The Fight against Drug Trafficking is a Fight for Democracy
By Dialogo May 20, 2013
Interview with Mr. Mario Zamora, Costa Rican Minister of Public Security
When Mr. Mario Zamora took office as Costa Rica’s Minister of Public Security on May 1, 2011, he said that his goal was to restrain increased crime rates, as well as to reduce the level of violence exerted in crimes throughout the country.
Due to the coordinated efforts from different police units and increased international cooperation, Zamora appears to be achieving very positive results in Costa Rica. Close to two years after assuming this position, Mr. Zamora met with Diálogo to talk about these and other issues.
DIÁLOGO: What are the current challenges in terms of safety for Costa Rica?
Mr. Mario Zamora, Costa Rican Minister of Public Security: The regional situation entails modifying the strategic partnership used under the counterdrug policy. Currently, we need to adapt to the reality that Central America is becoming more and more global, more interconnected with the world. Costa Rica and other Central American countries now have free trade agreements. This increases the flow of products that not only originate in Central America but also pass through Central America, trade routes are expanding. Each Central American nation has also experienced an increase in tourism. In other words, human mobility has also increased in the region.
The scenario I am describing is where control activities and police patrol take place, where routes have been multiplied, as well as the containers that we must check every day. This has caused a significant increase in our national or regional vulnerabilities. However, we also believe that the challenge is to respond to this new scenario with policies that will add professionalism to our police forces, as well as better interaction between law enforcement and criminal justice.
I believe the challenge is no longer the amount of drugs we manage to seize. That was what it used to be like traditionally; the average given by each country about their victories and the efficiency of their systems. I believe that the current new element is the arrests, especially of drug trafficking leaders. In my opinion, this is the new element that determines victories and efficiency in this matter, to be capable of disrupting the organizations that use Central America and Costa Rica to smuggle drugs.
We also have a new scenario, where the inflow of cash is generated by drug trafficking and by passing through Central America in large quantities. This provides an opportunity for corruption among government officials, which is a major threat against democracy. Drug trafficking has never been such a menace to the validity of democracy as it is today. In addition to how drug smuggling impacted the region previously, currently it is evident that money is used to influence public institutions to weaken our country.
DIÁLOGO: What is the importance of a meeting such as CANSEC 2013?
Minister Zamora: This type of meetings gather decision makers, but it is necessary to take further steps to move forward, as we have done in Costa Rica with the United States for over ten years, where U.S. Coast Guard vessels have law enforcement authority, granted by the Costa Rican government, in order to patrol our national waters.
I remember ten years ago this was seen as a loss of sovereignty. We almost said “well, now you become a sort of U.S. protectorate; you are renouncing your sovereignty.” It was seen as an example of international submission, and not as an example of a sovereign country that has to establish frank and direct dialogue with others.
After ten years of the joint patrol agreement with the United States, I only see great victories in this situation, which would not have happened without the support and solidarity of the U.S. I believe that one of the best safeguards of the country is to have re-interpreted the concept of sovereignty, not to see it as an attack; on the contrary, to see it as international support where other governments join the Costa Rican government with their efforts to counter drug trafficking in our territory.
DIÁLOGO: There are about 500,000 square kilometers of Costa Rican sea, right?
Minister Zamora: It is more than ten times the size of our surface. Nevertheless, our Castillian culture, not only in Costa Rica, but also in Central America, makes us only see land. We are countries that do not project much towards the sea, the more we do that , the more we renounce it. And this implied renunciation has allowed drug traffickers to use our Pacific and Atlantic coasts as transit routes for drug smuggling.
It is important to mention that we also need to adopt a new culture, where we don’t only think about what happens on our soil, but also what happens at sea. In addition to countering drug trafficking, Costa Rica is also fighting for the environmental protection of its ecological heritage.
Generally, someone from the outside would see these as two totally different fights. How is environmental protection connected to the fight against drug trafficking? When we realize that supporters of drug trafficking usually practice illegal fishing, masking their drug related activities with fishing, it is also when we realize that we need to integrate this type of effort. On several occasions when we are looking for illegal fishing, we end up finding drugs, or busting supporters of drug traffickers.
DIÁLOGO: Are these fishermen an example of families similar to drug cartels?
Minister Zamora: That would be an example. Likewise, we have detected that drug trafficking is also doing intelligence in the area. How do they do it? Someone who visits fishers’ bars know who has been economically unsuccessful, who is about to lose their boat, which will be taken by the bank. Perhaps a person who would have never agreed to collaborate with drug traffickers is now willing to do so under these circumstances.
DIÁLOGO: What is your opinion on the question asked by many: “Why is the government of the Costa Rica devoting resources to interdiction? That’s a problem in the United States …”
Minister Zamora: There is a cause-effect relationship. It is untrue that drug trafficking occurs through that area without making an impact on our territory. Maybe that was true in the first stage. Currently, there is an interconnection. They [drug traffickers] have secondary markets, and the market has simply expanded. There is more opportunity to deliver drugs where the market is bigger.
Basically, they are led by commercial logic, and within that business logic they would like to be able to sell to more markets. This forces them to produce more, for a higher profit. They are not forced to sell only in Euros or Dollars. If Costa Rican purchasing power suddenly allows the business in Colones to be profitable as well, they will resort to it.
We have to think of drug trafficking as a transnational enterprise that maximizes its dividends. We should also incorporate the consumer’s attention into this strategy. When we detect a drug-dependent person, that person has to do something to obtain money in order to buy their daily doses, and this problem is solved by stealing parts of street lights or snatching a lady’s purse or the cell phone from a child, to squander and have the money available, well, that is not only a public health issue, but also a law enforcement issue. Therefore, the goal of including detoxification policies for these people as part of the general strategy is something we consider crucially important, because we should not only fight against the big drug lord.
DIÁLOGO: There are many poor people willing to sell their souls to the devil because of their drug addiction, correct?
Minister Zamora: Exactly. It is important not to encourage consumption; on the contrary, we must ensure that consumers free themselves from the bondage that is their drug addiction. So, we have a huge fight ahead; however, all this puts a risk on the validity of the democratic system. I insist on this a lot. It is not just about fighting against another crime; it is a drug addiction suffered by certain parts of society in our countries that undermines democracy because it allows drug traffickers to impose their rules, to substitute the rule of government by imposing their own laws, their exchange system and obligations, hence affecting citizens of a democracy by restricting their rights and freedom.
DIÁLOGO: Minister Zamora, the issue is that many people adopt a sense of defeat. They say: “Well, this problem will go on forever …”
Minister Zamora: Well, the fight for freedom has been going on since humankind exists. So we are not going to say that today we will give up on the fight for freedom because there have been individuals that have attempted to violate it throughout history. If you say, “well, the fight against drug trafficking has not been able to be extinguished…” Well, neither has the fight against slavery. In the past, slavery was the issue; now it is human trafficking. It is the new way. In other words, you can realize that the worst scourges are still there, but it does not mean we should stop fighting against them.
So, I think there are people who want this to turn into a soccer match where the referee whistles and we have to win in 90 minutes, otherwise they will. If we do not win, well, the victory is theirs. No, no. We are engaged in a long, tedious struggle. In memory of so many people that have died for the State and its institutions, in order to defend democracy and fight against drug trafficking, to forget that effort would be wrong and giving up is the easy solution of saying well, “they win because they still exist.”