Costa Rica Arms Itself against Transnational Crime
By Julieta Pelcastre/Diálogo September 19, 2016The Costa Rican Minister of Public Security, Jorge Mata, seeks to fortify the country’s national security strategy to stop transnational criminal groups from using the country as a transit point for drugs, which impacts the safety of the civilian population. "Since 2015, Costa Rica has faced greater penetration by criminal organizations, that mainly bring in drugs and arms, and smuggle people, a situation that has never before been seen in the history of this country," said Minister Mata to Diálogo. "These activities are affecting our society; drug use has increased in the country," indicated Mata. Drug-trafficking groups and transnational criminal organizations compensate Costa Rican groups with cocaine for their drug-trafficking, storage, and transport operations. "This operation has generated new, local groups dedicated to selling small quantities of cocaine, marijuana and other illegal drugs. Selling drugs affects people's quality of life," said Minister Mata. Due to confrontations between rival gangs, microtrafficking has increased the number of homicides in places where they operate. In 2015, Costa Rica recorded 571 homicides, 70 percent of which resulted from criminal groups fighting each other. Costa Rican authorities project that this year they will record the same number of homicides as in 2015. Like the rest of the Central American region, Costa Rica is exposed to international organized crime's intense and dynamic activity. According to the Ministry of Public Security, Costa Rica has become a bridge for these criminal organizations, because it lacks the proper defenses in terms of regulations and equipment to fight these organizations head-on. Due to an upswing in cocaine trafficked from South America for markets in the United States and Europe, it is estimated that, around 2,000 more kilograms of cocaine will be trafficked into and through Costa Rica in 2016, when compared to 2015. A good amount of this cocaine will end up in the United States and Europe. The majority of the public security services' efforts are focused on combating drug trafficking. "These efforts are insufficient. We need to change the way we look at security in this country. We need to strengthen our security strategies," indicated Minister Mata. "Organized crime is something that has no borders and has at its service an enormous amount of people facilitating it from country to country." According to Mata, organized crime cannot continue to be investigated by the same means as common crime. He also indicated that the Judicial Investigation Department should have a division dedicated to investigating this type of crime. This unit will cooperate with the Adjunct Prosecutor's Office against Organized Crime, created in May 2008. The Costa Rican judiciary is using this office to combat the increase in violence and organized crime. To more effectively fight drug trafficking by air, land, and sea the Legislative Assembly is analyzing the creation of a specialized judicial body with exclusive jurisdiction over the investigation and processing of cases related to organized-crime and drug-trafficking groups, as well as the "Asset Forfeiture" bill, which aims to strip away the criminals’ illicitly obtained wealth. "These laws would give us the ability to forcefully combat the economic structure of these criminal groups and expose their capital, which has been converted to assets in Costa Rica and has historically gone generally unmolested. It will also give us the ability to shield ourselves against European and U.S. criminal organizations that are laundering money in the country," said Mata. According to the Costa Rican government's website, the Costa Rican national security plan is geared towards increasing preparation for new technologies to control irregular migration flows; optimizing the real capacity of offshore patrol vessels and strengthening airspace defense; establishing appropriate supervision for the selection, hiring and monitoring of the ethical performance of security officers, and promoting legislation against organized crime in Central America and the Caribbean to facilitate the tracking of this activity. "To attack this problem in an intelligent way, we need to invest in the purchase of airplanes, helicopters and patrol boats with large hull size, which will allow us to increase our presence and monitoring of our territorial waters, as well as acquire radars with the aim of protecting our airspace. The equipment gives us the ability to have greater operational muscle," said Mata In addition, United States authorities are working to train and equip Costa Rican authorities in the fight against transnational crime. On June 22nd, the United States Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) donated two island-class ocean patrol vessels to the Costa Rican Ministry of Public Security's National Coast Guard Service. The vessels will allow for increased protection of territorial waters in the Pacific Ocean over 5,500 kilometers offshore. The National Coast Guard Service monitors up to a distance of 1,200 kilometers. The donation, valued at $19 million, includes communication and navigation equipment. The two vessels will arrive in Costa Rica next year. Costa Rica has worked jointly with authorities from Colombia, Spain, the United States, and Panama to break this criminal "bridge." "With its small vessels, an Aerial Surveillance Service that uses aircraft confiscated from drug traffickers, and a lot of international help, Costa Rica has been able to seize an enormous amount of drugs. Eighty-five percent of cocaine goes by sea," said Mata. "Thanks to successful, immediate, efficient, and effective cooperation and communication, the joint operation between the United States and Colombia was able to seize over 2.2 metric tons of cocaine off the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica," added Minister Mata. The cocaine was packed into 164 packages. The National Coast Guard Service intercepted the vessel off the coast of Puntarenas. The security officers arrested four suspicious individuals, three Nicaraguans and one Costa Rican, who were intending to sell the drugs in Costa Rica. During the first seven months of 2016, security forces have seized over 13 metric tons of cocaine. Meanwhile, 9,000 kilograms of cocaine were seized in 2015, according to a report from the Ministry of Public Security Costa Rica is not only facing a frontal assault against organized crime to break up international criminal structures operating in the country. The Costa Rican authorities have embarked on a fight against the retail sale of drugs through prevention programs like "Know how to Choose, Know how to Win," which includes lessons on problems caused by drug use and the consequences of violence, and "Paint Little Faces," which teaches boys and girls to protect themselves and avoid being victims of theft, abuse, assault, accidents, and kidnapping. The creation of large rehab centers is also being considered. "Institutions, judges, prosecutors and specialized police officers should work in coordination. The time has come to think regionally and not just nationally. We are already demonstrating that you achieve more when you work in a coordinated manner because that's what the operations’ results show. We should invest in security. For the good of the country and the region, let's stop thinking small — it's time to break the criminal bridge," concluded Minister Mata.