Interview with Celso Gamboa Sánchez, Costa Rican Deputy Public Safety Minister
In an exclusive interview granted to Diálogo, Costa Rican Deputy Public Safety Minister Celso Gamboa Sánchez referred to the legal barriers that come between the countries of Central America and that often make it impossible to bring the full force of the law to drug traffickers and members of organized crime in general. The interview took place during the Central American Security Conference (CENTSEC) 2012, in El Salvador, where Gamboa explained that a group of Costa Rican authorities is promoting the harmonization of at least nine criminal offenses in order to combat drug shipments, murder-for-hire, criminal gangs, and human trafficking, among other plagues that affect the countries of the region.
Diálogo: During your presentation at CENTSEC 2012, you stated that the armed forces of Central America invest countless efforts and sacrifice human lives, but there are still deficiencies in the implementation of justice. Could you discuss this topic further?
Deputy Minister Celso Gamboa Sánchez: We have effective technical, military, and police means of response. There’s a high level of seizures and a great number of barriers for the transportation and shipment of narcotics. Nevertheless, there should be legal containment in order to be able to land telling blows against groups of drug traffickers. There’s no legal communication among the Central American countries. Thanks to the collaboration of friendly governments, we have efficient seizures, but the opportunity to organize investigations that can truly affect the stability of these groups of drug traffickers is miniscule if we don’t have a uniform legal framework so that law enforcement and the judicial system can interact throughout the countries that are involved. From Costa Rica, we’ve tried to promote an initiative to harmonize our legislation.
Diálogo: Could you give us examples of what exactly concerns you as Costa Rican Deputy Minister of Public Safety?
Deputy Minister Gamboa: Costa Rica succeeded in seizing 5.5 tons of cocaine in the first four months of 2012, but we don’t have the opportunity to know where that cocaine is coming from or where it’s going, because the legislation is not recociled so that the country that is sending the drugs can track these shipments. The U.S. Southern Command says that only 33 percent of the drugs that are produced are successfully seized. We don’t see the remaining 67 percent because we don’t have more structural articulation.
Diálogo: You also mentioned that in some cases, drugs are seized and the alleged drug traffickers are arrested, but they never end up behind bars…
Deputy Minister Gamboa: There have been cases where the procedure used in boarding a vessel on the high seas by friendly cooperating governments might appear to violate domestic law. For example, in Costa Rica’s Pacific waters, poor handling of the scene by the crew of the vessel that boarded a drug-trafficking group led the court to declare the seizure invalid, and as a consequence, they released the individuals and returned their assets. This happens precisely because the legislation isn’t harmonized. There’s a disparity between the number of seizures we have and the number of people who are serving sentences. Many of the people convicted of drug trafficking in Costa Rica are involved in the retail drug trade or in introducing small amounts of drugs into penitentiaries, but large-scale drug trafficking, which is the worrying amount that’s going to the high-consumption market, – that’s the kind of people who are not truly being put on trial, because we’re trying the people who are responsible for transporting it, but the people who direct the organization remain beyond the reach of the law, completely untouchable and with impunity. The cases in which drug bosses are sent to prison are very unusual.
Diálogo: Even when they’re arrested?
Deputy Minister Gamboa: Even in some cases when they’re arrested, it’s impossible to prove the charges, because the evidence is in another country. The legislation is not adjusted to the parameters of particular countries. Many money-laundering cases have ended with acquittals when we were certain that the funds came from drug trafficking, but it wasn’t successfully proved.
Diálogo: You also referred to the issue of financial legislation and money laundering and how each country has its own way of dealing with these cases.
Deputy Minister Gamboa: Yes, there are countries where a public prosecutor can lift the banking secrecy; in others, it’s a judge. In Costa Rica, it’s a judge, so under Costa Rican law, information acquired by lifting the banking secrecy in Panama, for example, where this is done by a prosecutor, can’t be used in Costa Rica, because it wasn’t a judge. And this is a contradiction. We’re left without a fundamental tool, which is tracing the money. If there’s no harmony in the legislation, requesting information from other countries in order to use it as evidence in our own countries becomes impossible.
Diálogo: Are you familiar with any models that could be followed?
Deputy Minister Gamboa: In Costa Rica, a law against organized crime has already been implemented. In Central America and the Dominican Republic, we’re promoting the role of the undercover agent, so that an agent can have a wider sphere of action and can follow a shipment from Panama or Colombia to its final destination, so that he can have the capacity to take action and have his action recognized by the rest of the countries as part of the process of investigation. We’ve promoted that on the legislative level in the Central American countries and the Dominican Republic. It’s well received on the technical level. Where we haven’t succeeded, just imagine, is the reception on the legislative level, among people who are supposed to pass the laws at this point in time. This issue is fundamental. The remaining criminal offenses are defined very similarly in Central America, but they don’t match entirely. This is a situation that we’re trying to remedy through a set of model criminal legislation for the Americas.
Diálogo: How do these initiatives arise?
Deputy Minister Gamboa: They arise out of the need that we have in all our countries to wage a united fight against a phenomenon that is filling Latin America with deaths. We pay the death toll here. People are dying in Mexico, people are dying in Honduras, in Costa Rica, in Nicaragua, in El Salvador as a result of this drug trafficking. We’re bleeding to death little by little, and we need a uniform response. At some point in time, world legislation should be organized to combat organized crime.
Diálogo: You spoke about a law-enforcement initiative currently in effect…
Deputy Minister Gamboa: Costa Rica has made a great leap with the law against organized crime and the creation of a law to protect victims and witnesses. We’ve suffered the murders of some people who were serving as witnesses, and we recently suffered a setback due to a ruling by our country’s constitutional court that makes it mandatory for an accused individual to know the identity of his accuser. This situation has led to a decrease in the number of people who want to participate as witnesses, since they need to protect their lives. We’re promoting the idea that in organized crime the right to life should supersede or should come before the right of the accused to be fully aware of the identity of his accuser. Guaranteeing [that right] solely to the judge, having him be the upholder of legality and having the ability to provide the individual with the guarantee that, in effect, there is a true declaration and not one fabricated by the state.
Diálogo: As you return to your country, what do you take with you as something positive, valuable, from this conference?
Deputy Minister Gamboa: The U.S. Southern Command’s great interest in increasing that country’s cooperation is fundamental. This is an example of responsibility, of solidarity. Also, of course, promoting our ability to build relationships and get to know what other countries are doing in these fights. We all have similar, equal, identical interests, and our combat strategies and tactics have been laid out today. Evidently, I’m taking a very significant store of things with me.