Agreement gives U.S. more info on travelers

March 1, 2012

In a Tuesday meeting at Casa Presidencial in the southeastern San José district of Zapote, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and Costa Rican Public Security Minister Mario Zamora signed an agreement to share information about airline passengers traveling to and from the United States.

The information-sharing system is called the Advanced Passenger Information System (APIS). Napolitano inked the deal with Zamora after meeting with Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla.

“This system provides governments and border authorities with information about airline passengers and crews before the arrival or departure of international flights,” Napolitano said.

“This information can be used to identify and investigate potential threats including terrorism and crimes like narco-trafficking,” she said.

The Homeland Security secretary added that APIS “helps our officers connect the dots and learn more about individuals and organizations before they hit our respective shores,” and that “strong protection for privacy and civil liberties” are built into the APIS system, though she did not explain exactly what those protections would be.

Napolitano’s Costa Rica visit is part of a Latin American tour that includes Mexico, Guatemala, Panama and El Salvador. Napolitano indicated she signed similar APIS agreements with regional governments during her tour.

This week, Guatemalan Vice President Roxana Baldetti is also touring the region trying to start discussions about the decriminalization of illicit drugs in Central America (see story, Page 5).

Napolitano, when asked about that issue, said: “The United States does not believe that legalizing [illicit] drugs is the way out of this problem; it is a combination of other things. It’s demand reduction. It’s good treatment and abuse prevention techniques. It is effective law enforcement and prosecution … and proper punishments being administered. So it is both on the prevention and treatment and law enforcement sides.”

Zamora said APIS is a pre-existing system in Costa Rica since approximately 2007.

“Costa Rica began to develop APIS on its own,” Zamora said. “We developed it in our information department at the Immigration Administration. We have already been able to share the system free of charge with El Salvador and Peru, and now is a new opportunity to cooperate so that our advanced passenger-information system can also be connected with the systems of the United States.”

Information that will be shared with U.S. Customs and Border Protection through  APIS includes the name and gender of passengers and the country that issued passengers’ passports, according to a statement provided by the U.S. Embassy in San José. That information will allow U.S. customs agents to “make a risk analysis, inspect passengers and intercept those of doubtful reputation at the same time that it helps identify criminals, smugglers and suspicious travelers before they arrive in or leave from the United States,” the statement said.

This information sharing, Zamora added, is useful in combating narco-trafficking, organized crime and international terrorism. 

“The fact that we don’t have terrorists operating today in Central America is not to say that, thanks to the great globalization of [airline] flights, one could not appear,” Zamora said. 

“At times, when you consider how easy it is today to travel the world, often we forget that this ease [of travel] is also being utilized by groups of terrorists or narco-traffickers,” the minister said.

The agreement gives the green light for tech specialists at the Costa Rican Immigration Administration to begin coordinating with U.S. Customs and Border Protection information techs, Zamora said. He did not speculate on the amount of time it would take for the two systems to begin exchanging information.

A statement issued by Casa Presidencial regarding the APIS system indicated that along with information exchange, the agreement Zamora and Napolitano signed could include donations of cash, technology and training on the part of the U.S. to the Immigration Administration to help foster skills for detecting criminals.

Zamora noted that Napolitano’s visit came at a “vital moment that coincides with the implementation of new practices and applicable measures in the entire security sector.”

Costa Rica is looking to shore up security with fresh infusions of cash from a new, $300-a-year tax on businesses expected to generate some $70 million annually – 95 percent of that amount will go to security spending (TT, Jan. 6).  The country also recently approved a $132 million loan from the Inter-American Development Bank to add spaces for 2,700 new inmates in the country’s prison system (TT, Jan. 13).

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