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Column 102008 Thompson

Monday, October 20, 2008

Costa Rica is Taking on the Mexican and Colombian Cartels

By Barnard R. Thompson

·   Costa Rican efforts to fight incoming and national crime could be a model for all countries in the hemisphere that are struggling against drug cartels and the violence their henchmen perpetrate.

In early October top law enforcement officials from throughout the Americas gathered in Mexico City, for the 2008 Meeting of Ministers Responsible for Public Security in the Americas (MISPA), where they discussed a wide range of national and transnational public security matters.  And not only were problems of multinational wrongdoing key topics, the domestic impacts of crime on a number of nations in the region were plainly detailed in the summit sponsored by the Organization of American States.  


Costa Rica was possibly the most illustrative case presented, in heartrending accounts of foreign drug traffickers and other criminals moving into the once peaceful country.  But too, part of Costa Rica's strategy and plan to combat the inward blight could – hopefully– become a model for all countries in the hemisphere in the fight against drug cartels, and the violence perpetrated by drug lords and their henchmen.


Janina del Vecchio, the Minister of Government (Interior), Police and Public Security, said that over the past year Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel, headed by prison escapee Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán Loera, has heightened its presence and activities in Costa Rica, using the country as a warehouse for drugs (mainly cocaine) shipped in from Colombia and, ultimately, destined for the United States.


"We are finding that, for some 12 months, Mexicans have been shifting to Costa Rica or Nicaragua in order to pick up drugs that are stored by the Colombians," Del Vecchio stated at a press conference.


Furthermore, she said that in recent years the country of 4.5 million people has gone from being a transit territory to a consuming nation.  According to Del Vecchio, there are some 12,000 drug users in Costa Rica.


And this drug presence and consumption, in turn, is now causing increases in crime, robberies and violence in the Central American country, including an increasing demand for synthetic drugs and "crack," she noted.


Other sources say that with just 10,000 police for 4.5 million residents, and crime figures for murders, robberies, assaults and other offenses increasing daily, Costa Rica is suffering due to its key position between Colombia, a drug producer, and the United States and Mexico, both consumption and contraband markets.


Janina del Vecchio observed that due to pressure put on Colombian and Mexican drug traffickers by the respective governments, the cartels and their gangsters are taking refuge more and more in Central American countries.  She also said that Mexican cartel members are bogusly marrying Costa Rican women in order to legitimize their presence in the country, and to facilitate their transshipment operations.


Antonio Acosta, who heads the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, said that Central American and Caribbean countries "are trapped in the cross fire of drugs and arms."  He went on to say that one-half of the world's cocaine is consumed in the United States, whereas its entire annual production is in South America.  And Mexican cartels have displaced most of their Colombian partners – including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) – in the delivery of drugs to the United States, much of this now through Central America which is caught in the middle.


At the MISPA meeting, Del Vecchio called for the formation of a regional (Interpolesque) police agency dedicated to the fight against organized crime and drug trafficking, with personnel "who are incorruptible," she added.


And after the two day Mexico City meetings, Costa Rica revealed its developing homeland security and crime fighting plans.


Following a six week civil war in 1948, Costa Rica abolished its army.  This was enshrined in its Constitution in 1949, which gave the responsibility for maintaining law and order to civil police.  In 1996 the system was changed with the establishment of the Public Force, a single entity under the Ministry of the Interior that replaced the nation's Civil Guard, Rural Assistance Guard, and Border Guards.  A police force that today is responsible for security, law enforcement, counter-narcotics, and border patrol functions.


The Costa Rican program is to set up a mass crime fighting and reporting network through community and business security committees.  A countrywide grid of neighborhood, citizen and school watch committees seemly similar to the informational undertakings of community groups that surfaced immediately after the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City, rather than the politically oriented Cuban Revolution Defense Committees that keep Big Brother watch over local citizens. 


"The program is preventative and without firearms," Diana Solano, who heads the Community Security Department of Costa Rica's Ministry of the Interior, told the correspondent from the Mexican newspaper El Universal.  "We will (provide) training on (crime) prevention in homes, public places or schools.  For example, students are the ones who know who the dealers are that sell drugs in their schools," she said.


The plan is to detect suspicious individuals, vehicles and movements of drug trafficking and other criminal activities in neighborhoods and shopping areas, and to keep from being the victim of crime.


"The information is delivered to the police, based on close ties with the community, so that they can take action," Solano said.  Using "watch codes," such as with whistles, sirens or lights deployed in 4,700 localities and 5,000 businesses nationwide, 98,300 community watchpersons are helping to catch the criminals.


However, "the committees are complementary to the police, and (citizens) are not armed with clubs or pistols in order to chase assailants," she added.  Confrontations with lawbreakers and crime stopping, Solano said, are still the exclusive responsibility of state security authorities.


Police and the military alone cannot stop the crime and violence of the drug trade and the cartel perpetrators, be they from Mexico, Colombia, Central America, the United States or elsewhere.  And while governments and responsible politicians must take the lead, certainly security is everyone's concern and business.


Just maybe massive citizen watch and community security programs will work, albeit in far too many areas the police and the criminals are one in the same so reporting becomes a problem.  Thus the questions arise on how to overcome the sociocultural reluctance to report crime and criminals in Latin America due to the fear of grave retaliation?  This along with how can crime and corruption be weeded out of law enforcement agencies and related government offices?



Barnard Thompson, editor of MexiData.info, has spent 50 years in Mexico and Latin America, providing multinational clients with actionable intelligence; country and political risk reporting and analysis; and business, lobbying, and problem resolution services.