Costa Rica -- a country without an 'army' -- builds up its security

The only country in Central America with a constitution that forbids the existence of a standing army is beefing up its national security forces.

Costa Rica, faced with an increase in isolated terrorist acts, civil war in nearby El Salvador, frequent border disputes with Nicaragua, and an undocumented 25,000 refugees, is beginning to trade its characteristic attitude of tolerance for one of self-defense.

Reeling from the worst economic crisis in the nation's history, the administration of President Luis Alberto Monge Alvarez has been asking friendly countries for security handouts ever since it was installed in May.

To date, six countries have announced their intention to help out - in the form of Panamanian police training, Venezuelan uniforms and firearms, Israeli antiter-rorism advisers, Taiwanese antiriot equipment, South Korean patrol cars, and more than $2 million in assistance from the United States.

''We just want to conserve Costa Rican democracy,'' said Carlos Jiminez, a spokesman for the Ministry of Security.

The US aid package, announced in late October, has caused a stir here. Since US law prohibits giving aid to a foreign police force, the package is being touted by US sources as ''military aid.'' Since Costa Rica has no army, the aid is being perceived as ''police aid.''

Is the US providing military aid to a country with no army? One local newspaper answered the question by saying: ''It is, but it isn't, but it is.''

The difference of opinion has born a compromise term, ''security aid,'' which both countries say will consist primarily of boots, uniforms, Boston Whaler boats for river patrol, radio communications equipment, and training by small groups of US military experts.

Spokesmen for both governments balked at suggestions that the US security package is a response to military buildup in neighboring Nicaragua, which, with 25,000 troops, 25,000 reserves, and 80,000 members of the popular militia, has the region's largest army.

''That's ridiculous,'' Mr. Jiminez said. ''What can you do with $2 million? You can't even buy one tank. We can't arm ourselves, nor do we want to.''

US Ambassador Francis McNeil told a local newspaper, ''Where's the threat from Costa Rica's Civil Guard, even if they do have new boots?''

According to Mr. Jiminez, the entire security budget for 1983 represents only 1.9 percent of the national budget, an allotment he claims has not increased in 20 years. Jiminez says official neglect of Costa Rica's 4,300-man Civil Guard, which patrols the borders as well as the streets, reflects the country's priorities.

''Most of our people would rather spend money on education than security,'' he says, referring to Costa Rica's 90 percent literacy rate, the highest in Central America.

The neglect is obvious. Guards at the presidential palace wear civilian clothes and street shoes to work because there is no money for uniforms and boots.

Visiting journalists are often amazed at the country's easy access to high officials and, when compared with other countries, its lax security measures. At a recent press conference called by Costa Rican Foreign Minister Fernando Volio to sign a joint agreement with visiting Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir of Israel, reporters passed unsearched into the reception room without even showing press credentials.

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