactical Unit), established under Lieutenant Colonel Marco Daniel Calderon. Members of the Special Operations Unit have been trained by US and Israeli advisers while members of the Police Tactical Unit have been trained by Chile’s Carabineros.

Today, the Costa Rican police agencies are well equipped with small arms. The elite C-5 Tactical Police Unit sports 9mm UZI submachine guns and 5.56mm M16A1 rifles. The other elite C-9 Special Operations Unit uses 9mm UZI and MP5 SMGs, M14 and M16A1 rifles and a few SVD precision types. However, the regular police officer is equipped with only a 0.38” S&W revolver, 9mm M9 Beretta or Jericho pistol.

Unfortunately, the 0.30” M1/M2 Carbine has been either retired or relegated to most remote precincts. If the need for additional small arms arises, the Costa Rican government would be wise in considering the M1/M2 carbines for return to service. Some 0.30” MAGALs could also come from Israel. The MAGAL is ideal for motorized units due to its low weight and compact design; furthermore, it is capable of using the M1 Carbine magazine. . This weapon helps to recycle the older M1/M2s. The 7.62 x 33mm rounds (0.30”) fired by the M1/M2s are still adequate for most police tasks.

The Escuela Nacional de Policia-ENP offers a six-month basic police training while the Campo Escuela Murcielago at Guanacaste, offers basic field training (field-craft, map reading, SAR skills etc).


Limited defense capabilities are maintained by the MSP by means of the POLICIA DE FRONTERAS. This unit has been established with seven border security companies taken from the former Relampago, Binicio, and Frontera Sur battalions. These units are equipped with US BDU and the US OD1967 combat uniforms, 5.56mm M16A1 rifles, 40mm M203 grenade launchers, and 7.62mm M60 machine guns. This material is complemented with 5.56mm T-65 and Galil rifles, and the units have access to a limited number of 60mm and 81mm mortars.

The seven border security companies are distributed between the South Command and the North Command. These commands comprise several precincts (Comisarias). The South Command deploys its members to the Comisaria del Sur (Guapiles), Comisaria de Golfito (Golfito) and Comisaria de Sixaola (Sixaola). The North Command comprises the Comisaria del Norte (La Cruz), Comisaria de los Chiles (Los Chiles), Comisaria de Upala (Upala) and Comisaria del Atlantico (Puerto Viejo).

The Air and the Maritime Security Sections have also been transferred under the Border Police Command. In the case of the Maritime Security Section, sailors are equipped with elderly M1 Garand rifles, but the boarding parties carry FN-FMC 5.56mm rifles. It is the opinion of the author that the 7.62mm M14 and FAL rifles could be more useful with the Navy. The 5.56mm FN-FNC and M16A1 rifles could be better in the hands of elite police units and border guard ground policemen. In fact, the territorial border police resemble regular infantry units found in any other Central American countries, and debunks the idea that the Costar Ricans do not have an Army.

However, there is considerable indifference and neglect to these defense or paramilitary forces by the society, which leads to corruption, negligence and general poor performance. The lack of proper training is evident by observing the state of equipment. Ammunition is dangerously piled up and carelessly stored inside the boats and installations. Furthermore, a 1995 Study by the MSP revealed that none of the naval crewman knew how to operate the 12.7mm M2HB machine guns on the boat. There are 20mm Mk68 guns available for the largest boats, but again, no one probably knows how to operate them, much less how to maintain them.

The Maritime Security Section operates from rustic installations at Golfito, Puntarenas, Cuajiniquil, and Quepos in the Pacific, and the installations at Limon and Moin in the Atlantic. The Naval Base in Moin is in charge of riverine operations with some eight Boston Whalers; these speedboats are equipped with either one or two Johnson 70 hp outboards. Many of vessels are not seaworthy and several installations are inadequate to support them.
The Air Security Section flies four Cessna 206, one Commander 680, three O-2, and a considerable fleet of Piper type aircraft, with two PA-23, three PA-28, one PA-31, and one PA-34 aircraft. The helicopter element includes two Hughes 500E and one Hiller FH-1100. A Mil Mi-8 was donated by the Nicaraguan government for the Ministry of Public Security in 1996, and a De Havilland Canada DHC-4 Caribou was transferred from the Puerto Rican Air National Guard. More recently, a C-123K Provider and a second Caribou were observed in the Air Security Section HQ at the Jose Santamaria International Airport but it is unclear if these assets were there as a loan or as recent transfers.


The GUARDIA RURAL is in charge of rural police and comprises 2000 agents. The Guard members wear an olive drab uniform and carry diverse small arms, including M16A1, T-65, Galil and M14 rifles and M203 grenade launchers. The Rural Guard counts with eight “Comandancias Rurales” (Rural Commands).

The San Jose Rural Command accounts for 7 Cantonal (village) Delegations, and 14 District (town) Delegation. The Brunca Region Rural Command (San Isidron El General) accounts for 3 Cantonal Delegations and 4 District Delegations. The Limon Rural Command comprises 2 Cantonal Delegations (Limon and Siguirres) and 9 District Delegations.

The Alajuela Rural Command deploys 10 Cantonal Delegations and 8 District Delegations. The Cartago Rural Command deploys only the District Delegation at Cartago while the Heredia Rural Command deploys the sub-delegation of Heredia and the Puntarenas Rural Command man the Puntarenas District Delegation and Rio Claro Delegation. Finally, the Guanacaste Rural Command has responsibility of the Guanacaste District Delegation.

The Presidential Security Council stills responds to terrorist threats with the Special Intervention Unit (UEI), but changes are expected in the near future since the Council has also been targeted for reorganization. There are other police agencies operating in this small Central American nation. The Special Bureau of Investigation responds to the National Supreme Court. The Fiscal Control Police falls under the Ministry of the Treasury. The Transit Police are under the Ministry of Transport and the Penal Police are under the Ministry of Justice. They all have access to small weapons, such as a few MP5 and UZI SMGs, assault rifles, grenade launchers and machine guns.


The efforts of the government are centered in fighting corruption within the agencies, and the modernization of all police agencies.

By comparison, Costa Rica appears very peaceful and pleasant when it comes to tourism. On these days, however, criminal activity is found, even in paradise. The country lives off the tourist industry. The government and several institutions do extremely well “selling the rain forest” around the world. Flights into San Jose are full of Europeans and Americans coming to enjoy the natural beauty of this nation. Nevertheless, we can not let the beauty of the rain forest deceive us. Well-armed gangs have been known to operate close to the border with Nicaragua. Some of these bandits carry 7.62mm AKM rifles, which present more firepower than the local police. European tourists have been kidnapped along these isolated regions. The government does try to down play these problems to preserve the tourist industry, and Costa Ricans blame these activities on the Nicaraguans. There is no doubt that some of their own are participating.

As with any other major metropolitan area, it is not advisable to walk into dark alleys or isolated areas. I have found very little fun in San Jose, the Capital, other than visiting the local bars frequented by many male tourists, looking for local girls. “Party” areas in other local cities such as San Salvador and Guatemala are well lit, and visited by large crowds. San Jose, on the other hand, appears dark and empty. Very few bars are close in distance to one another. Although San Jose does not have the high crime index as its neighbors, a little prevention is better than sorrow.

After all, by not being careful, even paradise could end up being a lonely hell.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V4N2 (November 2000)
and was posted online on November 7, 2014


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