San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Crime Weighs Heavily on Costa Rican Minds

Madame Minister, it’s been eight months since you took your post. Do you still believe (public) insecurity is a matter of perception?

It was the first question posed to Public Security Minister Janina del Vecchio in an online chat this month on the daily La Nación’s Web site, and the tone – as evidenced by the participant’s self-ascribed chat room handle, “Resign” – was often more accusatory than inquisitive.

“Resign” was referring to remarks del Vecchio made at a press conference in April, shortly after her appointment: “The perception of insecurity is higher than the insecurity itself.”

Though she has said repeatedly the remark was taken out of context, the public has not let her forget it.

Security is weighing heavily on Ticos’ minds. According to an annual survey by the daily Al Día, the number of citizens who believe fighting crime should be the government’s top priority doubled, from 17 percent last year to 35 this year.

In the first six months of 2008, murders were already up 33 percent over last year. According to the President Oscar Arias administration, 226 of those were committed with guns, exactly double the 113 gunrelated murders registered in all of 1997.

The rate of violent crimes per 100,000 inhabitants went up 8 percent from 2006 to 2007, the most recent year for which statistics are available. The murder rate bumped up 2.5 percent over last year, a 24 percent increase from 2004, and sexual crimes increased 5.2 percent, but were 11 percent lower than the rate notched in 2004, according to the State of the Nation annual report released in November.

Drug-related cases from 1997 to 2007 multiplied eight-fold, but despite a recent doubling of judges, from 460 to 817, conviction rates dropped from one in five to one in 40.

The growing sense of insecurity can also be measured in the retreat from some neighborhood watch programs, whose volunteer sentinels say it is too risky an endeavor.

A decade after its inception, the Public Security Ministry neighborhood watchdog program has been halved to about 2,500 groups. In San José’s notorious northern district León XIII – where a handgun can be rented for four hours for ¢10,000 (about $18) – the number of watchdog groups have dropped from 50 to two in two years after gang members threatened the members in a meeting.

The National Police number just under 11,000 officers, up from 10,000 last year. Police forces have also been dogged by allegations of unresponsiveness and corruption.

Several officers have been arrested for a wide range of offenses, including bribery, murder and colluding with drug traffickers.

The lack – and mistrust – of police has many communities around the country hiring private security to patrol streets and neighborhoods. The number of security guards in Costa Rica is about 30,000.

Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) Director Jorge Rojas threatened in January to step down if more funds weren’t allocated to his agency, and the government eventually approved a 26 percent increase, boosting OIJ’s budget by ¢7 billion (about $14 million at the time). Rojas stayed on. Meanwhile, the Public Security Ministry’s budget has risen from ¢62 billion (about $113 million) in 2006 to ¢105 billion ($191 million) for 2009. This month, the Chinese government is donating 200 new patrol cars.

Drug seizures are down by about half over last year. Forces seized 10.7 tons of cocaine and 1.4 million marijuana plants on the year, according to the Public Security Ministry. Last year, they seized 20.4 tons of cocaine and 2.3 million marijuana plants.

Arrest and confiscated weapon numbers were both up nearly 40 percent over last year. And undercover cops on bus patrols have recently helped halve the number of bus robberies, which averaged a couple dozen per month earlier in the year.

FARC in the Road

Attention to domestic public security concerns in Costa Rica took an international detour in March after the Colombian army raided a Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) camp just across the border in Ecuador.

In the raid, soldiers killed FARC’s No. 2 leader, Raúl Reyes, and seized his laptop. Emails found on the computer led authorities to the home of well-known academics Francisco Gutiérrez and Cruz Prado, who were found to be in possession of an old safe containing an estimated $480,000 in rotting bills.

The couple told authorities they were given the safe by Reyes, whom they knew only by the name Dario, many years ago. They said Reyes told them the safe contained documents related to FARC’s negotiations with the U.S. State Department. The couple later refused to testify before the Legislative Assembly’s special FARC Commission, citing fear of prosecution by Colombian authorities.

Public Security Minister Fernando Berrocal caused an uproar when he claimed FARC had links to “political sectors” in the country.

In September, the FARC Commission, though unable to hear testimony from key witnesses or be privy to many requested police files, concluded no lawmakers were tied to FARC. The commission’s minority report also stated that Berrocal’s claims were “inexact and mistaken.”

By then, Berrocal was long gone from his post, fired by President Oscar Arias after making the “political sectors” comments.

In his place, Arias appointed del Vecchio, a lawmaker and former math professor.

Amid intense media and public criticism, del Vecchio stressed her international and domestic legislative experience and said many senior officials had been appointed in the past “without any experience in their fields…Nobody questioned them, maybe because they were men.”

Vice Minister Gerardo Lázcares, a longtime friend of Berrocal, resigned on Nov. 1, citing tensions with del Vecchio. Lázcares, 58, who has a criminal law degree and worked more than 30 years with OIJ before joining the ministry, said that while del Vecchio had a stellar academic record, her knowledge of citizen security, criminal investigation, penal code and Judicial Branch relations was weak.

Del Vecchio, for her part, made no attempts at conciliation, telling reporters Lázcares “never fit in.”

In Other Legal News. . .

The state opened its case in November against Rafael Angel Calderón Jr., the first former president to be tried on corruption charges in Costa Rica. Calderón, president from 1990 to 1994, is accused of accepting kickbacks for helping the Finnish medical equipment firm Fischel sell goods worth $39.5 million to the Caja, the national health care system.

Luis Fernando Burgos, a former public defender, committed suicide on Oct. 2 in his cell at La Reforma prison in Alajuela, where he was serving 35 years for the 2006 murder of his wife.

Father Minor Calvo, host of the popular Catholic station Radio Maria, was acquitted last December of charges in the 2001 murder of radio journalist Parmenio Medina, but got 15 years in prison for fraud. That sentence was reduced this month on appeal to eight years, with the possibility of parole in six months since he has already served half of that sentence in preventive prison while the case was being tried.

The Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) in October rescinded two articles of the Law to Penalize Violence Against Women, ruling both were unconstitutionally vague. The much contested articles 22 and 25 address criminalization of “maltreatment” and “emotional violence.”

The law was also criticized for punishing male abusers differently than female ones and, conversely, for protecting female victims differently than male ones.

In November, Sala IV unanimously struck down the contentious rule that required married couples to wait at least three years before they could file for divorce, as well as an article that bound couples for two years before they could legally separate.

Property fraud continued to be one of the most lucrative and least investigated crimes in Costa Rica, enabled largely by corrupt notaries who provide documents to criminals who then cherry-pick properties from the National Registry and resell them to unsuspecting buyers. The World Bank ranked Costa Rica 164th (just above Iran and Haiti) out of 181 countries in terms of protecting investors.

The Legislative Assembly passed a sweeping reform of the traffic law, steeply increasing fines and adding jail time for drunken driving. An impaired driver, who once faced a mere $36 fine, now could go to jail for three years. Not wearing a seatbelt, driving while on a cell phone or running a red light will now cost you $310.

A new court was launched to expedite cases of suspects caught in the act.

Observers so far are praising the effort, calling it efficient yet protective of the rights of the accused.


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