Interview with Mario Zamora, Costa Rica’s Security Minister
By Dialogo November 23, 2011
Convinced that the fight against drug trafficking is, above all, a battle to maintain the democratic system, Costa Rica’s Security Minister Mario Zamora believes that this crusade has to be waged with intelligence, adaptability, and an unconventional view of issues such as national sovereignty.
During his recent visit to the U.S. Southern Command, Minister Zamora spoke with Diálogo about how this Latin American country, which does not have an army, is confronting a threat of transnational scope.
DIÁLOGO: What are Costa Rica’s current goals and priorities with regard to issues of national security?
Minister Mario Zamora: In the case of Costa Rica, which is a disarmed democracy in military terms, the fight against drug trafficking turns out to be crucial not only due to the fact that it’s a fight against crime, but it’s also essentially a fight to preserve and maintain the democratic system. In our case, this kind of fight also means the maintenance of the socio-political order with which Costa Rican society has been operating until now.
We see in drug traficking a threat that aims precisely to replace the state’s absence where the state has been weakened or where there are institutional weaknesses. In those places, drug traficking aims to build itself up through the imposition of an order different from the one established by a democracy by means of the rule of law. That’s where we get the threat posed by crime as a force that aims to replace the state and impose a new order under its code of power, and that’s where these groups begin to establish those new organizations.
DIÁLOGO: What is Costa Rica doing to counteract this threat?
Minister Mario Zamora: When you analyze Costa Rica’s crime statistics and make a comparison in regional terms, you’ll observe that we happen to be the country with the fewest criminal incidents. That’s a consequence of what we already did, which was in 1949, when the military was eliminated. The important thing is that those resources were directed to the area of health and education, perhaps the two most emblematic indicators that differentiate Costa Rica to the rest of the world.
That perhaps explains why we were able to make an impact on the causes that activate or feed criminal phenomena, and that through the use of these resources – an improvement in the population’s quality of life – we generated a policy of prevention that is having results, to the extent that our crime statistics are very different in a lot of ways from those of the remaining countries that make up our surroundings.
DIÁLOGO: What is the advantage of working with countries like the United States in order to confront these and other regional threats?
Minister Mario Zamora: Costa Rica’s current situation has allowed us to be creative in this area and to reach an understanding of new ways of exercising sovereignty. Costa Rica has signed a latest-generation treaty with the United States for joint patrols. This means that U.S. Coast Guard ships can operate in Costa Rican waters and behave as if they were Costa Rican forces in the fight against crime. That seems very significant to me because it implies a new way of understanding sovereignty, a new way of understanding international cooperation in security and defense matters, and it reflects the fact that just as the transnationalization of crime is what has given criminals the advantage, the internationalization of security is what can give countries the advantage.
DIÁLOGO: What kind of collaboration do you have with other Central American countries?
Minister Mario Zamora: I think that we’ve had a fluid relationship with Panama, with a view toward processes aimed not only at the development of joint operations along the border between the two countries, but also at establishing very rapid mechanisms for the exchange of information. We want to make the Panamanian-Costa Rican border the most secure border in the Americas, and both governments are working to make this the case.
DIÁLOGO: How would you characterize the security situation on the borders at this time?
Minister Mario Zamora: I think that it’s no different from what it has been historically. Latin America has always had porous borders with qualitatively poor control, wide open and with weak legal accountability in terms of the requirements for how a border should operate. [Because of this] today the borders have switched from their function as a containment element to stop the advance of crime and drug traffickers are taking advantage of those weaknesses . Let’s also recall that borders, in the context of immigration services, are theoretically a state’s first security perimeter. As they are weakened, we’re forced to have other state agencies be the ones that have to fill in the gap in the border areas.
It seems to me that fighting crime implies once again reviewing the structures with which the borders have been operating, and doing so especially with a view toward the urgent incorporation of technology, of biometric devices that can make it possible to monitor people better, and by means of the scanners that have been developed today for monitoring containers, there’s also an improvement in the movement of merchandise.
DIÁLOGO: Do you think that the fact that Costa Rica does not have an army might make the job of protecting the borders more difficult?
Minister Mario Zamora: While it’s true that we don’t have an army, we do have a mandate for our police to guard the border. For that reason, we’re engaged in modernizing our border police so that, as a police force, they can guard the border in the way that it should be done.
This also implies committing to developing the borders. When we look at where poverty is within nations, we tend to find it along their borders. Borders are rarely centers of economic development. On the contrary, they’re areas where poverty increases. For that reason, as part of a strategy of reinforcing security along our border with Nicaragua, the government has committed to developing a backbone of roads to generate opportunities for the population and not leave them at the mercy of what drug trafficking can offer them.
We’re building a highway of more than 120 kilometers parallel to the San Juan River, which is going to develop a significant sector of Costa Rica that wasn’t interconnected with the rest of the country until now.
DIÁLOGO: How do you see the situation of drug traffickers who leave drugs in the sea so that the drugs can then enter the market?
Minister Mario Zamora: Today we’re seeing that drug traffickers use all possible mechanisms and strategies to get those drugs to market. There are maritime areas like the one that we have in the Costa Rican Atlantic named Dos Aguas [Two Waters], because there’s an area where the marine currents cause everything dropped from an airplane to remain static; the current doesn’t move it. Then the fishermen go out and head to Dos Aguas in search of the drugs that were thrown from a ship or a plane; they collect them and bring them to land.
This is only one among many other strategies that drug traffickers use to get their drugs to market. I think that in this case intelligence, the study of how the criminals behave in order to be able to anticipate them and dismantle their structures, is what’s most important in a strategy to contain drug trafficking in the region.
On the judicial and police level, with regard to secure mechanisms for exchanging police information, we’re creating forms of joint patrols with the United States, which I think is a system that we aspire to see start to grow and for other countries to be able to engage in those kinds of actions on our territory.
I think that in this new century, it’s necessary to understand that the new exercise of sovereignty entails ensuring the values of sovereignty, which is the fight against our enemies, and to understand that as allies we have to start operating under new conditions. It’s not unusual today to see Spanish police patrolling on French territory, or horizontal instances of cooperation that are taking place.
That’s what the system of joint patrols means for Costa Rica, a successful adaptation to the environment that has had significant results in the seizure of dozens of tons of cocaine en route to the United States, and these victories are what indicate to us that the right decision was made on the right path.
We hope that in the future, other nations friendly to and allied with Costa Rica can join us along these lines.