A strike by hundreds of truck drivers at Costa Rica’s borders ended Tuesday when the Central American Economic Integration System (SIECA) ruled that the object of the truckers’ ire – a new electronic seal and circulation permit system Costa Rican authorities attempted to implement last month – violates regional agreements.
Though SIECA’s decisions are non-binding, Costa Rican authorities have suspended implementation of the measure and are planning meetings with all Central American Customs Directors and Economic Integration Ministers to try to gain approval for the measure, said Alicia Avendaño, director of the new Customs system of which the permit system, called marchamo electrónico, is a part.
The electronic device,which costs $70-140 to rent, allows officials to trace vehicles’ path through the country via satellite to ensure they do not leave their planned route. It also seals the trucks’ cargo area, which authorities say will ensure none of the merchandise is unloaded before its final destination, therefore ensuring all import taxes are paid.
When Costa Rica began requiring that incoming cargo trucks rent the electronic seal Feb. 15, truckers in Panama refused to pay for the permits and blocked the border stations at Paso Canoas.
Marjorie Lizano, president of the Costa Rican Cargo-Transport Union, told The Tico Times Wednesday that she estimated 250 trucks were lined up on the Costa Rican side, and 300 on the Panamanian side.
A similar protest by Nicaraguan truckers took place Monday and Tuesday at the northern border station of Peñas Blancas.
Approximately 200 trucks participated, said Lizano, who attended the protest. Peñas Blancas Customs agent Miguel Rivera told The Tico Times that trucks had lined up on both sides of the border, but all was back to normal as of Wednesday.
The controversy surrounding the marchamo electrónico hinges on whether Costa Rica can unilaterally impose such a measure, without the consent of other Central American countries, and who should pay for the permits.
Costa Rica suspended implementation of the new system following a meeting with Panamanian officials in San José Feb. 20 (TT; Feb. 24). However, this did not end the blockades because the truck drivers insisted that the new system and its accompanying fee be discarded altogether. SIECA began analyzing the issue after Nicaragua and Panama filed consultations with economic integration authorities. Though Panama does not belong to SIECA, it did sign the Central American Transit Regulation, which is the relevant agreement to this case.
SIECA’s decision, made public late Monday, states that member countries can only implement such measures on a regional level. That is, one country cannot unilaterally demand an electronic device or fee such as the one in question without the consent of the other countries. However, Avendaño claimed this is “an interpretation” and that Costa Rica is maintaining its suspension of the measure – pending further discussions with other countries’Customs leaders – not because of SIECA, but because Costa Rica is “respectful.”
Customs Director José Alberto Martínez echoed her words.
“It’s not math, it’s not science, it’s law,” he said. “There’s always (room) for interpretation.”
The electronic seals are sold by private companies certified by the government that charge $70 for a permit good as far as San José, and $140 to go from Paso Canoas to Peñas Blancas. The devices are part of Information Technology for Customs Control (TICA), Costa Rica’s new electronic Customs system, designed to improve Customs efficiency, track goods’ paths through the country and reduce tax evasion.
The system includes an electronic identification code that can be tracked by satellite to ensure goods on which import taxes have not been paid – that is, goods destined to pass through Costa Rica – do not stray from their assigned course. The system also includes an alarm that is triggered if the goods’ sealed compartment is opened.
The same system resulted in protests when TICA was implemented at the Pacific port of Caldera July 4; shipping companies and importers shut down the port for days by refusing to pick up goods (TT, Sept. 23, 2005).
However, the Finance Ministry maintained the problems were temporary and that the system would significantly reduce tax evasion. In December, the ministry triumphantly reported a historic 20.5% increase in tax income during 2005, a total of ¢1.14 trillion ($2.25 billion). At Caldera, collection increased 57% over 2004 (TT, Dec. 23, 2005).
Avendaño told The Tico Times Wednesday that an electronic device – as opposed to the current paperwork system, for which truck drivers pay $3-5 – is the only effective way to combat contraband.
“We have serious problems of (cargo) transit control,” she said, adding that this is the position not only of the Finance Ministry and Customs Administration, but also the conclusion reached in studies by the Comptroller General’s Office.
Who Should Pay?
Transport chamber representatives say they fully support the effort to fight contraband – but maintain that the government, not truck drivers, should pay for the new system.
“We don’t know of any country in the world that requires the use of an electronic circulation device” without footing the bill, Jorge Campabadal, president of the Costa Rican Shipowners’ Association, told The Tico Times. “In two countries, Argentina and Bulgaria, Customs (authorities) are the ones who apply and take off the device, and they pay for it. It’s their responsible to apply and pay for the devices.”
“We want to make it clear that we don’t oppose the resources that the Customs Administration wants to implement to ensure taxes are paid,” she said. “If they want to put two, three, five marchamos, we have no problem with that…We’re against charging the cargo transporter directly.”
Campabadal added that if TICA is as successful as Customs officials claim in terms of increasing tax revenue, those funds should make it all the easier for the government to pay for the devices.
Customs’ Avendaño argued that while truck drivers or others transporting cargo may have to pay the fee initially, the importer that eventually receives the goods will reimburse the drivers for the fee. However, Campabadal said this is not always the case, and truck drivers don’t necessarily have any guarantee they’ll be reimbursed.
Another bone of contention: whether Customs is allowed to have private companies charge the marchamo fee. Lizano said Costa Rican law prevents Customs from granting concessions for such devices; Avendaño said it is not a concession, but simply a process by which companies show they can meet the technical requirements for the electronic devices and are then certified by the government.
No matter what happens, it appears that the new marchamos have a long and bumpy legal road ahead of them. Campabadal said his organization is planning legal action, possibly including a lawsuit before the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV), to ensure the government recognizes what he says is its responsibility to pay.
As for the Finance Ministry and Customs Administration, Avendaño said two desired outcomes are on the agenda: first, to convince the other Central American countries to allow Costa Rica to implement the measure on its own, and, ideally, to prompt the regional implementation of the device.
“It’s a position of each one of the countries,” she said. “Our position is to maintain the measure… to eliminate contraband. Without a specific form of technology, we can’t control (cargo) transit.”