Peace activists have long praised Costa Rica’s absence of a military as a model for other nations to follow. Truth be told, there’s a lot about Costa Rica—its low crime and relative wealth—that shines in a region plagued by gang violence and endemic poverty.
“Most Americans—even among the many who travel to Costa Rica for an eco-vacation—have no idea that this country is demilitarized, even as they enthusiastically partake of the many benefits this decision has helped generate,” psychologist David Barash and author of the textbook Peace and Conflict Studies once beamed in the pages of the Los Angeles Times.
Barash went on to credit Costa Rica’s absence of a military—which it formally abolished in 1948—as contributing to the country’s happy population and well-preserved ecology.
But not so fast. Costa Rica does have a small military force in all but name.
Last month, Costa Rican commandos participated in Fuerzas Comando—a biennial war game sponsored by the U.S. military’s Southern Command. Over the course of a week at the Colombian army’s base at Fort Tolemaida, commando units from 17 countries competed against each other in a series of demanding assault and sniper courses.
Snipers and combat teams from Costa Rica’s Special Intervention Unit, known by its Spanish acronym UEI, came in tenth place—ahead of teams from Paraguay, Chile, Belize, Trinidad and Tobago, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic and Suriname. (In case you’re curious, Colombian commandos narrowly beat out the U.S. Army’s 7th Special Forces Group for the top spot.)
While small—the Costa Rican UEI has only 70 soldiers, equivalent to an under-strength infantry company—the force is very much modeled along military lines. According to the Tico Times, Costa Rica created the unit after its police trained with Israeli commandos in the 1980s.
But the Special Intervention Unit is not officially a military force.
“The UEI is an intervention unit for police and not military purposes,” Mariano Figueres, the director of the Department of Intelligence and Security—Costa Rica’s spy agency—told the Times. The DIS funds and commands the UEI.
But the distinction between police and military work in Central America is a lot fuzzier than it might seem. Guatemalan and Honduran troops are heavily involved in trying to stop drug traffickers who use the region as a cocaine highway from South America to the United States.
Likewise, the UEI trains to intercept narco traffickers, in addition to rescuing hostages and acting as a high-intensity counter-terrorist unit. Their training is equivalent to that required by U.S. commando teams, and the Tico commandos use 5.56-caliber M4 carbines—an upgrade to the MP5 and Uzi submachine guns the commando force used to wield.
Costa Rica is also boosting its spending on security. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute—which tracks global military spending—Costa Rica increased internal security spending by 123 percent between 2006 and 2012.
That’s the second largest increase in Central America behind Mexico. The total dollar amount Costa Rica spent on security in 2012 was $331 million. That’s pocket change compared to the U.S. military, but it’s higher than every other country in the region except for Mexico and Guatemala.
On the other hand, Costa Rica has not gone to war since the country’s civil war of 1948, which precipitated the official abolishing of the country’s military. That stands in stark relief to the ludicrously violent civil wars that swept across Central America during the Cold War.
However, the UEI does train for a remote—but nonetheless potential—future conflict with Nicaragua.
In 2010, Nicaraguan troops invaded the disputed Isla Calero that sits in the San Juan River delta, which marks the border between the two countries. Nicaragua and Costa Rica are still—peacefully—squabbling over who owns the island at the International Court of Justice at The Hague.
That the UEI is training to fight Nicaraguan troops is a controversial fact in Costa Rica. Three opposition political parties—two left-wing parties and the conservative Libertarian Movement—have all called to abolish the DIS. The fear is that the bloodless invasion or another like it could spiral out of control into a shooting war.
But the director told the newspaper Crhoy that the controversy “is because many are unaware of the work and the importance of UEI.”
Namely, the work and importance of countering Nicaraguan adventurism.