San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

More drug busts, fewer convictions in 2011

Public security in Costa Rica remained a major issue in 2011. Public Security Minister Mario Zamora described the situation as “critical, but moving in a positive direction” at a meeting with international press.

Zamora cited Costa Rica’s murder rate, reported by the United Nations Global Study on Homicide at around 11.3 per 100,000 people in 2010, as a major cause for concern. The U.N. considers a rate higher than 11 per 100,000 as an indicator that a region is approaching crisis.

Cables from U.S. diplomats that came to light via WikiLeaks didn’t put too fine a point on the matter: Costa Rica “is no longer safe,” the cables said.

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

Zamora, who took over as public security minister after the controversial José María Tijerino stepped down from the post in April, blamed drugs, high levels of impunity and scant resources for policing the populace for the dicey security situation in the country.

When Zamora became public security minister, he told The Tico Times he had only 276 patrol vehicles for the entire country, or about one car for every 16,667 residents. Zamora said he would add at least 200 new cars by the end of 2011, along with 900 new cops. Added mobility to pursue criminals and to respond quickly to 911 calls is a cornerstone of his public security strategy, Zamora said. The minister plans to reduce police response time to 15 minutes for 911 calls.

While 2010 saw the second-largest amount of drug seizures in Costa Rica’s history, massive drug seizures were also made in 2011 in many parts of the country. From May through November, agents in Costa Rica seized more than 4,059 kilograms of cocaine.

Along similar white lines, Costa Rican authorities arrested in June Alexander Leudo Nieves, a Colombian citizen thought to be the leader of a drug cartel based in Buenaventura, Colombia. Leudo had warrants out from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and Interpol for his suspected drug activity. In the series of raids that caught Leudo, two other Colombians and seven Costa Ricans were arrested, and several hundred kilos of cocaine were recovered, along with more than $286,000 in cash.

Security Minister Supplement 2

José María Tijerino.

Francesco Pistilli

Not all Ticos took the presence of drug traffickers in the country lying down in 2011. In May, two Mexican citizens arrested on suspicion of drug trafficking after a drug-loaded plane they were riding in crashed in 2010 were sentenced to house arrest by judge Kattia Jiménez. Residents of the Las Orquídeas neighborhood north of San José took to the streets when they heard the two prisoners would be under house arrest in their neighborhood, forcing authorities to take the duo back to prison. A similar scene played out just a few days later in San Martín village in Moravia, in northern San José, when authorities again attempted to place the Mexicans under house arrest there. Residents claimed housing the suspected cartel members there would endanger their neighborhood.

In November of this year, the Supreme Court suspended judge Jiménez for her actions in the case.

The judiciary itself came under scrutiny in 2011, in particular Costa Rica’s high rates of criminal impunity. A report on crime and judicial statistics by the nongovernmental organization Jurisis Victomologia calculated the cost of homicides in Costa Rica (using 2010 data) at $60 million. The same report calculated the rate of impunity in Costa Rica at 98.4 percent, the highest ever in the country’s history.

Juan Diego Castro, director of Jurisis Victomologia and a former public security minister, summed up the situation: “The judicial situation is terrible, the rise of impunity continues its upward tendency. Of the 145,284 cases presented in the courts last year, only 3,856 resulted in sentences. From 1998 to 2010 there has been an increase of 115 percent in criminal complaints.”

Costa Rican authorities did make several notable arrests in the murders of foreigners this year. A suspect in the murder of Kimberly Blackwell, a Canadian who was found murdered at her home on the Osa Peninsula in the Southern Zone, was arrested in November. Blackwell had been involved in a long-running feud with poachers who used her farm to access nearby Corcovado National Park for illegal hunting. She was found beaten and shot to death in front of her house in February. In August, officers of the Judicial Investigation Police arrested four other people on the  Osa Peninsula – one a suspect in the 2009 murder of Austrian citizens Horst Hauser, 67, and Herbert Langmeier, 65, and three others in connection with the murder of Lisa Artz, 49, a U.S. woman who worked as a caretaker at Las Palmas, near Puerto Jiménez on the Osa Peninsula.

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