San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Minister Seeks Help in Drug War

GOLFITO, Puntarenas – As cocaine smugglers bombard Costa Rican waters with load after powdery load, Public Security Minister Fernando Berrocal is looking to the military superpower to the north for reinforcements.

Costa Rica’s waters are 11 times the size of its land, and are the strategic entrance to the busiest narcotics smuggling corridors in the world.Huge amounts of drugs headed to the United States from Colombia and elsewhere in South America pass through Costa Rica’s jurisdiction.

Since President Oscar Arias took office in May 2006, authorities have seized an “historical record” of nearly 27 metric tons of cocaine, more than sextupling seizures from the year before. The U.S. Coast Guard, which has had a bilateral patrolling agreement with Costa Rica for about eight years, played a key role in many of the busts, which is why Berrocal is looking to give the U.S. agency more leeway and bring more U.S. authorities into the fight.

“We’ve become the eyes and ears of Costa Rica,” said Dwight Mathers, executive officer of the massive U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Rush, which docked in the southern Pacific port town of Golfito this week.

Berrocal wants to give the U.S. Coast Guard longer-lasting permits to patrol Costa Rica’s waters, and also is discussing bringing U.S. National Guard troops from the state of New Mexico to Costa Rica so they can lend a hand in narcotics surveillance and training.

Applauded by the five National Liberation Party (PLN) legislators on the tour, the initiatives raised questions back in San José about the legality of the proposals and how a demilitarized country is prepared to beef itself up to become a bastion in the so-called war on drugs.

The country’s Constitution requires congressional approval every time a foreign warplane or military ship enters the country.

The National Guard “is a military body. They’d have to come get authorization from the assembly. We’d have to have a debate,” legislator José Merino, of the Broad Front party, told The Tico Times. In one of his trademark long-winded discourses Tuesday in the assembly, Merino likened U.S. Coast Guard cutters to “warships” and called for a renegotiation of the 1999 bilateral agreement that allows U.S. Coast Guard authorities to dock in Costa Rica and search suspicious Costa Rican boats. U.S. authorities can’t make arrests under the agreement.

Currently, the patrol license requires legislative approval every three months, a period Berrocal hopes to expand.

Berrocal’s new policy initiatives come just as Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, a protégé of anti-U.S. leader Hugo Chávez, comes to power vowing to shut down a key U.S. base in his country dedicated to narcotics surveillance. The U.S. military, stretched thin from fighting in the Middle East, has sharply reduced its role in the war on drugs. The Los Angeles Times reported that during the past four years the lead U.S. agency in the war on drugs, the Pentagon, has reduced by more than 60% its surveillance flight-hours over Caribbean and Pacific Ocean drug-smuggling routes. At the same time, the U.S. Navy is using one-third fewer patrol boats in search of smugglers, and other U.S. authorities plan to make cuts as well. With Pentagon support dropping, the Coast Guard and the Department of Homeland Security are playing a greater role in the fight against narcotics.

“We’re going to offer any of our training to help share how we do law enforcement,” said Tim Manning, director of the New Mexico Department of Homeland Security, at a meeting with Costa Rican officials in San José last week.

Big Fish, Little Fish

Standing aboard the 378-foot USCGC Rush, which features a helicopter landing pad and a crew of more than 160 guardsmen, U.S. Embassy military attaché Al Young put into perspective the role U.S. authorities play in controlling Costa Rican waters.

“To give you an example, look at the Costa Rican patrol guard at the end of the pier,” he said, referring to an 82-foot, 10-man ship that the Costa Rican Coast Guard uses for sea patrols. The USCGC Rush overshadowed the smaller boat, which was donated by the United States, along with a fleet of planes, other boats and a couple of helicopters the Public Security Ministry uses for narcotics surveillance.

Costa Rica “can’t do the things we do,” Young said.

On a Jan. 26 tour to this muggy port town with legislators and an array of U.S. authorities, Berrocal called to extend the patrol permits the U.S. Coast Guard has to apply for every three months under the 1999 agreement.

The Golfito visit came at the end of a week that Berrocal spent networking with other U.S. authorities in an attempt to strike a cooperation agreement with the U.S.National Guard so the Guard can train and support more Costa Rican authorities in narcotics surveillance and other operations, and vice versa.

New Mexican and Costa Rican authorities met for the first time this month, and details of the project are still blurry. Officials said they plan to meet in New Mexico in April.

A part of the U.S. Army, the Army National Guard makes up about half the Army’s available combat forces and a third of its support organization. The Guard is composed primarily of civilians who serve on a part-time basis. Each state has its own National Guard.

The U.S. Coast Guard is the smallest armed service of the United States, the military branch involved in maritime law, mariner assistance, and search and rescue, among other duties. It operates in any maritime region in which U.S. security interests may be at risk, including international waters.

Minister at Work

A career lawyer and diplomat who had no police experience when Arias appointed him Security Minister, Berrocal is putting his political savvy to work to battle drugs.

The former Presidency Minister is trying to take advantage of his relationship with New Mexico governor and U.S. presidential candidate Bill Richardson, whom Berrocal met when he was Costa Rica’s ambassador to the United Nations and Richardson was the United States’.

Since Berrocal took office, drug seizures off the Pacific coast have become increasingly spectacular. In October, 3.5 metric tons of cocaine found on a Costa Rican fishing boat in the Pacific was celebrated as the single biggest drug bust in Central American history.

Barely two weeks later, that record was blown to powder when authorities nabbed another Costa Rican fishing boat loaded with nearly eight tons (TT, Oct. 27, 2006).

Less than a month later, U.S. Coast guard officials found a semi-submergible homemade submarine stuffed with three metric tons of cocaine in Costa Rica’s Pacific coast (TT, Nov. 24, 2006).

Authorities say the spike in seizures is due to increased security measures. Police this week announced that they have arrested 11 members of an alleged drug smuggling network that contracted fishermen from the Pacific port city Puntarenas to transport cocaine and fuel out to northbound smugglers in the ocean.

The U.S. Coast Guard has played a key role in many interdictions, as well as in two other recent rescues of stranded boats in the Pacific packed full of would-be U.S. immigrants from South America (TT, Jan. 26).

“Costa Rica doesn’t have the economic resources to monitor all (its territory),” Liberation legislator Federico Tinoco told The Tico Times, adding that it costs an estimated $23,000 an hour to maintain the USCGC Rush, for example.

Costa Rican Coast Guard Director Carlos Alvarado told legislators that to review the permit annually “is more than sufficient.”

Tinoco, president of the assembly’s Commission against Drug Trafficking, said he is considering submitting a bill toward that end.

Legislator Merino said Costa Rica should seek a multilateral patrol agreement with other countries, and that “cooperation doesn’t mean submission.”

“We’re cooperating with the United States, but the United States is cooperating very little with us,” he said.

Joining Forces against Drugs

On July 2, 1999, Costa Rica approved a controversial agreement allowing U.S. military ships and planes to enter Costa Rican waters and airspace to pursue suspected drug smugglers.

The agreement had been some three years in the making. Two previous versions were rejected by the Government Attorney’s Office as threats to the nation’s sovereignty (TT, May 28, June 11, 1999).

A third version received near-unanimous Congressional approval, but was halted when the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) observed that an article in the pact clashed with the Constitution.

The article in question would have allowed the Legislative Assembly to grant U.S. warships or planes a 10-year authorization to enter Costa Rican waters or airspace to pursue drug-traffickers (TT, July 9, 1999).

The Constitution requires congressional approval every time a foreign warplane or ship enters the country.

The article was eliminated for the pact’s fourth and final version, and approval is now required every three months.

After victory in Costa Rica’s 1948 civil war, President José María Figueres Ferrer abolished both the National Army and his own army.

Article 12 of the 1949 Constitution says, “The military is prohibited as a permanent institution,” and says police forces will be used to maintain public order.

Allowing military personnel or equipment on Costa Rican soil has always made for controversy.

In 2004, for instance, a plan with the United States to create an international police academy here fizzled due to opponents who said a military training center wouldn’t be in keeping with the civil tradition here (TT, March 12, 2004).

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