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Understanding the Cantons of Costa Rica

Like most countries, Costa Rica is divided into different jurisdictions. The country is made up of seven different provinces, which all have their own cantons. Costa Rica has 81 cantons, which are further divided into 429 districts.

Cantons in Costa Rica don’t have as much sovereignty as states, provinces, and cities in other countries. However, this is something that is gradually changing.

The general governing and election process in Costa Rica was established by the federal government under the Municipal Code of 1998. It’s important to learn how cantons operate before buying a home in Costa Rica as an expat.

Canton Responsibilities

Canton governments have a number of responsibilities, which include the following:

Overseeing Health Care Systems

Costa Rica has a national health monitoring system, but most of the duties are carried out by offices at the canton level. They are responsible for employing medical professionals, addressing delivery concerns, and making sure patients are well taken care of.

Building Local Infrastructure

Many building projects are coordinated at the local level. Local officials are responsible for planning new infrastructure projects, budgeting for construction, accepting bids, and ensuring that projects are completed to their specifications.

Managing the Educational System

Costa Rica has the best educational system in Central America. You can see the proof in the high numbers of literacy and success. Currently, Costa Rica boasts a youth literacy rate of 98%, which is the highest in Latin America.

Primary schools are managed at the local level, so local communities deserve credit for the exceptional education young Costa Ricans receive. San Jose and most other large communities have multiple schools for younger children.

Political Structure of Cantons

Costa Rica has been transferring political power from the federal government to local governing bodies. The structure of cantons has changed as they play a more prominent role in the political process.

Here are some of the changes Costa Rica has made in this area over the last couple of decades.

The Beginning of Municipal Elections

Costa Rica is a democratic republic and operates very similarly to the United States. However, there are significant differences in the way both local and national elections are conducted. Here are some of the biggest differences:

  • Candidates are heavily discouraged from commenting on their opponent’s personal lives.

  • In Costa Rica, voting is compulsory. However, unlike Australia, Belgium, Fiji, and other countries with compulsory voting laws, Costa Rica doesn’t enforce the requirement. The government can’t actually fine or sanction citizens in any way, so voting is mandatory in name only.

  • Costa Rican voters are required to show their voter identification cards at the polls to cast their votes.

  • Citizens are guaranteed the same voting rights regardless of age, skin color, and gender. However, some locals have less of a voice than others, depending on where they live. The council of each canton (referred to as the municipalidad) is elected by voters that live in the largest and most influential city. Voters in other cities in that canton have much less say in the way the canton is run.

  • These customs are the same for both local and national elections. All voters over the age of 18 are allowed to vote, regardless of gender. Women first earned their right to vote in 1953, and have been an important part of the democratic process ever since.

  • Before the turn of the century, very few municipal leaders were chosen by popular vote. The municipal code of 1998 granted citizens the right to vote for every leader in their canton. However, the first municipal elections weren't actually held until 2002.

Municipal elections are playing a much more important role, because the government is becoming more decentralized. Unfortunately, turnout for local elections has been very poor, and has forced both national and local leaders to look for solutions.

Mariano Jiménez, a popular political scientist, tweeted that holding annual elections for mayors would improve turnout and encourage citizens to make more informed decisions: “Elections for mayors in Costa Rica should be annual, because in the last three months have built more than in the previous three years.”

The Introduction of Mayors

Less than 20 years ago, cantons were governed by municipal executives. Under the municipal code of 1998, the municipal executives of cantons were referred to as mayors.

The responsibilities of canton mayors were a bit different from municipal executives. The municipal code of 1998 led to the following changes:

  • Guiding the programmatic vote. One of the main purposes of the new municipal code was to balance left-wing and right-wing political views. One of these reforms included the introduction of the programmatic vote, which seeks to create balance between the political parties. The new municipal code states that the mayor must guide this vote.

  • Writing the work report. Mayors of every canton must write an annual work report, which outlines social and economic progress at the local level. The work report also lists proposals to address some of these issues and make improvements.

  • Delegation authority. Mayors also have the authority to delegate certain functions to their staff. Before the municipal code of 1998 was passed, municipal executives were required to handle most administrative responsibilities themselves.

  • Authority to present motions to the municipal council. Before the recent changes were enacted, only regidores (municipal council members) were allowed to present motions to the municipal council. The mayor has since been granted that authority as well.

  • Assistance from deputy mayors. The changes to the municipal code also led to the creation of deputy mayor positions. Every mayor has two deputy mayors to assist them and fill in for them if they are absent, pass away, or are otherwise unable to fulfill their duties.

Cantons rely heavily on their mayors to run effectively.

Local Government Systems Are Still Evolving

Costa Rica has changed its local government system significantly in recent years. However, the national government still feels additional reforms are necessary, especially since local governments are becoming more powerful.

Neighboring countries also feel Costa Rica needs to reform its local governing system. The Organization of American States agreed to oversee the elections held earlier this year.

President Solis acknowledged the need to strengthen the local government system, but admitted that neither he nor other Costa Rican politicians understood the changes they needed to implement.

Because Jamaica enjoys a strong local government, Costa Rica reached out to Jamaican Prime Minister Simpson Miller for assistance. The Jamaica Observer recently reported on the meeting between Solis and Miller:

“President Solis noted that Costa Rica lagged behind many other countries in terms of the absence of a strong Local Government system and said Jamaica was seen as a country with a strong track record in this area.”

The role of local governments will continue to change over time. It’s still unclear what those changes will be.

Limits of Canton Authority

While the Costa Rican government is becoming more decentralized, the federal government still retains a lot of power. Here are some of the responsibilities of Costa Rica’s federal government.

Enforcing Immigration Laws

All immigration laws are enforced by the Dirección General de Migración y Extranjería. This agency is responsible for approving residency requests, issuing fines, and deporting expats who violate immigration laws. Although the federal government depends on the cooperation of law enforcement officials at the canton level, local authorities have little say in immigration decisions.

Establishing Trade Treaties

San Jose and other cantons have formed relationships with foreign investors. However, these relationships must abide by trade treaties established by the federal government. The federal government sets taxes on imports and sometimes opposes trade bans, which all cantons must comply with.


The La Tributación Directa is the federal agency responsible for collecting taxes in Costa Rica. Unlike the United States, Canada, and most of Europe, individual provinces and cantons do not collect local taxes.

Law Enforcement

Unlike the United States, most law enforcement isn’t handled at the local level. Cantons are responsible for working with various law enforcement officials to ensure laws are enforced. Various law enforcement agencies include:

  • Policia de Transito. Policia de Transito is a division of the Ministry of Public Works and Transit. They are responsible for enforcing traffic laws and reporting suspected criminals to other law enforcement officials. The Policia de Transito cannot arrest people for drug trafficking or outstanding warrants, but they can detain suspects and turn them over to the La Fuerza Publica and other law enforcement agencies.

  • La Fuerza Pública. The La Fuerza Publica is responsible for enforcing the majority of Costa Rican laws. They patrol the country in white sedans.

  • Policia Montada. Policia Montada collectively refers to a number of specialty law enforcement agencies, such as the border officials and mounted police. The specialty police have been in existence for over 25 years.

  • Dirección de Inteligencia y Seguridad (DIS). DIS is a national intelligence agency, which functions like the FBI. They coordinate with Interpol and closely monitor subjects of high-level crimes.

While the federal government still retains most law enforcement authority, some cantons have started establishing their own police departments. This will probably be more common in the future, since Costa Rica is transitioning to a less centralized government.

What do you think about how the cantons are set up? Do you think it’s a better system than in the U.S.? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below: