SAN JOSÉ — Costa Rican security officials are struggling to determine if the record number of drug seizures reported in 2011 is an indication of improvements in national security — or further evidence that the country is being used as a drug corridor between South and North America.
Law enforcement officials confiscated more than 10 tons of narcotics, the highest in the nation’s history in 2011. But that’s only a tiny fraction of the estimated 900 tons of drugs that pass through Central America each year. During the past six months, public security forces, with help from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), reported the seizure of 4,059 kilos of cocaine alone.
When asked if the record figures signify improved police vigilance or a sign that more drugs were passing through Costa Rica, Public Security Minister Mario Zamora said the answer was “both.”
“Obviously, we’d like to think that the figure is due to a better job by the national police forces, Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ, and Drug Control Police (PCD), but it is hard to say which the reality is,” Zamora told reporters in November. “Are there more drugs entering the country? I’d say it is probable that yes, there are more drugs here than five or 10 years ago. Are we improving our capabilities to capture more drugs and break up more narcotics organizations? I’d like to think that we are, but I can’t necessarily define the relationship between the two factors.”
One statistic officials often cite to highlight the increased presence of the drug trade in Costa Rica is the number of domestic and foreign drug traffickers they’ve arrested. In early December, PCD officers broke up a drug ring in eastern Limón province that was operating from within a regional prison. Eight were arrested on charges of distribution and possession, and it was thought the inmates’ wives and girlfriends were smuggling cocaine into the prison during visits.
Ministry: 101 drug organizations eliminated in 2010
In November, the PCD and Security Ministry arrested three Colombians in possession of 1,203 kilograms of cocaine in San José. It was reported that the drugs “showed signs that they had been transported by sea” and were divided into small packages for distribution. The three men were thought to be part of an international drug-trafficking ring.
In 2010, the Security Ministry dismantled 101 drug organizations, a record high. From 2006 to 2010, about 400 drug organizations were taken down, including 347 local groups and 53 international ones.
“The reality in Central America has varied significantly in that, every year, there is a larger presence of Mexican drug cartels. While there is a larger presence in the northern part of Central America, it is evident that their presence is growing in the southern part of the region and particularly in our country,” Zamora said. “The Sinoloa cartel is the group we consider to be the most active here. Using intelligence and logistical information we have, much of the drugs seized here can be linked to Sinoloa channels.”
Zamora added that the presence of the Mexico-based Los Zetas cartel has also increased and is thought to be pairing with “narcofamilies” in Costa Rica to aid regional drug shipments and distribution.
While drug seizures are up, so too are crime and murder rates. From 2006 to 2010, the homicide rate in Costa Rica rose from seven per 100,000 citizens to more than 11, according to figures provided by the Judicial Branch. A country is at risk when the homicide rate surpasses 10 per 100,000 citizens, according to the United Nations.
“Costa Rica is still the safest country in Central America, but it is apparent that security in the country has reached a critical level,” said Miguel Gutiérrez, founder and director of the State of the Nation report. “The recent increases in crime are linked almost entirely to the presence of organized crime in the country.”
Gutiérrez said that more than 40 percent of homicides in 2010 were related to organized crime, and that the total number of crimes increased 1.7 percent since 2009.
In fact, homicides are likely to be down in 2011, said Zamora. The Security Ministry reported 35 fewer killings in the first eight months of this year than during the same period in 2010.
“We are carrying out operations in critical points in the country and we aspire that, for 2011, the homicide rate will fall below the 11 per 100,000 mark,” he said. “We attribute this to the increase in patrol cars and firearms that have been provided to security officials this year.”
Zamora said that in 2011, nearly 100 patrol cars were added in Limón province, a region known for a heavy drug presence; security was also beefed up along Costa Rica’s borders with Panama and Nicaragua. In 2012, some 400 new police vehicles will be introduced throughout the country. Zamora said that the key initiative for next year will center on “mobility” and increasing the presence of police forces in national streets and areas characterized by drug seizures and violence.
“We are already seeing that the mobility strategy we are utilizing is revealing successes,” he said. “The improvements are not yet at the levels we aspired for, but there are clear signs that with more police in the streets, we can reduce the level of crime and murders.”
In the last year and a half, roughly 1,500 police have been added to national security forces, bringing the total to around 13,000 nationwide. An additional 1,000 police are expected to begin duty in Costa Rica in 2012.
2012: The Year of Security
On the campaign trail and since being elected in May 2010, President Laura Chinchilla has reiterated that improving national security is her administration’s top priority. Chinchilla, who served as public security minister from 1996 to 1998, signed a declaration in November designating 2012 the “year of municipal security, community security, and peace” in Costa Rica.
To achieve this goal, Chinchilla said members of municipalities and communities must contribute to the fight against crime. “The only way for local communities to be successful against crime is to create collaborative policies in every municipality, community and neighborhood in the country,” she said. “Crime manifests itself in very different ways in the distinct regions of the country, and within those districts, leaders must involve members of the community and community organizations to work together to reduce crime and the problem of insecurity.”
Chinchilla urged community leaders around the country to “generate schemes of community cooperation” and empower members of the community to assist local police forces.
“The police have to be present where the citizens need them. Organized citizen groups and organized community leaders can assist to inform police of where crime is the most prevalent,” she said. “Working together is the only way to reduce citizen insecurity.”
Chinchilla and Zamora both mentioned that increased investment in security is also mandatory to improve national security. A potential $300 tax on all national businesses is being debated in the Legislative Assembly. If passed, the tax will generate about $72 million a year for security.
Additional financial support from the United States and other countries is aiding security capabilities, though both Chinchilla and Zamora said that the job of turning back the clock on delinquency and violence rests on Costa Rica’s shoulders.
“The responsibility is ours,” Zamora said. “Assistance from other countries helps, but day in and day out, it is our responsibility to reduce crime in the streets. We are at a critical point, but we have the opportunity to stop crime before it gets out of hand.”