San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Security Officials Turn To Colombia for Help

Colombian and Costa Rican officials are going one by one through a list of names of 18,000 Colombians living in Costa Rica looking for any with a criminal record, Public Security Minister Fernando Berrocal announced upon his return from the South American country Wednesday night.

Berrocal led a delegation of Costa Rica’s top security officials to meet with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and others in the Colombian government this week to discuss security and immigration issues. In a press conference at JuanSantamaríaInternationalAirport, northwest of San José, the minister promised closer coordination in the fight against drug trafficking and other crimes that link the two nations.

The recent arrest of a Colombian guerrilla with Costa Rican residency, accused of atrocities in his home country and coordinating arms and drug trafficking through Costa Rica, helped inspire the trip, officials said.

At the press conference, officials boasted the achievements of their trip, including an exchange of security and immigration information and an agreement to work together on these issues in the near future.

However, Costa Rican officials did not come to an agreement to purchase bulletproof vests from Colombia because they are too expensive, Berrocal said.

On Aug. 22, two Costa Rican police officers were shot and killed by an alleged thief, and some police said the deaths could have been prevented had the victims been wearing bulletproof vests (TT,Aug. 25). The minister had said before leaving for Colombia Sunday that he was interested in buying vests from that country because they are high quality.

The principal achievement of the visit, Berrocal said, was the strengthening of relations between the top security officials from each country.

The delegation included Costa Rica’s Chief Prosecutor Francisco Dall’Anese, Adjunct Chief Prosecutor Lilliam Gómez, Immigration Director Mario Zamora, Director of the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) Jorge Rojas, head of the Department of Intelligence and Security (DIS) Roberto Solórzano and Vice-Minister of Justice Fernando Ferraro.

Immigration a Weakness

In Costa Rica, approximately 10,000 Colombians have refugee status – more than any other nationality and nearly all granted between 1998-2000 – and another 8,000 Colombians have legal residency here, Berrocal said. To apply for either status, foreigners must provide a copy of their criminal record; however, this system is one of the country’s weak points, Immigration Director Zamora said, because the documents are easily falsified and Costa Rica’s General Immigration Administration does not have an efficient way to check their authenticity.

During the trip, Costa Rican officials gave their Colombian counterparts a list of the names of the 18,000 Colombian residents and refugees in Costa Rica to check for a criminal history in Colombia’s police files.

According to Zamora, this is “the first time in history” that Costa Rican authorities have looked into the background of Colombians in Costa Rica. The country’s current immigration system – based entirely on paper files – keeps the country from sharing immigration information with Colombia in real time, the Immigration Director said.

“We don’t even have direct access to (international police agency) Interpol’s database, which is one of the weaknesses of our immigration system,” Zamora said, adding that the new Law of Electronic Signatures, Certificates and Documents will help Immigration modernize and begin using digital files.

Berrocal cautioned against discriminating against Colombians.

“In (the list of Colombian refugees and residents), there must be very good people who came to help this country, who are investing in Costa Rica and providing jobs. But we also have very alarming situations,” Berrocal said, referring to the case of the recently arrested Colombian Héctor Orlando Martínez.

Agents with the Interpol and the DIS arrested Martínez, believed to be a key figure in the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC), Aug. 10 in the Pacific port town of Puntarenas where he was working as a fisherman (TT, Aug. 11).

Martínez is wanted in Colombia for his alleged participation in the May 2, 2002, massacre of more than 80 people, including 46 children, who were seeking refuge in a church, and the killing of 47 police officers in 1999, among other crimes.

In 2000, in a “clear case of corruption,” Martínez was granted residency “in record time,” just one week after marrying a Tica, Berrocal said in August, promising his ministry would investigate the case and review the issuing of residency permits to other Colombian nationals (TT, Aug. 18).

Security Cooperation

OIJ Director Rojas said it is impossible to estimate how many other guerrillas could be in Costa Rica, but the two nations are in the process of “evaluating FARC’s presence in the country.”

Rojas added that the presence of Martínez in the country, and a second exguerrilla in jail here, are “concrete signs” that the guerrillas have some presence in Costa Rica.

Colombia has been gripped by civil war since the 1960s, in which the leftist rebel groups, principally the Marxist-Leninist FARC and the National Liberation Army (ELN), have fought against the government and the now-demobilizing right-wing paramilitaries.

In addition to sharing information, Colombian officials agreed to train agents from the Public Security Ministry and the OIJ in areas such as crisis management and hostage negotiations, Rojas said. According to the OIJ director, the agents will leave in approximately two weeks for a week of training in Colombia, and then return for another week of training here in Costa Rica.

The visit followed up on President Oscar Arias’ visit to Colombia last month for the Aug. 7 inauguration of Uribe’s second term as President of Colombia (TT, Aug. 11).

Arias also met Aug. 4 with representatives of the Colombian paramilitary organization Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), who asked the President to become involved in peace talks in their country.

Arias, who received the 1987 Nobel Peace prize for the role he played in the Central American peace process, declared he is interested, but could only play a part if all the parties of the conflict agreed.


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