Francisco Dall’Anese, Costa Rica’s chief prosecutor, has been a fierce advocate for changing the country’s criminal laws, which he says are outdated and represent denial of a not-so-new reality: organized crime.
Lawmakers are sitting on a much-touted bill that, if approved, would enable police to conduct tougher, more comprehensive investigations to break up criminal organizations, according to Dall’Anese. Last week, legislators took a scalpel to the wording of the bill, finding “articles that are very irregular,” said Yamil Chacón, lawyer for the Legislative Assembly’s legal review board (TT, Jan. 23).
Dall’Anese spoke to The Tico Times this week about the bill and crime in general. Here are some excerpts.
TT: In your time serving as chief prosecutor, what’s changed?
FD: There’s been a change that started before 2003 (when I took office). It began to be noticed with the appearance of hired assassins in Costa Rica. It was when someone was hired to kill a journalist (in July 2001), Parmenio Medina, a Colombian with Costa Rican citizenship. People thought it was an isolated event, but the truth is we have cases of hit men every day. And that’s indication of the existence of organized crime. But the issue of new criminality has been rejected by Costa Ricans.
Why can’t Ticos come to grips with it?
Costa Ricans think they are something like the chosen people, that the divine hand will always save them, and the truth is, well, we’ve been very lucky. For a long time, for some reason, we’ve been a bit different from the rest of Central America. We are a country without an army, with much higher levels of literacy, a good health system. …We think we’re different and that nothing will happen to us, in constant denial.
What’s behind the rise in organized crime?
In the past 20 years, social inequality has risen, wealth has accumulated in a few hands, services provided by the public institutions that made our society more egalitarian are deteriorating. As social inequality grows, crime appears as a direct consequence.
What about outside factors?
The highly aggressive policies of President (Alvaro) Uribe of Colombia against drug trafficking and organized crime, and recently the aggressive policies of Mexico’s president (Felipe Calderón) against criminal groups have displaced these groups, sending branches to more vulnerable countries, and Costa Rica is very vulnerable because 10 or 15 years ago we didn’t have the levels of crime we have now. And so, now we’re surprised to find laws that don’t correspond with the reality of organized crime and procedures that are not adequate for the police to respond to organized crime.
What are the measures needed to fight organized crime?
There are many ways to break up a criminal network, but the basic tools are phone tapping, to find out what they’re doing and follow their movements, and sometimes an inside witness or a repentant member of the organization wants to collaborate with the police, in exchange for a deal with the Prosecutor’s Office. Unfortunately, in Costa Rica we can’t tap phones in any case of organized crime. We’re trying to reform this but there’s resistance from a group of legislators.
Why are they resisting the reform?
I don’t know. When the bill came up, in the last minute, two legislators made 148 motions to block it. But if the law isn’t changed, we simply won’t have the right tools to pursue organized crime. They don’t see that while Guatemala already has an anti-organized crime law, Nicaragua is making one, and Panama is developing important policies, Costa Rica remains stuck. What’s going to happen to Costa Rica? It’ll be like a building that gets fumigated on every floor except one: all the rats go to the non-fumigated floor.
That’s what’s happening to us. This country hasn’t taken the (appropriate) legal, economic or immigration measures. …It doesn’t have a clear policy regarding organized crime, and (criminal) networks have already entered.
What are some of the manifestations of organized crime?
People like to believe organized crime is abstract and say it doesn’t affect them day to day. But that’s not true because organized crime always has collateral effects that translate into common crimes that affect a lot of people.
For example, a professional criminal would never kill anybody unless it’s to get a highly valuable product. However, a drug addict can kill in Costa Rica for a cell phone or what little money people carry in their wallet, to have economic means to get their drugs that day. This was unimaginable 10 years ago. But it’s a consequence of organized crime. The addict is a victim of drug trafficking, who becomes a victimizer to fulfill the needs of his addiction.
There’s been a huge amount of crime committed with illegal firearms and that’s a consequence of arms trafficking through organizations that pay their contacts in Costa Rica with weapons, which are later sold onto the black market.
Why is this happening here, in Costa Rica?
Costa Rica is a strategic location because it’s narrow, with two coasts, you can drive from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and because of what I said about our laws, the few tools the police have. It’s a country that’s difficult to get caught trafficking drugs in.
But hasn’t the Coast Guard been successful recently at catching traffickers?
We’ve managed to seize more cocaine, for example, than other Central American countries. But if you seize 10 percent of what passes through –and don’t ask me who came up with it but that’s the accepted number –and in a period of 18 months Costa Rica seized more than 60 tons, that means 600 tons passed through here.
You’re one year into your second term. Are you planning on a third?
The law doesn’t set limits, but I don’t think the body could stand more than two (four-year) terms. This is a really hard post. It’s 24 hours, no vacations, no weekends, heavy responsibility so you can’t be far from the office for too long.
How about running for president?
No, I never thought about making a political career. I agree with (former U.S. Fed Chairman) Alan Greenspan on that. He says a chief prosecutor knows too much about everybody in politics, so it wouldn’t be ethical to use what he learned in his post to aspire to take another post. So, I never thought about it, but if I did, this would not be the time.