San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Costa Rica in Search of a Drug Policy

The U.S. government confirmed what Costa Ricans had long feared: the amount of drugs being transported across the country has become a serious issue.

For the first time, Costa Rica finds its name on a list produced by the U.S. government of the world’s 20 major drug trafficking or producing countries, a list that  includes Afghanistan, Colombia, Honduras, India, Mexico and Venezuela, among others.

“This was no surprise,” said Mauricio Boraschi, who was appointed Costa Rica’s first drug czar in May. “Based on the reality that we are living and that what we’ve seen firsthand, it wasn’t a surprise (to be on this list).”

Motioning toward a graphic of the flow of drugs moving closer and closer to Costa Rica’s shorelines, Boraschi said, “If we don’t take measures now, we will be faced with the levels of violence that exist in Mexico and Colombia.” 

He, and other Costa Rican authorities, are using the news as a platform to ask for help.

During a last-minute press conference called Thursday in response to the news of the new “transit list,” Public Security Minister José María Tijerino said, “We insist that we get more resources. We can’t be an appendix to the Merida Plan. The gravity of this situation can’t be ignored.”

Boraschi, who sat next to him, underscored his words, saying, “Our resources alone are insufficient based on the magnitude of the situation we are facing.”

A Questioned Alliance

Without an army and with an underfunded police force, Costa Rica has always looked for outside help in defending itself against illicit activities such as drug trafficking.

“Had Costa Rica been situated closer to England or France or another big country, we would be interested in working with them on a joint patrol,” said Carlos Góngora, who heads up the Security and Drug Trafficking Commission in the Legislative Assembly. “But it just so happens that the United States is the closest of these countries and shares our democratic ideals, which is why we are working with them.”

In some ways, it’s been a fruitful relationship. In the last few years alone, the U.S. has invested nearly $5 million in Costa Rica under the Merida Initiative, which has bought police equipment, specialized training, prison reinforcement and border help. So it’s baffling to some narcotics experts that people would propose doing away with the Joint Maritime Agreement.

“Costa Rica doesn’t have nor will it ever have the technological or economic capacity to fight drugs in the ocean,” said Carlos Alvarado, head of the governmental Costa Rican Drug Institute, in his chic office space in the eastern San José Barrio Los Yoses.

“Costa Rica was born in the Central Valley,” he said, referring to the region that’s home to the capital city and much of the country’s population. “Costa Ricans are a mountain people. And it’s taxing for us to cover the rest of the country.

“Do you know the last time Costa Rica bought ships to protect its seas? In the 1870s. The rest have been gifts from the United States,” he continued. “Costa Rica should have better equipment. But all the equipment that we get is never going to be enough. For this reason, we aligned ourselves with the United States.”

But Costa Rica’s relationship with the United States on the drug trafficking front has been victim to criticism in recent months.

When it came time to renew the Joint Maritime Agreement – a pact that allows the U.S. to use Costa Rican waters, ports and territory in its battle against drug traffickers – it was rebuffed by a handful of legislators who said it does more harm than good.

Opposition parties called it “a blank check” for the United States and its 46 warships and 7,000 soldiers to use the region at their discretion. They said the agreement encouraged a militarization of Costa Rica and was “a violation of sovereignty.”

Gilbert Rojas, a protester, who stood at a demonstration outside the Legislative Assembly in July, said, “(The United States) hasn’t been able to fix the drug problem in Mexico, or in Colombia or in the United States. How are they going to be able to fix the problem here?”

They’ve had 10 years to make a difference, he said, but the insecurity problem seems to have only gotten worse (TT, July 9).

While backers of the Joint Maritime Agreement agree that an evaluation of the relationship is overdue, they maintain that the U.S. presence is an important piece in Costa Rica’s strategy to confront drug trafficking.

President Chinchilla has refused to consider operating without the U.S. She was paraphrased by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in front of the Council of Foreign Relations earlier this month as saying, “We need help and we need a much more vigorous U.S. presence.”

The outcry over the Joint Maritime Agreement wasn’t the only blow to the country’s drug strategy since Chinchilla took office. A unanimous decision last week by the seven judges of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court declared random police searches unconstitutional.

Critics fear that the decision will enable drugs to move across the country with greater alacrity. Unless police have cause for suspicion, a van packed with unadulterated flaky, white cocaine, fresh off the boat from Colombia, can travel up the Inter-American Highway along Costa Rica’s Pacific coast without the risk of being stopped.

The ruling severely handicaps the country in counter-narcotics operations, said President Laura Chinchilla, who called the situation “a rock in the path” in the fight against drug trafficking (TT, Sept. 10).

Her security chief, Tijerino, told a local radio station this week that “The position of the court may be highly praised in academic circles, but for the ordinary citizen in the street, who suffers the brunt of the impact of (criminal organizations), it’s unacceptable.”

The Chinchilla administration has pledged to continue the roadblocks in some form, as yet unspecified, that would pass constitutional muster.

 A New Strategy

While the country is revising its strategy to confront drug trafficking, the stakes have never been so high. Drug cartels from Mexico and Colombia have infiltrated neighboring countries, sending homicide rates sky-high and revealing the inadequacy of government or police forces to ensure citizen safety (see story, Page 5). According to security authorities, leading cartels have set up financial units and drug storage and shipping cells in Costa Rica, too.

Although a sense of insecurity is gripping at the throat of once-peaceful Costa Rica, the crime statistics are not nearly as high as those of its neighbors on the isthmus. Costa Rica has the lowest homicide rate in Central America, and 13th lowest in the Americas, following immediately behind Cuba and the United States. An average of nine Ticos out of every 100,000 have been victims of a drug-related crime, compared to Panama’s 96, Mexico’s 52 and Nicaragua’s 26, according to a United Nations study. And Costa Rica boasts the lowest cocaine consumption rate in the region, at 0.4 percent of the adult population.

But the Chinchilla administration, which rode into office in May on a pledge to restore citizen safety, has expressed its commitment to exploring new avenues to control the flow of drugs.

For most of the past decade, Costa Rica has measured its success in counter-narcotics operations by the number of drug seizures. With each shipment intercepted, it was another pat on the back and more funding for law enforcement agencies.

But recently, there’s been a move away from targeting the drugs and drug runners themselves toward dismantling drug organizations in the country. 

“Our work is to try to eliminate them, and if we can’t eliminate them, it’s to starve them so they aren’t as effective,” Alvarado said. “Why this change? Because we are learning. Some strategies work and some don’t, and some strategies have better results than others.”

According to Alvarado, the country used to be just a transit ground, a portal to North American markets. But its role has gradually shifted to that of a consumer market and a repackaging plant for re-exportation. Drugs come into Costa Rica from South American producers, are frozen and stored, and shipped off again when an opportunity presents itself.

This new role has added to the problem, as local operatives are paid in  drugs, and in turn sell them locally, creating a plentiful source for users and potential addicts, and enabling the local market to flourish.

For addressing the increasing rate of dealing and consumption within Costa Rica, Alvarado said better education is needed. “Show children the discrepancy in life expectancies between an average Costa Rican and a drug dealer.

“If you don’t tell people the consequences of drugs, all they will see is how drugs can make things better, how they can escape the cold and hunger, how there is beauty in everything … how they can buy the latest technology and perhaps a better life,” he said. “But it’s only in the short term because if the drugs don’t kill you, than you’ll be killed by the buyers or the cartels. Most don’t make it past 30.”

Góngora said education needs to be accompanied by a stimulus in opportunity and job creation. “If those kids (who have gone through an education program) arrive home and there is no food, and the parents send them into the streets to look … clearly they need to eat, so education alone doesn’t resolve the problem.”

 Costa Rica’s Future in the Drug Market

Since Costa Rica did away with its army in 1948, the country has lacked a discernable security policy, said former Vice President Kevin Casas-Zamora, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C.

“When the country abolished its army, it also abolished its security policy,” he said. “We’ve failed to invest for four decades and we are paying the price.”

And while Chinchilla, his former colleague in the cabinet of former President Oscar Arias, is fighting off attacks on the country’s policies, she has yet to present a anti-drug strategy of her own.

“We are very clear that if we continue to do things the same, we are not going to accomplish our task,” she said at a recent press conference in reference to the government’s counter-narcotics approach.

There is not any one strategy to confront drug traffickers, said Alvarado, who operates under the direction of the president’s cabinet. In fact, he said, strategies need to be adaptable.

“Drug trafficking is an ever-changing phenomenon. If today we achieve success by land, it’s very probable that tomorrow they will go by air or by water, or they will use submarines,” he said. “But we are learning. Some strategies work and some don’t and some strategies have better results than others.

“You ask me, are we going to resolve the problem? I don’t know. But it won’t be because of inaction. It won’t be because we didn’t try.”

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