More Costa Rica News

Costa Rica Crime Groups Diversifying Oil Theft Techniques

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The ways in which gangs of fuel thieves in Costa Rica are tapping oil pipelines in order to steal and later resell the good are growing increasingly sophisticated, providing further evidence of the growing strength of criminal groups in the Central American nation. What were previously rustic oil taps are now becoming more sophisticated as groups of fuel thieves in Costa Rica are paying experts as much as 3 million colons (around $5,000) to perform professionally made illegal oil taps on pipelines, CRHoy reported. Since 2015, the Costa Rican Petroleum Refinery (Refinadora Costarricense de Petróleo – RECOPE) — the country’s state-owned oil company — has seen an increase in the number of illegal oil taps, causing millions of dollars in losses, according to Costa Rica’s Judicial Investigation Agency (Organismo de Investigación Judicial – OIJ) and intelligence agency (Dirección de Inteligencia y Seguridad – DIS).

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Oil Theft

In May of this year, authorities arrested six suspected members of an oil theft network operating in the city of Heredia just north of the capital San José that allegedly stole at least $2 million from the state oil refinery, La Nación reported. Just weeks later, authorities arrested 14 other suspected members of a different oil theft network operating in the city of Limón on the country’s Caribbean coast that allegedly stole more than $2.1 million in oil, EFE reported. Authorities also seized an AK-47 rifle, ammunition, trucks with specific storage tanks for oil, as well as bulletproof vests, among other things.

InSight Crime Analysis

The increased effort crime groups in Costa Rica are reportedly putting into their oil theft operations suggests that they are growing stronger and diversifying their criminal portfolios as a result. A rise in coca production in Colombia since 2013 and the revitalization of Central America as one of the main corridors for cocaine being trafficked to US markets has transformed Costa Rica’s role as a key transshipment point in the drug trade. This has, in turn, provided increased revenues for local crime groups, which have diversified their portfolios and expanded into other illegal activities like oil theft and illegal gold mining.

SEE ALSO: Costa Rica News and Profile

Oil theft is big business in Latin America, and the industry is largely considered to be a relatively low-risk, high-reward revenue stream for crime groups. In Mexico, for example, it is a billion dollar industry that may prove more profitable than the drug trade, according to a recent report from Rolling Stone. As crime groups grow stronger, it makes sense that they would venture into other, more profitable criminal activities like oil theft. However, it remains to be seen if Costa Rica will face the same deadly consequences that the lucrative industry has created in Mexico. Authorities in Costa Rica are already confronting rising violence due to increased fighting between criminal groups for control of local drug markets.

Drug Suspect’s Arrest Raises Questions About Nicaragua Judicial Corruption

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Authorities in Costa Rica arrested an alleged leader of an international drug trafficking organization while he was dining with the son of a Nicaraguan Supreme Court magistrate, raising longstanding questions about criminal influence in judicial institutions in Nicaragua. On September 5, Interpol agents and members of Costa Rica’s Judicial Investigation Agency (Organismo de Investigación Judicial – OIJ) arrested suspected Nicaraguan drug trafficker Mario Juan Pereira Ramos at a restaurant in the capital San José, Interpol’s Deputy Director Luis Diego Morera announced during a press conference. David Salomón Rosales — the son of Nicaragua Supreme Court Magistrate Francisco “Chicón” Rosales — was also initially arrested. He was released a short time later after authorities determined he did not have any pending arrest warrants and was not carrying any weapons, according to Morera. Rosales is said to be an ally of Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Criminal Migration

Authorities had been investigating and gathering intelligence on Pereira Ramos for the last two months, and Interpol’s Morera said that Pereira Ramos is wanted in the United States for his alleged role as an “important leader of a criminal organization” involved in international drug trafficking.  The suspected drug trafficker allegedly spent time in both Nicaragua and Costa Rica, he added. Pereira Ramos was renting a house just north of the capital in Heredia in addition to renting another house in Limón along the country’s Caribbean coast, according to Morera. Authorities in the United States have not formally requested Pereira Ramos’ extradition, but Morera said that Costa Rican authorities will cooperate with US authorities when they do.

InSight Crime Analysis

The optics are not good: the son of a Supreme Court magistrate in Nicaragua was enjoying lunch with someone wanted in the United States for drug trafficking. And it’s not the first time questions have been raised about drug traffickers’ connections to judges in Nicaragua. As far back as 2010, former Nicaraguan Interior Minister Ana Isabel Morales denounced that there were multiple judges and magistrates that had granted releases or sentence reductions to as many as 1,000 drug traffickers, including members of Mexico’s notorious Sinaloa Cartel. 

SEE ALSO: Nicaragua News and Profiles

There is little official information on Salomón Rosales. But a video currently circulating on the messaging application WhatsApp appears to show him boasting about how he is “untouchable” in Costa Rica and Nicaragua.

What Is Behind Growing Violence In Costa Rica?

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Costa Rica’s recently-elected President Carlos Alvarado Quesada has officially hit 100 days in office. But his government is still struggling to stall worsening violence that is being driven by local criminal groups battling for control of domestic drug markets. Costa Rica has long been known for its low crime rate and relatively stable economy, having escaped the bloody Cold War conflicts and brutal gang violence that have wrought havoc in other Central American countries. However, over recent years, the country has seen a continuous uptick in homicides. In 2017, Costa Rica broke the country’s record in reported homicides with 603 and a homicide rate of 12.1 per 100,000 individuals. And 2018 isn’t looking much better. In the first six months of this year, Costa Rica registered 302 homicides, which was 29 more than during the same period the year before, according to the Judicial Investigation Agency (Organismo de Investigación Judicial – OIJ). Officials project that 2018 will break the 2017 record with an estimated 625 homicides. Costa Rica’s security situation has recently been dubbed a “free fall” by security analyst Paul Chaves from the Center for Criminology and Security Training (Centro Formación en Criminología y Seguridad). Despite that, the country still remains among Latin America’s least violent nations.

InSight Crime Analysis

Authorities and experts have explained the rise in violence by pointing to issues such as increasing criminal fragmentation, a greater presence of firearms and the country’s new role in the region’s drug map. Costa Rica has, for years, served as a key transshipment point for Colombian cocaine heading to the United States and Europe. From the beginning, local Costa Rican criminal outfits were contracted to guard drug shipments and move product across the country. Instead of making payments in dollars, transnational criminal organizations often paid local criminal groups in drugs, thus increasing the amount of product that stayed in Costa Rica, a trend seen in other key transshipment countries. Over the years, with more drugs remaining in Costa Rica, illicit drug consumption has gone up, and local criminal actors have been quick to try to control increasingly lucrative local markets. “On average, local groups can make upwards of $2,000 to $3,000 per day in one location. However, many groups sometimes control five, six or seven different drug dealing spots,” Costa Rica’s Minister of Public Security, Michael Soto, told InSight Crime.

SEE ALSO: Costa Rica News and Profile

Costa Rica’s official strategy to tackle drug trafficking has been primarily focused on targeting the leaders of local groups, which caused fragmentation and, in turn, a rise in violent competition for markets. In 2012, officials arrested Marco Antonio Zamora Solórzano, alias “El Indio”, one of Costa Rica’s most notorious drug traffickers. Zamora had, for years, controlled key local drug markets, specifically in the southern part of the capital, San José. After his arrest, Zamora’s criminal structure fragmented into several groups that began to violently compete for access to drug markets in the capital, thus pushing up the homicide rate after 2013, according to Soto. Upon capture, some of the most notorious micro-trafficking ring leaders have been able to direct local drug trafficking activities and the assassination of rivals from within prison walls. Two recent examples include that of Leonel Mora Nuñez, alias “Gordo Leo,” who has been managing local drug sales and assassinations from a Costa Rican prison since his arrest in 2009, and Luis Angel Martinez Fajardo, alias “Pollo,” who continues to direct criminal activities in Costa Rica from a Nicaraguan prison. In December, 2017, Fajardo was allegedly behind the killing of Nicaraguan national, Erwin Guido Toruño, alias “El Gringo”. The assassination of Toruño, who also played a key role in the San José drug trade, could also be behind increased violence as other groups rush to fill the void. Along with increasing criminal fragmentation, a greater presence of firearms could also be leading to increased homicide rates. In recent years, reports of arms trafficking rings allegedly connected to Mexico, Colombia and Panama have surfaced. “There is a high availability of weapons. The origins of the weapons are unclear, but there is an important flow [of firearms] through the Central American corridor as a result of civil wars,” Walter Espinoza, the Director of the Judicial Investigation Agency (Organismo de Investigación Judicial – OIJ), told InSight Crime. The announcement last week of the creation of a new public security plan could signal a shift in the government’s overall strategy to combat warring micro-trafficking groups. The initiative, called “Creating Security,” is based on Medellin’s public security program and seeks to increase collaboration between federal and community officials, and prioritize resources toward prevention and police operations in high risk areas. Whether the initiative will be able to revert the trend of violence and insecurity remains to be seen. *Deborah Bonello and Juan Diego Posada contributed reporting for this story.

Cell Phone Trafficking in Costa Rica Prisons Lucrative, Aids Extortion

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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.

Costa Rica Arrests Point to Security Forces’ Growing Drug Trade Ties

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Authorities in Costa Rica have arrested several members of a drug trafficking network led by former security officials, highlighting a trend of deepening security force corruption in the Central American nation fueled by its expanding role as a drug transhipment point. Costa Rican authorities on May 23 arrested 22 alleged members of a transport group headed by former members of the country’s coast guard and police, according to a Public Security Ministry press release. The former law enforcement officials were allegedly helping transport US-bound drug shipments from Colombia and Ecuador through Costa Rica. The shipments were recovered from strategic points at sea using Costa Rican-flagged go-fast boats that brought the product to the country’s southern coast, where it was returned to the South American suppliers, according to CRHoy. The news outlet also reported that the suppliers paid the transport network with cocaine, which was resold in Costa Rica.

SEE ALSO: Costa Rica News and Profile

Authorities said the network recruited active law enforcement officials to provide inside information on security force movements and operations. One active police officer and four active coast guard members were among those arrested, according to a separate report from CRHoy. In the last two years, authorities reportedly confiscated 8.5 tons of cocaine and nearly $1 million linked to the network.

InSight Crime Analysis

As Costa Rica’s role in the drug trade has expanded in recent years, so has the problem of security force corruption. And as in other countries in Central America, current and former law enforcement agents are playing a key role in the trafficking chain. El Salvador’s Perrones Cartel and Guatemala’s Lorenzana family were two of Latin America’s most infamous transport groups. The success and longevity of both networks was largely contingent on their ability to forge alliances with corrupt security officials and elites in order to move drug shipments for larger criminal organizations without interference.

SEE ALSO: InDepth Coverage of Elite and Organized Crime

The recent arrests in Costa Rica suggest that current and former security forces there are also now playing a more central role in aiding transport groups. Indeed, Costa Rican authorities in June 2017 arrested a former high-ranking police official for allegedly guarding a cocaine shipment, as well as providing logistics and security for drug trafficking groups transporting drugs through the country.

Costa Rica Dismantles Maximum Security Inmate’s Drug Ring, Again

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The dismantling, for the second time in two years, of a drug trafficking organization in Costa Rica led by a man held in a maximum security prison is a worrying sign of the ease with which criminal groups operate in a country with a growing role in the international drug trade. On May 16, police in Costa Rica arrested 13 individuals accused of belonging to a microtrafficking ring operating across the capital, San José, and in various other parts of the country, reported CRHoy. The group moved drugs from the Caribbean port of Limón to be sold in San José and its surroundings, and was managed from the La Reforma maximum security prison by Leonel Mora Núñez, alias “Gordo Leo,” according to authorities. Mora Núñez, who was sentenced in 2009 to ten years in prison on drug trafficking charges, gave orders to his second-in-command via telephone, according to La Nación.

SEE ALSO: Costa Rica News and Profile

The organization is suspected of controling dozens of sales points across the capital that grossed around 35 million colones (approximately $60,000) per day. These sales points were divided between street corner vendors and “bunkers,” a term that generally describes highly secure places with street access. Authorities also accuse Gordo Leo’s structure of having carried out a series of murders, including one, in 2007, in which the victim was abducted and tortured. In another, last June, the victim’s house was riddled with more than 200 bullets, suggesting the structure possessed a considerable arsenal and firepower. This is not the first time authorities announce having dismantled an orgaization led by Gordo Leo. In 2015, around 40 individuals were arrested for drug trafficking under the maximum security inmate’s orders.

InSight Crime Analysis

The ability of a maximum security inmate to rebuild a microtrafficking structure and generate nearly $2 million a month in less than three years points to deep flaws within the penitentiary system in Costa Rica, including the authorities’ inability to control prisoners’ communications with the outside world. In a bizarre event last month, penitentiary guards in La Reforma prison found cell phones smuggled into the facility using cats. The fact that the group is accused of controlling dozens of sales point across San José also points to possible collusion with local law enforcement. These bunkers often hold much more drugs and cash than a simple street vendor and are an immobile target for police, meaning their success often relies on corrupting local law enforcement. These issues are particularly worrying given Costa Rica’s expanding role within the international drug trade. Evidence already points to a correlated sophistication of local groups and a growing presence of foreign transnational organizations in the country.

Costa Rica Profile

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Costa Rica has traditionally been perceived as a bastion of security in crime-ravaged Central America. In recent years, however, the country has experienced record levels of violence, which authorities have blamed on its growing role as a drug transshipment point. Local crime groups do not appear to pose a major security threat. But as they become increasingly involved with transnational criminal organizations expanding their operations in Costa Rica, corruption and instability may deepen. 

Geography

Located on the Central American isthmus, Costa Rica shares a 309-kilometer northern border with Nicaragua and a 330-kilometer southeastern border with Panama, acting as a link and transition zone for cocaine shipments among those countries. Despite being one of the region’s smallest countries, with just over 51,000 kilometers of largely rugged, rain forest, Costa Rica seems to be growing in attractiveness for transnational drug traffickers. With large stretches of unpatrolled coastline and several important ports along the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean, Costa Rica’s geography enables organized crime groups to use overland, aerial and maritime trafficking routes.

History

In contrast to many other nations in Latin America, Costa Rica has largely avoided major armed conflicts and periods of military rule. The country’s relatively strong institutions and stable democratic system have hindered the development of powerful homegrown crime groups. But Costa Rica’s geography and history have helped transnational criminal organizations develop a foothold. The presence of international crime groups in Costa Rica stretches back to the mid-1980s, when the country became an important bridge for drugs coming from South America that were headed to the United States through Central America and Mexico. As US authorities beefed up security measures to monitor drug trafficking from South America through the Caribbean, crime groups began to take advantage of gaps in Costa Rica’s law enforcement. The country’s ports were particularly attractive, as Costa Rican criminal networks used them to trade subsidized fuel for drugs with Colombian traffickers. These local groups would then traffic and store the drugs locally, using corrupt port officials to export the drugs in commercial shipping containers. Traffickers also used small regional airports with easily corruptible security forces to move drugs through the country. Moreover, transnational trafficking groups employed Costa Rican citizens to help in money laundering operations using local banks and other legitimate businesses. In part due to this legacy, the country remains an important hub for international money laundering. An aggressive crackdown on corruption during the late 1980s and early 1990s saw graft cases take down several top Costa Rican officials accused of aiding crime groups. Additionally, throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Costa Rica signed a number of multilateral agreements to target corruption, drug trafficking, money laundering and arms trafficking. The creation of new government institutions aimed at combating organized crime, combined with new laws and regulations, contributed to improvements in security in Costa Rica. In recent years, however, Costa Rica’s past successes in combating crime and corruption have been challenged by innovations on the part of transnational organized crime groups, which are becoming more adept at corrupting security forces and working with local criminal partners. In late 2011, then-President Laura Chinchilla warned about the severity of the threat posed by transnational organized crime in Costa Rica. And from 2010 to 2016, homicides increased markedly. In 2017, the country saw its most violent year on record. Officials have blamed the uptick in violence on the increasing presence of transnational criminal organizations — particularly drug trafficking networks — although it is more likely that spats among local crime groups are also fueling the rise. Nevertheless, there is strong evidence that drug trafficking in Costa Rica has increased in the 2010s in conjunction with a boom in cocaine production in Colombia. And there are similarly strong signs that transnational criminal organizations are expanding activities in Costa Rica with an array of increasingly sophisticated local crime groups. 

Criminal Groups

In addition to collaborating with transnational groups in illicit activities related to the drug trade, homegrown criminal organizations in Costa Rica engage in a number of underworld enterprises, such as petty drug dealing, sex trafficking, organ trafficking, illegal mining and logging, as well as smuggling of humans and contraband. Highly sophisticated money laundering operations have also been uncovered in the country. A variety of transnational criminal groups are known to operate in Costa Rica, often in collaboration with local partners. There have been numerous indications in recent years that powerful Mexican groups like the Sinaloa Cartel maintain a presence in Costa Rica, primarily to facilitate the transshipment of drugs. Officials have even accused Mexican criminal organizations of sending Costa Rican triggermen abroad for specialized training. Costa Rican authorities have also warned about Colombian crime groups — including the now-demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) — who are engaged in arms and drug trafficking as well as money laundering in the country. Drug traffickers from other Central American nations have also used Costa Rica as a base of operations and as a hideout. In November 2016, the leader of Honduras’ Atlantic Cartel, Wilter Neptalí Blanco Ruíz, was arrested in Costa Rica just weeks after fleeing his home country. And in 2015, a Costa Rican court sentenced Nicaraguan drug boss Agustín Reyes Aragón to 12 years in prison on trafficking charges. Reyes Aragón said he had fled his home country due to a government assassination plot. Transnational criminal groups from Europe, like Italy’s primary importer and wholesaler of cocaine, the ‘Ndrangheta, have also been linked to the drug trade in Costa Rica. Costa Rican officials have warned about the presence of Central America’s most powerful gangs, the Barrio 18 and the MS13, but there have been few indications that these groups pose any substantial security threat. 

Security Forces

Costa Rica has not had a military since it was abolished by the 1948 constitution. The country has a police body called the Public Force (Fuerza Pública), which is controlled by the Public Security Ministry (Ministerio de Seguridad Pública) and is charged with ensuring security in rural areas as well as along the country’s borders. The Public Security Ministry had a budget of about $450 million in 2017. The judicial branch maintains a separate police force known as the Judicial Police (Policía Judicial), which is under the authority of the Judicial Investigation Department (Organismo de Investigación Judicial – OIJ) and is charged with investigating crimes and apprehending suspects. The OIJ is housed under the Justice and Peace Ministry (Ministerio de Justicia y Paz), which had a budget of about $230 million in 2017. Costa Rica’s security apparatus has received significant support from the United States in recent years, including a $30 million security aid package announced in 2016. In past years, surveys have shown that Costa Rica’s police are generally perceived as more trusted and less corrupt than those in many of its neighboring countries. However, there have been numerous recent cases of police ties to organized crime, which have raised concerns that crime groups are becoming increasingly successful in efforts to penetrate the security forces. Moreover, in response to rising levels of crime and violence, authorities have proposed policing measures that would likely be counterproductive, such as shortening the minimum training period for officers. 

Judicial System

Costa Rica’s judicial branch constitutes an independent branch of the government and follows a civil law system common throughout Latin America. It is comprised of the Supreme Court (Corte Suprema de Justicia), appeals courts (Tribunales de Apelaciones) and district courts (Juzgados de Distrito). The Supreme Court has a specific chamber that hears criminal cases. The Public Ministry (Ministerio Público) and the Judicial Investigation Agency (Organismo de Investigación Judicial) are Costa Rica’s two most important judiciary bodies, with the former responsible for determining the scope of investigations and the latter responsible for criminal investigations. The Public Prosecutor’s Office (Fiscalía General) is the highest body in the Public Ministry. Costa Rica is generally considered to have one of the lowest instances of impunity in the region.

Prisons

Costa Rica’s prison system is controlled by the Justice and Peace Ministry (Ministerio de Justicia y Paz) and managed by the General Directorate of Social Adaptation (Dirección General de Adaptación Social), while the Ombudsman monitors and reports on prison conditions. In part due to the use of pretrial detention, Costa Rica’s prisons are overcrowded, at about 140 percent of their capacity as of the end of 2014. The country is taking some initial steps to improve its high incarceration rate.

Costa Rica’s Next President Lacks Plan to Tackle Rising Insecurity

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Voters in Costa Rica just chose their next president, but the incoming head of state doesn’t seem to have a coherent plan for tackling record levels of violence in the country related to its growing role in the regional drug trade. Carlos Alvarado Quesada of the center-left Citizens’ Action Party (Partido Acción Ciudadana – PAC) was elected as Costa Rica’s next president on April 1, beating out conservative candidate Fabricio Alvarado Muñoz with just over 60 percent of the vote.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Costa Rica

Despite the fact that Costa Rica saw its most homicidal year on record in 2017, rising insecurity took a back seat to other issues during the campaign. Candidates focused more on social and economic matters, including the rights of LGBT people, the country’s national debt and a wide-ranging corruption case involving Costa Rica’s cement sector.

InSight Crime Analysis

Despite clear signs of rising insecurity in Costa Rica related to the country’s growing role in the international drug trade, President-elect Alvarado has failed to put forth a clear plan for turning back the tide of increasing violence and criminality. Officials in Costa Rica are well aware that organized crime-related violence is on the rise. According to a September 2017 government report, organized crime is “driving the rise” in homicides in the country. An estimated 25 percent of homicides in 2017 were linked to the drug trade, according to authorities. But despite this recognition, President-elect Alvarado’s rhetoric on security policy thus far has been vague and inconsistent.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Security Policy

Indeed, Alvarado has proposed enhancing the infrastructure and training of the national police and strengthening citizen security programs as part of preventative efforts designed to combat crime. Improved police training is essential in light of a questionable move by the government last year to reduce training requirements in order to rapidly put more cops on the street. But Alvarado’s proposal lacks any specifics regarding what these improvements might look like and how they will address some of the root causes driving violence in Costa Rica. Alvarado’s proposals for attacking organized crime also lack clarity. The president-elect has addressed one root cause of rising violence — access to firearms — by calling for stricter gun control and establishing a gun registry to better trace weapons. But Latin America is awash with illegal guns used by criminal groups, and it’s unlikely that a registry alone can get them out of the hands of criminals. Alvarado has also proposed an asset forfeiture law in Costa Rica, a controversial tool used by authorities throughout the region to go after the finances of criminal groups. However, little evidence suggests that such a policy would do much to roll back deepening insecurity, particularly in the short term. Moreover, Alvarado’s Citizens’ Action Party doesn’t even have specific sections on crime and security outlined in their platform. It remains to be seen whether the new government will outline more concrete policy proposals regarding insecurity in Costa Rica, which has already set a new record for homicides throughout the first three months of 2018.

GameChangers 2017: What to Watch for in 2018

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Organized crime thrives amid political corruption and uncertainty. There will be plenty of this in Latin America in 2018, helping organized crime deepen its roots across the region over the course of the year. This is the moment when we draw on our extensive research and experience to make our predictions for the coming year. And the panorama for 2018 is one of the bleakest that InSight Crime has faced in our nine years of studying criminal phenomena in Latin America and the Caribbean. Tackling organized crime requires stable governments with purpose, strategy, strong security forces, healthy democracy and transparency, along with international cooperation. These currently seem in short supply around the region. Political chaos, infighting and upheaval ensure that attention is occupied on survival and manipulation of democracy, not with tackling organized crime. State legitimacy has come into question in certain nations in the region, as political leaders are investigated for corruption or manipulation of power. Embattled political leaders will often cut backroom deals with criminal elements to ensure their survival. Moreover, several countries will see important elections in the coming year, contributing to political instability.

Political Hangovers From 2017

As we wrote in our introduction to this GameChangers, 2017 saw corruption take hold at high levels in governments across the region. So we enter 2018 with several political hangovers, where we believe corruption will assume a still stronger grip:
  • Venezuela, where the last fig leaf of democracy has fallen and a corrupt regime is entrenching itself in power. As oil revenue dries up, the government may further criminalize to survive. The disintegration of the Venezuelan state and its total corruption has far-reaching regional implications for criminal dynamics. These are most immediately impacting on neighbors like Colombia, Brazil and Caribbean nations (Trinidad and Tobago, Aruba and the Dominican Republic foremost among them), but the effects are spreading further afield.
  • Honduras, where the re-election of President Juan Orlando Hernández has been disputed amid claims of fraud and corruption. This has further undermined his already battered legitimacy. This Northern Triangle nation is of extraordinary importance for drugs moving from South America to the United States.
  • Peru, which saw President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski narrowly avoid being removed from power amid accusations of corruption. He survived only by pardoning former President Alberto Fujimori, who was jailed for human rights abuses. The Fujimori family control one of the most powerful factions in Congress. Kuczynski has been fatally weakened and discredited. We expect to see major underworld activities such as cocaine, timber and gold trafficking strengthened as a result.
  • Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales, has manipulated the constitution and looks set to perpetuate himself in office by standing for a fourth term. Most checks on his power now seem to have been stripped away, even as the country plays a central role in South America’s drug trade.
  • Ecuador has seen its vice president removed after a conviction for corruption, while President Lenin Moreno find himself locked in a political war with former President Rafael Correa. Organized crime is far down the president’s list of priorities, despite that the fact that we believe the port of Guayaquil to be one of the major departure points for cocaine shipments across the globe.

Presidential Elections in 2018

To further feed the political uncertainty, there are elections in six important nations, which mean that political attention will be utterly focused on these and not on the fight against organized crime.
  • Brazil has a president with around five percent approval rating universally seen as corrupt. The favorite to win this election, Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, was convicted in July of accepting bribes from an engineering firm in exchange for public works contracts.
  • Colombia, the world’s foremost producer of cocaine, is struggling to implement a peace agreement with Marxist rebels and prevent a recycling of criminal actors. The enemies of peace seem stronger than its friends as the candidates line up.
  • Costa Rica, sat astride the Central America route for cocaine heading towards the United States, has seen transnational organized crime take root and feed national criminal structures.
  • Mexico has seen violence reach new heights and its current president, Enrique Peña Nieto, has provided few new strategies to tackle homicides or the organized crime that feeds them. New leadership is desperately needed, but no matter who wins the July elections no real changes in strategy are expected until the end of the year, when a new president will take office.
  • Paraguay, South America’s most prolific producer of marijuana already has a president associated with criminal activity in the form of cigarette smuggling. With Brazilian criminal groups projecting themselves into this landlocked nation, clear leadership is needed to contain rampant criminal activity.
  • Venezuela is due to have presidential elections, but with President Nicolás Maduro now operating a dictatorship, there are no guarantees these will be held, much less that any real change will occur. Economic collapse is more likely to produce change than political challenge.
Even in Cuba, dominated by the Castro brothers since 1959, change is coming as Raúl Castro has promised to step down in 2018. And Nicaragua’s president Daniel Ortega, in power since 2007, is tightening his grip on the levers of power and undermining democracy. Not since the days of the Cold War have democracy and good governance been under such threat in Latin America. These conditions have in part been created by organized crime and the corruption it feeds. And organized crime will continue to profit from the chaos. Cooperation is also key to fighting transnational organized crime and for good or ill, the United States has often provided coherency and leadership in the war on drugs and organized crime. That leadership is gone along with much US credibility in the region. All this simply gives yet more room for criminals to maneuver.

More ‘Plata’ Than ‘Plomo’

There is another aspect of organized crime worth mentioning when we look to 2018. While corruption has always been one of the primary tools for organized crime, its flip side has been intimidation and violence. Pablo Escobar used to famously offer his victims two choices: “plata” (“silver,” a bribe) or “plomo” (“lead,” a bullet). What is becoming clear to the most sophisticated criminals is that bribery now gets you a lot further, a lot quicker, than violence. The expanding corruption scandals are evidence of this. While Mexico, Venezuela and much of the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras register epidemic levels of homicides, Colombia is bucking the trend. Even as cocaine exports reach record levels, along with internal drug consumption, with other booming illegal economies such as gold mining and extortion, murders are falling. While this is in part due to the de-escalation of the civil conflict with the demobilization of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), the other major factor is the development of a Pax Mafiosa. The first “mafia peace” was forged in Medellin, the capital of the cocaine trade, and expanded from there across the country. This means that our mission of exposing organized crime is getting harder here in our home base of Colombia. The criminal history of Latin America has been driven by criminal entrepreneurs, principally in the forms of the drug cartels. This is not the case in Africa, where criminal activity is often managed by elements within government. As Latin organized crime continues to fragment, and corruption becomes the preferred method of doing illicit business, Latin America may begin to look more like Africa. Criminality may not only be protected at the highest levels of government but perhaps run by these elements. This is a phenomena we have studied closely in our “Elites and Organized Crime” investigations. We will dedicate yet more resources to these kinds of investigations as we believe they point the way forward in terms of criminal evolution.

SEE ALSO: InDepth Coverage of Elites and Organized Crime

Transnational organized crime is the most agile business on the planet and adapts to changing conditions much faster than governments. When those governments become weakened, undermined and corrupted by transnational crime groups, the already uneven playing field become yet further skewed. This year is likely to be a year of further criminal entrenchment in the region, of further corruption of high levels of government or even state capture. Be ready, because we need to pay very close attention, if we are to see the hand of organized crime amid the political chaos. Top photo by Associated Press/Carlos Jasso