On Tuesday night, Oct. 20, Ronny Sojo, 40, was shot and killed in La Sabana Park, just west of San José.
Two weeks later, Sojo’s colleague, Randall Mauricio López, was gunned down during a shootout in San Antonio de Escazú, a usually peaceful, mountaintop town southwest of San José. He was 30 years old.
On Monday Nov. 9, a bullet pierced the stomach of Kenneth Monge, another comrade, in Hatillo, south of the capital city. Monge survived.
All three men were agents for the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ), and all three were investigating crimes when they were shot.
Officials arrested the three men Sojo was chasing the night he was murdered. But the results of an internal investigation released this week revealed that one of Sojo’s fellow agents, not one of the criminals, accidentally shot and killed the eight-year OIJ veteran.
The agent, whose name the agency would not divulge, was released from the force on Tuesday morning.
López’ murderer, detained shortly after the assault, is facing charges before a criminal court.
But the recent slayings of judicial police officers represent more than a funeral, a pair of handcuffs, a court date and a pink slip. They uncover a changing crime scene in Costa Rica and a battle that the country’s security forces may not be prepared to fight. Homicides in Costa Rica reached an all-time high in 2008 – 11 per 100,000 people.
The National Police Force estimates that the number of guns on the black market is higher than in years past. The power and speed of these illicit weapons are greater than ever and, in some cases, much stronger than those of security agents.
“The police are not using the necessary equipment to protect themselves against the caliber of arms that these criminals are using,” said Gerardo Castaing, former director of the OIJ. “These guns are more powerful. The violence in the underworld is greater. The officers need more protection.”
The OIJ’s standard-issue gun is a 9 mm pistol, a handgun that holds 15 bullets per magazine. The delinquents that López faced were carrying AK-47 machine guns, weapons that can fire up to 600 bullets per minute. And this type of heavy artillery is stronger than the protective equipment agents wear. In Lopez’ case, a bullet tore through the bulletproof vest that guarded his torso and punctured his left lung, right next to his heart.
“It’s worrying to see,” said an OIJ agent who requested anonymity. “We trust our lives to these vests. I know it’s a dangerous job, but we’d like to think we are as well-equipped as we possibly can be.”
But when it comes to upgrading equipment, the Public Security Ministry and the OIJ recite the same tune: it’s too expensive. The agencies say they don’t have the budget to purchase better guns and vests with increased protection.
OIJ press officials recently told The Tico Times that the agency is working to free more money for its field officers, but it takes time and ample political support.
Recently, the OIJ approved a ¢63 million (roughly $112,000) budget for its witness protection program. The money will be used to purchase 63 9-mm pistols and 30 high-powered machine guns for 50 “victim and witness protection agents.”
OIJ Sub-director Jorge Rojas told the daily La Nación that the money was allocated to put the agency in compliance with a law passed in January 2009.
But it left the anonymous OIJ agent wondering when his needs would be met.
“The witness protection program is important, but their agents don’t face the same dangers we face in the streets.”
In this vein, the agent who spoke with The Tico Times said more attention should be given to training for its investigation units, especially firing practice.
“Criminals become accustomed to their weapons. Some fire them everyday,” he said. “For us, sometimes it feels more like just another part of our uniform than a practical tool.”
The duration of OIJ preparation courses for agents are on par with those of the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation – five months compared to 20 weeks, respectively. But in Costa Rica, weapons practice lasts only for a couple of days, at most.
OIJ classes are also staggered, meaning that agents can leave the program and return later, picking up where they left off.
“Once they enter, they only receive training, sometimes once a year for a week or so,” Castaing said. “They need more – at least one class every two months – and they should be back-to-back, not broken up.”
The agent who requested anonymity recommended more contact with experienced agents – partnerships and paired classes. He said he has not yet been in a class with an agent who has more than five years of experience.
But even weaker than weapons training and the equipment to which the officers entrust their lives are the information systems that they depend on for their investigations.
All of the four men who attacked Monge on Monday evening have criminal records. Monge had no knowledge of their histories because, as an OIJ official, he did not have access to this information.
No single database contains all criminal and arrest records for the country. National Police records are separate from municipal records and both are kept out of the hands of the OIJ. No information-sharing center or shared database exists for the three groups.
The law against organized crime, which passed in July 2009, requires that a JudicialCommunicationsCenter and an information-sharing platform, accessible to all governmental security officials and the Prosecutors Office at all hours of the day, be established. But money for these initiatives has yet to be appropriated.
After the recent shootings, the OIJ declared a “state of crisis” installed a “crisis squad” and formed a “crisis committee.” The goal, officials said, is to begin to establish policies that will prevent future deaths of their officers and provide better security for citizens.
So far, with the help of the executive branch, gun permits for foreigners and visas for Jamaicans have been restricted.
“This country has a very open policy as it relates to receiving people. Some come to invest; others come to kill,” said OIJ Sub-director Rojas during a press conference last week. Rojas has pushed part of the blame off on the Immigration Administration, faulting illegal immigrants and lax migration policies for the county’s crime spike.
But the OIJ agent who spoke anonymously doesn’t care about the birthplace of his adversaries. He’d rather be assured he works for a quality employer and that he is well-trained and using proper equipment.
“It doesn’t matter where they are from. My job is always the same – Jamaican, Nicaraguan, whatever. We just want to be sure, as agents, that we are prepared. That doesn’t require help from the Immigration Administration.”