Drug traffickers take advantage of Costa Rica’s strategic location, porous borders, and thinly patrolled waters to exploit the country as a major transit route for illicit drugs. According to U.S. government estimates, approximately 86 percent of the cocaine trafficked to the United States in the first half of 2013 first transited through the Mexico/Central America corridor. The Costa Rican government continues to express great concern over the increased presence of illegal drugs and related crimes, including street crime and the growing influence of Mexican and South American drug trafficking organizations.
Costa Rica has the lowest homicide rate in Central America, so far avoiding the levels of violence experienced by some other countries in the region. Homicides dropped in 2012 but essentially held steady in 2013; authorities blamed drug violence. Assaults increased nearly 19 percent, while robberies dipped slightly. In a country proud of its pacifist tradition and lack of a standing military, concerns about crime—and the recognition that it is a regional problem—have helped to justify security investments.
The Costa Rican government has increased its spending on law enforcement agencies over the past several years. To help pay for these increases it enacted a new tax on corporate entities in 2012. In 2013, this new tax raised $66 million, representing an 18 percent boost to the Ministry of Public Security (MPS) budget. The establishment of a new Border Police force and improvements to its Coast Guard are tangible examples of Costa Rica’s commitment to disrupting the flow of illicit drugs through the country.
B. Drug Control Accomplishments, Policies and Trends
1. Institutional Development
In 2010, Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla Miranda announced plans to increase the size of the country’s police force by 4,000 officers in four years. After three years, and taking attrition into account, there had been a net increase of approximately 1,570 officers. While short of its personnel goals, the Costa Rican government has been making capital improvements in equipment and vehicles— including boats for the Coast Guard, patrol trucks for the Border Police, and two new helicopters for the Air Surveillance Service—which should enhance its capacity to interdict illegal drugs.
In September 2013, 191 Border Police officers graduated from a training program developed with U.S. support, bringing the total number of Border Police officers to more than 200. Most of those officers were assigned to the north of the country, where Costa Rica was preoccupied with growing tensions with Nicaragua over the disputed Isla Calero area. Almost immediately the new force disrupted organized criminal activity near the border, arresting two armed men and discovering an outpost with a helicopter pad and heavy weapons, including a rocket launcher. The government is planning to improve its northern border control infrastructure and buy boats for river operations in 2014. The new Border Police is in position to become a more effective tool for land interdiction.
The Costa Rican Coast Guard added patrol boats and associated equipment in 2013, including Global Positioning System (GPS) technology and night vision equipment to make night patrols more feasible. The Coast Guard force also added a seventh station on the Pacific coast. The Coast Guard did not expand in size similarly to the country’s other law enforcement forces, and it is generally undermanned and undertrained in areas such as vessel maintenance and maritime procedures. Despite these challenges, the Coast Guard remains an effective regional partner for maritime interdiction within Costa Rican waters.
In late 2013, the National Assembly considered a proposal to restructure the Judicial Investigative Police (OIJ). Supporters claimed the proposal would streamline the agency and allow it to combat organized crime more effectively. Separately, the MPS proposed granting its own uniformed police investigative power over smaller crimes, which could free up OIJ resources to deal with more complex cases involving trafficking, money laundering and corruption. If passed, this potential reform could increase the government’s ability to prosecute drug traffickers.
2. Supply Reduction
In 2013, Costa Rican law enforcement seized 19.67 metric tons (MT) of cocaine, an increase from 14.73 seized in 2012. U.S. law enforcement officials who assisted these interdiction efforts credited greater coordination with Costa Rican counterparts, better intelligence, and Costa Rica’s improved ability to act on shared intelligence.
Costa Rica is a leading eradicator of marijuana, seizing or destroying more than 1,390 metric tons in 2013, an increase of nearly 50 percent over the previous year. Locally grown marijuana is primarily for domestic use, with a small fraction exported. Seizures of marijuana from Jamaica and Colombia are also fairly common, most of it intended for the domestic market. Drug control agencies believe that “crack” cocaine use is rising in Costa Rica, based on an increase in related incidents and addiction cases.
Synthetic drugs, for the most part, have not attracted much attention from authorities or the press. Costa Rican drug police claimed to have seen very few synthetic drugs in 2013. The government’s National Plan on Drugs, Money Laundering and the Financing of Terrorism, issued for the years 2013-2017, noted the pronounced international growth in the production and trafficking of synthetic drugs and chemical precursors—but it also noted that Costa Rica has yet to see increased volumes of these substances.
In August, authorities busted an operation that was sending cocaine to Europe through the post office in exchange for other drugs; MDMA (ecstasy) seizures during the year-long investigation totaled 11,109 tablets, according to press accounts.
3. Drug Abuse Awareness, Demand Reduction, and Treatment
The production, trafficking and sale of illicit drugs remain serious criminal offenses in Costa Rica, even if laws against personal consumption are rarely enforced. In February, the judiciary began a pilot program allowing those who commit minor crimes under the influence of drugs to opt for rehabilitation instead of prison. Costa Rica’s security minister stated in May that the country should move away from punishing addicts and toward treatment, viewing drug consumption as a public health problem.
The Costa Rican Drug Institute is the government agency that oversees drug prevention programs, including publicity campaigns and materials for schools. The Institute on Alcohol and Drug Abuse also offers treatment and prevention programs, including training for companies that seek to create their own prevention plans. The United States also supports demand reduction by providing training to develop anti-drug community coalitions.
The uniformed police implement the Drug Abuse Resistance and Education (DARE) program in Costa Rican schools, reaching more than 226,000 students over the past two years. In August, with U.S. technical support, the police also launched a pilot version of the Gang Resistance Education and Training (GREAT) program in two schools. If the results are positive, Costa Rica may opt to expand the program nationwide.
The growing presence of transnational criminal organizations has made corruption a greater concern in Costa Rica. Fairly or not, many Costa Ricans perceive their police, judges and the government in general to be widely susceptible to corruption. According to a poll taken in September 2013, government corruption has become the problem that most worries Costa Ricans—more so than unemployment, high cost of living, drug trafficking, and citizen insecurity.
As a matter of policy, the Government of Costa Rica does not encourage or facilitate illegal activity associated with drug trafficking. The government generally implements a 2006 law that penalizes official corruption. However, there are relatively frequent reports of low- and mid-level corruption, such as a Coast Guard captain arrested in August on suspicion of providing boat fuel to drug traffickers. Municipal governments are also especially prone to corruption.
In 2013, allegations of corruption derailed a major road project. In May, President Chinchilla admitted to taking free trips on a private jet from a man who falsely identified himself, and according to judicial investigators, allegedly had ties to a convicted drug trafficker.
During a recent 15-month period, approximately one in 12 uniformed police officers received suspensions for reasons that varied from misuse of resources to domestic violence. Public faith in police is low; nearly 40 percent of Costa Ricans said in a recent poll that they would not call the police in the event of a crime. The Ministry of Public Security has been restructuring its Internal Affairs unit, increasing efficiency by digitizing its files and using software to process complaints. Meaningful reforms that would strengthen the unit to better address corruption—such as merging it with related offices to streamline operations, and making it a directorate that answers directly to the minister—are mired in legislative inaction.
C. National Goals, Bilateral Cooperation, and U.S. Policy Initiatives
The United States supports citizen security, law enforcement, and rule-of-law programs in Costa Rica, mainly through the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). These programs aim to expand Costa Rican capabilities to interdict, investigate, and prosecute illegal drug trafficking and other transnational crimes, while strengthening Costa Rica’s justice sector.
Through CARSI, the United States trains and equips Costa Rica’s police to perform anti-gang law enforcement. The United States also supports community policing in Costa Rica with equipment, vehicles, training, communications, and social and economic programs.
Costa Rica actively shares the U.S. priorities of disrupting the flow of illicit drugs and dismantling organized crime. Likewise, the United States supports Costa Rican efforts to investigate and prosecute crimes more effectively, to make its borders more secure, and to increase the safety of its citizens.
The United States actively supports the further professionalization of Costa Rican police, including updating the police academy curriculum. The Ministry of Public Security continues to implement the COMPSTAT crime-tracking system. While implementation of the technology is only in the early stages, it has already helped police identify problematic neighborhoods in San José. On the judicial side, the United States supports a range of training programs for Costa Rican investigators, prosecutors and judges, on topics ranging from money laundering to wiretaps. The United States also has donated software and computers to speed up backlogged case management in several key offices.
Costa Rica has a maritime counternarcotics bilateral agreement with the United States and supports Operation Martillo, the international naval effort to target traffickers in the Central American corridor. This support is constrained by the country’s lack of offshore maritime assets and its reluctance to allow other countries’ naval vessels access to Costa Rican ports. Port calls by military ships are subject to legislative approval, and they are typically controversial. Encouragingly, there are signs that the growing narco-trafficking threat has made Costa Rica more amenable to granting permission. In 2013, Costa Rica’s Minister of Public Security spoke often and effectively to the news media about the need to grant blanket waivers for U.S. Navy and Coast Guard vessels to better address the regional drug trafficking problem.
Costa Rica’s Coast Guard fulfills some of the roles that a navy would, albeit with less equipment, personnel and training. The United States continues to support Costa Rican efforts to strengthen its Coast Guard, providing needed equipment, training, and professionalization expertise. The small force is a willing partner with still greater potential for marine interdiction of illicit drugs.
The United States also helped to develop the training curriculum for the new Border Police in 2013, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a key checkpoint in the south, 22 miles north of Panama. The checkpoint is in a strategic location for monitoring traffic from Panama as well as the Costa Rican port of Golfito, a frequent landing spot for drug traffickers. Unfortunately, bureaucratic delays prevented the checkpoint from being fully operational in 2013.
Costa Rica is strengthening its ability to combat drug trafficking, investing in key security forces for interdiction, and improving its capacity to prosecute organized crime. Yet a bloated and complex bureaucracy slows these efforts, soaking up resources, and corruption remains a persistent issue. Meanwhile cocaine enters the country at a pace difficult to estimate, organized criminal elements wield growing influence, and citizens suffer the consequences. In light of this situation, Costa Rica should continue to allocate more resources to security, leveraging those resources by: 1) restructuring and professionalizing its police and judicial institutions; 2) promoting the use of advanced investigative techniques aimed at organized crime; and 3) enacting additional laws that specifically target organized crime and its proceeds. Costa Rica’s law enforcement agencies need better institutions for addressing corruption. The government should continue to invest in marine interdiction and border security, as both the Coast Guard and Border Police have the potential to become more effective forces for public safety and against drug traffickers. Finally, Costa Rica should continue to strengthen its cooperation with regional partners, sharing experiences and forming a united front against an international threat.