Domestic violence; effectiveness of the existing laws, including the criminal code, in protecting women who are victims of domestic violence; status of the bill criminalizing domestic violence; and the penalty for violating a restraining order (January 2004-October 2004) [CRI43096.E]

The following information is in addition to that found in CRI41541.FE of 10 July 2003 and CRI42318.E of 21 January 2004 on domestic violence in Costa Rica, including the training given to police, policies governing police handling of domestic violence complaints and the attitude of the police toward domestic violence, and CRI42320.E of 15 January 2004 on the number and location of police offices dealing specifically with complaints from women.

Contextual information and statistics

In 2002 and 2003, 26 and 28 women, respectively, died in domestic violence situations in Costa Rica (La Nación 23 Jan. 2004b) and as of 21 October 2004, 18 women have died in such situations in 2004 (ibid. 21 Oct. 2004). On 21 October 2004, La Nación reported the death of Katia Rivas, the eighteenth woman to have died in 2004 as a result of domestic violence. According to Ministry of Public Security statistics, the public forces (Fuerzas Públicas) dealt with 31,876 complaints of domestic violence from January to November 2003 (ibid. 17 Dec. 2003).

According to a national survey on violence against women, produced by the University of Costa Rica's (Universidad de Costa Rica, UCR) Women's Studies Research Centre (Centro de Investigación en Estudios de la Mujer, CIEM) in May 2004, 58 per cent of the 908 women interviewed for the survey stated that they had suffered at least one incident of physical or sexual violence in the last 16 years (3). The survey also reported that despite public campaigns, changes in national legislation, and new services available to victims of violence, very few victims lodged formal complaints or made their situation publicly known (CIEM May 2004, 5). The survey revealed that 10.4 per cent of the women who had been abused by someone who was not their partner had reported the incident to the authorities, while 16.6 per cent of women who had been abused by their partner reported the incident (ibid.). Forty-one per cent of the latter group did not report abuse because they felt that it was a private matter, while 26 per cent of the former group believed the same (ibid.). Seventeen per cent of women who had suffered domestic violence from their partners and 5.7 per cent of women who had suffered violence at the hands of non-partners had reported their situations to organizations specialized in domestic violence, such as the women's delegations, and government institutions and private organizations that offer services to abused women (ibid., 6).

Legislation addressing violence against women

For information on the legal measures in place related to domestic violence and violence against women in Costa Rica, please consult the following Responses: CRI42723.E of 4 June 2004, CRI 38268.E of 6 December 2001, CRI32983.E of 19 November 1999 and CRI28961.E of 27 February 1998.

Effectiveness of protection measures for victims of domestic violence

Regarding the effectiveness of protection measures, La Nación reported the case of Marta Alvarado who had taken several protection measures against her abusive partner, Wílbeth López, who, in January 2004, killed three of their children before killing himself in La Carpio, San José (23 Jan. 2004a). Alvarado had twice instigated protection measures against López [under the Law on Domestic Violence], which prohibited him from approaching his children, from approaching Alvarado's workplace, from living in their house, and which empowered police to respond if López disobeyed the measures, but each time the measures were nullified when she allowed him back into the family home (La Nación 23 Jan. 2004c). According to Yolanda Bertozzi, a lawyer specializing in domestic violence, the restraining order is [translation] "nothing more than an undignified piece of paper meant to be respected by an aggressor with the profile of this man from La Carpio" (ibid.). In an earlier La Nación report, Bertozzi stated that although the judicial branch has made great efforts to respond to the domestic violence problem, the Law on Domestic Violence allows judges only to issue protection measures (17 Dec. 2003).

The 2003-2004 annual report of the ombudsman contains documentation of three complaints that were made between 1 May 2003 and 30 April 2004 with regard to police treatment of alleged domestic violence abusers (Costa Rica 2004, 350-351). Of two complaints made by one person in San Matheo de Alajuela against police officers in Orotina and San Matheo, one complaint was related to alleged police harassment when the person was detained at a local police station, and the second complaint was related to alleged police abuse when the person's partner called the police after a domestic dispute (ibid. 350). The third complaint was made by a man who claimed to have been mistreated and beaten by several law enforcers during the drive to and at the police station in Alajuelita, following a call from his partner denouncing him for domestic violence (ibid. 351). The ombudsman dismissed all three complaints, determining that the police had acted lawfully in carrying out their responsibilities related to the protection measures dictated in the cases (ibid.).

Meeting with Laura Guzmán Stein of CIEM in Toronto on 13 May 2004

The following information on domestic violence, including the effectiveness of the protection measures available to victims of violence and the penalties for violating a restraining order, was provided by Laura Guzmán Stein of CIEM during a 13 May 2004 meeting with Immigration and Refugee Board representatives in Toronto.

According to Guzmán Stein, even without a woman's securing of a restraining order, "police have the right to intervene officially in situations of domestic violence or when they are required to do so by victims and third parties. This is one of the positive things in terms of the law" (13 May 2004, 5).

Effectiveness and application of domestic violence law

Regarding the effectiveness of the law and its application, however, Guzmán Stein stated that

[t]he protection measures can last from one month to no more than six [months] and can be extended by an equal period. If the aggressor fails to comply with the measures imposed, he can be convicted of contempt of authority, which is a crime. However, usually if there is contempt of authority, he is not going to get jail time, just pay a fine, and if he doesn't have the money to pay the fine, that's it [he doesn't have to pay it] (13 May 2004, 5-6).

According to Guzmán Stein, a woman can request protective measures up to twice a year only; once protective measures have been put in place, unless there is another, separate incident of domestic abuse, a woman cannot request any further protection, leaving "a group of women without any protection, and it's usually the women who are living [with] or who have left the violent perpetrators who will be at the highest risk of getting killed" (13 May 2004, 5-6, 24).

Guzmán Stein noted that while there has been an increase in the number of requests for protective measures, many times requests are "dropped" by the women or by judges (13 May 2004, 6). She also noted that when an aggressor breaches protection and does not have money to pay the resulting fine, "the person goes unpunished and this is why many women feel that there is no sense in requesting the protective measures because then they feel this would infuriate the man and they will be more at risk" (Guzmán Stein 13 May 2004, 6).

In order for a restraining order to be put into effect, the woman involved must appear at the meeting with the judge who will issue protection measures; however, if the man does not appear, the restraining order can have effect if he receives notice of the measures (ibid., 19-20). According to Guzmán Stein, however, "in in Costa Rica are very capable of finding sophisticated [means through] which they will not get this notification" (13 May 2004, 6).

Internal Flight Alternative

With regards to opportunities for internal flight alternative, Guzmán Stein stated that

we have the legal mechanisms; we have a policy, but the appropriate implementation of the legal mechanisms and the policy to protect and guarantee that women's integrity will be fully protected are not being set in place or are not operating. On the other hand, women do not have the move to other parts of the country where it would be difficult for the perpetrator to reach them, or to change their identities. Aside from that, it is not easy for many Costa Rican women who are facing intimate partner violence to go to other Central American countries where opportunities are extremely limited for them....[I]nformation...moves...very fast and it is very easy for men to get the information from Immigration authorities [as] to where the woman moved, [and] if she left the country, where she went (13 May 2004, 10).

Protection available via criminal law

On the issue of protection available via criminal law for victims of domestic abuse, Laura Guzmán Stein stated that

[t]he criminal law provides norms on these other cases [in which the woman is "horribly beaten"]. The problem - and this explains why the women's movement developed this other law [proposed to criminalize violence against women] that is right now in congress [ - is that you] can literally get beaten up and then the judge - what the law says is that the judge [ - ] is going to consider the seriousness of the assault on grounds of how many days that woman [ - ], like if you were out of work [ - was] incapacitated. So unless you get killed [ - ] and this sounds harsh - but it's the reality [ - ] you are not going to get many days. Usually what the doctor is going to say is that you were incapacitated for two or three weeks, so it's not treated as a criminal matter. So the law in congress right now [ - ] what it intends to do is to change this disparity (13 May 2004 14-15).

Sexual abuse and domestic violence law

On the issue of whether sexual violence, including sexual assault and rape, within the context of domestic violence can be punished under the domestic violence law, Guzmán Stein reported that

[t]here have been cases where the domestic violence law provides for [the prosecution of] sexual assault, although if you have been sexually assaulted by your partner or former partner, you can request protective measures. In order to get the partner processed criminally, [one] would have to resort to the criminal law, and there have been cases. In the majority of cases, there are very few women that actually go through that process. They feel that there is nothing they can do, that they are risking [ - ] if they charge their partner or former partner that he would get even more violent against them [...]. There are judges that still think independently of what the law says, that if you are under a marital relationship, there is no sexual assault in that case. The lawyers try to convince the women to take it to constitutional [court]...but they were not successful (13 May 2004, 25-26).

Services available to victims of domestic abuse

With regard to services available to victims of domestic violence, Laura Guzmán Stein states that there are three shelters in Costa Rica for battered women, one in San José, another in Limón, on the Carribean coast and another in Tamarindo Puntarenas, on the Pacific coast (13 May 2004, 15). Other services available to victims can be obtained via the Women's Delegation of the INAM, which has social, legal and psychological services in place (Guzmán Stein 13 May 2004, 16). However, women cannot lodge a formal complaint through the Women's Delegation; they must do so in the courts (ibid.). While the Office of the Ombudsman cannot directly protect victims of violence, it can evaluate complaints made against public institutions and public servants, such as police officers and judges, and can make recommendations, which are non-binding (ibid., 17).

Bill criminalizing violence against women and other government initiatives

In February 2004, the bill criminalizing violence against women (Ley de penalización de la violencia contra mujeres) had passed first reading in the Legislative Assembly when 39 legislators approved it and seven rejected it (La Nación 27 Feb. 2004; The Tico Times 1 Mar. 2004). The bill would establish a penalty of 20 to 35 years' imprisonment for aggressors who kill women (ibid; La Nación 27 Feb. 2004). Furthermore, the bill would penalize sexual abuse with sentences of 12 to 18 years' imprisonment and three to six years' imprisonment for those who subject the victim to pain or humiliation during sexual relations (ibid.). Before being submitted to a second reading in the Legislative Assembly, the bill would need to be reviewed by the Constitutional Court to determine whether it was constitutional (ibid. 28 Feb. 2004; The Tico Times 1 Mar. 2004). On 31 March 2004, the Constitutional Court determined that the bill was not unconstitutional and that a special and specific criminal law for violence against women was possible under the Costa Rica constitution and other international legal instruments to which the country was a signatory party (La Nación 18 April 2004). In a 21 October 2004 telephone interview, the coordinator of the legal and protection department at the National Institute for Women (Instituto Nacional de las Mujeres, INAMU) stated that the bill was still pending final approval in Costa Rica's Legislative Assembly (Costa Rica 21 Oct. 2004). She further added that its adoption has been delayed due to resistance by opposition legislators and priority issues for the government, including the trials of two former presidents who are accused of corruption (ibid.).

Several prominent officials, including Laura Guzmán Stein, the director of CIEM, Silvia Mesa, the director of the domestic violence program at the INAMU, Esmeralda Britton, Minister of the Status of Women, Yolanda Bertozzi, a lawyer who specializes in cases of domestic violence, Rosalía Gil, the Children's Minister and José Manuel Echandi, the Ombudsman, state that the bill criminalizing violence against women is needed for effective law enforcement against domestic violence abuses (Guzmán Stein 13 May 2004, 9; La Nación 21 Oct. 2004; ibid. 28 Feb. 2004; ibid. 23 Jan. 2004c). According to Laura Guzmán Stein and the coordinador of the legal and protection department at INAMU, the law has not been subjected to a second debate in the Legislative Assembly because of filibustering by opposition legislators (13 May 2004, 9; Costa Rica 21 Oct. 2004).

Other initiatives to address the issue of domestic violence include an inter-ministerial special commission to respond to the problem of women dying at the hands of their abusive partners (Guzmán Stein 13 May 2004, 7; The Tico Times 28 Jan. 2004). Among its initiatives, the special commission would draft a plan outlining the method for dealing with the problem of violence against women and make recommendations for modifications to the bill criminalizing violence against women (ibid.). One of the commission's first concrete steps was to be the empowering of the authorities to notify the Public Security Ministry once a person accused of domestic violence was released from jail (ibid.). In December 2003, Rogelio Ramos, the Minister of Public Security, announced the creation of a database similar to the one created for common delinquents, in which the names of repeat domestic abusers would be kept (La Nación 17 Dec. 2003). The goal of the database was to enable the Ministry of Public Security to provide better information to judges who could then take more "drastic" measures, such as imposing preventative prison sentences, against repeat offenders (ibid.).

Attempts to obtain additional information from the coordinator of legal and protection department at INAMU, the Attorney General's Office and a member of Costa Rica's Supreme Court on the penalties for violating a restraining order were unsuccessful within time constraints of this Response.

This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the Research Directorate within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim for refugee protection.


Centro de Investigación en Estudios de la Mujer (CIEM), Universidad de Costa Rica. May 2004. Montserrat Sagot Rodríguez and Laura Guzmán Stein. "Proyecto de Investigación 'Encuesta nacional de violencia contra las mujeres'." [Accessed 21 Oct. 2004]

Costa Rica. 21 October 2004. Instituto Nacional de las Mujeres (INAMU), San José. Telephone interview with the coordinator of the legal and protection department.

_____. 2004. Defensoría de los habitantes de Costa Rica. Informe de Labores 2003-2004. [Accessed 13 Oct. 2004]

Guzmán Stein, Laura. 13 May 2004. "Gender Violence in Costa Rica." Report to Immigration and Refugee Board, Canada.

La Nación [San José]. 21 October 2004. Freddy Parrales and Irene Vizcaíno. "Hombre asesinó a compañera y se mató." [Accessed 21 Oct. 2004]

_____. 18 April 2004. "Sí es violencia específica." [Accessed 20 Oct. 2004]

_____. 28 February 2004. Ismael Venegas C. "Prevén cambio de conducta en los agresores." [Accessed 20 Oct. 2004]

_____. 27 February 2004. Berlioth Herrera. "Aprobado plan que pena violencia contra mujeres." [Accessed 20 Oct. 2004]

_____. 23 January 2004a. Irene Vizcaíno G. "Hombre asesinó a tres hijos y luego se suicidó en La Carpio." [Accessed 21 Oct. 2004]

_____. 23 January 2004b. "Violencia incontrolable." [Accessed 21 Oct. 2004]

_____. 23 January 2004c. Alvaro Murillo M. "Medidas de protección fueron inútiles." [Accessed 21 Oct. 2004]

_____. 23 January 2004d. Irene Vizcaíno G. "Historia de agresión comenzó hace años." [Accessed 21 Oct. 2004]

_____. 17 December 2003. Irene Vizcaíno. "Tica asilada en EE.UU. por agresión." [Accessed 15 Oct. 2004]

The Tico Times [San José]. 1 March 2004. "Domestic Violence Bill Obtains Initial Approval." [Accessed 21 Oct. 2004]

_____. 28 January 2004. "Government Creates New Domestic Violence Commission." [Accessed 21 Oct. 2004]

Associated documents