Costa Rica: Countries Must Team Up to Fight Organized Crime
By Dialogo April 21, 2016
Felony homicide rates in Costa Rica are relatively low, youth gangs do not pose a serious social or criminal problem, and Costa Rican security agencies are based on the traditional principles of the rule of law.
However, the country has experienced a considerable increase in felony homicides (an average of 35 per cent) in the last decade. Security analysts attribute this increase to new problems related primarily to drug trafficking, such as, turf wars and the settling of scores, for example.
In order to discuss measures to prevent crime numbers from continuing to climb and causing Costa Rica to stop being Central America's tourist paradise, the government, in conjunction with the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), hosted the Central American Security Conference (CENTSEC) in the capital of San José, from April 6th through 8th. Diálogo
took advantage of the opportunity to speak to Costa Rican Security Minister Gustavo Mata.
What is the importance of Costa Rica hosting a conference such as CENTSEC?
Security Minister Gustavo Mata:
The President asked me to find an alternative to tackle the problems [of violence and security] that are developing at the national level in Costa Rica and at the regional level. In that sense, we are holding a conference [CENTSEC] in which the organizations, or the groups, or the institutions that work against organized crime are going to study this entire criminal phenomenon. The idea, as I mentioned in my speech, is to bring forward the problem that is developing in the region and, at the same time, in Costa Rica, and begin to work for the welfare of our Costa Rican people. In that sense, we have several agreements with various countries that are already going to provide help to the country. I think this is a very important event where we are putting Costa Rica on the map as a leader in decision making and, primarily, regarding the set of problems that are developing at the regional level. In that sense, Costa Rica is putting a feather in its cap; with the sponsorship of the United States government; we are present here and are going to start working. That is the purpose of this meeting.
It is estimated that more than 1,400 tons of illegal drugs have been seized in Costa Rica this year. What can you tell us about that?
Coca cultivation, primarily in Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia… already has a different dynamic than what had been seen in past years. While, in the past, they would harvest one hectare per year, now they are harvesting three. That means that there is going to be more coca production. Primarily, it's not that it goes through Costa Rica, as has been indicated in some media outlets. It goes through the region en route to the United States and Europe. I have said it: 85 percent of the cocaine coming out of South America goes to the United States. The rest goes to Europe. [Traffickers] use the Pacific Ocean to traffic that 85 percent going to the United States. That is why the forces that participate in the fight against this criminal phenomenon are at this conference this week. The idea is to conduct strategies in common to make our seas impenetrable. That is going to help us in an exceptional way, primarily, so that the coca does not come in here and, at the same time, stop the problem that has been developing in Costa Rica, which is that coca is coming in and being sold here, [we have to] try to eliminate it, try to prevent it from coming in, and that is going to have significant impact on criminal networks.
What would that impact mean?
Well, what used to be generated from that trafficking was a cash payment. That has changed now, and the criminal groups based in Costa Rica ask for an amount, which is a percentage of the shipping, of the warehousing. In that sense, we have seen an increase in coca here in our country. It’s the increase in consumption that is being seen here in Costa Rica. That is why we want to strike directly at these criminal structures, but I cannot specify a number.
Other countries in the region are using their armed forces in this fight. How is Costa Rica going to attempt to face this new threat without an armed force?
Costa Rica has been historically characterized by being a democratic country where the police forces are the ones that take action. In that sense, there is a disadvantage because of the lack of an armed force, as you indicate, but we are actually going to turn that into a strength. What we want is teamwork: a union of countries, a continental strategy working as a front against this united criminality.
When you say continental strategy, how would that be done?
I think that the important thing here is to begin to review the agreements already in existence, and to begin to draft agreements that favor joint work. I think this is the success and this should be the guiding principle of this meeting. Primarily aim at those already in existence. There is the San José Accord, which we are going to review, so that the countries that have not signed it, sign it and begin working jointly. We are going toward that road.
What feature roles would Costa Rica and the United States play in this sense?
I don't want them to provide the fish, what I need are the fishing lines. What Costa Rica needs is logistics support, equipment, and that's how Admiral [Kurt W. Tidd, the Commander of SOUTHCOM] has also shown his support, and we hope to have good news very soon. Let us hope that the equipment, what the Coast Guard requires, planes that really give us the possibility to go out to sea and come back, helicopters, drones, well, we are going to study all those issues [at CENTSEC]. By not having the economic means, we are going to have to resort to other methodologies and that is what we are going to study here. The countries that have the logistics, that have the equipment should help us protect our seas.
There are critics who say that this could affect the country's sovereignty…
Sovereignty is a very important concept to keep in mind. Criminal groups don’t have it. They infiltrate us every day. We, as those responsible for the security of the state, must keep in mind that there are already instruments, formal agreements in place, and where there are none, we would have to think about creating them. There are countries with which we have been talking already, primarily Colombia and Panama, with which we must work as a front. Our lack of resources means Costa Rica doesn’t have the equipment needed to fight against these criminal groups head-on. The idea is to join forces, to work jointly and from different angles: intelligence, equipment, and everything we can study in this type of scenario.
During CENTSEC, you mentioned border vulnerability in Costa Rica. Evidently, drug trafficking goes through there. Do you think that other countries participating in the conference can share successful experiences with Costa Rica?
Yes, but this issue is not new. I am the one who has been bringing it to the forefront. Last year I had been talking about the increase in homicides; I had been talking about the increase in drugs. Already this year there is a new increase in drugs. Thus, we have to act, we have to work with different parameters that give us the possibility to have better expectations. We must make a change, and that is the reason why this meeting is historic. I think bringing together the forces that fight organized crime from different angles is a success for Costa Rica.
For years, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala have fought on their own against organized crime and Costa Rica never said a word or did anything for us to â€œworkâ€ together.
Now, â€œmy dearsâ€, that your time has come you ask for help? Because crime rates in Honduras are dropping in the full-on fight against drug trafficking and because El Salvador is killing gang members, so all that scourge of criminals will go to the next most convenient country, fleeing from current adversity in the northern triangle of C.A.
When Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador were bleeding to death, C.R. did nothing. Now that itâ€™s their turn to suffer from drug trafficking and a wave of death and corruption they say we should all help each other. Arenâ€™t they lovely!
I wish them luck, I assure them that struggling with 10 to 30 deaths every day â€œaloneâ€ is not easy.
I think C.R. is shameless to say that we should work together, without even apologizing first, given C.R.â€™s indifference for so long watching those in the northern triangle live through the misery of drug trafficking without any help.