San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Ministries cooperate on policing

With almost 570,000 square kilometers of maritime territory to control in a country short on fiscal resources, Costa Rica’s public security and environment ministries, along with nongovernmental organizations, are combining efforts to reduce illicit activities on Costa Rica’s seas.

At the same time, some Costa Rican lawmakers are blocking help from the United States Navy on patrols against narco-trafficking.

“At the moment, the message the country is sending in terms of protecting our coasts gives an advantage to groups dedicated to organized crime,” said Public Security Minister Mario Zamora, when asked about representatives of the Citizen Action Party (PAC) voting to deny a U.S. Navy ship permission to enter Costa Rican waters to assist in drug-trafficking cases. “It is a signal to them that they have a free pass across our coastal areas without worrying about being intercepted.”

PAC members voted this week to deny access to U.S. Navy warships, but 47 U.S. Coast Guard ships currently assist the Costa Rican Coast Guard in joint patrols. Permission for those joint patrols is voted on every six months in the Legislative Assembly. 

“We have a joint-patrol convention that we approved, including the PAC faction, but only for [U.S.] Coast Guard boats and police forces, because that is what the patrol agreement [between the U.S. and Costa Rica] established,” Carmen Muñoz, a PAC legislator, said. “The patrol agreement does not authorize warships.”

In recent weeks the Costa Rican Coast Guard seized almost two tons of cocaine being smuggled through Costa Rican waters. According to information from the U.S. Southern Command, in fiscal year 2011, 202 cases of “suspect maritime activity” were reported in Costa Rican waters – mostly boats leaving the coasts of Colombia and Ecuador. An estimated 95 percent of all the cocaine consumed in the U.S. passes through Central America. The flow of drugs and associated criminality are universally cited as driving factors behind the region’s rising violence.

The Costa Rican Coast Guard only has  about 25 patrol boats. With a 2012 public security budget of ₡175 billion ($350 million) – 20 percent of which is split between the Drug Control Police, the National Police Academy, the National Air Patrol and the Coast Guard –  creating alliances to patrol the oceans makes sense.

“The cost of patrols for a ship large enough to handle the job is equivalent to the cost of a new hospital … every six months,” Zamora told reporters Tuesday. “If we determine that a better use for our resources … would be doing these patrols on our own, that is the cost that will come with it.”

In order to gain a better handle on the country’s expansive ocean territories, the ministry has created alliances with the Environment Ministry and nongovernmental organizations, thereby expanding the scope of public security forces’ ability to enforce Costa Rican law.

“We are viewing environmental crimes with the same weight as drug offenses,” Zamora said. “Normally, the police haven’t viewed environmental issues as their responsibility. … We have to pursue fleets that fish illegally in protected marine areas just like we have to pursue those who traffic drugs through our territory. Before, the Coast Guard didn’t worry about these problems; they would see a boat using illegal nets for fishing and didn’t consider [enforcement] as their job.”

In November, Zamora and Environment Minister René Castro signed an agreement to cooperate across ministries in asserting greater control over Costa Rica’s maritime territories. That agreement established the development of a National Program of Maritime Control and Vigilance, part of which will include an electronic monitoring network using radar and other sensors to keep an eye on Costa Rican waters against drug traffic and illegal fishing in protected areas, including the country’s famed Isla del Coco. The program is receiving support from the nongovernmental organizations Costa Rica Por Siempre and Conservation International.

Zamora said the plan to create an electronic monitoring network with technical and financial support from NGOs is under way.

“It is a plan that is already technically developed,” said the minister. “Today NGOs are participating with their donations to [the Environment Ministry], and we’re going to integrate the capacity we have for radar detection with the capacity to react with our ships.”

This month, in another example of the growing link between security and conservation issues, the MarViva Foundation, a marine conservation organization, donated a 16-meter catamaran to the Coast Guard to patrol the Isla del Coco, a protected marine area west of Puntarenas. In December, MarViva established a $2 million trust fund to finance maintenance and repair of the catamaran.

Jorge Jiménez, MarViva’s general director, called the donation a “clear example of what public-private cooperation can achieve.”

“This is one more instrument that adds to the sum of forces the Coast Guard is developing in different operational areas, including the ability to coordinate scientific studies with other national institutions,” Coast Guard General Director Martín Arias said at the catamaran’s inauguration.

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