Organized Crime in Central America Isn’t Limited Only to Illicit Drugs
By Dialogo June 10, 2013
SAN JOSÉ, Costa Rica — Armed criminals recently stopped a driver transporting 19 tons of Costa Rica’s world-famous arabica coffee to the shipping port, forcing him to turn over his load. The gunmen later sold the prized coffee on the black market.
The April holdup was one of 22 incidents that have hit the country as part of a wave of new illicit trade activities sweeping the region.
On May 23, security and justice officials from Costa Rica and Guatemala met in San José to discuss strategies for fighting the illicit trafficking of products other than narcotics.
“This form of robbery is not one for beginners. It requires the logistics of a whole organization, infrastructure, equipment, guns and communication systems,” said Eric Thormahlen, president of Costa Rica’s National Coffee Exporters Chamber. “This is why we’re claiming these are not simple robberies. They are conducted by organized crime.”
Costa Rica has lost $3 million worth of stolen coffee to organized criminals, Thormahlen said.
“This type of traffic of goods, whether it is drugs, refrigerators, rice, beans or anything else traded illegally, offers consumers lower prices and causes great harm to our economies and our countries,” said Celso Gamboa, Costa Rica’s anti-drugs commissioner and deputy minister of security.
“What we are seeing are networks of organized criminals that traffic illegal drugs such as cocaine, and have used their resources to cross over to other markets, sometimes generating even larger profits,” he said.
Cigarettes, alcohol and prescription drugs top smuggling list
Gamboa, along with Guatemalan economic crimes prosecutor Mynor Oxom and Costa Rican Attorney General Jorge Chavarría, debated the best strategies for preventing such crimes.
Piracy, counterfeit merchandise and tax evasion have become the latest business activities for organized criminals and cartels operating from Mexico all the way to Panama, officials said.
“The scope is so wide that it involves any purchase done without a receipt, at a lower price than market prices where there is no tax payment, and where the goods may come from illegal sources,” Gamboa explained.
In Costa Rica, the three products most often sold on the black market are tobacco, alcohol and prescription pharmaceuticals. Add to that list stolen coffee, a fairly new black-market commodity.
These criminal networks are often, though not always, part of drug trafficking organizations, officials said. But whether they are group members or merely “outsourcing” the illicit trade of non-drug products, it’s clear that they help each other escape the law.
Not to be discounted is the role of guns, as organized crime has gone global and has amassed the necessary resources that to allow them to be heavily armed, Gamboa said. Drug gangs move into new businesses easily, crossing over to any kind of trade that will increase their profits while they remain outside the law, he said.
Effective legislation, enforcement key to fighting illicit trade
The same is true in neighboring Guatemala, which has passed legislation to combat the problem, Oxom said. The government recently created a council that brings together officials of different institutions with commerce and industry leaders to give law enforcement all the necessary information they need to find and prosecute criminals.
“Input from the different chambers has proved essential, because they’re motivated to tackle these crimes and they’re being directly impacted. Also, they know better than anyone where and how illicit traders operate,” Oxom said. “Coordination between the different groups and institutions has been key, and it goes beyond trying to point a finger at one single entity as the sole responsible one.”
For Costa Rica, part of that strategy has been to reinforce border police and customs systems. Thanks to a donation by the Chinese government, Costa Rica recently placed container scanners in its main ports, and an $80 million loan from the Inter-American Development Bank will fund the modernization of all customs systems.
“As much as we’ve done in terms of legislation, there’s still much to do,” Chavarría said.
In Nicaragua, legislation has advanced significantly, providing a model for the rest of Latin America, Chavarría said. When a police officer or government official in that country is found to have received money from a criminal organization in exchange for protection, he is punished for belonging to that organization, not for being associated with it.
Dealing an ‘effective and irreversible’ blow to criminal gangs
“If Costa Rica had a penal code that would allow us to go after anyone working with the organization, the use of evidence and therefore prosecution would be easier and more effective,” Chavarría said. He added that efforts should focus on creating economies that will discourage citizens from choosing illegal, dangerous occupations as criminal groups become better armed over time.
This challenge is made even more difficult given different economic realities throughout Central America, Gamboa said. Costa Rica is a middle-income country, while Honduras and Nicaragua, for example, still struggle to bring much of their populations out of poverty.
“In terms of law enforcement, we need to substitute force with intelligence, so that when we deliver a blow it’s an effective and irreversible one,” Gamboa said.
Central American leaders have now understood that going after the bus driver who’s transporting stolen goods or the boat captain trying to smuggle cocaine is not the best strategy if gang leaders remain in business and are allowed to continue recruiting new foot soldiers.
“These hits are too small for a transnational organization. They’re like a mosquito bite for them, so we need to take a leap into forensic investigation and intelligence,” he said. “It’s not only repression of these crimes that will work, but promotion of a culture of legality — of functioning within the law.”
This is a problem of values, the problem is found in the entire capitalist world, the western society is leading its citizens to happiness and has sold them the idea that in order to be happy, you need to have money, and if it's a lot of money, then you will be very happy, and if you earn that money in a short amount of time, then you will be even happier, and if you manage to earn a great deal of money in a short period of time and without much effort, you will be the happiest of them all.
They are all lead under those false premises: workers, entrepreneurs and lumpen (bourgeois or prole) throughout the world. The bourgeois state allows entrepreneurs to steal and loot under the law (so they can be very happy) from the workers and the national treasury. The state doesn't allow workers to steal legally from no one, so some of them go after that happiness that they believe to be entitled to, but since they have no right to steal legally (unlike his employer), they do it illegally. The media (owned by the employers) becomes alarmed when this happens (when some workers steal illegally).
The bourgeois society has no moral grounds to punish these crimes (although it does), they will have to negotiate and restart a new state where both the workers and the employers have the legal right to steal and build their happiness project with a monetary fund, or we will have to restart a new state where neither the employers nor the workers will have the legal right to steal and will be obligated to build their happiness project based on the practice of christian principles such as loving and caring for others, doing the right thing, not killing and not stealing.
Let's see if the U.S. government can comply with these Christian principles.