San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Security minister: Costa Rica needs to improve police presence

The root of Costa Rica’s security concerns can be found in numbers. According to Public Security Minister Mario Zamora, Costa Rican cops have only 276 patrol vehicles for the entire country. That’s about one car for every 16,667 residents.

A proposed business tax that would be used to fund security initiatives passed a first vote in the Legislative Assembly in early August, but was shelved two weeks later. 

Zamora, who was promoted to security minister in May, sat down recently with The Tico Times in his San José office to explain how he plans to tackle one of the country’s biggest concerns. 

Excerpts follow: 

TT: You worked at the Immigration Administration before coming to this ministry. How have you transitioned into the role of security minister?

MZ: At one time I was assistant director of the National Police Academy. My first government job was in this ministry in 1993.  

Were you ever a police officer?

I studied security and took police courses. … I have a license to practice law, and my thesis was on police law. I analyzed the implementation of laws. That helped me land a role in the Security Ministry. 

The principal goal of this administration is to improve security. What is the ministry’s plan to accomplish that goal from now until 2014?

Much of our goal centers on the use of technology. The primary role of the police is to fight crime and patrol the country to ensure security and crime prevention. The new element that we hope to incorporate is the use of intense technology, such as electronic maps, communications with GPS devices to improve the coverage of our patrol areas, better coordination to respond to alarm systems and 911 calls, and use of video patrol cameras. 

Our principal goal is to establish a police model that is highly digitized, which we are currently lacking. 

During the past year, The Tico Times has visited communities across the country that seem to share the same concerns about a lack of police presence. Some communities have only two to five officers for thousands of residents. What is the ministry doing to improve the lack of police presence?

The police graduation ceremony in downtown San José a few weeks ago is a good example. We normally graduate 300-350 police officers every six months. However, we usually lose 50 officers every month because they are fired, quit or retire. It is a job with a high turnover. For every graduating class from the National Police Academy, we replace the same number of police who left. 

With the graduation a few weeks ago, we started a new strategy. We are still graduating a class of at least 350 new police officers every six months, but we are also implementing a new model to improve the police force’s capabilities. We are improving the police officers’ education. Police officers will be required to take more course work before going on duty. We believe that more highly educated officers will serve better and last longer. An anticipated class of 580 is scheduled to graduate in December. We hope that each of our upcoming classes will exceed 500 officers.

Another strategy is to improve the infrastructure within the police force. Police stations, vehicles and equipment are in bad shape. One of the main reasons that officers leave the profession is because they are working with poor equipment and under substandard conditions. They are working with inferior equipment and they feel obsolete. 

Why do so many police leave? Fifty per month seems to be a large figure.    

Because of the bad working conditions. I think that has a lot to do with it. 

Recently, 12 police officers were arrested in Puntarenas for corruption and for robbing the homes of the people they were supposed to be protecting. What does that say about the state of police in this country?

It indicates that we are combating corruption within the police force. It is a positive sign because corruption exists in police forces throughout the world. What marks a good police force is how they react to it. In this case, we were able to detect the corruption and act accordingly.  

A lot of national discussion is going on about the annual business tax that could generate revenue for security. 

$72 million. 

How would the ministry spend it?

We hope to use it principally for vehicles. Costa Rica only has, right now, as we are talking, 276 vehicles.

What kind of vehicles?

Patrol cars. There are only 276 patrol cars in the country. What we would do with this money is acquire no less than 400 more vehicles. This will result in a better ability to respond to emergency situations, such as 911 calls.

There has been a large number of murders and deaths of tourists and residents lately and this year in particular. Often families and friends of the victims say they feel the investigations are lacking and incomplete. What are the ministry and Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) doing to improve murder investigations?

We are in charge of very different areas than the OIJ. Tourist Police and investigations of that nature are completely the responsibility of the OIJ. We work together to improve citizen security, though the area of criminal investigations is 100 percent the task of OIJ. 

That is something that is important for the readers of The Tico Times to know. The word “police” in the U.S., Europe or Canada means something different than what it means in Costa Rica. We have separate areas of a police force. It is divided. In other countries, such as in the U.S. or Europe, it is common for all of the members of the police and detectives to report to one chief. A lot of foreign residents here think that I am that chief who organizes everyone. That is not necessarily the case. 

A better title for me would be the “Minister of the National Police [Fuerza Pública].” That is what I manage, nothing more. Security is a broad concept. So people sometimes think that I am the mega-minister. 

Our police forces are a public service that can be compared to the Red Cross. The Red Cross brings someone from the scene of an accident to the hospital. We make the arrest of criminal acts at the scene of the crime and are involved in the case until it arrives in court. That’s where our role ends. That is the scope of our responsibility. We intervene to prevent crime and present the suspect or criminal to court. If there are investigations, they go through the OIJ.

You gave a speech a few months ago and said that the police forces are very fragmented and in some ways uncoordinated. What is being done to create more collaboration in public security?

Two things, technology and operating protocols. Technology will be used to manage information in real time and distribute it to various entities. As for protocols, we are improving the process of how a crime is handled. In the event of a murder, robbery, or any crime, we are establishing a better protocol that clearly defines the process of how each investigation is carried out. We are improving the way each crime is departmentalized.  

Readers of The Tico Times also comment on the slow response time of National Police forces. When a crime or theft occurs, the police are called, though they might show up 30 or 40 minutes later, and the opportunity to prevent the crime or detain the criminals is lost. Is there anything that the Security Ministry is doing to improve response time?  

For that reason I mentioned the amount of vehicles that we have. That explains the slow response time. With only one patrol car, officers have to attend to several different obligations. 

This is the reason for the critical state of our national anti-crime forces. 

Everyone wants response times to be faster, but it’s not easy with only one or two patrol cars in an area where several crimes occur. People complain about the slow response times, but remember that Costa Rica, different from Panama, grows laterally in place of vertically. Every time you enter Costa Rica on a plane, there is less green area. It is a big carpet of cement. We don’t grow up, we grow laterally. 

Every time we construct a new housing development or neighborhood, we do so with one-story homes or apartments. It is expanding almost daily. The deficit between the amount of police and the citizens’ demand continues to grow. The coverage area is growing, but our resources are staying the same. 

For that reason, we want to acquire at least 400 more police vehicles. Instead of a 30- to 40-minute response time, like you mentioned, it will be cut to less than 15 minutes. A response time of zero to 15 minutes is excellent, optimal. 

From five to 15 minutes, you can still assist the victim, and the criminal or criminals are still in an area where they can be located. After 15 minutes, the chance of detaining the criminal is almost entirely lost. Then it is just a matter of taking the information and registering the event. To me, the response times are the most important indicator of our police forces’  shortcomings. 

If everything that I have talked about today works, it is going to improve the response time. We are doing all we can to reduce response time. 

The amount of drugs confiscated in Costa Rica this year is nearing an all-time high. Does that mean the National Police and OIJ are improving their abilities to locate drug sources, or is it an indication that there is an increasing amount of drugs in the country? 

That is a good question. To be honest, there isn’t a definite response. I would prefer to say that it is due to the improvement in the abilities of the National Police and isn’t simply an increase in the amount of drugs in the country, though we can’t necessarily say yet. 

I think that we are seeing larger confiscations in certain parts of the country, such as Limón and in the Nicaragua border crossing at Peñas Blancas. So there are some signs of success with the same amount of resources. 

But, to be honest, I can’t say for sure whether the amount of drugs in the country is increasing or if the police are doing a better job than in previous years. 

In your opinion, what is the biggest security concern in the country at this time?

I think this is a two-part answer. The first part is the amount of crime that exists in the country right now and how to prevent it from getting worse in upcoming years. High levels of crime haven’t yet arrived in Costa Rica, but the worry is that they could. 

We have located the presence of several Mexican drug cartels in the country. The fear with cartels is the amount of savage violence that accompanies them. Other countries in northern Central America are already experiencing tremendous amounts of violence. If the number of Mexican drug cartels continues to grow here, crime will most likely increase. 

Currently, the worry about Mexican drug cartels isn’t overwhelming, though it is a valid concern for the future.

The second part of the response is that we need to improve how we work together to reduce the amount of crime in the country. This includes judges, prosecutors, police and the cooperation of all involved in the fight to reduce crime. We have to improve the way that people attempting to reduce crime work together to accomplish that goal. The process needs more connection and collaboration.  

These two are the biggest challenges facing the security of the country at this time.  

One more thing to add is about the day-to-day robberies that occur. They must be reduced. For example, when you leave your bike outside, you go away for a few minutes and come back and your bike is gone. When that happens, people feel that their personal space has been violated. The feeling that a crime happened close to me, that they robbed something that belonged to me, something that I valued, maybe something that had sentimental value because it was a gift from my father – those type of things are a continued concern. 

So, the biggest concerns range from the highest levels of organized crime and drug trafficking to the day-to-day crimes like petty theft, which usually involves innocent people.

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