2021 Trafficking in Persons Report: Costa Rica


The Government of Costa Rica does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so. The government demonstrated overall increasing efforts compared to the previous reporting period, considering the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on its anti-trafficking capacity; therefore Costa Rica remained on Tier 2. These efforts included employing new investigative techniques in trafficking cases, identifying more victims, and converting planned trainings and interagency coordination to virtual delivery amid the pandemic. However, the government did not meet the minimum standards in several key areas. The government decreased funding for anti-trafficking efforts and closed a trafficking-specific emergency shelter.


Reduce bureaucratic obstacles to the disbursement of funds allocated to anti-trafficking efforts. • Increase funding for victim services and provide specialized shelter and services for trafficking victims in partnership with civil society organizations. • Fund and implement the judicial action plan to improve the investigation and prosecution of trafficking cases. • Intensify efforts to investigate and prosecute trafficking offenses and convict and punish traffickers, including child sex tourists. • Increase victim identification and referral, particularly in coordination and collaboration with civil society. • Further reduce the backlog of trafficking cases in the judicial system. • Conduct thorough and transparent criminal investigations of alleged government complicity in trafficking offenses and prosecute, convict, and punish complicit officials. • Provide increased anti-trafficking training for police, prosecutors, judges, and municipal officials. • Improve data collection on law enforcement and victim protection efforts. • Monitor and report the number of trafficking-related calls to existing hotlines.


The government maintained law enforcement efforts. Article 172 of the penal code criminalized sex trafficking and labor trafficking and prescribed penalties of six to 10 years’ imprisonment for offenses involving an adult victim, and eight to 16 years’ imprisonment for those involving a child victim. These penalties were sufficiently stringent and, with respect to sex trafficking, commensurate with those for other serious crimes, such as rape. The law defined trafficking broadly to include illegal adoption without the purpose of exploitation, inconsistent with the definition of trafficking under international law. In addition to Article 172, officials used trafficking-related offenses to prosecute trafficking cases, including aggravated pimping (Article 170) and coerced pimping (Article 171), both of which prescribed penalties ranging from two to 10 years’ imprisonment. Article 189 criminalized forced labor or services and prescribed penalties of six to 10 years’ imprisonment.

Costa Rica had two police forces involved in trafficking investigations—the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) and the Migration Authority’s (DGME’s) Professional Migration Police. The Attorney General’s Office supervised both investigative units. The Attorney General’s Office reported investigating 103 cases total—68 trafficking cases (Article 172), 28 cases of child sex trafficking (Article 170), and seven cases of forced labor or services (Article 189) – compared with 69 cases in 2019 (43 cases under Article 172, six under Article 170, and 11 under Article 189) and 74 cases in 2018. The government initiated prosecutions against four accused sex traffickers under Articles 172 and 170, compared with prosecuting seven accused traffickers in 2019 and 12 in 2018. Courts convicted five sex traffickers in 2020, all under Article 172, compared with convicting 15 traffickers in 2019 and 10 in 2018. Judges sentenced one convicted trafficker to four years’ imprisonment; the other four traffickers each received sentences of 36 years’ imprisonment. In one case, courts convicted a sex trafficker for forcing a 13-year-old girl to engage in commercial sex acts with foreign clients. The trafficker also forced the victim to consume drugs to establish greater control over her; the government provided detoxification treatment to the victim to address drug dependence. In 2020, the government did not prosecute or convict any labor traffickers; in 2019, the government prosecuted just one labor trafficker, under Article 189.

Officials reported pandemic-related mitigation measures strained law enforcement capacity and limited the resources available for anti-trafficking efforts. The government charged law enforcement officials, including trafficking investigators, with enforcing the closure of Costa Rica’s land borders; these reassignments, in combination with funding shortages, restricted law enforcement officials’ ability to conduct regular monitoring and anti-trafficking patrols. However, the government employed new investigative techniques during the reporting period, in part to mitigate the limitations on law enforcement activity during the pandemic; in its first use of wiretapping in a trafficking investigation, the government acquired key evidence to support a series of raids, where authorities arrested 12 suspected traffickers and identified 40 trafficking victims.

The government did not report any new investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government employees complicit in human trafficking offenses; however, at least two previously reported cases involving complicit officials remained ongoing during the reporting period. In one such case, prosecutors appealed a 2019 ruling in which courts acquitted a public official of trafficking and convicted the official of a lesser charge. In another, authorities continued to investigate 12 public officials accused in 2018 of facilitating trafficking victims’ entry into Costa Rica. The government did not provide updates on a third ongoing case, first investigated in 2011, involving a local mayor indicted for establishing a trafficking ring. The government continued to investigate and prosecute individuals who paid child trafficking victims for commercial sex, resulting in one conviction in 2020, compared with four convictions in 2019 and 22 in 2018.

From March until October 2020, courts only adjudicated “emergency” or “urgent” cases under pandemic restrictions. Due to these limitations and the judicial sector’s chronic backlog of cases, the government reported delays in processing all cases, including trafficking cases. The Supreme Court had a judicial branch action plan with a dedicated budget, developed in 2018 to build capacity and raise public awareness on how to identify trafficking, but the government did not implement the plan in 2020 due to a technicality that blocked access to funding. The government provided five trainings on investigating and prosecuting human trafficking cases to 108 law enforcement officials, prosecutors, immigration officials, and labor officials; officials conducted all but one training virtually. An unknown number of public officials attended virtual trainings offered by international and civil society organizations. Government officials reported the pandemic and related restrictions impeded planned trainings for 2020. Because law enforcement officials supported anti-trafficking efforts on short rotations, limited training during the pandemic may have reduced new officials’ familiarity with trafficking indicators and other critical information. Institutional capacity to combat human trafficking varied across the country, with national-level officials demonstrating greater familiarity with trafficking than municipal counterparts. The Attorney General’s Office reported collaborating with Mexican officials on three cases involving human trafficking.


The government maintained victim protection efforts. The government identified 50 trafficking victims (20 women, 24 girls, six boys), compared with 35 in 2019 and 20 in 2018. The government reported identifying one transgender victim; it did not report identifying any adult male victims. Traffickers exploited 23 of these victims in sex trafficking and 13 in labor trafficking, including forced begging; the government did not identify the form of trafficking experienced for 14 victims. Of the 50 newly identified victims, at least 32 were Costa Rican nationals, 17 were Nicaraguan, and one was Panamanian. Thirty victims were children; of this group, 14 were children exploited alongside a parent or guardian.

Through the Immediate Response Team (ERI), a specialized inter-institutional body within the National Coalition against Illicit Smuggling and Trafficking of Migrants (CONATT), the government provided initial services to all 50 reported victims. The Office of Attention and Protection of Crime Victims, which served victims of all crimes, reported providing services to 75 trafficking victims, including several victims identified in previous years, compared with serving 48 victims in 2019. The National Women’s Institute (INAMU) provided services to 47 female victims of trafficking in 2020, compared with providing care to 31 female victims of trafficking in 2019. Some victims may have received services from more than one provider. Specialized law enforcement units and national immigration authorities used written procedures for identifying victims among vulnerable groups, such as migrants and individuals in commercial sex, and referred identified victims to CONATT to coordinate service provision. Public officials used the “Institutional Protocol for the Care of Minors and Survivors of Trafficking in Persons” and the “Interagency Manual of Attention of Minors in Sexual Trafficking, Child Labor, and Dangerous Work” which established the steps officials must take when identifying a possible case of trafficking.

The government could provide victims with access to health care providers, psychological services, legal counsel, financial aid, law enforcement liaison, and other services, including detoxification treatment, for up to three years. CONATT coordinated emergency, short-term, and long-term assistance for victims. ERI arranged short-term services for newly identified victims, including shelter, food, and medical care. CONATT favored housing victims in a network of government safe houses but also placed victims in a safe house operated by civil society, or a longer-term shelter for women and children. Authorities infrequently referred victims to NGO facilities. Until December 2020, CONATT managed an emergency shelter dedicated to trafficking victims within its headquarters in San Jose; however, the agency relocated within the city due to budget constraints and did not have a shelter at its new site. As a result, there were no trafficking-specific shelter facilities in the country. The government did not have shelters for male victims, although the safe house network could accommodate male trafficking victims on a case-by-case basis. The government assisted child victims through the national child welfare institution (PANI), which had a network of shelters for children and could place girl victims with an NGO facility that could provide long-term shelter. CONATT designated one of its constituent agencies to oversee services provision on a rotating basis. The designated agency had the discretion to refer victims to services based on individual needs; not all victims received the same level of protection. Civil society organizations reported authorities did not always implement referral mechanisms in an effective or timely manner and recommended the government provide transportation for victims to institutions providing assistance. The National Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Smuggling of Migrants Fund (FONATT) disbursed 7.41 million colones ($12,170) to provide services for identified victims, a significant decrease from the 172 million colones ($282,380) reported in 2019 and 429.6 million colones ($705,300) in 2018. The government attributed the decrease to sharp budget limitations during the pandemic and government-wide financial austerity measures. The government allocated 7.42 million colones ($12,180) in additional funding to cover expenses stemming from emergency service provision and initial contact and care for potential victims. PANI continued to provide direct funding and a per-victim subsidy for identified victims to an NGO-run shelter for child victims. The government did not report the total funding it allocated in 2020 to NGOs providing services to trafficking victims; in 2019, this funding amounted to 171.5 million colones ($281,560). Observers reported failure to disburse all of the allocated resources hindered the country’s ability to address its trafficking problem, despite dedicated government resources to anti-trafficking efforts, including victim services.

Costa Rican law allowed victims to obtain temporary residency status and work permits, leave the country, file civil suits against their traffickers, and provide testimony outside of court proceedings. The government issued 11 new temporary residence or work permits to trafficking victims in 2020 and continued annual renewals of existing permits issued in previous years. Victims could testify outside of court proceedings; in 2020, two human trafficking victims utilized this provision. The government did not facilitate the repatriation of any foreign victims exploited in Costa Rica, compared with two victims in 2019 and two in 2018. It did, however, receive three Costa Rican trafficking victims repatriated after facing exploitation abroad. CONATT offered trafficking awareness and victim identification trainings, primarily virtually, for officials in a range of agencies, including DGME, the social security administration, and the Ministry of Justice and Peace; international organizations provided educational materials or otherwise supported some of these trainings.


The government significantly decreased prevention efforts, primarily due to funding limitations. CONATT, chaired by DGME, integrated and coordinated anti-trafficking efforts among 22 public institutions, key NGOs, and international organizations, and maintained sub-commissions focused on attention to victims, prevention, justice, investigation and analysis, and project management. CONATT met periodically to review progress in the areas of research, protection, prevention, and prosecution; during the pandemic, it maintained interagency coordination via virtual meetings and telework. CONATT presented a quarterly public report on its accomplishments. The Government Council reviewed the draft 2020-2030 national action plan but did not approve it by the end of the reporting period. Through the FONATT, the government reported 620.45 million colones ($1.02 million) of anti-trafficking expenditures in 2020, compared with 1.4 billion colones ($2.3 million) in 2019. The government primarily financed its anti-trafficking activities through the FONATT, but bureaucratic hurdles continued to stymie execution of these funds; in 2020, the government disbursed just 13 percent of FONATT funds, down from 77 percent in 2019. In August 2020, a government decree enacted emergency austerity measures, cutting the FONATT budget by approximately 60 percent; these measures did not specifically target anti-trafficking funding, but impacted other entities working to combat trafficking, including DGME and CONATT. The government funded the FONATT primarily through a national exit tax; consequently, funding for anti-trafficking efforts fluctuated with travel to and from Costa Rica, which sharply decreased due to the pandemic. The government did not report any funding allocated to prevention programming in 2020, compared to 171.5 million colones ($281,560) for prevention programming and 1.37 billion colones ($2.25 million) for other anti-trafficking events and projects in 2019. Funding shortages also prevented the government from making its usual trafficking-specific allocations to DGME, the Ministry of Public Education, and other agencies. The government engaged in limited awareness-raising activities during the reporting period; the government attributed reduced programming to pandemic-related restrictions on in-person gatherings. Officials worked to expand social media usage and offer virtual events, such as a live broadcast that reached 9,700 people. OIJ operated two hotlines to receive confidential criminal complaints but did not report the number of calls related to potential trafficking cases in 2020; there were approximately 100 calls in 2018. The Judiciary Police also operated the 9-1-1 hotline available for general crime reporting but did not specifically report receiving trafficking calls through that mechanism.

In past years, the government educated labor recruiters for international and domestic businesses about the consequences of violating the anti-trafficking regulations but did not report doing so, or investigating or penalizing any labor recruiters for illegal practices that contribute to trafficking in 2020. The government promoted an international code of conduct related to commercial sexual exploitation in the travel and tourism industry; it collaborated with civil society to offer two in-person trainings for tourism sector staff on identifying and referring trafficking victims. The government did not report efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts in 2020. In addition to prosecuting and convicting individuals that paid child trafficking victims for commercial sex, the government made efforts to reduce the demand for participation in international sex tourism by working with international partners to deny entry to 24 foreign-registered sex offenders who attempted to travel to Costa Rica as tourists in 2020.


As reported over the past five years, human traffickers exploit domestic and foreign victims in Costa Rica, and traffickers exploit victims from Costa Rica abroad. Traffickers subject Costa Rican women and children to sex trafficking within the country, with those living in the Pacific coastal zones and near the northern and southern borders being particularly vulnerable. Authorities suspect that adults use children to transport or sell drugs; some of these children may be trafficking victims. Traffickers exploit LGBTQI+ persons, including transgender persons, in sex trafficking. Women and girls from Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, and other Latin American countries have been identified in Costa Rica as victims of sex trafficking and domestic servitude. Traffickers subject migrant adults and children, primarily from Nicaragua, to forced labor in agriculture and domestic service or to sex trafficking. Criminal organizations recruit and coerce homeless individuals to smuggle contraband into prisons for the purpose of further criminal activity. Traffickers prey on migrants, some en route to the Unites States, from other Central American countries; the Caribbean; China; and South America. Indigenous Panamanians are vulnerable to forced labor in Costa Rica’s agricultural sector. Child sex tourism is a serious problem, with child sex tourists arriving mostly from the United States and Europe.