San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Besieged, Country Steps Up Crime Fight

Costa Rican security officials were faced  with two serious problems heading into 2009: a homicide rate that had hit a record high the previous year and a spike in drug trafficking that exposed weaknesses in the country’s ability to fight organized crime.

The Public Security Ministry took steps on both fronts throughout the year, but – even with a budget that has nearly doubled since 2006 – there’s a lot left to be desired.

According to a yearly wrap-up report, the Public Security Ministry’s budget will increase from ¢62 billion (more than $110.5 million) in 2006 to an anticipated ¢123 billion (more than $219.3 million) in 2010. The new monies will be used mostly for a 25 percent ministry-wide increase in base salaries and improved police training.

The year’s best news was that between January and November 2009, the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) recorded 162 murders, almost a 10 percent drop from the 180 homicides recorded during January through November of 2008.

Since the year 2000, homicides per 100,000 people had jumped from six to a record high of 11 in 2008. Many security experts consider 10 homicides per 100,000 citizens per year to be a ceiling that should never be passed, and some have criticized the Security Ministry for allowing numbers to reach that point.

The global average of homicides per 100,000 people is nine, according to the United Nations Development Program. And, despite investment in officer education courses, a recent string of attacks

against OIJ agents has raised doubts regarding security officials’ preparedness to fight crime. During confrontations with members of a Jamaican criminal gang in October and November, two OIJ officials were killed and another was injured.

Radio calls for backup assistance failed, bulletproof vests were punctured and a decentralized arrest-record database made it difficult for agents to research the criminal histories of the suspects.

In response to the slayings, the OIJ restricted gun permits for foreigners and visas for Jamaicans.Both moves have come under fire.

One OIJ agent told The Tico Times that he doesn’t believe that either measure addresses the real issues. Rather, according  to this source, “equipment failure and neglect to improve (police) training” are at the root of the problem.

In hopes of curtailing such violent crime, the Legislative Assembly passed the highly touted Organized Crime Law in July by a vote of 48 to 1.

The law defines organized crime as a “structured group of two or more persons who exist in true time and who act in agreement with the purpose of committing one or more crimes.”

The law includes several main initiatives. It calls for an information-sharing platform that would contain all Costa Rican criminal records and be available to all officers from municipal, national and investigative police forces. It assigns new functions to the office of attention to crime victims in the Prosecutor’s Office. It also creates a judicial communications center and forms a permanent commission to address crisis situations such as in the case of the attacks against the OIJ agents late this year.

Security experts believe these four objectives to be key in battling gang violence and preventing drug shipments through Costa Rica. Money for these initiatives has yet to be appropriated.

And while the Organized Crime Law awaits funding, officials remain concerned about an upsurge in drug trafficking throughout Costa Rica. As the Mexican government boosts its efforts to expel drug cartels from Mexico, trafficking has ballooned throughout Central America as gangs increasingly compete for land control throughout the isthmus.

Costa Rica has been used as a shipping and storage point for drugs that come largely from Colombia and are en route to the United States – the world’s number one cocaine consumer.

In March, five men tied the hands and feet of two policemen in Golfito, on the southern Pacific coast, and stole 320 kilograms of cocaine from a police storehouse.

In June, Mexican authorities confiscated 894 kilograms of cocaine that had been stuffed inside frozen sharks and shipped from the Costa Rican Pacific port of Caldera.

From the onset of 2006 until November 2009, officials confiscated close to 93,000 kg of cocaine, nearly 700,000 doses of crack and 13,075 kg of marijuana. All told, the government took possession of more than ¢561 billion ($1 billion) worth of drugs.

Still, Costa Rica’s chief prosecutor, Francisco Dall’Anese estimates that the government seizes a mere 10 percent of the drugs that cross Costa Rican borders every year (TT, Jan. 30).

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