Costa Rica Acts to Stem Contraband, Illegal Immigration from Nicaragua
By Dialogo February 04, 2013
SAN JOSÉ — The Costa Rican government is stepping up efforts to reinforce police control along its border with Nicaragua — especially at its Peñas Blancas northern border station.
“Between Dec. 15 and Jan. 15, we’ve seen nearly half a million people pass through the border,” said Freddy Montero, Costa Rica’s coordinator for the Regional Program of Border Security in Central America (known by its Spanish acronym SEFRO). “This huge influx has been handled with order and agility.”
Police were ready for the annual year-end immigration flood, with border commanders at Peñas Blancas opening up 14 windows to check documents as well as new stations to search luggage and transported goods.
New scanners provided by the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock ensured that everything going in and out of the country was monitored. Police credited the new equipment for a 300 percent increase in contraband seized at the border compared to the same period a year ago.
Influx of mojados concerns authorities
Nine percent of Costa Rica’s population of 4.3 million is foreign-born, according to the country’s 2011 census. That’s one of the highest rates in Latin America — and nearly three-fourths of those foreigners come from Nicaragua.
In a 2008 survey conducted by the Central Bank of Costa Rica, 39 percent of Nicaraguan immigrants said they crossed the border for better job opportunities; another 20 percent said they moved to Costa Rica because it was more politically and economically stable.
While no real estimates are available, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) noted an increase in the number of illegal border crossings from Nicaragua every year since Hurricane Mitch devastated northern Central America in 1998.
These droves of border jumpers call the illegal crossings — and even themselves — mojados, or wet in English. Rather than risk crossing near immigration stations, mojados pay farmers to pass through their land onto Costa Rican soil, according to a Nicaraguan Army report from 2011 that identified 38 blind spots along the border.
“We need to reinforce police control in certain zones,” said Border Police Commander Orlando Cuadra. “Our efforts are constantly focused on our northern border.”
Nicaraguans encouraged to cross more than ever
New laws in the past few years have given Nicaraguans looking to emigrate even more incentive to cross the border as mojados. In 2005, the Costa Rican legislature passed a new foreign migration law strengthening measures related to rejections and deportations. The law also established criminal penalties for illegal immigrants.
For Costa Rican authorities, the safety of illegal border jumpers is a major issue. While many people say they’re willing to help mojados cross the border, it doesn’t always go smoothly. In late December, a young girl crossing the border illegally with her family was raped.
“It is things like this that make the police force call for the prevention of illegal border crossings,” said police spokesman Ricardo Camacho. “Whether these people are nationals or foreigners, they need to take safely established measures to cross the border legally.”
Drugs penetrating border crossing
Police records show that the newly renovated Peñas Blancas border station oversees the passage of 600,000 people annually. This volume — which also includes 400 transport trucks a day — gives police an average of 30 seconds to examine each traveler’s documents before clearing that individual to enter Costa Rica.
The Peñas Blancas post is located along the Pan-American Highway, a long-recognized drug route, and drug seizures from traffickers attempting to legally cross the border have become a common occurrence.
In 2012, Costa Rican authorities seized more than twice the amount of cocaine as in 2011 and tripled the amount from 2010. Between May 8, 2010, and Dec. 31, 2012, police confiscated nearly 27 tons of cocaine; marijuana and crack seizures were also sharply up last year.
Most confiscations took place at border crossings, said Security Minister Mario Zamora.
“Crack is not made here in Costa Rica,” Zamora said at a press conference announcing the results. “We are finding crack here in our streets more and more, and it indicates that people are bringing it in from beyond our borders.”