Last in a four-part series on Presidential Candidates´ Positions on the Issues
Safety issues have ruled Costa Rican dinner table talk in recent years. Family
members warn each other not to walk alone at night, to avoid talking on cell phones in public and to refrain from carrying technological valuables, such as laptops, around town.
Women walk through downtown San José with their purses clutched tightly under an arm, always in front of their body, and with one hand firmly gripping the strap. Men string earphone cords beneath their shirts, with iPods tucked discretely into a pant pocket below to prevent an easy snatch.
Whether or not such concerns are exaggerated, no one can ignore that insecurity weighs heavily on Ticos’ minds.
A survey conducted by the National University (UNA) last year asked citizen opinions about the “most urgent” social problems in the country. Insecurity, drugs, organized crime, assaults and domestic violence made a clean sweep in the poll. Between 81 and 90 percent of the 800 people surveyed considered these five categories the “most urgent” –above poverty, 75 percent; unemployment, 68 percent; and seven other social issues that all garnered less than 70 percent of responses. And as public opinion goes, so goes the presidential campaign.
Candidates have incessantly debated, revised, published and debated again their security platforms. Except for Ottón Solís, Citizen Action Party (PAC) candidate, each contender’s face can be seen frequently plastered on billboards next to their messages promising a safer, more secureCosta Rica.
Otto Guevara, Liberation Movement Party (ML) candidate, vows to impose a “mano firme (firm hand) against crime.” National Liberation Party (PLN) candidate Laura Chinchilla pledges “50 percent more (funds) in the national security budget.” Luis Fishman, Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC) candidate, swears he will provide security.
In recent interviews with The Tico Times, the leading candidates agreed on certain aspects of security reform: more police, more courts, more judges, more jails and better crime-fighting equipment.
But in a developing country where government ministries and public institutions constantly grumble about being squeezed for cash, funding these campaign promises will be a stiff challenge. How to finance more security measures is where the top four candidates differ.
From 2006 to 2010, the Public Security’s Ministry’s budget nearly doubled – from ¢62 billion (more than $110.5 million) to ¢123 billion (more than $219.3 million).
Chinchilla is banking, in part, on a loan in the works with the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) to help garner the ¢57 billion ($102.5 million) she needs for the increase she promises for the National Police between 2010 and 2014.
The former security minister also hopes to direct to a national security fund monies collected from a 2 percent tax on earnings from casino and gambling companies. The law that would impose this tax is under review in the Legislative Assembly (TT, July 24, 2009).
Chinchilla expects this money – combined with eliminating certain Public Security Ministry administrative costs – would also help create three new Tribunales de Flagrancia, courts that immediately hear and try criminals caught in the act.
Costa Rica’s sole existing Tribunal de Flagrancia is regarded by many judicial experts as a success in expediting convictions and easing loads on courts that have collected a bulky backlog of criminal cases in recent years. Generally, delinquents caught red-handed appear in court within a few days of being charged.
But more courts mean more convictions, and more convictions mean a greater need for prison space. While Chinchilla proposes juicing an existing coffer that is managed by a board of trustees for prison construction, who presumably would build more prisons, Guevara believes some overcrowding can be solved at home.
The ML presidential hopeful says he supports buying electronic bracelets that would keep some prisoners under house arrest for the duration of their sentence. He also proposes construction of a maximum security prison to house people convicted of very serious crimes.
Guevara calls his security platform funding plan “one of the greatest differences,” between Chinchilla’s campaign and his own.
For starters, Guevara would abolish the political police, a unit that investigates police corruption and is under control of the executive branch, in order to cut costs. Chinchilla rejects that idea.
He proposes channeling 50 percent of the profits from all state-run institutions to a national security fund. The Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE), the National Oil Refinery (RECOPE), the Costa Rican Water and Sewer Institute (AyA) and government-owned banks would all see money siphoned out of their annual earnings.
Guevara, like Chinchilla, promises to establish Tribunales de Flagrancia “in every corner of the country,” to accelerate convictions of criminals who are “caught with their hands in the cookie jar.”
Both candidates say they would install mechanisms, most likely phone lines, within the Public Security Ministry and municipalities for citizens to report police corruption immediately.
For Solís, who declined to sit down with The Tico Times, security reform means tax reform. While his security message is not as strong as the messages of his centrist and right-wing opponents, the left-wing aspirant has said he plans to increase unspecified taxes by 3 percent in order to collect what he estimates will be ¢75 billion per year (more than $136.6 million), part of which would be used for citizen security. Solís says the taxes would help boost the national security budget from 0.5 percent of the country’s gross domestic product to 1.5 percent in four years.
Luis Fishman’s budget plan for security is even thinner. Other than telling The Tico Times “we are going to cut back on useless spending to ensure reasonable investment in security” and announcing that he would separate the Public Security Ministry from the judicial branch to assure financial sovereignty for the courts, Fishman has not detailed a specific payment plan to fund his promise to provide security for the people.
Nuts and Bolts
The two leading presidential candidates are lifting up all the cushions to scrounge up every penny they can find to pump into the Public Security Ministry. With the newly fattened security piggy banks, they hope to pay for some pricy projects.
With her accounting plan, Chinchilla proposes to employ a national drug commissioner to attend drug abuse and trafficking problems.
She and Guevara both promise to install electronic surveillance systems, such as cameras, to monitor criminal activity. Also, they both hope to buy upgraded equipment, such as new radios and modernized bullet proof vests, for the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ).
Guevara and Chinchilla both say they will use the cash to improve public recreation spaces and fix the country’s “broken window” image. Cleaner public areas, they say, would lead to a less hostile living environment.
Both of the candidates also hope to launch large-scale battles against drug trafficking with more border personnel and install communication centers where Central American drug combatant forces can share information. Fishman also says he would improve police communication, but he did not say how.
Solís’ plan promises a “peace and conflict resolution” program in at least 20 percent of violence-ridden schools, as well as a national police school where officers would receive 12 months worth of training. These programs, according to Solís’ plan, would help encourage moral behavior at a young age and help eradicate corruption in the police force.
Citizen expectations for security reforms are sky high, and the candidates’ extravagant promises of a safer Costa Rica might prove to be bigger than their budgets. Security has dominated much of the presidential campaign debate and new promises turn up almost everyday.
But when skeptical voters enter the booth and scan the ballot, promises mean little unless they are kept.
To purchase previous articles in this four-part series based on sit-down interviews with the candidates, visit www.ticotimes.net.