San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

More control on bank transfers

From the print edition

Starting July 1, foreign nationals will need to present proof of immigration status to make transactions between Costa Rican banks.

Foreigners will be required to present the Immigration Identification Card for Foreign Persons (DIMEX), when making bank transfers using the National Electronic Payment System. Nothing will change for current legal residents, but beginning in July, foreigners in the country on tourist visas will lose the ability to make transactions between local banks with only a passport as proof of identification.

Immigration Administration General Director Kathia Rodríguez said obligatory use of the DIMEX card in banking transactions is an effort to put Costa Rica’s “house in order” in terms of the immigration status of the roughly 382,000 foreign nationals currently in the country.

Besides consolidating identification and immigration status in one card, the new requirements will allow security officials to track bank transactions by foreigners in the country – a key step in combating money laundering.

It is a way to see “who does what in the banking system,” said Public Security Minister Mario Zamora.

Carlos Melegatti, director of financial services at Banco Nacional, said DIMEX requirements will bring to the foreign population in Costa Rica the same oversight in financial transactions that Costa Rican citizens have had to follow for years. Ticos must present their cédulas (ID cards) to make banking transactions.

Until now, Zamora explained, foreigners could complete financial transactions with just a passport, independent of their immigration status.

“This requirement is important because in this process, a foreigner has to submit to the Immigration Administration information that includes their immigration history, and in the case of future investigations of their banking transactions, … it allows for a study of financial transactions over a long period of time, and it also includes fundamental information about the person,” Zamora said.

Costa Rica is classified as a “major money laundering country” by the U.S. State Department in its 2012 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report. According to the report, it is a country “whose financial institutions engage in currency transactions involving significant amounts of proceeds from international narcotic trafficking.

”Mauricio Boraschi, Costa Rica’s antidrug commissioner, said “only a crystal ball” could pin an exact number on the size of the problem.

“We are confronting a global business,” Boraschi said. “We can go along more or less approximating what [amount of drugs] is going to pass through the Central American corridor, but … it is difficult to establish how much of that stays here or how much circulates through.

”Boraschi added that estimates of the illicit flow of drug proceeds filtered through the Tico financial system are based on regional drug-production estimates and then estimates of how much of that product is moved through Costa Rica.

Global Financial Integrity (GFI), a Washington, D.C.-based economic think tank with a focus on illicit financial flows, pegs the amount of cash transferred out of Costa Rica annually from 2000 to 2008 through corruption and trade-based money laundering at approximately $4.5 billion – the highest in Central America.

Panama’s illicit money transfers for that time period, by comparison, are estimated at approximately $3.9 billion. In Nicaragua, the amount is pegged at $774 million.

Clark Gascoigne, GFI’s communications director, said those calculations – released in a January 2011 report – don’t account for illicit proceeds from criminal activities smuggled into or out of a country as cash.Calculations paint about “two-thirds of the picture,” he added.

“Know your customer” laws, including strategies like requiring DIMEX cards for banking transactions, are steps in the right direction in terms of increasing transparency in financial transactions, Gascoigne said, but those laws need to be followed up with efficient enforcement.

“That $4.5 billion [transferred out of Costa Rica] could have been put into developing the local economy, investing in infrastructure, investing in education or health care,” Gascoigne said. “That’s $4.5 billion that’s just gone from the economy.

”Laura Chinchilla’s administration, as a reference, is operating with a 5 percent fiscal deficit – that is, the government is running roughly $2.1 billion short of it’s projected expenditures.

The Immigration Administration will issue DIMEX cards to foreign residents, temporary residents and students who meet requirements for residency. Rodríguez said foreigners currently in the process of establishing their residency will still be allowed to open bank accounts and handle banking transactions, but will need to register with the Immigration Administration and present their DIMEX card within one year of the date they opened their account.

After July, the DIMEX card will become the only way to handle inter-bank transactions in the country. Foreigners lingering in the country on perpetually reset tourist visas will not be able to make local transfers.

An online version of this story posted Wednesday incorrectly stated that proof of immigration status would be required to open a bank account. An immigration spokeswoman clarified that the new requirement is only for transfers between Costa Rican banks.The Tico Times regrets the error.

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