San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Costa Rican security chief resigns after bizarre 12 months in office

Another key member of President Laura Chinchilla’s cabinet resigned this week in a move that aims to stem criticism of the president’s handling of national and public security matters.

Chinchilla announced on Monday that Public Security Minister José María Tijerino would step down at week’s end. She described the move as a “mutual decision.”

Former Public Security Vice Minister Mario Zamora, a close and long-term colleague of Chinchilla’s, replaced Tijerino, who held the post for less than a year.

Tijerino recently captured international attention and became popular with local media because of his handling of an ongoing border dispute with Nicaragua, as well as his controversial and sometimes outlandish remarks. Born in Costa Rica and raised in Nicaragua, he told The Tico Times in January that the conflict over Isla Calero was “a test more difficult than any Nicaraguan or Costa Rican would want to be taking” (TT, Jan. 28).

In the same interview, Tijerino, who was generally praised here for his handling of the Isla Calero conflict and resulting “victory” in the International Court of Justice, also uttered some quotes emblematic of the rhetoric that often provided headlines for members of the national media.

“The  invading  army [Nicaragua] has to know that if they persist with this current performance, there  is a force that will be there to confront them,” Tijerino said, despite the fact that Chinchilla repeatedly referred to international diplomacy as army-less Costa Rica’s most potent weapon of defense.

Tijerino’s latest public hiccup occurred last week, when he admitted that he incorrectly attributed the deaths of a young couple from Puntarenas to the Mexican Sinaloa drug cartel, one of the most violent international drug-trafficking organizations. The couple was killed in February in Puntarenas, though according to the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ), no evidence had been found that linked the killings to the Sinaloa cartel.

While neither Chinchilla nor Tijerino blamed the Sinaloa inference for his decision to resign, Tijerino has been accumulating an array of strange public commentary lately. On April 19, during Costa Rica’s Holy Week vacation, he criticized the Catholic nation’s customary ban on alcohol purchases during Thursday and Good Friday. Tijerino said that most people sidestep the law by buying liquor in excess early in the week, adding that, “I’ve already bought my beers and plan to drink them, however not on Friday.”

Tijerino has been embroiled in an ongoing investigation of the possible misappropriation of funds by former Presidency Minister Rodrigo Arias, brother of Nobel Peace Prize winner and former President Oscar Arias (TT, Feb. 4).

According to an investigation by the daily La Nación, when Rodrigo Arias learned last October of a probe by the Prosecutor’s Office into how he distributed government funds provided by the Central American Bank of Economic Integration (BCIE), he called Tijerino to ask about the case. That phone call is under scrutiny, because it would appear that Rodrigo Arias might have asked Tijerino to contact incoming Chief Public Prosecutor Jorge Chavarría, who previously served as vice minister of security. Tijerino told La Nación that he received a call from Arias, but didn’t call Chavarría.

Instead, he called public prosecutor Emilia Navas, an acquaintance, to ask about the details of the investigation. Navas confirmed the conversation, but said the two only spoke about case details.

Though Tijerino denies assisting Arias in any form, his connection to the ongoing investigation began to raise doubts.

 Sticking Around

While Tijerino will undoubtedly soon fade from the national spotlight, Chinchilla said he would continue to work with the National Police and assist in national security matters.

 “[Tijerino] will continue to serve an important role in maintaining national security. Though we cannot yet announce the role that he will assume, he will remain to be a fundamental part of national security,” Chinchilla said.

Chinchilla thanked Tijerino for his accomplishments during the previous 12 months, including the establishment of national border police and his management of the conflict with Nicaragua. Tijerino was the driving force to create national border defense units and improve police training procedures.

In a farewell statement distributed by the Security Ministry on Monday, Tijerino recounted his trials during the year and commented on Costa Rica’s dearth of police forces throughout the country.

“The situation continues to be difficult for me. I feel an obligation to make it known that the deficiencies of the Public Security Ministry are extensive,” he wrote. “There is a shortage of police vehicles, [there are] shortages of modern equipment, shortages of police officers and the state of the forces in certain parts of the country is deplorable… As Ticos, we want [the same] security as in the first world, but we don’t want to pay for it.”

On April 14, The Tico Times reported a lack of police resources in the Osa Peninsula, where only two officers patrol Drake Bay, which has a population of 1,100, and in Puerto Jiménez, where District Police Chief Luis Carlos Alvarado reported that 47 officers with two vehicles are expected to cover an area of 760 kilometers.

Tijerino went on to say that Latin American countries that have seen improved security, such as Colombia and Panama, have made substantial investments to do so, but Costa Rica has not. 

During his final press conference as head of the Public Security Ministry, Tijerino wore a broad smile and seemed upbeat. He briefly addressed the press and thanked his family.

“I am satisfied with the accomplishments the ministry has achieved during the last 12 months, which was a difficult year,” Tijerino said. “I am also satisfied to be passing the role on to Mario Zamora, who is someone very close to me and someone I am confident will continue to lead the ministry to achieve success.”

Speaking briefly on Monday, Zamora said he would focus on the fight against regional  drug  trafficking,  diminish  na-tional  organized  criminal  groups  and  improve the  capabilities  of  nationa l police forces.

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