Cell phone trafficking in Costa Rica prisons has become a lucrative and rarely punished business, allowing criminals to continue their illicit activities and letting crimes like extortion persist.
According to a report from La Nación, Costa Rican Penitentiary Police Chief Pablo Bertozzi said that criminal gangs have formed within the prisons and have made contact with Justice Ministry officials and others on the outside to have cell phones brought into the prison facilities.
The inmates can pay as much as $700 for each cell phone to smuggled into prison. Once inside, the gangs sell them at an even higher price that can reach upwards of $1,400.
The business is taking off, in part, because the prisoners or third parties cannot be criminally prosecuted for smuggling the phones in. According La Nación, such actions are not legally considered crimes. Instead, authorities can only punish the inmates with minor sanctions, such as warnings or transfers, or they can confiscate the phones.
Over the past three years, 10,014 cell phones have been seized in Costa Rican prisons, and Bertozzi told La Nación that “it’s always the same prisoners” who have them.
“We already have people ... identified in that respect, people who replace the phone as if it were nothing, thanks to help from visits and corrupt officials,” he added.
This year the Central American nation also saw two cases in which prisoners trained cats to bring cell phones into a maximum-security prison.
InSight Crime Analysis
Cell phone availability in prisons and the ability of inmates to communicate with the outside has allowed criminals to continue conducting activities outside of prison, even rebuilding illicit businesses that had been dismantled.
A clear illustration of the situation surfaced in May, when the Costa Rican police took down -- for the second time in two years -- a drug trafficking network operating nationwide that was managed by phone from inside maximum-security prison La Reforma.
Moreover, a penitentiary police official told InSight Crime that the presence of cell phones in prisons is key in the extortion market. For the prisoners, extortion by telephone or encrypted messaging applications like WhatsApp can generate high earnings without the need to threaten the victim in person. Nor is it necessary to collect the money because it can be delivered through bank transfers.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Extortion
Compared to other Central American countries, especially those in the Northern Triangle region, extortion rates in and from prison in Costa Rica have remained relatively low. Nonetheless, authorities have increased their efforts to combat the practice in recent months. They have trained prison personnel, and a bill was passed requiring telephone companies to block their signals inside prisons.
Signal blocking could be an important step in minimizing extortive calls from prisons. But it is still not clear when the president will sign the bill into law and its measures will go into effect. In the meantime, prisoners will likely continue strategizing to ensure their lines of communication remain open.