A string of judicial officials connected to drug trafficking organizations in Costa Rica has raised concerns that institutional corruption facilitating the trade is becoming more commonplace, as a record amount of cocaine flows through the country.
On December 15, Costa Rica’s Judicial Investigation Department (Organismo de Investigación Judicial – OIJ) announced it had arrested 16 people who were allegedly involved in a criminal organization dedicated to international drug trafficking and money laundering. The Attorney General’s Office confirmed a judge and a member of Costa Rica’s national police force were among those detained in the operation.
A month earlier, the OIJ stated that a judge and judicial assistant, from the Pacific town of Golfito, Puntarenas, were being investigated for allegedly collaborating with drug gangs. According to the investigators, the judge in question had been accused of helping drug traffickers to avoid imprisonment. Both officials were also suspected of prewarning criminal actors ahead of local anti-narcotics operations.
In the 2020 annual working report from the nation’s judiciary, Supreme Court President Fernando Cruz admitted he was not surprised organized criminal groups have aimed to penetrate Costa Rica’s judicial institutions to gain insider information, according to Diario Extra.
The president confirmed that three years ago, the nation embarked upon a “very ambitious” anti-corruption plan, to confront officials who failed to act with integrity in their duties.
However, he added that the nation’s strategy to combat such corruption should be strengthened, looking ahead to 2021.
InSight Crime Analysis
While Costa Rica still has an enviable judicial track record compared to its Central American neighbors, these recent cases show the country is still vulnerable to increased corruption, as it faces other worsening organized crime factors.
Occasional incidences of judicial corruption in the nation have been on Costa Rica's radar for years. A 2014 scandal in which a judge allegedly let off various members of a drug trafficking group sparked criticism around the country's judiciary.
Highly organized drug trafficking operations often involve a certain degree of institutional complicity at different levels. To facilitate the work of such groups, members of the police have been known to guard cocaine and even run illicit networks themselves, while judges have acted corruptly in courtrooms to ensure those captured face light sentences.
However, scandals implicating judicial officials could become more commonplace as Costa Rica becomes an increasingly popular destination for organized crime networks transporting drugs northwards.
A record amount of cocaine and marijuana has been passing through the nation, fueled by booming South American production. In February, InSight Crime reported on how the country had made its largest-ever seizure of cocaine. Heightened incidences of judicial corruption are perhaps an unsurprising response to such dynamics.
The US State Department’s most recent International Narcotics Control and Strategy Report warned that “the growing presence of transnational criminal organizations and rising corruption in all security services is a chief concern” for Costa Rica.
It added that Costa Rica’s government had typically applied a 2006 law penalizing official corruption and that its judicial branch had been in the process of carrying out a three-year effort to strengthen ethics controls within the judiciary.
However, the report also claimed low to mid-level cases of corruption were known to frequently occur in the country. And periodic high-level incidences had been noted.
A 2020 report from Costa Rica's State of the Nation Program, which assessed the country’s state of justice, confirmed only one in ten corruption complaints made it to trial in 2017, raising concerns over impunity in such cases, especially as the country becomes an increasingly important transit hub for drugs.
However, the nation still outshines its Central American counterparts with its enviable judicial track record.
In Guatemala, criminals have openly influenced or sought to influence high court appointments. Last July, InSight Crime reported on how Guatemalan congressmen and political operators facing criminal charges had been undermining the country’s top court, prompting a US senator to warn of a constitutional crisis and repercussions for aid. Just a few months earlier, it was revealed that a familiar scheme involving criminal groups had been trying to influence critical judicial appointments to two senior courts.
Meanwhile, in May of last year, it was reported that Honduras’ new criminal code would allow impunity to prosper in the nation, through lowering sentences for corruption and drug trafficking cases. In 2016, InSight Crime shared how a report released by the Association for a More Just Society (Asociación para Una Sociedad Más Justa – ASJ) had suggested the nation’s judicial system was directly facilitating corruption.