Costa Rica and the United States Join Forces to Improve the Quality of Life for Marginalized Communities
By Julieta Pelcastre/Diálogo September 26, 2016On September 2nd, U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) personnel, led by U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Daniel R. Fitch, deputy chief of the Office of Defense Representative in Costa Rica; Costa Rican Minister of Public Security, Gustavo Mata; and the United States Ambassador to Costa Rica, Stafford Fitzgerald Haney, visited the towns of Piedra Mesa and Alto Telire, in Talamanca, to coordinate a medical assistance mission scheduled for the last week of November. A team of military doctors, medical technicians, dentists, pharmacists, pediatricians, gynecologists, and support staff from Joint Task Force-Bravo, a SOUTHCOM component, in coordination with the Costa Rican ministries of Public Security, Health, and Government and Police, in addition to the Social Security Department, will spend one week providing preventive medical services to residents of the Alto Talamanca region in the province of Limón. The medical camp will be deployed in the district of Telire. "This effort will provide a great opportunity to bring more humanitarian aid to Talamanca. Thanks to SOUTHCOM, we will provide a wide range of healthcare services, medication, groceries, and clothing to an area that is difficult to reach and difficult for us to coordinate," Captain Juan Luis Vargas Castillo, director of the Ministry of Public Security's Air Vigilance Service, told Diálogo. "It has been several years since we've had such a large humanitarian aid exercise in Talamanca," he added. Authorities expect to see between 300 and 500 patients from the region every day. Access to healthcare is nearly nonexistent among these populations because they can only be reached by helicopter or on foot. According to Amanda Segovia, researcher at the Central American Healthcare Initiative, it takes seven days of travel by foot on treacherous paths from the district of Talamanca to some of these communities, not only because of the region’s topography, but because of the presence of drug traffickers. Other factors, such as cultural and linguistic barriers between certain communities, also make it difficult for the population to get medical care. Humanitarian mission In order to carry out a humanitarian mission of such large proportions, personnel, equipment, and medical supplies will be transported in two helicopters from Joint Task Force-Bravo, as well as two helicopters from the Air Vigilance Service. In order to establish communication and trust with patients, local people, who have been trained as healthcare technicians by the Costa Rican Department of Social Security, as well as interpreters, will also participate. The Department of Social Security is the only government organization that brings medical care to communities in Talamanca. Given the backing it has from the Air Vigilance Service, it has been able to get into the mountainous area for one week every three months since 2006 to provide care for the population. The current humanitarian aid plan to assist the Alto Talamanca communities is a continuation of the four-day medical exercise that took place two years ago in Piedra Masa. In that instance, air transportation by helicopter and professional medical assistance was carried out by Joint Task Force-Bravo. "The work of the Department of Social Security is very important, but it's not enough. We know about these problems, and are doing our due diligence to help the locals," said Capt. Vargas. "In order to handle this case, we've spoken to community leaders. We understand their customs and know what their needs are. The important thing is to help our population improve their lives." With a population of more than 34,000 people, Talamanca is the second most expansive region in Costa Rica, encompassing the districts of Chuita, Bratsi, Telire, and Sixaloa. It is considered to have the lowest economic and social development index in Costa Rica. According to the 2013 Talamanca Region Diagnostic report, published by the Ministry of Housing and Human Settlements, there were approximately four police officers per 1,000 inhabitants in Talamanca. “In conjunction with the medical mission, the Costa Rican Drug Control Police (PCD for its Spanish acronym) will be conducting a marijuana eradication mission in the Talamanca region,” explained Lt. Col. Fitch. “The PCD will take advantage of the JTF Bravo helicopters to move officers from their special mountain unit throughout Talamanca to eradicate known marijuana plantations.” According to Lt. Col. Fitch, the homicide rate in Costa Rica has risen drastically over the past two years, and the Ministry of Public Security believes that 70 percent of the homicides are the result of fights between local criminal groups who are vying for control of the local marijuana trade. “The homicide rate is especially high on the Caribbean coast where marijuana is grown,” he added. “In an effort to reduce the amount of marijuana that is available for domestic consumption, Costa Rica currently conducts marijuana eradication operations four times per year using their organic helicopters, but because of their small size are unable to move enough officers to conduct the mission efficiently." The plan for cooperative effort will continue into the medium and long term and includes the construction of essential works such as aqueducts, schools, health clinics, and a comprehensive healthcare center for the entire community. "For years, Costa Rica and the United States have worked hand-in-hand as strategic partners, not only against organized crime, but also in this humanitarian realm. If the United States offers us assistance in blockading organized crime activity by sea, land, and air and also offers us humanitarian aid assistance, of course we're going to accept that," concluded Capt. Vargas. " The collaborative effort of community and prevention work will stop people from getting involved with organized crime. That is why a community effort is being made to bring healthcare services and to create jobs and access routes – so that products can go out and so that security forces have a presence in Talamanca," said Daniel Matul Romero, security analyst at the University of Costa Rica.