Armed Forces Overviews
Costa Rica

Air Arms of Costa Rica / Servicio de Vigilancia Aérea

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By Wim Sonneveld

The first European arrival in Costa Rica was Cristopher Columbus, who landed near present-day Puerto Limón on September 18, 1502 on his fourth (and last) voyage to the Americas. During his 17-day stay, he noted that some of the natives wore gold decorations. Because of this, the area was dubbed costa rica (rich coast) by the Europeans, who imagined that there must be a rich empire lying farther inland.

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Spanish King Ferdinand appointed Diego de Nicuesa as governor of the region and sent him to colonise it in 1506. The colonisers were hampered by the jungle, tropical diseases and small bands of indigenous peoples who used guerrilla tactics to fight off the invaders. About half the colonisers died, and the rest returned home, unsuccessful. Further expeditions followed, but they were unable to form a permanent colony, and many Spanish died of hunger and disease. Meanwhile, the indigenous population was decimated by European diseases to which they had no resistance. 

In 1562, Juan Vásquez de Coronado arrived as governor and founded a colony in the central highlands. Cartago was founded in 1563, and the healthy climate and fertile volcanic soil enabled the colony to survive. For the next 150 years, the colony remained a forgotten backwater, isolated from the coast and the major trading routes and surviving only. Eventually, in the early 18th century, the colony began to spread and change. Settlements were established throughout the fertile central highlands, including San José in 1737. Despite this expansion, the colony remained one of the poorest in the Spanish empire. Central America became independent from Spain on September 15, 1821. Costa Rica was briefly a part of the Mexican Empire, then became a state within the United Provinces of Central America. 

Coffee was introduced and first exported around 1830. The rest of the 19th century saw a steady increase in coffee exports. Some of the growers became rich, and a class structure began to emerge. From 1849, under the presidency of Juan Rafael Mora, Costa Rica saw an economic and cultural growth. In June 1855, American filibuster William Walker conquered Nicaragua, planned to convert the area into slaving territory and to use slaves to build a Nicaraguan canal joining the Atlantic and Pacific. As he threatened Costa Rica, Mora organised 9000 civilians as the country, like nowadays, lacked an army, and marched north. In a short battle, they defeated Walker and followed him into Rivas, Nicaragua, where he stand in a wood fort. A drummer boy, named Juan Santamaria volunteered to torch the building, thus forcing Walker to flee. Santamaria was killed in the action, and he is remembered as one of Costa Rica's favourite national heroes. 

In 1889, unlike in other Central American countries, democratic elections were held, and democracy have been a hallmark of Costa Rican politics ever since. An exception in this stable climate was the civil war that broke out in 1948 after a disputed elections outcome, won by Pepe Figueres and his Partido Liberación Nacional (PLN). After the turmoil the current constitution was formed the following year in which women and blacks received the vote and the army was (again) abolished. Since then the PLN has dominated Costa Rican politics and it was a PLN-president, Oscar Arias who one the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for his peacekeeping efforts in Central America, marking Costa Ricas fame as one of the most peaceful nations in the world.

 Source: Lonely Planet

Fuerza Pública / Servicio de Vigilancia Aérea

As Costa Rica has not had an army since the end of the civil war in 1948, the air arm nowadays resides under the Ministerio de Seguridad Publica, of which the abbreviation MSP can be found in the serials of it's aircraft. However, in 1955 the last genuine combat operations of then Fuerza Aerea Costaricense took place with P-51D Mustang fighters during hostilities with Nicaraguan-backed expatriates and they were only fully retired from service in 1964. 

Not coincidentally, the Servicio de Vigilancia Aerea of the Fuerza Pública (Air Section of the Civil Guard) was formed in the same year and the structure of the air arm has not changed a lot since its formation. As it's task requires mainly liaison and surveillance aircraft the fleet is made up of several types of smaller aircraft, supplemented by some helicopters. Despite some semi-permanent detachments at Liberia (near the Nicaraguan border) and Golfito (near the Panamanian border), all the aircraft are based at San José- Juan Santamaria International Airport, named after the favourite national hero. The largest aircraft in the inventory is a former US Army C-7A Caribou (named Miss Vana) but a lack of engine spare parts prevent it from flying. The force's sole Mil Mi-17 helicopter was sold to the Colombian Army in 2002, leaving the small Hughes 369s as the only helicopters of the Fuerza Pública. Until 1994, civilian style registrations were worn on the fleet, but the MSP prefix was introduced, giving the aircraft a more military look. 

Although Costa Rica is a relatively peaceful nation compared to it's Central American neighbors, neutrality has been in danger in recent history. In 1981 the United States diplomatically forced the Costa Rican government to take sides in the civil war in Nicaragua with military aid to the Fuerza Pública rising until $ 11 million in 1985, when things became more serious with the United States openly training members of the Fuerza Pública. Earlier in the decade, the OPEN was formed, a paramilitary militia with already 10,000 volunteers in 1983. Costa Rica did not become a military staging area like Honduras, however, it did provide a safe rear area, dotted with airstrips and supply dumps, for contra incursions into Nicaragua. In 1986, the main supply base and airstrip at John Hull's ranch was closed by new-elected president Oscar Arias, putting through his regional peace plan to Washington's dismay, which won him the Nobel Peace Price in 1987. 

Nowadays, like many countries in the region, the Costa Rican government provides services to the United States in it's ongoing war against narcotics in the Central American and Caribbean region, which have become more important after the closure of US bases in neighboring Panama in 1999. At San José's Juan Santamaria International Airport as well as at Liberia's Daniel Oduber Airport US Air Force Hercules and US Navy and Customs Orion patrol aircraft can be seen regularly, providing "eyes from the sky" for US counter drug operations in the Pacific and Caribbean.