The Young and Restless in Costa Rica

!kLet’s start with a statistic given by Sandra Piszk, Costa Rica’s Minister of Labor: [translation] “The country has about 300,000 kids who are neither studying nor working.” Now that wouldn’t be so bad in a country of 300 million. But we are talking about Costa Rica, with a population of a little less than 4.5 million. That means the non-studying-non-working kids comprise over 7.5.% of the population.

That’s not good, no? 7.5% is a pretty bad unemployment number for the whole. But that’s not what’s being measured. First of all, the workforce is not the same as total population. The workforce is a smaller subset, estimated to be around 2 million. Okay, now the NSNW kids are 15% of the entire workforce. But wait! It gets worse! The (potential) workforce is not just comprised of kids. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find a statistic that tells me what % of the workforce the ‘kids’ comprise. I think we can safely assume it’s not over 50%. So I think we can safely say that somewhere above 30% of ‘kids’ are idle, probably a lot more.

Costa Rica is fortunate that its population is pretty docile and not political like the Greeks or Spanish. The young and unemployed take to the streets there. Here they take to the streets too, but only to snatch a purse or a camera. Just how widespread is camera (and other) theft? Take a stroll down pawnshop row and you’ll have your answer.

As I was putting this post together, I happened to read an article by Robin Emmott of Reuters, which talks about problems in Monterrey, Mexico with drug-gang related violence. The whole article is chilling and I recommend it, but allow me to quote a bit that relates to our current topic:

Many who knew Monterrey as one of Latin America’s safest cities wonder how things got so bad so fast.

Part of the answer lies in the drugged up eyes of 18-year-old gang member Alan, who spends his days bored and jobless wandering the city streets, and his nights getting high on glue and marijuana with his friends on the dirty concrete stairways of his parents’ apartment block.

With his arms elaborately tattooed with the name of his gang, “Los Vatos Locos” (The Crazy Guys), Alan is part of Monterrey’s rarely mentioned underclass that the Gulf and Zetas cartels have seized on to recruit dealers, smugglers and hitmen to fuel their bitter war.


Alan is not a hitman, but he soon could be.

On the street corners of Monterrey’s poorest barrios and the region’s neglected rural towns, the cartels recruit dropouts like Alan, often as young as 12 or 13, to sell drugs or diversify into other crimes like carjacking and burglaries, paying handsomely with “gifts” such as SUVs, cash or drugs.

So what’s missing from this picture in Costa Rica? It’s not that bad here (yet). One thing that’s missing is proximity to the US border. Costa Rica is on one of the major supply routes, but it’s farther down on the food chain, so to speak. The volume of drugs running through the country is substantial in terms of quantity, but it’s dollar value here is considerably less than it would be if it were closer to the retail market (the USA).

3950553724_6bc8ce581c_mThe authorities here routinely snag tons of cocaine and marijuana, you can see it in any of the local press. I suspect that the percentage actually intercepted must be rather small, for two reasons. First, we know that there is no shortage further north. Nobody knows for certain how much of the drug traffic goes overland as opposed to by sea or air, but unless sea and air constitute a staggering majority of smuggling activity, there must be a fair amount of the stuff passing through Costa Rica. Second, if the amount confiscated were actually doing significant damage to the drug trade, I think we’d see a LOT more violence against law enforcement in this country.

The authorities here have a reputation for being more ‘touchable’ than untouchable. I spent more hours than I can count on the highways of the USA, and never once saw a bribe. I have spent very few hours in private vehicles here and have seen several bribes paid. I think this helps explain why the drug lords haven’t found it necessary to start killing law officers here.

The USA is doing what it can to ‘induce’ Costa Rica to join in its never ending ‘war on drugs.’ Costa Rica is cooperating, up to a point at least. There is a limit to what a country without a military can do. I won’t bother going into the perceived shortcomings of the local law enforcement and justice systems, but I think Barney Fife would probably have risen to police chief somewhere if his name was Barney Arias.

But to get back to the ‘young and restless’ theme, Costa Rica is heading in the direction of Mexico, though it may not arrive within any of our lifetimes. On the other hand, it just might. Is anything being done to address the dropout rate or the high unemployment? From what I can find, there are a few token programs here and there to train a small number of dropouts to do something other than steal or deal. Will the end result of these programs bring a drop in the percentage of young people with nothing gainful to do? I would be surprised, to put it mildly.

So does anyone have a solution? If so, does that solution have any chance of ever being enacted? I would answer question 1 with a ‘possibly’ and question 2 with a ‘nope.’ The situation isn’t bad enough (yet) to do anything substantial. Those in charge live quite well, thankyouverymuch. The people in the slums don’t vote, and would probably vote for whoever had the best TV commercials anyway. The poor have no faith in government and no faith in the system.

Probably all that saves Costa Rica from going the way of Mexico is that there doesn’t seem to be enough demand for young thugs to employ a sufficiently large number of young people. Not yet, at least.

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