Costa Rica has had a tumultuous start to 2020. The country seized the largest ever haul of cocaine within its borders and homicides were up in the first two months of the year. InSight Crime sat down with Security Minister Michael Soto how the government is seeking to maintain Costa Rica's reputation as a safe haven in the region.
InSight Crime: What do you see as the main organized crime threats to Costa Rica's security?
Michael Soto: We should analyze this phenomenon in a regional context, not just as a country. This phenomenon is affecting all of Central America, including Costa Rica. Without a doubt, a large part of the problem is related to drug trafficking because we are located between producer and consumer countries, which results in Central American countries being used as collection centers.
We are therefore trying to identify strategies to work on in collaboration. We started with what was called the Southern Triangle, which was basically a joint effort between Panama, Colombia and Costa Rica, supported by the United States.
In terms of law enforcement, we have reinforced our logistical capacity, particularly in the Pacific, which has a very different situation than the Atlantic coast. Meanwhile, 2019 was a historic year because, between marijuana and cocaine seizures, we confiscated 45 tons of drugs. In 2018, seizures reached 39.5 tons and we have already confiscated 12 tons of marijuana and cocaine so far in 2020. We know that the main organized criminal structures are not based in Costa Rica, but that the country is used as a bridge, a transit and storage location, while Europe is the final destination, largely due to the market price (for drugs there.)
IC: Costa Rica has been a transit point for drugs headed to the United States for years, but it seems that exporting to Europe has now become increasingly important. How has this changed the way you address drug trafficking?
MS: Criminal structures are always looking for different manners to ship their drugs to their final destination, and we have seen this across Central America. Criminal structures are looking to innovate and they have a lot of different techniques for transporting their drug shipments.
The cunning ways they use to do so are impressive. This is a challenge not only for Costa Rica but for the entire region. But criminal structures may have to innovate even more from now on as we are collaborating far more. Technology helps us a lot. With WhatsApp, it is very easy for us to communicate with international police, with the Colombians or with various other efficient networks to exchange information.
IC: In comparison with other countries, it seems that security at the Costa Rican port of Limón is much easier to penetrate. Has that become a priority for you?
MS: It depends on how you look at it. Some 24,000 shipping containers go through Puerto Limón each month. It is impossible to inspect all the containers, no port in the world can search all the containers. Sometimes, we are criticized for not doing our jobs well and I ask what port in the world inspects every container? Not one. What techniques should be used? We use profiling, which consists of identifying containers according to the product they carry and where they go. Then they go on to the second phase, namely physical visualization. Then, if something is suspicious, the containers go through the scanner where the drugs are detected with any luck. Sometimes it goes well and sometimes it doesn't.
However, we have personnel being trained in the United States and by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) so that our officials have the right equipment and manuals in order to do the inspections. But as is the case all over the world, there is also corruption. All criminal structures rely on corruption among officials, as they would not exist without that. There is a great desire to do things right and we are also trying to make sure there's no corruption in Costa Rica.
IC: Is this how the problem is currently being addressed, with more training and developing better prevention capabilities?
MS: We have been making these investments for several years now, including during previous administrations. Some allied countries, like the United States and Colombia, have helped us to train personnel and to have better communication channels. This is key but we're not going to beat organized crime this way. No country has done so. Where we do exceed all other countries is in the desire to get things done right. Sometimes impressive things can be done with very few resources.
IC: As drug trafficking has grown in Costa Rica, the sophistication of criminal groups in the country and the levels of violence they carry out has also risen.
MS: 2017 was the most violent year in the history of the country, with a homicide rate of 12 for every 100,000 residents. 603 people were murdered, which is terrible for Costa Rica. That is why we implemented a strategy called “mega-operativo" (mega-operation), which focuses on criminal analysis. Since then, we saw reductions, even if minimal, for two consecutive years. We managed to reverse the upward trend that took place between 2013 and 2017. In 2018, the homicide rate was 11.6 per 100,000 people and it reached 11 in 2019. These reductions were difficult to achieve.
This is a short-term law enforcement strategy, but we know that the mid- to long-term strategy should concentrate on human and social development, on jobs, culture, sports, education, etc. For now, the focus is on technology and growing sophistication, and criminal structures usually outperform the states in regards to these resources. For this reason, we are always willing to learn from others, learn from mistakes and hold meetings in which we share experiences and exchange information.
IC: The evolution of criminal networks is crucial. In other countries in Central America, they have often begun as transporters before growing steadily until they become larger criminal structures. Do you believe that something like that is happening in Costa Rica? Or are the criminal networks here different?
MS: What you are describing could happen, but it is linked to logistics. To date, we have not had a Costa Rican really lead (a drug trafficking organization) or rise to a position of power in the region. Criminal leaders have been of other nationalities. I do not rule it out as a possibility, but until now, Costa Rica has mainly played a logistical role in drug trafficking. Costa Ricans have probably been climbing the ladder, but in a logistical role, not top leadership positions.
IC: However, you believe that this role in logistics could pose a threat?
MS: Of course it is a risk. I wish Costa Rica were in a bubble and that none of this would touch the country, but that’s not how things are. All countries, not just Costa Rica, are at risk. It is likely that, in Costa Rica, various groups are offering logistics services to transnational criminal structures. We should try and avoid having this influence penetrating other levels of the state. I believe that we have managed to avoid this.
IC: What about the security situation on the border with Nicaragua?
MS: We share 300 kilometers of border territory with Nicaragua. Nicaraguans have chosen to come to our country due to the economic situation and political situation in their country, and we have tried to offer refuge to those that apply for refugee status.
There are mainly human trafficking issues, but there are also issues with drug trafficking, illegal mining, and contraband of livestock and food products. We have tried to address these but the border is very forested, it is far away and very difficult to access. We have 320 kilometers of border with Panama but the situation is better as we have joint operations there but not with Nicaragua.
IC: Is the relationship with the Nicaraguan government problematic?
MS: It is not problematic because, at least in this administration, we have not had any direct confrontations. There is just no relationship.
IC: But if there is no relationship, what can your country do to address this problem?
MS: This is a question of Nicaragua's sovereignty. They are in their country and we respect their border. What have we done? We have a relatively new border policy that patrols the entire sector and to which we have dedicated all of the equipment needed. The police does what it should to protect national sovereignty, but there is no coordination, and we cannot do anything about that. While we are in constant communication and we work collaboratively with El Salvador, Honduras, Panama and Colombia, with Nicaragua, the relationship is non-existent.
IC: The priority for Costa Rica is therefore to reinforce security on your side?
MS: Of course. The migrant issue is the most complicated. It is an issue that greatly concerns us. It is not just Nicaraguans who are crossing into the country, but many others, while there is also human trafficking, illegal mining, and smuggling of drugs and other goods. We have several priorities there.
IC: Is there also a problem with migrants being trafficked from Panama?
MS: But this is not an exclusively Panamanian problem either. Migrants from other continents, primarily Asia and Africa, enter from Brazil. There are some Haitians and Cubans that enter Panama or Brazil and start the exodus towards the United States, passing through all of the countries in Central America. We are working with Panama to try to prevent that.