Gerardo Lazcares, a vice minister in Fernando Berrocal’s Public Security Ministry, planned to take the job for just one year. But it’s been almost two years since his longtime friend, Berrocal, drafted him out of retirement. The vice minister, who has a criminal law degree and more than 30 years of law enforcement experience with the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ), says it’s nearing time to retire again.
“My time has already passed,” he says. “It’s a matter of months before I step away.”
The former homicide and anti-narcotics chief specializes in the battle against drug trafficking and coordinates the Drug Control Police and Coast Guard.
“Ninety percent of the violent crime in the country is generated by drug addiction and drug markets.”
Crack, he says, is the country’s worst enemy. “Crack is first, powder cocaine is second, then marijuana and ecstasy. Just with crack, we have our hands full.”
Lazcares, 58, married with two sons and one daughter, spoke with The Tico Times on security, which has risen to the top of the government and legislative agendas:
TT: How do you see the security of the nation currently?
GL: If you look at it strictly from a police perspective, it’s a very fragile situation. On public security, we have a serious problem. More than 12,000 Colombians have moved here, and Dominicans. So, in Costa Rica, we have a great contamination of bad people that come from the outside, not all of them mind you, but it could be 3% of them. We’re seeing this have a big effect on drug trafficking.
There are two types of drug trafficking here – international and national. The international is being well attacked with cooperation between us and the U.S., but the national is expanding throughout practically the whole country. And the capacity of the police to reinforce has not up to this point been the most suitable.
Crack is converting many people into criminals, to rob and steal to maintain their vice. This provoked a lot of attacks on (the public) and initiated the reality that there is a great chaos affecting all the communities in the country.
Ninety percent of the problems we have come from drugs. If a person gets involved with crack, that creates another eight people who are involved in the sale of crack. These eight are lost, irretrievably.
There are more than 400,000 crack addicts, including youth.
Murder has doubled over a decade. If you compare it to Guatemala or Honduras or El Salvador, it would seem ridiculous, but 12 years ago when I was in homicide it was about 200 murders a year. Now it’s over 400.
And the treatment for this is frozen. So there’s no prison for possession for personal use. It’s not even a misdemeanor, and treatment is difficult. It really doesn’t exist. There is only one crack rehab center (managed by the Institute on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse). This is practically ridiculous.
You mentioned foreigners as a source of crime. This is a common refrain by Ticos but is it really true foreigners commit the majority of crimes?
The majority of criminals are Ticos, logically. What happens is that in the case of international drug dealing, the Colombians are very involved in this … to send drugs north. But there is a higher representation of Colombians in our prisons. Of the 12,000 in the country, there are 200 to 300 in prison. Also, there are many Nicaraguans involved in crime, just like Ticos.
With crimes related to international trafficking, it’s mostly foreigners, of course.
Speaking of drugs, what is the greatest challenge in fighting them?
Keeping crack sales to a minimum, preventing addiction and developing a lot of programs to see how to solve this addiction…We have no jail and no treatment. They’re like zombies and they’re bound for death.
Are you losing or winning the battle? This is like the famous question, is the water glass half full or half empty? I say we’re winning. The people can take note. But I think that people won’t take note, they won’t accept it. If you compare what we used to have in manpower and resources to what we have now, I think we are winning. But it’s not that we’re winning by much. We have more people, more training. With that being said, there are areas of the country, like the Coronado neighborhood in the Limón province where there practically is no law.
Another common refrain from law enforcement and the courts is they lack manpower and resources to attack crime. Is this true?
No. I think there are enough resources. We will soon be receiving 4,000 more officers. It’s more of a question of work ethic, not resources.
What are some changes you would like to see to aid law enforcement?
The laws here are good, although outdated. What we need is a law against organized crime. There is a bill in the Legislative Assembly now.We need special laws because in drug trafficking, some (suspects) are Argentines, another is here, another in Venice, Italy, and so it is very difficult to investigate and so we need a law that allows us to work on these cases. The law workingits way through the Legislative Assembly is already being applied in other places. It’s a typical law in Central America but here so far it’s never happened.
What are some of the greatest weaknesses the country has in confronting its crime problems?
The crime of (drug) consumption doesn’t exist. It’s not even a misdemeanor. It’s nothing. That is the problem.We can’t evolve with obsolete laws intended for common crimes. Law enforcement needs to get four buys to bust a dealer and you have to go to a prosecutor. It’s like six months of surveillance and, practically speaking, it’s very difficult to get a bust that is successfully prosecuted.
How can the courts and prosecutors improve the perilous security situation?
The theme of the judges is a little delicate. The judges have great independence, which I respect, but one has to see the reality. Some of the alternatives to prison have been poorly applied. Preventive prison has to be used better. The law can be abused, citing whatever article of the law to get people out of jail. The fixed residence rule is ridiculous. (Lazcares is referring to Article 239 of the Criminal Procedure Code in which a judge has to determine if the accused is a flight risk and whether the suspect can obstruct justice with his freedom.) Here we don’t have a Stalinist court that wants to put everybody in jail but I think sometimes it’s less work to let someone free. There are some people who need to be in jail. People who commit assault need to be in prison. How is it possible that six men who assault two engineers — they hit them and robbed them — and they’re free? (See related story on Page 1.)
Do foreign tourists bear a large responsibility for the drug problem here because they are a strong source of demand?
Yes. Generally,U.S., Canadian or European tourists who come to visit consume drugs. There is the fact that entire gangs dedicate themselves to serving the tourists and they have awakened the current delinquency in the areas frequented by tourists.
The Tico Times recently wrote about the trend of people arming themselves in the country (TT, Feb. 8).What do you think about the trend?
I am against arms, and I am the president of the Arms Commission. There’s not enough training.You have to go at least twice a week to train to not make mistakes at home or wherever…I’ve also seen weapons used by cousins against cousins – children, husbands and wives killing each other.
Even in criminal cases, the accused can reach a settlement with the accuser to avoid a prosecution. What do you think of this practice?
I’m in favor but there are many of my colleagues who are against it. However, there has been abuse by judges and prosecutors in the way that they are allowing them for people who should not be allowed it. It’s supposed to be for somebody who commits a mistake in life, but not for things like rape.