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Costa Rica Strengthens to Become Strategic Regional Partner

The country is preparing to take on security challenges and combat transnational crime in the Western Hemisphere.
Geraldine Cook/Diálogo | 12 January 2017

Captain Juan Luis Vargas Castillo, director of the Air Surveillance Service of the Costa Rican Ministry of Public Security, arrives at the Central American Air Chiefs Conference in Tucson, Arizona. (Photo: Public Relations of the 12th Air Force/Air Forces Southern)

Providing air support during security actions is Captain Juan Luis Vargas Castillo’s primary responsibility – but not his only responsibility. As Director of Air Surveillance Service of the Costa Rican Ministry of Public Security, he leads an office charged with protecting the country’s air, sea, and land territory in support of the police corps, as well as assisting in humanitarian missions.

Capt. Vargas entered the Air Surveillance Service in 1992 and since then has held several important positions within the institutional structure. In January he assumed leadership of the Air Surveillance Service, which incorporates the departments of aircraft operations, aircraft maintenance, and airport security.

Capt. Vargas talked with Diálogo during the Central American Air Chiefs Conference held December 12th-13th 2016 in Tucson, Arizona, where he expressed the importance of his country becoming a strategic partner for other Latin American countries, especially in the fight against transnational organized crime. In his opinion, the Republic of Costa Rica has been preparing to face the new security challenges confronting the Western Hemisphere.

Diálogo: What is the importance of Costa Rica’s presence at the 2017 Central American Air Chiefs Conference?

Captain Juan Luis Vargas Castillo: The importance of Costa Rica being at this conference is that we are already being seen as strategic partners in the fight against organized crime at the international level. For us, our participation in this conference is important so that we can start to share sensitive information with the rest of the region. It is also important to me because we are getting to know the chiefs of the air forces, to see each other face-to-face, because sometimes making a telephone call and introducing yourself without really knowing who this person is that you are talking to is not the same, so after meeting face to face, it is much easier to make the phone call.

Costa Rica’s number one priority is to become a strategic partner in the region in the fight against organized crime. It is important for the region to know that we are also participating, and that it is one of the priorities of our new mission.

It is also extremely important to be able to share information with other air forces. Costa Rica does not have an army, and the closest thing to that institution is the police, which performs airspace defense and civilian security functions. It is an interesting and complex combination, and we are used to exercising these functions.

Diálogo: What are the most important security issues Costa Rica faces?

Capt. Vargas: Without a doubt, our priority is the fight against organized crime and the criminal acts accompanying it. We are talking about drug trafficking, human trafficking, and illegal migration, a phenomenon that was not witnessed in the region before –and even less so in Costa Rica. We have had this problem for the past few months, as we have received a large number of transnational migrants every week who are headed north. Before, there were Cuban migrants; now we have transcontinental migrants. We have found people from Africa and the Middle East who arrive in South American countries in search of the American dream, and they start their land journey to the United States. These migrants stay in Costa Rica because the northern borders are being closed to them. Fortunately, we have begun to have a lot of experience with this issue, and we have been able to lower the incidence of [illegal] migration fairly well.

Our other concern is prevention, since it is sometimes much more economical to prevent than to punish. Everyone at the Public Security Ministry is committed to that.

Diálogo: With Costa Rica’s experience in the fight against transnational crime, for example, what type of regional cooperation are you implementing among yourselves to help resolve transnational issues?

Capt. Vargas: We have the Bilateral Joint Patrol Treaty with the United States, which was signed in 1999. We have had great success with that. We are having our first meetings with Colombia to create some type of bilateral agreement, and we are moving forward with our final conversations with Panama to be able to sign a bilateral agreement to strengthen our borders and our air and maritime space.

Diálogo: What has Costa Rica’s experience been as an observer member of the System of Cooperation Among the American Air Forces (SICOFAA, per its Spanish acronym)?

Capt. Vargas: We have been observers of SICOFAA for many years. Currently, we are working to look at the possibility of becoming a member again.

Diálogo: What is your main goal as head of Costa Rica’s Air Surveillance Service?

Capt. Vargas: We have many goals. To be brought up to date on different regional and global issues, such as [illegal] transnational migration, for example. We have to adapt and begin working on new challenges. I want our office to be a leader in information management and to start to become a support system to other countries in the region. We want the region to see us for what we are, strategic partners in the fight against organized crime, since the whole region has the same problem, and we are all fighting in different areas. However, the objective is to fight together to make criminal activity more complicated for the enemy — what we might call transnational organized crime — and combat it as a single region and not separately.

Diálogo: Would you like to add any other comments or an invitation to your partner nations?

Capt. Vargas: We thank you for having had Costa Rica in mind in this new process. I hope this is the first of many conferences, many missions, and that we start to get to know each other face-to-face to create new bonds that will strengthen what we already have and to work together for regional security.

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