Immigrants beware. A group of “gavilanes” may be hunting you outside the gates of the country’s Immigration headquarters in La Uruca.
The odds are high that if you roll up to the agency’s entrance, one or more of the gavilanes, Spanish for “sparrow hawks,” will aggressively approach you, ask for your passport and make it seem they are immigration employees.
Don’t be fooled, says Immigration Director Mario Zamora. They are not to be trusted, he says.
“They are the visible face of a transnational mafia organization linked with human trafficking and slavery,” he says.
“They’ve all been under investigation for a very long time, but they’re very professional and they operate at the margins of the law.”
The director says he has been engaged in a two-year war with the gavilanes. The term in Spanish implies a predatory nature, akin to “shark” in English.
For years, the gavilanes have set up a parallel, black-market immigration office right outside the front gates of the official one, Zamora says, charging more but offering similar services faster. The problem is, they engage in extortion, fraud and bribery, often paying off people from within Zamora’s own agency to provide fake documents, Zamora says.
“Some thugs were so ruthless they even extorted people waiting in line outside $60 just to not get kicked to the back of the line,” he says. “They extort people with false information and fictitious expenses. A cédula (identification card) here costs $48 but they charge from $200 to $300, and the documents aren’t even authentic.
“I can’t tell you how many times people come in thinking they have an authentic document, and we don’t even have a case file for them.”
Zamora says he was confused by the gavilanes when he first took the job in 2006. He didn’t know who was working for him and who was a gavilán because the alleged scammers moved freely inside Immigration headquarters.
“When I first got here, I didn’t know who was who,” he says. “But I slowly came to realize they weren’t (immigration employees), and I started taking action.”
Acknowledging that some the services the gavilanes offer require the help of employees inside, Zamora insists he is weeding out the bad apples in his agency by leveling criminal charges against some and firing others.
He cites ongoing prosecutions of 50 immigration officials, the firing of 10 others, including former regional director Mario Rodríguez last year for allegedly providing fake documents, the recent arrest of two employees who are charged with having fake IDs and immigration case files in their homes, and an ongoing investigation of 22 officials at the Juan Santamaría airport for falsifying exit and entry stamps.
Criminal complaints relating to gavilanes have also been filed by at least 15 foreigners with the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ). Among them is Chad Cohen, a blind man who was allegedly defrauded in 2006 by a man Zamora considers a gavilán.
That man’s name is Zamora Cruz, a registered lawyer with no history of disciplinary actions taken against him by the Costa Rican Attorneys Association.
Zamora Cruz has an office right outside Immigration gates. Outside his office, gavilanes huddle and organize their activities.
“We have the same name but are not related,” the Immigration director says. “But he takes advantage of this and tells people we are related and that he can use his family connections.”
The director says Zamora Cruz took advantage of Cohen by making him think he was signing residency paperwork for immigration.
But Cohen was in fact signing over his bank accounts and real estate possessions to other individuals, the Immigration director says.
Herman Mora, a Judicial Investigation Police agent, confirmed a case remains open against Zamora Cruz for investigation of $35,000 in fraud. But the case is being held up by the fact one of Zamora Cruz’s alleged accomplices, a man Mora declined to identify, fled the country.
Zamora Cruz insists he is not a gavilán, that Cohen’s accusation is unfounded, that he does not claim to be related to the other Zamora and that he provides a legitimate service to people struggling with a painfully slow and dysfunctional immigration process.
He also says he has won 442 recursos de amparo, or injunctions, in the Constitutional Court (Sala IV), against the Immigration director, forcing him to provide permanent resident cards to foreigners after the agency repeatedly failed to comply with a three-month time limit established by law to provide such documents.
“I am not a gavilán,” Zamora Cruz says. “They are dangerous criminals, and they lie, charge ridiculous fees and promise things they can’t deliver. I haven’t worked with them for many years. The difference between the (Immigration Director Zamora) and me is that I believe immigrants have rights, and he doesn’t, and I’ve proved that in .”
The war against the gavilanes is one that the Immigration director says he’s been winning little by little. An army of 250 gavilanes that ruled the entry to Immigration in 2006 has been whittled down to 10 to 20 because of several policies he has put in place.
Those measures include reducing lines by requiring people to make appointments; not allowing surrogates or attorneys to appear at immigration appointments on behalf of others; creating Immigration branch offices in 30 Bank of Costa Rica offices in San José; improved surveillance of employees; and improved document quality that includes hidden codes that identify which immigration employees issue which documents.
However, a gavilán with the last name Castillo told The Tico Times his people continue to freely enter Immigration with other people’s documents. He also insists he is a legitimate businessman, even though he admits he doesn’t have a business permit from the municipality.
“(Director) Zamora can believe whatever he wants,” he says.“And if I were illegitimate, I wouldn’t be handing out business cards with my name and cell phone on them.”
Castillo says he charges people $20 to wait in immigration lines for them and $200 for cedulas and permanent resident cards.
Immigration Director Zamora recommends people press charges against gavilanes who victimize them by filing complaints with the Judicial Investigation Police.
“If we see problems and don’t do anything, we’re a part of the problem,” he says.