San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Costa Rica envoy: drug fight won’t be easy

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Five hundred twenty-seven people were killed in Costa Rica in 2010, giving it a homicide rate of 11.3 per 100,000 inhabitants.

While that’s still twice as high as the U.S. homicide rate of 5.0, it also means that Costa Ricans are less likely to be murdered than their counterparts anywhere else in Central America.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Costa Rica also abolished its army in 1948, and has by far the region’s highest literacy rate and per-capita income.

But those accomplishments bring little comfort to Muni Figueres, San José’s ambassador in Washington.

“We lived in peace for so long that we kind of fell asleep at the wheel on the security front,” said Figueres, speaking Nov. 15 at a Heritage Foundation forum on security in Central America.

“We did have the intelligence to create a number of police forces that take care of law enforcement,” she said. “Looking back, we’ve concluded that that was a good move because it prevented concentration of power and corruption. We don’t face a crisis of corruption in the police force, but we do face the need to significantly strengthen it.”

Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla recently invited the former president of Colombia, Álvaro Uribe, to San José to explain to lawmakers how that country’s passage of a “security tax” in 2002 helped rescue Colombia from the depths of despair.

“In Colombia, we knew that it was necessary to increase security resources, so we established a new tax for the wealthiest sectors of the country,” Uribe told Costa Rican lawmakers, conceding that despite initial resistance to the tax, most businesses agreed to pay, given Colombia’s grave security issues at the time.

Within a few years, Colombia saw dramatic improvement. During Uribe’s eight years as president, the homicide rate plummeted from 68 per 100,000 inhabitants to 32 per 100,000. National police forces doubled from 70,000 to 140,000, and Colombia’s reputation was transformed. “The tax didn’t only increase security, but it also increased education, health and social well-being,” Uribe told Costa Rican legislators. “Those who paid the tax were rewarded by improvements in the national economy.”

Figueres – the daughter of one former Costa Rican president and the half-sister of another – shared the podium with the Washington-based ambassadors of three other Central American nations: Francisco Roberto Altschul Fuentes of El Salvador, Jorge Ramón Hernández Alcerro of Honduras, and Francisco Obadiah Campbell of Nicaragua.

She said that while Colombia is definitely a success story, “it’s still an originator of drugs, a transit point. They have achieved fantastic results, but the problem has been shifted north rather than eliminated. We absolutely have to stop this, and we need all the equipment we can get.”

At the moment, Costa Rica’s national police force makes do with fewer than 300 vehicles. The Coast Guard, which patrols 1,290 kilometers of Caribbean and Pacific coastline, has only 26 boats. As for aerial patrol, demilitarized Costa Rica possesses only one helicopter and six airplanes.

If passed, Costa Rica’s proposed “Impuesto a las Personas Jurídicas” tax would levy an annual $300 surcharge on the country’s 485,000 businesses. The tax would raise approximately $145 million annually, with half that amount going toward improving security forces and acquiring equipment, vehicles and training.

“This will go through in the next few months,” Figueres predicted. “We’ve received no objections from the private sector, because there’s a sense of urgency on the need to go ahead.”

In the meantime, she said, “we are creating a school for policemen for the first time and doubling the number of police officers, providing them with equipment and technology to hope to catch up with the tremendous advantages that drug traffickers and organized criminals have over us.”

In addition, said Figueres, “we’re financing the judiciary to enable it to intercept communications in a way we did not know how to do before. We’re getting ourselves equipped to better monitor what goes on. We’re also installing electronic scanning equipment at the border, and in cooperation with Panama, exchanging information and doing joint operations.”

Finally, she said, “we’re creating fast-track courts in which, if a crime is committed in front of many witnesses and there’s no doubt about the guilt, then there’s a process whereby the supposed criminal is tried quickly. We have created victim and witness protection programs, and we’re upgrading our legislation on human trafficking and smuggling.”

Public Security Minister Mario Zamora, who said he hopes legislators “make the right decision with the best interests of the country in mind,” already has plans for how the potential tax bonanza will be distributed, with patrol vehicles topping his list.

Said Figueres: “We’re sort of betting on the institutional strength we’ve inherited and are building on it, while sticking to our core principles of respect for human rights.”

But the ambassador conceded that “we don’t know if any of this is going to work.”

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