San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Security improving in Costa Rica but still “critical”

Costa Rican Security Minister Mario Zamora told reporters Thursday that murders in the first eight months of 2011 are down almost 10 percent compared to the same period of 2010.

Asked to describe the security situation in Costa Rica Zamora said: “Critical, but moving in a positive direction.”

Zamora said rapes and car thefts also were down, but robberies were increasing. The minister attributed the rise in robberies to high levels of poverty and drug addiction.

Organized crime, drugs and personal security are growing issues in Costa Rica, he said. Mexican cartels, particularly the powerful Sinaloa cartel are establishing their presence in the region which is a conduit for cocaine flowing north from Colombia to markets in the United States. Cartels like Sinaola and, to a lesser extent, the bloody Los Zetas are establishing connections with local “narcofamilies” in Costa Rica, to ply their trade and control drug shipment routes, the minister said.

Zamora made a tour of the United States recently to meet with representatives of U.S. counter-narcotics and security agencies and highlight areas of cooperation between the two countries on issues of security.

The United Nations Global Study on Homicide 2011 cited drug trafficking as a major driver of violence in Central America. An example is Costa Rica’s murder rate of 11.3 murders per 100,000 people in 2010, which has more than doubled since 1997. That is still the lowest in the region, but a rate higher than 11 per 100,000 is considered a concern by the U.N.

The minister said that security concerns are becoming a daily issue for Costa Ricans.

“When a Costa Rican goes out on the street at night,” Zamora said. “They don’t think ‘Oh, I’m safer than a Guatemalan.’ They think ‘I’m less safe than before.’”

A senior official of the U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica who traveled with Zamora on his tour said U.S. agencies are working together with Costa Rican organizations in three main areas of national security: safeguarding sea and land borders, improving prosecutorial processes and developing safe communities.

Zamora met with representatives of the Drug Enforcement Agency in Washington D.C. to discuss Costa Rica’s fight against drug trafficking. In the last six months federal agents have seized 4,059 kilograms of cocaine in Costa Rican territories.

Roughly 95 percent of the cocaine bound for U.S. markets passes through Central America, Zamora said. The minister said the Costa Rican Coast Guard is receiving some U.S. financing to build Coast Guard bases, acquire new boats and improve technology used to fight crime.

Despite this assistance, Zamora warned that Costa Rica must provide its own security. A new debit card will from the National Bank will have a 1 percent fee that goes toward funding national security.

Training police and improving security infrastructure and officer mobility are a major part of Zamora’s national security strategy. He said authorities will have more than 200 new police vehicles by the end of this year thanks to donations from China. This increased mobility, Zamora said, is already “revealing successes.” He also praised a plan to monitor Costa Rica’s maritime territories with radar and optical surveillance technologies.

Costa Rica also is interested in beefing up land borders, Zamora said. In December, construction will start on a new checkpoint at kilometer 35 on the Pan-American Highway. U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents have been in Costa Rica recently to help develop a training regimen for border agents, an embassy official said. In addition, some Costa Rican agents are at a training facility in Panama with that country’s border police.

Costa Rica is working to add bodies to the its police force and improve working conditions for current cops. Since Laura Chinchilla’s administration took office in May 2010, Zamora said, 1,500 new officers have been added to a squad of 12,200. However, the minister warned that 50 cops leave the ranks each month – meaning that with the newly added 1,500 police there are currently roughly 13,000 active police in Costa Rica. Zamora said there are currently approximately 900 new officers being trained in Costa Rica.

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