San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Security minister speaks out on border conflict

José María Tijerino is in a precarious situation. The country he grew up in, Nicaragua, is accused of “invading” Costa Rica, where he holds the office of public security minister. That means he’s in charge of protecting Costa Rica from Nicaragua should the dispute escalate along the Río San Juan.

While the conflict with Nicaragua has tested Tijerino’s allegiance to the country that pays his salary, his political actions in recent weeks have caused many Ticos to wonder if he truly understands their country’s proud and historical nonmilitary stance.

Earlier this month, Tijerino announced that Costa Rica would take steps to boost security measures along the border, including constructing heliports at three sites near the Río San Juan, dispatching more police to the area and training a national defense team to respond to future threats.

“The invading army must know that if they keep doing what they’ve been doing so far, there is a force that will be there to confront them,” Tijerino said, cautiously referring to Nicaraguan troops on the disputed Isla Calero, near the mouth of the Río San Juan, without mentioning them by name. 

Comments like these have startled many Costa Ricans in recent weeks. When Nicaragua’s presence on Isla Calero became publicly known in October, the initial political response from President Laura Chinchilla called for international diplomacy and dialogue. But as efforts to convince Nicaraguan officials to capitulate failed, the Costa Rican government’s approach grew more aggressive.

“If the duty of [Costa Rica’s] police force is to defend national sovereignty and a Nicaraguan army is in front of them, it would be absolutely necessary to try to defend ourselves against that threat,” Tijerino said. “It would be an act of responsibility.”

The Tico Times recently spoke with Tijerino in his downtown San José office. In a candid conversation in a deep, calculated oratorical style, Tijerino, 63, spoke about his Nicaraguan roots, border defense plans and personal struggles with the ongoing conflict. He quoted poetry, reminisced on his childhood in Chinandega, Nicaragua, and shed some light on what he considers to be the best and worst possible outcomes of the conflict.

Excerpts follow:  

TT: What is your background prior to the Public Security Ministry post?

JMT: I am the son of a Nicaraguan father and a Costa Rican mother, and the second of four children. We have an adopted sister who is older than all of us. I was happy during my childhood in Nicaragua. … I learned the ideas of pacifism while playing among the ruins at my Nicaraguan grandparents’ house, a product of the 1927 war in Nicaragua … before Somoza [and] between liberals and conservatives. The city where my grandparents lived was reduced to rubble by a fire. …

I was born 20 years later, and even then the city hadn’t recovered from the war. It was still rubble and ruins. My generation played among the ruins of Chinandega. We were told about the atrocities of war.

My father, who was a pacifist, constantly said, “This is what wars leave behind. This is the product of war, the fruit of war.”

At the same time my father was a great admirer of Costa Rica, of the order, the institutionalism, the peace, the respect for the law, of the record of strong institutions. Nicaragua was a country without records or archives. My father was a historian, not by title, but by hobby. Costa Rica preserved its history. My father became a member of the historical society of Costa Rica. …

When I decided to study law in Costa Rica, after studying animal science in the U.S., I decided to study at the University of Costa Rica, where I was permitted to study as a foreigner.

I displayed my “Nicaraguanism” with great pride. I was proud to be Nicaraguan and I showed it. People noticed my Nicaraguan accent, and I still pronounce some words with a Nicaraguan accent. … 

Now, with this conflict [over Isla Calero], it has tested my character. It has been painful. But nothing has influenced me to change what I believe, my convictions or my opinion of justice. …

Costa Rica is the victim of an aggression. Being Costa Rican, because I also have my “Costa Ricanism,” and in my role as Costa Rica’s security minister, I am obligated to fulfill my duty to the nation. I must defend Costa Rica’s interests. That’s my job description. …

One day [the Nicaraguan government] said Isla Calero is Costa Rican territory, and the Nicaraguan military leader Oscar Balladares said that the Costa Rican side wouldn’t be affected along the Río San Juan. Then, six days later, they invade Costa Rica. …

If the government of Costa Rica had tried to strip Nicaragua of one centimeter of land, I would have resigned my position, because I continue to respect and love Nicaragua. …

Posters Army

Posters on a wall in San José show (from l-r) President Laura Chinchilla, Public Defense Minister José María Tijerino and Foreign Minister René Castro.

Adam Williams | Tico Times

Has it been difficult to maintain a balance between the situation with Nicaragua and the many other security problems in Costa Rica?

Since the beginning of the conflict, nothing has prevented us from protecting public security. … But we’ve been forced off course, instead having to defend ourselves from defamation, attacks and alienation. There seems to be a lack of national understanding here in Costa Rica. People attack us. Some want war. Of course they wouldn’t be able to fight, would they? 

People attack us. The ultra-pacifists don’t think the country should prepare to defend itself. People attack us; those who want us to reveal all our information about what is happening in the area of security. People attack us; those who say we are spending millions of dollars on machine guns and heliports.

But I’m aware that’s how people work. There’ll always be criticism. We haven’t diminished our commitment to national security. We are still fighting to control crime, but we’re doing it with limited resources. We haven’t received an increase in resources, and when we do, those will head to the border.

It is particularly painful to have to send resources to the border at a time when we already have a limited number of police committed to the daily needs of people in the communities. …

What are your plans for sending police officers to the border?

A reinforced police force. A police force [that’s] eminently civil. … The past 15 days I have been reading about the creation of Nicaragua’s National Guard to see if our police force runs the risk of being converted into a national guard. Nicaragua’s National Guard has already been compromised. It was corrupted the moment it was formed. …

I am a lawyer. I don’t aspire to be a general. It doesn’t interest me. The value and the strength of Costa Rica are its laws and rights.

We are conscientious about the need for our police force to protect human rights, civil order and constitutional rights, and [ensure] that citizens are safe. …

Our power doesn’t come with a uniform; it comes with the power to be civil servants. That is the force we are preparing. …

The idea that we are creating a unified force is inaccurate. Do not confuse the fact that we are docile to mean that we are dumb. We are “manso” but not “menso.” We are docile, but we are not dumb. …

It’s the same as a high school bully. If a high school bully knows I’m armed, he’s going to be very careful about coming to my house.

It might seem as if we were cultivating the seed of a future army, but I say with total conviction that no, we are not. … We are not going to have generals, and we don’t need them. We are not going to hire military personnel. We don’t need them.

You mentioned the construction of heliports. What are the plans for this?

The construction of a network of heliports and fences that control navigation in the rivers that connect with the Río San Juan; or to provide defense near the Río Colorado; or training forces in the [police training camp]; that is the response of Costa Rica to the threat of [Nicaraguan President Daniel] Ortega’s regime as they continue to dredge the Río San Juan and continue to invade Costa Rica. That is our way of saying to Ortega, “No, sir. If you think you are going to be able to keep behaving like this, you are going to meet resistance.” It’s our duty. Costa Rica has to defend itself. 

Does Costa Rica have helicopters?

We are going to acquire them. Costa Rica is going to acquire helicopters. Costa Rica is going to strengthen and reinforce the control of its borders.

Where is Costa Rica going to get helicopters?

We are in conversations.

Has Costa Rica been in contact with the U.S. about security since the beginning of the conflict?

Costa Rica has talked with many countries. The truth is that no nation can allow itself to rely completely on other nations to defend it. [Help] might not be there when you need it to be. The world’s geopolitical landscape changes. Costa Rica’s position isn’t the same as it was 20 or 30 or 50 years ago. We don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. Some U.S. administrations are more willing to help than others. …

What would the role be for additional police stationed at the Río San Juan and nearby deltas?

Border police have various functions. They not only guard the borders against a country that is threatening us, but they also patrol drug trafficking in the region, which, of course, was the supposed pretext for the mobilization of the Nicaraguan military in the first place. We want to repair our relationship with Nicaragua. I think the internal political interests of Nicaragua have provoked this crisis, but the people of Nicaragua need to be more sensible. …

Where is Costa Rica getting the funds for the heliports and the infrastructure near the border?

Some are emergency roadway construction funds. Others are ordinary funds that we already had planned for roads and infrastructure in the border regions. This is going to promote development in the area as well. Other funds are being redistributed, all within the national budget, to respond to a national emergency. The situation requires it.

The roads are not being built only to mobilize police forces, but to provide more access in and out of the towns for ambulances, teachers and transportation for town residents.

In your opinion, what would be the optimal resolution to this conflict?

The optimal resolution would be for the International Court of Justice to quickly rule that the territory belongs to Costa Rica and that Nicaragua is required to reimburse us for the damage they caused. …


What is the worst possible outcome?

The worst outcome wouldn’t even be if the court ruled that the land belongs to Nicaragua. We would accept that. The worst would be if the court ruled that the land belongs to Costa Rica and Nicaragua refused to accept it. It would then force us to turn to military intervention. That would be the worst. …

CORRECTION: This story originally stated Tijerino was born in Nicaragua. However, the Security Ministry claims that Tijerino was born in Costa Rica, yet spent the majority of his childhood in Nicaragua.

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