San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

U.S. requests fewer permits for Navy ships to dock at Costa Rica ports

United States officials are proposing a drastic reduction in the number of U.S. Navy ships allowed to dock in Costa Rican ports.

The proposal, which would reduce the number of U.S. Navy docking permits from 40 to 12, came from the U.S. Embassy in response to Costa Rican lawmakers denying six months ago docking permits for U.S. military ships on counter-narcotics missions.

“I don’t think we have had more than 10 Navy ships in a six-month period over the last ten years,” said Julie Schechter, political attaché at the U.S. Embassy. “It’s often just two or three ships even though we request up to 30 or 40.”

Under the Joint Maritime Agreement between the U.S. and Costa Rica, the U.S. has had docking and refueling privileges for pre-approved Navy ships involved in counter-narcotics operations for almost 11 years. Every six months, the Costa Rican National Assembly reviews and approves the list of ships that might dock in Costa Rican ports (TT, Jan. 15).

Costa Rican lawmakers began to more closely examine the agreement’s details last July. The legislators were concerned that the partnership with the U.S. Navy was not having its intended effect, as drug trafficking continued to skyrocket. Six months ago, when the vote for renewal of docking permits resurfaced, lawmakers approved only half of the agreement, allowing only U.S. Coast Guard ships to enter Tico ports.

Next Thursday, lawmakers will begin debating the issue again. Both U.S. Embassy officials and Costa Rican lawmakers said they are confident docking permits for U.S. Coast Guard ships will be granted without lengthy discussion. However, the issue of allowing Navy ships is still divisive.

“There is complete willingness in the National Assembly to allow U.S. Coast Guard ships to dock in Costa Rican ports,” said Assembly President Juan Carlos Mendoza, of the Citizen Action Party (PAC). “But there are questions by different parties represented in the Assembly concerning the Navy ships, and that is where there will be some discussion.”

In December 2010, the quota for Navy ships didn’t make it to a legislative vote because of lack of support, Schechter said. She said she thinks the current coalition in charge of the government will act differently.

“I think that this coalition is trying to show that they can operate effectively and efficiently and move things along,” she said. “I think that this alliance is very concerned to be seen in that light” (see story on Page 4).

Mendoza declined to comment on the long-term consequences of allowing U.S. Navy vessels to dock in Costa Rica ports.

“There is quite some controversy about this issue,” he said. “As the president of the Assembly it is not my place to speak for the parties. They will have to speak for themselves.”

Previously, Schechter said the U.S. Embassy requested docking permission for all ships patrolling regional Pacific and Caribbean waters. “Because they are following narcotics traffickers, where the ships will be isn’t known,” she said. “We previously requested permission for so many ships because we don’t know which ships would be making port calls.”

In addition to reducing the number of docking permits for U.S. Navy ships, Schechter said the embassy’s proposal will require U.S. officials to notify the legislative president and the Public Security Ministry when a specific U.S. ship needs to make a port call.

She said claims that U.S. Navy vessels are not technically law enforcement vessels, and therefore not under the jurisdiction of the Joint Maritime Agreement, are false. Many Navy vessels, she said, fall under the category of law enforcement vessels.

“For the U.S., the agreement could have said only U.S. Coast Guard ships can dock, but it doesn’t,” she said. “These ships are all law enforcement vessels. When patrolling Costa Rican waters on counter-narcotics work they are under the command of the U.S. Coast Guard. Many of the ships are exactly the same as Coast Guard ships as well. So it is just sort of the affiliation.”

Under the Maritime Agreement, she said Costa Rican Coast Guard officials are authorized to take command of U.S. counter-narcotic missions in national waters.

“There is an agreement that the Costa Rica Coast Guard can fly the Costa Rican flag on U.S. Coast Guard and Navy ships,” she said. “We want to work with our Costa Rican allies to keep these waters safe.”

Schechter pointed out that the decision by lawmakers on whether or not to provide docking permits for U.S. Navy vessels in Costa Rican ports will not stop U.S. Navy ships from pursuing drug traffickers through Costa Rican waters.

“This is only a question of whether these ships can stop in Costa Rican ports,” she said. “Patrolling Costa Rican national waters is explicitly allowed in the Joint Maritime Agreement.”

However, she conceded that the use of Costa Rican ports has become increasingly important for U.S. ships in recent years. “Other ports in the region are not that convenient,” she said.  “For example, because of the high volume of traffic in Panama, there is a very long wait.”

Schechter said Costa Rica is more vulnerable to drug traffickers when U.S ships are waiting in line at foreign ports.

“When U.S. ships come into port, the activity of the narcotics traffickers in the region decreases,” she said. You will hear people say that what is really happening is that the patrols are chasing drug traffickers into Costa Rica; this is not true.”

 Not allowing U.S. ships into port has other consequences, she said. In past years, a single U.S. ship docking in Costa Rica spent up to $700,000 on fuel, provisions and recreation, she said.

“For the port communities of Limón and others, there is the benefit of less drug trafficking and also the increased flow of money into the economy,” she said.

In March, the Costa Rican government unveiled a U.S.-funded $3 million Coast Guard station at the Pacific port of Caldera (TT, March 31). Built with funds from U.S. military’s Southern Command, the station aims to fight regional drug trafficking and illegal fishing in the area.

Earlier this month, the U.S. government donated two patrol boats to the Costa Rican Coast Guard at Caldera Port, to aid in the fight against drug trafficking.

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