Costa Rica is considering imposing prison sentences for small-scale contraband smugglers, a hardline response to an illicit activity that governments across the region are struggling to reign in.
Costa Rica's Congress is discussing a proposal that would set a minimum sentence of three years for smuggling small amounts of contraband products, reported La Nacion. Under the current law, only those found smuggling over $50,000 of goods face time in prison.
The proposal, still in its infancy, has already generated plenty of controversy, with the Attorney General asserting that the law would create a backlog of cases in southern Costa Rica. He called for a lower minimum sentence of six months.
The proposal has also become a cause of concern for locals near Costa Rica's southern border with Panama, where there is a high rate of small-scale smuggling. "What they are proposing is a law that would kill, that would destroy the residents in the frontier region," a local councilman in the southern municipality of Corredores told La Nacion. He added that he believes 80 percent of people in the area make a living off of contraband.
Costan Rican business assocation the UCCAEP has publicly supported the proposal, saying it will cut down on smuggling, reported EFE.
InSight Crime Analysis
The new proposal is an attempt to stem the heavy flow of contraband goods into Costa Rica: in August 2014, authorities said that smuggling costs the country up to $100 million annually from lost tax revenue. There was also a reported spike in the smuggling of contraband cigarettes, following a a 2012 tax law that significantly increased the price of tobacco products in Costa Rica. This reported expansion in contraband smuggling recently prompted Costa Rica's Vice Minister of Finance to claim that contraband was a bigger problem than drug trafficking.
However, it is doubtful that threatening small-time smugglers with up to three years in prison would prove to be a successful policy. Last year, Costa Rican authorities noted that organized criminal groups are taking on a bigger role in the country's contraband industry. Targeting the "micro" smugglers who rely on contraband because they have no other job opportunities would only fill up the country's prisons and create much bad feeling, as the Attorney General warned.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Costa Rica
Contraband is a huge drain on economies across Latin America, and there is a wide range in how different governments have responded to the problem. Last year, Venezuela and Colombia agreed to send more security forces to their shared border, where high price discrepancies have fueled the smuggling of all kinds of products, from gasoline to meat to prescription medicine. In another attempt to cut down on contraband, last year Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closing of Colombian border crossings at night. Meanwhile, in Brazil, where the contraband business reportedly cost the formal economy over $20 billion last year, authorities have installed 1,600 cameras inside its biggest sea port.