The peace in Monteverde, in the province of Puntarenas, a major ecotourism destination in Costa Rica, had suddenly been disturbed. Three armed men wearing fatigues tried to rob the Santa Elena branch of the National Bank on the afternoon of March 8, 2005. Two of them died in a shootout with the security guard. A third perpetrator, Erlyn Hurtado Martínez, started shooting when he found himself without the support of his two brothers, with whom he had planned the robbery. Six bystanders, including customers and bank personnel, died in the first hours of the robbery. The survivors became hostages in a standoff that would last 28 hours.
The next day, while a helicopter flew over the bank, members of Costa Rica’s Special Intervention Unit (UEI, for its Spanish acronym) used the rotors’ noise to mask their entrance into the building through a back window. They were able to get 17 hostages out through the same window. Officer Ronald Arias Huertas, 38, one of the first officers to enter the bank, said, “The guy [had] a pistol in one hand and an AK-47 in the other; someone was holding a telephone for him as he clutched a young woman with his arm.” Once the gunman found himself cornered, he opened fire. A bullet ricocheted off the floor and killed UEI Officer Óscar Gerardo Quesada Fallas. Officer Arias was shot in his left hand, he told Diálogo.
Upon hearing the gunshots, a second police team entered through the front. Hurtado, a 25-year-old Nicaraguan, took cover in the vault. UEI Officer Albert Bustamante negotiated with the gunman and finally persuaded him to give himself up, his colleagues confirmed. Hurtado was sentenced to 50 years.
In April 2012, the UEI marked its 30th year as a special police unit. As part of the Ministry of the Presidency, UEI is responsible for detecting and deactivating explosive devices, protecting government officials and dignitaries visiting the country, and also conducting high-risk operations against terrorist and drug trafficking activities. Other functions include intercepting drugs and weapons, amphibious operations, and the search and rescue of people missing in mountainous areas or bodies of water.
Commissary Miguel Torres Sanabria, chief of operations of the UEI, said the elite group started in April 1982 after he and colleagues returned from training with Israeli special forces in Panama. Today, UEI’s members have a minimum of two years of regular service in law enforcement and have shown tenacity, perseverance, justice, loyalty and leadership. The unit includes 70 officers, ages 24 to 57. Their average service time is 18 years.
Some of the physical tests that applicants must pass, such as pushups and abdominal crunches, are similar to those required of other elite teams around the world, including the U.S. Army, said George López Carrillo, a doctor at the UEI. Other tests have been designed for high-performance athletes, measuring strength, agility, speed and cardiovascular stamina. “Whoever comes here has to go through all this,” he said. “Most of the time it is much harder than what the normal population would endure.”
The UEI section on explosives was created in 1986, a result of the postwar conflict in Nicaragua. Officer Félix Ángel Jiménez Vega said that during the peacekeeping stage, it was necessary to protect the population from conventional explosive devices found along the border with Nicaragua. In December 2004, Costa Rica was declared the first country in the world to be free of anti-personnel mines, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. However, it is still possible to find a device in the hands of people unaware of the danger.
The UEI uses a water cannon that shoots a high-pressure, high-speed water jet that can penetrate armor and dismantle an explosive device. It also has cutting-edge technology to neutralize and deactivate explosive devices, such as hook and rope equipment to move suspicious packages, portable X-ray devices to determine the artifact’s content and an EOD9 bomb suit for protection against shrapnel. The equipment was donated by the Government of the United States.
According to Police Major Mario Alberto Bravo Benavides, the armament used by the service has evolved. For example, a few years ago, officers used the Israeli-made Uzi submachine gun, Browning pistols, the German HK MP5 submachine gun and Beretta handguns. Nowadays they have weapons similar to those used by other elite police units, such as an M4 type of Smith & Wesson 5.56 mm assault rifle. Since criminals now use big-bore guns, it was necessary to modernize the equipment. They are “very comfortable weapons, very easy to use; it is really the ideal defense to fight crime,” Maj. Bravo said.
A Single Force
Officer Bustamante said the UEI coordinates with other bodies around the country, such as the Judicial Investigation Agency (OIJ, for its Spanish acronym) and the Drug Control Police (PCD), to provide collaboration in high-risk interventions. For example, if a drug trafficker throws his gun into the sea during pursuit, the UEI Amphibious Team is called to recover the evidence. They also collaborate with the homicide section of the OIJ in the search for bodies.
“You have to perform multiple functions,” Officer Bustamante said. “You can be working as a diver, but then you come and have to wear the sniper suit, or you may have to be part of the crash team.” Other specialized units in Costa Rica are the Special Support Unit, which is part of the Ministry of Public Security, and the Tactical Response Special Service of the OIJ.
No Fear of Danger
The UEI’s sniper section was created in 1987 after training in the U.S. Experts carry out observation and infiltration operations. They also offer support to the assault team operations, providing them with information. “We arrive eight to 10 hours before, we are their eyes,” Officer Martín Sánchez said. “If someone comes out armed, we have to react so the assault team does not sustain losses while moving toward the target,” he said.
The UEI undertakes assault operations in high-risk situations, such as hostage rescue. In 2006, 40-year-old Officer Henry Berroteran Palacios was wounded in Birri, in the province of Heredia, after facing a dangerous band of Jamaican kidnappers. He said he has been in special units for 22 years. He is not afraid of danger. “I see it as a calling,” he said. “This is really my passion. … I am deeply grateful, because it has given me a proper life for my family.”
One way of testing UEI’s ability to fight transnational organized crime is through competitions with other elite units from the Western Hemisphere. In 2011, Costa Rica participated in the Fuerzas Comando exercise in El Salvador, sponsored by the United States Southern Command. “We were quite satisfied and pleased with the performance by the [Costa Rica] team,” Officer Arias said.
In their line of work, officers from UEI never know what the next mission will entail. Six years after the deadly robbery attempt at the Santa Elena bank, the UEI was called to a hostage situation and escape attempt at La Reforma Penitentiary in Alajuela, northwest of the capital. In an attempt to separate the inmates from the hostages with sound grenades, a shootout ensued, killing one prison guard and two inmates. “When they [the authorities] were checking him, they said, ‘Look, it is Erlyn Hurtado,’” which some considered divine justice.”