San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Cop Shops Shaken Down

Shakeups in the nation’s Public Security Ministry continue, most recently with the elimination of the Border Police and a special motorcycle unit patrolling San José.

National Police Deputy Chief Rándal Picado said the Border Police, created in April 2007 by former Minister Fernando Berrocal, was disbanded last week because of inefficiency and corruption.

The former border police officers, 1,800 in total, are being reorganized within the National Police structure and reassigned to police stations throughout the country.

“Imagine this,” he said, “we had the Border Police’s southern office in Ciudad Neily (in the southern Pacific corner), so there was no supervision of border police in Sixaola (on the southern Caribbean side).

The (elimination) is just a structural change. The border will still be policed.” The deputy chief said the change was a necessary response to the problem of police corruption, which has been symptomatic of other police agencies too. Recently, 11 officers in Heredia were charged with drug trafficking and two others were charged with murder in Cahuita (See story on Page 8).

He said numerous other cases of National Police corruption, including ties to drug and human trafficking, are being investigated both internally and by the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ).

“We just needed better supervision and more accountability,” Picado said.

Ministry spokesman José Pastor said a more aggressive policy of officer rotations would also be enacted to try to decrease corruption.

The 50-strong Unidad Especial Motorizada (Special Motorized Unit), also eliminated last week, fell because of corruption and incompetence, Picado and Pastor said. Berrocal and President Oscar Arias inaugurated the unit with much fanfare in December as a rapid-response to a crime wave in San José, but the effort flopped.

“It wasn’t functional,” said Public Security Ministry spokeswoman Patricia Meléndez, citing the fact that the unit only confiscated five illegal firearms and arrested 27 people in five months of operation.

Picado said mismanagement and apparent theft ran rampant in the unit. About ¢1.3 million (about $2,600) in cash and $1,000 in gas coupons disappeared from the unit.

“They also lost radios, bulletproof jackets and they didn’t even bother to use six of their cars or 18 of their motorcycles,” he said.When it was announced the unit would be disbanded, Special Units Chief Billy Berrocal quit. He could not be reached for comment. The daily La Nación reported that he declined a demotion.

Chief Berrocal’s former post, which oversees all of the National Police’s special units, was filled by Mario Calderón.

Since Janina del Vecchio took over as public security minister in April, such change has been the norm. The former vice minister retired and national police chief was replaced, leading to a cascade of promotions and transfers within the various police organizations.

Know Your Police Agency

Although the recent elimination of two police agencies simplifies matters, the country still has a complicated morass of law enforcement agencies. Even spokesmen for the Public Security Ministry admit they aren’t familiar with all the units, what they do and whom they report to. The last organizational chart, published in July 2004, is incomplete and hasn’t been updated since.

Here is a list of most of the nation’s law enforcement bodies:

Fuerza Pública (National Police). First responders to a crime call, though they don’t have a legal authority to interrogate suspects; within the Public Security Ministry under the executive branch.

Organismo de Investigación Judicial (Judicial Investigation Police or OIJ). Charged with investigating criminal complaints but only with permission of the prosecutor’s office, a process which can take months (exception: murder); contains a rapid-response unit; part of the judicial branch.

Fiscalia General (Chief Prosecutor’s office), while not technically police, they basically supervise OIJ investigations; here, you can file a criminal complaint directly to avoid the processing delay of the OIJ reports; part of judicial branch.

Policía de Migración (Immigration Police). Charged with enforcing the country’s immigration laws; policy is to deport as many alleged criminals as possible instead of charging them with crimes; part of Public Security Ministry.

Policía de Control de Drogas (Drug Control Police). Responsible for drug interdiction; Public Security Ministry.

Servicio de Guardacostas (Coast Guard). Responsible for patrolling territorial waters; part of Public Security Ministry.

Policía de Tránsito (Transit Police). Costa Rica’s highway patrol; part of Transportation Ministry.

Policía de Aduanas (Customs). Police imports and exports; part of Finance Ministry.

Policía Turística (Tourism Police). Patrols certain tourist-heavy areas; part of Public Security Ministry.

Policía Metropolitana (Metropolitan Police). Recently created outfit to focus exclusively on the San José metro area; part of Public Security Ministry.

Policía Municipal (Municipal Police). Established and funded by the cantons; so far only four – San José, Alajuela, Belén and Santa Ana.

Departamento de Inteligencia y Seguridad (Security and Intelligence Department or DIS). Secretive and controversial intelligence agency; although it doesn’t officially have officers that can arrest people, it has agents and hosts Interpol; it also contains a “special interventions” unit with undisclosed powers; within the executive branch under the control of president.

Unidad Especial de Apoyo (Special Assistance Units or UEA). Equivalent to a SWAT team; specializes in high-risk missions with heavy weaponry; part of the National Police.

Grupos de Apoyo Operacional (Operational Assistance Groups). Plan, coordinate and conduct joint operations between different police units.

Servicio de Vigilancia Aérea (Air Vigilance Service).

Closest thing the nation has to an air force, involved in drug interdiction and natural disaster operations; part of Public Security Ministry.

There also are many specialized units, such as Unidad de Operación en Armas y Explosivos (the Firearms and Bomb Squad), Unidad de Intervención Policial (riot and crowd-control police), a canine unit, special investigations unit and an internal affairs unit; all within the National Police.


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