San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Safety concerns delay judge’s order to place suspected drug traffickers under house arrest

A decision by a San José judge last week to place two Mexican prisoners suspected of drug trafficking under house arrest – instead of holding them at the maximum security La Reforma prison – sent shockwaves through a country that is increasingly struggling to keep drug cartels from gaining a foothold here.

On May 10, Judge Kattia Jiménez ordered the release to house arrest of Rubén Martínez and Elvis Mendoza, saying that prosecutors had failed to file charges in time. The two men had been held in preventive custody at La Reforma for seven months. The suspects were arrested while trying to cross the Nicaraguan border last October after a small plane crashed with 177 kilograms of cocaine in its wings. Martínez was the owner of the plane at the time.

The lawyer representing the two suspects is Leonel Villalobos, a former lawmaker who was arrested in 2008 for allegedly hiding assets belonging to drug traffickers. That case is still pending. The same judge – Jiménez – ordered Villalobos’ release in 2009.

According to the daily La Nación, Public Security Vice Minister Celso Gamboa this week filed an emergency appeal to the judge’s most recent order, saying the prisoners are a flight risk and could endanger the lives of police officers assigned to guard them at a government cost of $126,000.

Narcos Casa por Carcel 2

Neighbors protest the arrival of two alleged drug traffickers to a home where they were supposed to be placed under house arrest. Demonstrations in the neighborhood forced the suspects back to prison.

Alberto Font

On Thursday, an appeals court denied Gamboa’s appeal, and Martínez and Mendoza were scheduled to be released to house arrest Thursday afternoon. The two men rented a nicely furnished house with two bathrooms and a minibar in the mixed residential and commercial neighborhood of Guadalupe, in north San José, sending neighbors into a flurry. Neighbors began blocking the road in an attempt to prevent the prisoners’ transfer.

By chaining each other in front of the rented house, neighbors told police that they would not allow offenders of any kind to “endanger their homes.”

“We’re shocked,” said Marta López, one of Guadalupe residents. “What if a group of drug traffickers try to set the prisoners free? A shooting may occur and we are all scared about it.”

However, Mario Calderón, director of a police special tactics unit said the house lacked required security conditions to hold prisoners under arrest. He recommended the transfer be canceled.

“The house does not guarantee security conditions to hold prisoners,” he said. “The fact that neighbors oppose the arrival of the detainees could also risk the security of the police officers. We are filing a report to higher authorities to take this into consideration.”

By the end of the afternoon, a judge from the penal circuit of Pavas, in west San José, ordered the prisoners back to La Reforma jail, until another location is found.

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