San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Immigration Director Optimistic

Mario Zamora has what is perhaps one of the most formidable tasks facing anyone in the Costa Rican government: to turn around the collapsing, backwards and infamously corrupt Immigration Administration, the woe of foreigners and nationals alike.

While it may be too early to judge – Zamora, 37, is approaching his first year as Immigration Director – there are promising signs that this impeccable dresser and intent listener just might be the man for the job.

Foremost is his recent refusal of a hefty bribe (a system of payments that would have ascended to $2.5 million) from a Chinese network of human traffickers, dubbed the mafia china by the national press (TT, Jan 19). The news of his honesty was buried in a press conference about a sting that netted alleged members of the mafia china, but it quickly become front-page fodder for a nation disillusioned by recent high-profile corruption scandals involving three consecutive former Presidents.

Mario “El Toro” Zamora, as he was dubbed by the political commentary Internet blog manda güevo, has become something of an anti-corruption hero. In an opinion piece for the daily La Nación, author Francisco Rojas optimistically describes a “Zamora effect” that might sweep the nation, inspiring the citizenry into action against corruption.

The unassuming and minimally charismatic Zamora, a well-educated former assistant director of the National Police Academy and former advisor to the Ombudsman’s Office, insists the attention has been “very embarrassing,” and that he was just doing his job with the integrity he does anything.

“I’m not a person who is used to congratulations and things like that,” Zamora insisted during a recent interview with The Tico Times. “The wave of praise has been a surprise, because in reality, I haven’t done anything extraordinary in this situation.

What was extraordinary was the investigation.

I haven’t discovered some new modality in the fight against corruption; I’m just doing what procedure says. When offered a bribe, I informed my superiors.

“My father told me, ‘If this had happened in 1960, it would probably have been no more than a small article in the newspaper, because at the time, nobody would have been surprised that some public official would have said ‘no’ to a bribe, because that would sell out their honor.’”

Zamora chalks up the public reaction to “the expectation and desire citizens have to fight against corruption.”

But the new icon of integrity says the perception of corruption in Costa Rica is perhaps a little skewed as well.

“Since the 1990s, things that happen in this country are constantly explained in terms of corruption. Citizens sometimes explain why the state is so distant from them based on the idea that it is held hostage by networks of corruption. That is how they explain why so-and-so got water service and somebody else didn’t, why one street has priority and another doesn’t, why that person got a taxi permit and why that one has to be a pirata. People have found in corruption an explanatory element of reality.

“That is what affected me from all of this: the necessity for the country to fight corruption,” Zamora said.

Battling a Backwards System

Interestingly, Zamora traces his work ethic to a lesson he learned at age 22 on his first day working at a Morrison’s Café in the International Mall in the U.S. state of Florida: “Complete the task assigned you, without requiring that the person who gave it to you be next to you, and there are no congratulations because you are expected to do it right.”

“Sometimes, Latin American culture indispensably requires having an external stimulus so that people will do things, and if they don’t have it, they don’t do it. That (first day at work in Florida) I got home at 11:30 p.m., and was totally exhausted, and impressed because I had never spent so much energy in one day. But in terms of culture, it was very valuable to learn to do things well without needing praise.”

It is with that same integrity that Zamora says he is tackling what could probably prove to be an equally thankless, and infinitely more exhausting task: transforming the Immigration Administration from a purgatory of bureaucratic process, delay and error into a modern and efficient government service.

“The system is unsustainable,” Zamora stated. Just to keep it going as is, Immigration would need to triple its staff, he added. For example, Zamora currently has 12 people dedicating their entire eight-hour workday to transcribing to computer the small immigration forms visitors to Costa Rica fill out on their plane shortly before landing. The staff is months behind.

Zamora describes “having detained the growth of the old system” as a principal achievement during his time so far in office.

His overall goal for his four-year tour as director of Immigration, he says, is to make the agency “100% digital.”

“That would be ‘mission accomplished,’” he said. Immigration is currently in discussions with the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI) about funding for the project. Zamora said just to outsource the computerization of all Immigration’s documents would cost $1 million, and would be incomplete.What’s more important, he insists, is to modernize the system and bring it into the digital age.

Currently, Immigration files exist only as stacks of paper stapled or clipped together, kept in folders on rickety shelves and often misplaced and sometimes lost.

Zamora said he is also working on improving service for users and decentralizing the process. He cited giving the power to distribute passports to regional offices in Guanacaste’s capital Liberia and the Pacific port town of Puntarenas as a major accomplishment of his tenure so far. The passport service should also soon be available at regional offices in San Carlos, in north-central Costa Rica; in the Caribbean port city of Limón, and in the Southern Zone city of Pérez Zeledón. In addition, 26 Banco de Costa Rica bank branches around the country should also be offering the service by July 4, Zamora said.

Immigration’s forays into new technology, as few as they are, have not always yielded hopeful results, however, and Zamora is still grappling with the results. He explained how Immigration officials in the previous administration looked north, to the United States, when they decided to update their system for issuing foreign residency identification cards.

“We wanted to base them on the Green Card,” Zamora said. So Immigration got in touch with LaserCard Corporation – the makers of the U.S. Green Card – and signed a $2.6 million contract to create Costa Rica’s version. The company, however, farmed the work out to its Costa Rican representative, which used different technology and materials and produced an inferior product, or to be more accurate, 35,000 inferior products, Zamora said. Within months, photos, signatures and other information on many of the 35,000 IDs produced by LaserCard had faded beyond recognition (TT, Oct. 13, 2006), creating, in addition to a pain and nuisance for cardholders, a problem of national security.

“Organized crime is looking to get these cards,” Zamora said, because with the photos erased, they can be passed off to others.

Immigration is exploring how to replace these cards, and, once completed, transfer to outlying branches services for which foreign residents must now come to the central offices in western San José.

Immigration services will further be improved, Zamora assured, with the implementation of a proposed new Immigration Law.

Having inherited a new Immigration Law from the previous administration of Abel Pacheco (2002-2006) that President Oscar Arias said he did not agree with,Zamora announced early in his leadership that officials would enforce some parts of the new law and ignore others while they worked to draft a new law. That law has been drafted and submitted to the President for review (TT, Feb. 23), but has not yet been sent to the Legislative Assembly.

With reforms to the new law, Zamora says he hopes to simplify, expedite and reduce the cost of the different Immigration processes, as well as publish documents in English.

“Foreigners always talk about how expensive all the trámites are,”Zamora said, but explained that the expensive part often is having to pay a lawyer to carry out the process because of the language barrier and confusion over the complicated steps involved.

“The system has little transparency for the users,” he added.

The Immigration Director boasts that with the reforms, lawyers will cease to be a necessity.

“When users realize just how cheap it really is, they will be amazed,” he said. While the new law does include a new “canon” for foreigners – a $40 annual fee charged to foreign residents that will be channeled toward health care and education, among other uses – Zamora insists that with the elimination of other fees, the end result will be an immigration process $100-150 less expensive for users.


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