Costa Rica: What Army?

““Democracy and freedom only exist when the armed forces want them to,” he [Jair Bolsonaro, President of Brazil] said in a speech in March at a military ceremony.

This will be news to Costa Rica. Its decision to abolish its army in 1948 is widely regarded as having helped it stay free.” (The Economist, 2019, p.18).

Coast Rica has used the savings from defence spending to improve education, health care and a durable social safety net.

In 2018, Costa Rica marked its 70th anniversary since it abolished its military, and that seems to suit the population. It ranked first in Latin America and 12th in world in happiness, according to the 2017 World Happiness Index. The Happy Planet Index ranked it No. 1 in the world.

Costa Rica’s experiment without a military began in 1948, when the then Defence Minister Edgar Cardona proposed the idea to spend more for education and health.

José Figueres, provisional president at the time, took the proposal to the constitutional assembly, which approved it. Instead of a permanent armed forces, the assembly created a new civil police force to defend the nation.

The border between Costa Rica and Panama became the only non-militarised frontier in the world after Panama followed Costa Rica’s example and abolished its military in 1989.

“But not so fast. Costa Rica does have a small military force in all but name.” (War is Boring, 2014).

Members of the Costa Rica Special Operations team make their way unto shore after swimming through a zigzagging path across a large pond in the fourth part of the Fuerzas Comando Aquatics event at Nilo, Colombia, July 28. Each of the teams had to carry a raft to the lake, row across, run about five kilometers with their rucks, swim across a large pond, and then sprint to the pistol marksmanship range.

While small, the Costa Rican Special Intervention Unit (SIU), known by its Spanish acronym UEI, has approximately 70 soldiers – equivalent to an under-strength Infantry company. And, the force is modelled along military lines.

Although the SIU is not officially a military force, it was established after personnel trained with the Israeli commandos in the 1980’s.

According to the then Director of the Department of Intelligence and Security – which funds and commands the SIU – it is an intervention unit for police and not military purposes.

However, the SIU trains to:

  • Intercept narco traffickers;
  • Rescue hostages; and
  • Act as a high-intensity counter-terrorist unit.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute – which tracks global military spending – Costa Rica increased internal security spending by 123% between 2006 and 2012.


Barash, D.P. (2013) Costa Rica’s peace dividend: How abolishing the military paid off. Available from World Wide Web: [Accessed: 18 November, 2019].

The Economist. (2019) The 40-Year Itch. The Economist. 11 May 2019, pp.18.

Trejos, A. (2018) Why getting rid of Costa Rica’s army 70 years ago has been such a success. Available from World Wide Web: [Accessed: 18 November, 2019].

War is Boring. (2014) Costa Rica Doesn’t Have a Military? Not So Fast. Available from World Wide Web: [Accessed: 18 November, 2019].


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