Costa Rica in the Crosshairs (Part III)

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In the concluding section of a three-part series, investigator Michael Porth examines the steps that Costa Rica, long one of the most peaceful countries in the region, is taking to combat organized crime.

Costa Rica’s Current Capacity to Combat TCOs

Since the spike in DTO activity noted in 1986, the GOCR has taken various steps to amplify its anti-TCO capacity. This effort has been focused principally on enactment of laws, expanding capacity and resources for law enforcement, and—more recently—addressing drug consumption (the demand side). This effort has been both nationally and internationally focused; the GOCR has shown itself cooperative in the international effort—especially with the U.S.—to combat drug trafficking. While the scope of these laws applies to various types of TCO activity (like human and arms smuggling, as well as financing terrorists), they essentially apply to DTOs and their drug-trafficking and money-laundering activities.

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Laws and Initiatives Enacted Before 2010

The GOCR has created, signed, and ratified a handful of laws and bilateral agreements aimed at curbing drug trafficking and related illicit activity through its territory. This report has already mentioned the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances, and 1975 and 1976 bilateral intelligence-sharing agreements with the U.S. Between 1997 and 2007, Costa Rica signed five additional multilateral agreements, which cover areas like psychotropic drug trafficking, corruption, money laundering, terrorism funding, and arms smuggling.113 Furthermore, between 1986 and 2009, the GOCR created 22 laws that either streamlined government institutions to better respond to drug-trafficking challenges (like the creation of the Ministerio Público in 1994; the creation of 911 emergency services in 1995; the formal creation of the Costa Rican Coast Guard in 2000; and drug education programs in 2001), and laws related to immigration, the penal system, drug trafficking, money laundering, terrorism, and organized crime.114

In 1999 the GOCR signed the Convenio de Patrullaje Conjunto115 (CPC, or the Maritime Counter Drug Cooperation Agreement), which allows the U.S. Coast Guard (including its ships and planes) and warships to enter Costa Rican waters for the purpose of surveillance and relaying of intelligence and assisting116 in drug interdictions.117,118,119,120 This law is a key element in the GOCR’s fight against the increasing instances of maritime drug trafficking. In particular, the Convenio helps augment the Costa Rican Coast Guard’s lack of infrastructure that the author detailed in the previous section.

Laws and Initiatives Enacted After 2010

President Laura Chinchilla has dedicated a significant portion of her presidency’s agenda to national security.121,122 This effort is due in large part to data suggesting the rising presence of Mexican DTOs, increased domestic consumption of crack-cocaine, and related drug-linked violence in the country.123 In September 2010 her administration—via the head of the Ministerio de Seguridad Pública—requested $250 million dollars over the course of four years.124,125 Much of this money would be used to hire 4,000 Fuerza Pública126 officers by 2014, which would be mostly funded by a tax on the country’s gaming industry.127 Her administration has also proposed adding a US$220 tax on sociedades anónimas, which would raise many millions of dollars in additional revenue.128 While the former piece of legislation is still being processed through the legislature, the latter won approval in August 2011.129,130 Chinchilla’s administration—as of February 2011—has placed about 1,000 new first-responders on the streets.131

In February 2011, Chinchilla announced a security plan called the Política Integral y Sostenible de Seguridad Ciudadana y Promoción de la Paz Social para Costa Rica (Polsepaz, or the Policy for Integral and Sustainable Citizen Security and Promotion for Peace for Costa Rica). Key to this initiative is a mechanism for cooperation between Executive (Poder Ejecutivo), Legislative (Asemblea Legislativa), and Judiciary (Poder Judicial; specifically in the Asuntos Penales [Penal Affairs]). According to Chinchilla, cooperation between branches of government would reduce “isolated” and “ineffective” actions against societal delinquency.132

This initiative is unique in the scheme of counternarcotics efforts because it addresses socioeconomic issues that can exacerbate the problem. That is, not only are there mechanisms to improve law enforcement training and coordination (i.e. supply-side interdiction), but Polsepaz also proposes programs to prevent dropping out of school and offer incentives for people to return to school (demand-side “interdiction”).133 Furthermore, Polsepaz proposes “community intervention programs” via police operations for preventative measures for communities deemed high-risk for crime.134 Finally, there is a call for improving treatment centers for drug addicts.135

Outside of national laws and initiatives, the Chinchilla administration has maintained a tradition of Costa Rican international cooperation in order to strengthen its crime-fighting institutions. In 2010 and 2011, the U.S. government gave—and is scheduled to give—US$1.6 and US$2.2 million, respectively, to the GOCR for training, infrastructure, and enforcement.136 This money is helping the GOCR build a state-of-the-art road checkpoint in Golfito Province, near the Puerto Caldera seaport; continue development of a container analysis and inspection program in the Caldera, Limón, and Moín seaports; and continue providing Costa Rican law enforcement will infrastructure and training.137

Law Enforcement Agencies That Fight TCOs

There are now a total of seven distinct Costa Rican law-enforcement bodies that coordinate in physical anti-DTO operations. The first is the Sección de Estupefacientes (Narcotics Team) of the Organismo de Investigación Judicial (OIJ),138 which specializes in international DTO investigations and operations (IND, 2010). The second is the Policía de Control de Drogas (PCD, Drug-Control Police), which focuses on both domestic and international smuggling. This unit operates especially in the country’s three largest (international) airports (Juan Santamaría in Alajuela Province, Daniel Oduber in Guanacaste Province, and Tobias Bolaños just north of San José) and two of the country’s three international border crossings (Paso Canoas in the south and Peñas Blancas in the north; Sixaola-Guabito in Limón Province does not receive PCD attention). The PCD coordinates its investigations with the Fiscalía de Narcotráfico (Attorney General’s Office for Drug Trafficking) in the Ministerio Público.

The Servicio Nacional de Guardacostas (Coast Guard) and Servicio de Vigilancia Aéria (Air Surveillance Police) are the third and fourth anti-DTO units, and both coordinate with the OIJ and PCD investigations and operations. The Unidad de Intervención Inmediata (Immediate Intervention Unit) of the OIJ is the fifth unit, and assists in the execution of raids. The Unidad Especial de Intervención (Special Intervention Unit) of the Ministerio de la Presidencia and the Servicio Policial de Intervención Inmediata (Immediate Intervention Police Service) of the OIJ form the six and seventh anti-DTO units, with specialties in penetrating hard-to-access raid targets (ibid).

In the area of white-collar and financial crime associated with DTOs, there are total of ten agencies that look for, investigate, and coordinate operations against various means of money laundering. These agencies are:

  • The Unidad de Inteligencia Financiera of the ICD
  • The Comisión de Asesoramiento contra la Legitimación de Capitales provenientes de Delitos Graves (CONASSIF, or the Advising Commission Against Money Laundering Derivative of Serious Crimes)
  • The Comisión Interinstitucional contra el Terrorismo (CISTE, or Inter-Institutional Commission against Terrorism)
  • The Ministerio de Hacienda (Treasury Department)
  • The Fiscalía Adjunta de Crimen Organizado (FACCO, or Attorney General’s Office for Organized Crime) of the Ministerio Público
  • The Unidad Contra el Lavado de Dinero (Counter Money-Laundering Unit) of the OIJ
  • The Superintendencia General de Entidades Financieras (SUGEF, or Superintendent’s Office of Financial Bodies) of the Banco Nacional de Costa Rica
  • The Superintendencia General de Valores (SUGEVAL, or the Superintendent’s Office of Securities)
  • The Superintendencia de Pensiones (SUPEN, or the Superintendent’s Office of Pensions)
  • The Superintendencia General de Seguros (SUGESE, or the Superintendent’s Office of Insurance)

Additionally, on July 15,2010 the GOCR was formally voted into the Grupo de Acción Financiera de Sudamérica (GAFISUD, or Financial Action Task Force of South America).139,140 The treaty calls for direct action against money laundering and terrorism financing via a continual effort to improve institutions in their ability to both coordinate with member countries and act efficiently against all forms of money laundering.141

Thus, from 1961 to 2011 the GOCR has devoted significant energy and resources to improving its ability to detect and deter DTOs and related illicit activities, both through enforcement and demand-side laws and initiatives. But as recent data and the author’s field interviews point out, there is a large difference between laws, initiatives, and treaties on the on hand—and reality on the other. This disparity exists due to four main factors:

1) Corruption still exists in the public sector, and this existence greatly facilitates DTO smuggling and laundering activities.142

2) Despite tangible efforts to improve state institutions, some parts are functionally weak due to lack of resources, poor training, or both. DTOs are taking advantage of these weaknesses to expand their smuggling and laundering efforts. Of particular concern is the rise of domestic-international DTO cooperation, the consequential rise of domestic drug sales and consumption, and related violence.

3) DTOs—especially transnational ones—have incredible financial resources that can buy them infrastructure and intelligence. This reality is of particular concern for the Limón Province Coast Guard and their hard fight against Colombian go-fast-boat operators.

4) While Costa Rica is a relatively stable country politically and economically, stubborn unemployment figures and poverty levels in places like Limón Province (which is a key trafficking point) fuel schemes like fishermen selling subsidized fuel for drugs (Personal communications, August 11-13, 2011). The GOCR’s delayed development initiatives—like Plan Ciudad Puerto143 for Puerto Limón—hamper the GOCR’s good-willed efforts to reduce poverty and increase job prospects.

Special Considerations

A Note on the Rise in the Domestic Storage of Drugs

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It is prudent to pay attention to the rising trend of storing large amounts of drugs throughout the country. Not only does “setting up shop” contribute to the rise in domestic drug sales, use, and related violence, in Costa Rica it is a sign that both national and foreign DTOs are expanding their operations in the country and strengthening their trafficking networks. For instance, on July 24, 2011, two Guatemalans were found with 514 kilograms of cocaine hidden in the wall of a rented home near San José. It was suspected that the drugs were destined for Guatemala.144 On March 19, 2008, the PCD detained a microbus, driven by a Costa Rican, which was carrying 740 kilograms of cocaine. Thedrugs had been stored in a warehouse in the San José area, and were destined for the U.S. via a boat stationed somewhere in Puntarenas Province.145

While not mentioned in the article, given the prevalence of Colombian DTOs using fast boats for drug trafficking, there is a strong presumption that this case was an example of national and international DTO cooperation. Although the quantity of legal action against these storage houses is relatively small, the GOCR needs to pay attention to this growing trend.

A Note on the Smuggling of Artifacts

The following police operation highlights both drug storage in Costa Rica and extensive networking between DTOs, as these relate to more advanced operations. In December 2009, the OIJ arrested a group of seven men (four Mexicans, one Colombian with Costa Rican citizenship, and two Costa Ricans) who had devised the importation of 96 panels of Egyptian marble—from Egypt—and stuffed these pieces with 840 kilograms of cocaine. The panels were sent from Egypt to Puerto Limón, where they were declared as cardboard box tops, but after being sent from Puerto Limón to Panama, and traveling through the Paso Canoas border, they were properly declared. While in storage in the area of Santa Ana (northwest of San José), holes were cut out of the center—a technique employed to avoid radar detection—and cocaine was stuffed in them. The OIJ conducted a raid on the storage facility before the panels could be shipped.147 The ultimate destination of these panels was Mexico.148

This particular case is a concern because of falsifying shipping documents, multi-national DTO coordination, and the copious amount of cocaine stored within Costa Rica. Although this DTO was caught before the trafficking scheme could be completed, it shows a level of sophistication that a terrorist group could exploit to smuggle radiological and nuclear materials. No such case has been reported—or suspected—but at the least Costa Rican DTOs have shown themselves capable of carrying out complicated trafficking schemes.

A Note on Law Enforcement Deficiencies in Limón Province

There are two salient areas of concern that have arisen due to the author’s research. First is lack of enforcement in Puerto Limón City’s seaports, especially Limón. As mentioned in the previous section, Costa Rican authorities detained a Costa Rican DTO that was exchanging subsidized fuel for drugs from Colombian DTOs operating go-fast boats, and sending these drugs to the U.S. via Muelle (Dock) Alemán in the Limón seaport. While GOCR promised the construction of a security checkpoint run by PCD,149 as of this report there is no firm evidence that this checkpoint has been created. Until the GOCR follows through, there will be an open security gap that DTOs can exploit for the import and export of drugs.

The second concern is the lack of police presence in Talamanca County. The ex-mayor contact told the author that 89% of Talamanca’s 2,800 square kilometers is protected, with very little—if any—police presence in the protected areas. Furthermore, there are hardly any firm security measures at the Sixaola-Guabito border crossing. In the author’s personal experience crossing from and to Costa Rica a handful of times (in 2006 and 2007), only once was there a policeman (on the Costa Rican side) who asked to see his passport. In other words, the author could have passed by immigration without getting his passport stamped, and begun his journey through Costa Rica. While the author witnessed the following phenomenon in 2006 and 2007, the ex-mayor confirmed that there is almost free passage for Costa Ricans and Panamanians between the two countries. Perhaps a cédula (government-issued ID card) is requested, but mostly individuals can pass without worry. According to the ex-mayor, when one combines a nearly open border crossing with a largely rural county on the Costa Rican side, it almost invites a DTO to operate through it.150

Concluding Thoughts

TCO activity has grown and evolved in Costa Rica since the mid-1980s. Both foreign and Costa Rican TCOs—who are almost exclusively DTOs—have shown great capability in networking and evading Costa Rican authorities (or corrupting them) in the execution of their illicit activities. The GOCR’s relatively clean institutions that are free from DTO pressure—combined with the relative ease in expunging corrupt officials, and a strong press—means that it has waged a strong fight against TCOs. However, despite its efforts, the problem persists.

A trend to keep an eye out for is the influx of Mexican DTOs. Recent history has shown their displacement to the Northern Triangle (Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala) as a result of aggressive operations against them in Mexico, and their presence in Costa Rica—albeit small and limited, comparatively—should be cause for concern and action. This is especially true given the accusations against Alejandro Jiménez González for his involvement in the murder to Facundo Cabral, and the violent implications surrounding drug-trafficking and money-laundering activities.

The author asked all interviewees about the possibility of radiological and nuclear (RN) smuggling and a nexus of RN terrorists with DTOs. All doubted the possibility of a relationship. However, during the author’s interview with the La Nación journalist, the latter mentioned that certain pieces of x-ray equipment had been robbed from San José-area hospitals.151 Given the expense of this equipment and the otherwise absence of TCO collaboration with known terrorist groups, it is doubtful that it was destined for malicious purposes, and instead was most likely sold as units or as pieces for parts.

That is not to say there is no possibility of future collaboration between TCOs and terrorist groups in Costa Rica. Although Costa Rica has exerted considerable effort in strengthening its capacity to fight DTOs, these groups have adapted and are showing themselves capable of carrying out complicated schemes—both in terms of drug trafficking and money laundering—that involve other DTOs and complicit state employees. If there is enough of an incentive—and enough training—there could be a day when TCOs (in the case of Costa Rica, DTOs) collaborate with known terrorist groups to smuggle RN materials for the purpose of an attack on the U.S. But given the current evidence gathered in open-source research and field work, that is currently a remote possibility.

*Michael Porth is a former investigator for the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). He is currently a Security and Intelligence Analyst on Latin America and the Caribbean for Virtual Defense & Development International, Inc. (VDI).

This piece was produced as part of a research project undertaken by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) and funded by the US Department of Homeland Security. The views and conclusions contained herein are those of the author and should not be interpreted as necessarily representing the official policies, either expressed or implied, of the Department of Homeland Security or START.

Footnotes

113 INEC. (2009). Población total por país de nacimiento, según sexo, 2003-2008. Retrieved from https://www.inec.go.cr. P.72.

114 Ibid., p. 74-5.

115 There is currently an argument in the Costa Rican legislature over the duration of this agreement. Before it was ratified, it went through an amendment process in which the agreement’s terms were not given an expiration date. However, the original piece of legislation mentioned the agreement would last for 10 years. As of the date of this report, the agreement is still active. For more information, consult Mata, E.A. (2010, July 8). Congreso hará enmienda a convenio de patrullaje. Retrieved from https://www.nacion.com/2010-07-08/ElPais/FotoVideoDestacado/ElPais2439685.aspx

116 As a condition of the agreement, the U.S. Coast Guard ships must have on board members of the Costa Rican Coast Guard, in case direct interdiction is necessary. Thus, the U.S. cannot act directly in interdiction efforts. See Costa Rican National Anti-Drug Commissioner Mauricio Boraschi’s comment on the subject: https://www.nacion.com/2010-07-28/Opinion/Foro/Opinion2463378.aspx

117 ICD. (2010). Situación nacional sobre drogas y actividades conexas. Retrieved from www.icd.go.cr. P. 34.

118 DOS. (2011). International narcotics control strategy report, volume 1: drug and chemical control. Retrieved from https://www.state.gov/p/inl/rls/nrcrpt/2011/vol1/index.htm. P. 205.

119 Arley, A. (2011, July 30). Decomiso de marihuana en Limón supera la tonelada. La Nación (Costa Rica). Retrieved from https://www.nacion.com/2011-07-30/Sucesos/decomiso-de-marihuana-en-limon-supera-la-tonelada.aspx

120 Interview with Coast Guard official, Bribrí, August 12, 2011.

121 DOS. (2011). International narcotics control strategy report, volume 1: Retrieved from https://www.state.gov/p/inl/rls/nrcrpt/2011/vol1/index.htm

122 “Chinchilla anuncia nuevo plan de seguridad que integra a los tres poderes.” (2011, February (Bolivia). Retrieved from https://www.lostiempos.com/diario/actualidad/internacional/20110214/chinchillaanuncia-nuevo-plan-de-seguridad-que-integra-a-los-tres_113058_223414.html

123 DOS. (2011). International narcotics control strategy report, volume 1:. Retrieved from https://www.state.gov/p/inl/rls/nrcrpt/2011/vol1/index.htm. P. 204.

124 Ibid.

125 To give context to this amount, the total budget for the GOCR for 2011 is 550 billion Costa Rican colones, or about US$1.1 billion (“Presupuesto del 2011 será por 5.5 billones de colones.” (2010, September 1). TicoVisión. Retrieved from https://www.ticovision.com/cgi-bin/index.cgi?action=viewnews&id=1884).

126 There are currently about 10,000 active first-responder police. See Vargas (2010) for more information.

127 DOS. (2011). International narcotics control strategy report, volume 1: drug and chemical control. Retrieved from https://www.state.gov/p/inl/rls/nrcrpt/2011/vol1/index.htm. P. 204.

128 Vargas, O. (2010, August 8). Seguridad anuncia plan para expulsar Narcos de Talamanca. La (Costa Rica). Retrieved from https://www.nacion.com/2010-08-06/Sucesos/NotaPrincipal/Sucesos2473748.aspx?Page=2

129 Leitón, P. (2011, August 9). Diputados aprueban impuesto de ¢158,000 a las sociedades. La Nación (Costa Rica). Retrieved from https://www.nacion.com/2011-08-09/ElPais/Diputados-aprueban-impuesto—de–158-000-a-las-sociedades.aspx

130 The approved tax came to 158,000 Costa Rican colones, or about US$316. It is estimated that the GOCR will collect 37 billion colones through the tax, or about US$74 million in a fiscal year.

131 Oviedo, E. (2011, February 23). Presidenta defiende su plan de seguridad. La Nación (Costa Rica). Retrieved from https://www.nacion.com/2011-02-24/ElPais/Relacionados/ElPais2694746.aspx

132 “Chinchilla anuncia nuevo plan de seguridad que integra a los tres poderes.” (2011, February (Bolivia). Retrieved from https://www.lostiempos.com/diario/actualidad/internacional/20110214/chinchillaanuncia-nuevo-plan-de-seguridad-que-integra-a-los-tres_113058_223414.html

133 Ibid.

134 Ibid.

135 Ibid.

136 Congressional Research Service. (2011) Latin America and the Caribbean: illicit drug trafficking and U.S. counterdrug programs (7-5700, R41215). Retrieved from www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/R41215.pdf

137 DOS. (2011). International narcotics control strategy report, volume 1:. Retrieved from https://www.state.gov/p/inl/rls/nrcrpt/2011/vol1/index.htm

138 This law-enforcement wing is part of the Judicial branch, and was created in 1974 (IND, 2009).

139 DOS. (2011). International narcotics control strategy report, volume 1:. Retrieved from https://www.state.gov/p/inl/rls/nrcrpt/2011/vol1/index.htm. P. 205.

140 Instituto Costarricense sobre Drogas [ICD]. (2010). Situación nacional sobre drogas y actividades conexas. Retrieved from www.icd.go.cr. P. 70.

141 Ibid.

142 The Ministerio de Seguridad Pública suspended 1,084 members of the Fuerza Pública between April 2010 and September 2011 for various violations. While cases are not all related to drug trafficking, several cases are. In August 2011, for example, 12 members were suspended after being found—among many crimes—to be protecting criminals and selling drugs in Miramar de Montes de Oro, Puntarenas Province (Delgado, D. [2011, September 5]. Seguridad Pública suspendió a 1.100 agentes en solo 15 meses).

143 This development plan was hatched in 2006, and in 2008 a US$80 million loan was secured with the World Bank (Vizcaíno, I. [2011, May 9]. Plan de $80 millones solo asegura canchas para Limón en este año. La Nación (Costa Rica). Retrieved from https://www.nacion.com/2011-05-09/ElPais/NotasSecundarias/ElPais2772070.aspx) & (Corrales, G. [2011, April 15].Chinchilla retoma plan ‘Limón Ciudad Puerto’ en visita hoy al Caribe. La Nación (Costa Rica). Retrieved from https://www.nacion.com/2011-04-15/ElPais/NotasSecundarias/ElPais2750086.aspx). About US$60 million would be destined for urban renewal projects, with the remaining amount for (see next page) economic development and overall infrastructure investments in the city (Solano, H. [2009, August 10]. Limón Ciudad Puerto despierta esperanzas y dudas. Retrieved from https://www.aldia.cr/ad_ee/2009/agosto/10/nacionales2052517.html). However, as of May 2011—due largely to bureaucracy— only about $232,000 has been invested, in the construction of sport and recreation complexes (Vizcaíno, 2011).

144 Arguedas, C. (2011, July 27). OIJ decomisa 514 kilos de cocaína en casa en Curridabat. (Costa Rica). Retrieved from https://www.nacion.com/2011-07-24/Sucesos/oij-decomisa-514-kilos-de-cocaina-encasa-en-curridabat.aspx

145 Aguilar, N. & Soto, R. (2008, April 18). Condenados por tráfico de drogas y armas. La Nación (Costa Rica). Retrieved from https://wvw.nacion.com/ln_ee/2008/abril/18/sucesos1502788.html

146 The year 2011 (current as of April) is included only because an interviewee at the Ministerio de Justicia y Paz personally gave the author the information, as it is not yet publically available.

147 Vargas, O. (2009, December 4). Narcos mexicanos ocultaron cocaína en mármol egipcio. La Nación (Costa Rica). Retrieved from https://wvw.nacion.com/ln_ee/2009/diciembre/04/sucesos2182656.html

148 Ibid.

149 Aguilar, N. (2008, August 27). Muelle Alemán es tierra de nadie. La Nación (Costa Rica). Retrieved from https://wvw.nacion.com/ln_ee/2008/agosto/27/pais1678176.html

150 Interview with former mayor of Talamanca, August 13, 2011.

151 Interview with La Nación journalist, San José, August 11, 2011.

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