San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Leaders debate drug strategy

President Laura Chinchilla announced on Wednesday her support for several major changes in Costa Rica’s approach to investigating and prosecuting drug-related crimes. Three new proposals would allow for extradition of Costa Rican nationals, change current wiretapping laws and increase penalties for criminals associated with drug trafficking and organized crime.

“It’s hard to say when these proposals will pass in Congress,” Chinchilla said, “but they will send a clear message to criminal groups that Costa Rica is not a paradise for them to come and hide.”

The president made the announcement at the opening of this year’s 52nd session of the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD, in Spanish), a coalition of anti-drug commissioners from the region. The summit was held at Hotel La Condesa in Heredia, north of the Costa Rican capital. 

Chinchilla called Central America a victim of “perverse geopolitics,” trapped between countries in South America that produce illicit drugs and the United States, the world’s leading consumer of cocaine. 

She called on the U.N. Security Council to designate drug trafficking and organized crime as international acts of terrorism, adding that her administration would prepare a formal petition to be submitted to the U.N.

Aside from being symbolic, Chinchilla said the terrorist designation would help security officials track down drug lords and crime syndicate kingpins. Labeling drug traffickers as terrorists also would make it easier to shut down their bank accounts and block them from traveling, she said.

“We want the Security Council to consider narcotics trafficking and organized crime as a threat to peace and security internationally,” Chinchilla said. “From our point of view, this definition makes sense because in our nations, [the effects of drug trafficking] are similar to acts of terrorism in other parts of the world.”

Tougher Local Laws

Chinchilla called on lawmakers to pass reform allowing extradition of Costa Rican nationals, currently forbidden by Article 32 of Costa Rica’s Constitution. The proposed amendment would permit Ticos wanted for drug trafficking and organized crime in other countries to be extradited for trial. 

The president also declared her intention of changing privacy laws pertaining to wiretaps. Currently, Article 24 of the Constitution states that only a judge is permitted to listen in on phone conversations during investigations. It is then up to the discretion of a judge as to which parts of the conversation can be turned over to investigating officers.

“Costa Rica is the only country that has the law this way,” said Mauricio Boraschi, Costa Rica’s anti-drug commissioner and CICAD’s newly appointed president. “We use this tool frequently in this country, but with the way the law is today, we have a lot of operative problems. This is the next step we need to take.”

The proposed change would still require a judge’s approval for actual wire tapping, but would allow investigators to listen to entire conversations. According to Boraschi, this would help eliminate confusion that has brought many investigations to a halt.

Although no specifics were named, Chinchilla also proposed changes to the Costa Rican penal code to increase the severity of punishment for criminals arrested for drug trafficking and organized crime.

Her administration also is drafting a treaty at the Foreign Ministry requesting all Central American countries, along with Colombia and Mexico, to team up for sea patrols in search of drug smugglers. Currently, every country in Central America and most countries in South America allow the U.S. to assist in coastal patrols.

What Is the Region’s approach?

At the CICAD summit, which ended Friday, regional anti-drug commissioners discussed several issues, including the decriminalization of illicit drugs, public health, corruption, alternatives to incarceration and an integrated new approach to drug use and trafficking. 

OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza joined the conference on Thursday.

While CICAD Secretary General Adam Blackwell said Central American countries “have not sat idly by” in their efforts to defeat drug traffickers, some leaders expressed dismay over inconsistencies in Latin American anti-drug policy. Some countries – such as Uruguay – back legalization efforts, while other countries are looking to step up public security policy to better fight traffickers.

“The magnitude of the problem that we are confronting is enormous, which leads us, the members of regional governments, to believe that it’s a battle that’s difficult to win,” Chinchilla said. “We’ve been paying a high price for valiantly confronting drug trafficking.”

Blackwell, who was involved in solidifying a pact between rival gangs in El Salvador, submitted a report by the OAS on Thursday on the advances of alternative approaches to the illicit drug issue, as called for during the Americas Summit in Colombia last April.

Chinchilla noted the “joint responsibility” of consuming nations, saying, “We’re never going to win if we don’t address consumption.”

AFP contributed to this report.

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