COSTA RICA Modernizing the Non-Army

September 25, 2007

Only a few years ago, Costa Rican policemen carried screwdrivers, not guns, in their holsters. Much of their time was spent removing parking vio- lators' license plates. Most Civil and Rural Guards were political appointees with little training who were replaced every four years when new presidents handed out jobs to supporters. Historically, Costa Rica's military rarely assumed the dominant role in national politics that armies did else- where in Central America. After the 1948 civil war, the Army was abolished by the victorious social democrats who, favoring industrialization and economic diversification, sought to consolidate power and to prevent a coup from re- turning the government to the wealthy coffee oligarchy. In place of the Army, a small Civil Guard police force was created. Today the Costa Rican government is divided over how much to modernize the security forces and whether to bow to U.S. pressures to allow contra bases in the north. Advocates of a police buildup express fears that if economic conditions continue to worsen, protests, strikes, squatter invasions and popular discontent might grow and take on a more radical tone. The "terrorist threat" has also been seized upon as a reason for beefing up the security forces. Since 1980, there have been a number of bomb attacks and kidnappings, some linked to contras and Salvadorean diplomats and others to both ultra-left Costa Ricans and Central Americans said by security forces to have connections with Salvadorean FMLN guerrillas or the Nicaraguan government. The exist- ing Costa Rican security forces have, however, been remarkably efficient in Marc Edelman and Jayne Hutchcroft, both anthropologists, follow Costa Rica closely. They are the authors of "Costa Rica-Resisting Austerity" in the Jan- uary/February issue of the Report. rounding up suspects and assembling evidence in these cases, even though legal niceties and thorough investiga- tions often take second place to Mc- Carthyite tirades against foreigners, non-violent progressive Costa Rican organizations, the Sandinistas and the FMLN. Near the Nicaraguan border, several Costa Ricans who refused to collabo- rate with the contras have been mur- dered. There are frequent raids into Nicaragua by Costa Rica-based con- tras and occasionally hot pursuit incur- sions by Sandinista troops. Increased border patrols, the government claims, would contribute to reducing tensions. But because the government is not united in its attitude toward the contras and is under U.S. pressure to tolerate their activities, a stronger security force presence in the frontier region could well be used to support, rather than hinder, contra efforts. President Luis Alberto Monge has charged that "the international cam- paign against our country that rants about our militarization is a crude ma- neuver of the enemies of Costa Rican democracy." But even though the Costa Rican security forces are still modest in comparison with those in the rest of the region, the current concern with military professionalization signals a definite departure from tico tradition. There's No Army, But... The creation of an Army in Costa Rica is generally recognized as politi- cally unacceptable. A recent poll found 83% of Costa Ricans opposed to such a move. This sentiment was also reflected in the outcry following statements by U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick and Senator Charles Percy that Costa Rica should reconsider its ban on the military. Other kinds of units could, however, become an Army in every- thing but name. While still probably not very formidable in an international conflict, tico forces are growing increas- ingly efficient at exercising control at home. Since 1974, U.S. law does not per- mit assistance to foreign police forces, and Costa Rica cannot accept military aid because it does not have an Army. This technicality has not stopped the United States from providing $2 mil- lion annually since fiscal year 1982 under the Military Assistance Program plus additional funds for training. Other aid has been provided by Israel, Tai- wan, South Korea, Argentina, Panama, Venezuela, Japan and Spain. The In- ternational Institute of Strategic Studies and the Defense and Foreign Affairs Handbook report that Costa Rica re- cently acquired a V-100 armored car, new patrol boats and several helicopters and STOL aircraft. Currently there are around 5,000 Civil Guards, the main police force founded after the 1948 civil war. Since 1982, mobile Guard "commands" have been organized in strategic areas. The newly formed Chorotega Com- pany, now stationed along the northern border, consists of 184 Guards trained by Costa Rican graduates of the U.S. school in the Panama Canal Zone. The Southern Command and the Atlantic Command, each with 278 guards, are based near the banana plantations in southwestern and eastern Costa Rica, the scenes of frequent strikes and police violence. Another specialized unit is the riot squad equipped with crowd control gear donated by the Taiwanese government. There is also a 3,000-member Rural Guard, created in 1969 to replace the old treasury police whose duties in- cluded cracking down on clandestine liquor stills. One of the main functions of the Rural Guard, however, is the eviction of peasant squatters. The Judicial Police (OU), founded in 1973 with 120 employees, now has a total strength of 647, 287 of whom are investigators. OU specialists have trav- eled to the United States, Taiwan, Chile and various European countries to receive training in criminology, bal- listics, handwriting analysis and intelli- gence. OH Director Eduardo Aguilar, who describes his organization as "a repressive police," believes that "it is necessary to make an enormous effort to strengthen all the security corps ... MARCH/APRIL 1984 9We are living in a war and the country has to prepare itself to face serious acts of terrorism." Other smaller security forces include the National Security Agency (ASN) and the Intelligence and Security Di- rectorate (DIS), consisting of some 100 officials charged with intelligence gather- ing and protecting dignitaries; the Mili- tary Police, which has grown to 250 men from 100 in 1977 and is responsible for patrolling San Jos6; and the special- ized Crime Prevention Unit (UPD). Open Paramilitary Groups The Organization for National Emer- gencies (OPEN) is a paramilitary group created by presidential decree in 1982 whose 10,000 members receive four hours training each week with obsolete Garand rifles. The stated aim of OPEN is to reinforce the Civil Guard in emer- gencies, but ideology clearly plays an important role in the organization. Membership requirements include a "proven democratic creed" and, ac- cording to vice security minister Johnny Campos, leftists are not permitted to join. The group debuted in late 1982 by attacking demonstrators protesting Reagan's visit to Costa Rica. In north- ern Ciudad Quesada, OPEN units were used to break a hospital strike in mid- 1983. OPEN leaders in southeastern Costa Rica include high-ranking per- sonnel of PAIS, S.A., one of the prin- cipal banana companies in the region. In addition to the official security forces, private paramilitary groups are also active. It is widely believed in Costa Rica that each political party has its own armed units. The largest of these, estimated to include several thousand members, belongs to the gov- erning social democratic National Lib- eration Party. The extreme right Free Costa Rica Movement (MCRL), which has close ties with paramilitary groups in other Central American countries, advertises combat training for its members in the major newspapers. MCRL head Bernal Urbina admits that MCRL members participate in OPEN and that new re- cruits take advantage of OPEN train- ing. In a 1981 statement celebrating its 20th anniversary, MCRL claimed its members had included presidents of the republic, ministers and deputies. Despite the rapid growth and spe- cialization of the Costa Rican security forces in recent years, Costa Rican rightists fear that this may be too little too late. They are now calling for the creation of an Army or some compa- rable institution. Shortly before the for- mation of OPEN, the ACOGE business association suggested founding a sys- tem of "neighborhood security com- mittees in charge of reporting 'suspi- cious' actions or persons." Enrique Benavides, an influential La Nacirn columnist, proposes establishing "ob- ligatory military service without an Army." Last May, the Patriotic Union, whose members include ex-Foreign Minister Gonzalo Facio and MCRL founder Frank Marshall, called for the formation of an Army "to defend our territory in the face of the warlike situa- tion in the Central American area." Responding last October to another business group's offer to finance a new security force, Civil Guard Colonel Oscar Vidal commented that while he favored the idea, such a unit would REPORT ON THE AMERICAS have to be under the authority of the Public Security Ministry. Not content with the slow pace of action on their proposals, rightist pro- Army Costa Ricans are founding addi- tional paramilitary organizations, the largest of which is probably the 300- man North Hurtar Democratic Move- ment, centered in Ciudad Quesada. Other groups include one headed by Patriotic Union members Frank Mar- shall and Vico Starki and another in the eastern banana zone, which has links to OPEN. Nicaragua's Southern Border In February 1983 columnist Jack Anderson, citing confidential State De- partment cables, charged that "the Reagan Administration, with Israel as a partner, is working on a multimillion- dollar land development plan in Costa Rica . . . [which] with the military buildup in Honduras would create a giant strategic pincers physically iso- lating Nicaragua by land." Both the U.S. State Department and the Costa Rican government issued emphatic denials. The plan's origins, however, sug- gest that strategic concerns were para- mount. Nine months before Anderson's revelations, La Nacion described a de- velopment plan for the same 800 square miles of sparsely populated jungle in the Nicaraguan border area. The idea came from John Hull, a U.S. citizen with a farm in the project zone. In 1979 Hull consulted a "North American en- gineering firm" about the project's feasibility and extracted promises from the U.S. Agency for International De- velopment (AID) to finance prelimi- nary studies. In August 1982, an expos in the Mexican daily Excelsior named Hull as one of the key contra collaborators on Costa Rica's northern border. Appar- ently unaware of his role in originating the development plan, Excelsior re- ported that Hull, "accompanied by other men, takes off from a farm in Los Chiles in his small plane and penetrates Nicaraguan territory to strafe villages. On returning, [his] men disperse through- out the farms of the frontier zone and resume their 'work' as peons." The Israeli firm TAHAL, with ex- perience in colonization projects, is 10providing advice on infrastructural de- velopment and the Israeli government has donated a tractor to the town of Los Chiles and several hundred Galil rifles to the Costa Rican forces posted along the border. Last August, AID signed a $14.2 million loan agreement for the project, which Monge described at the time as "a rescue mission." U.S. Am- bassador Curtin Winsor greeted the an- nouncement quoting the Spanish aphor- ism, "popular es gobernar"' -"to populate is to govern." Honduran-Style Roads In September, General Paul Gorman of the Panama-based U.S. Southern Command offered to build a road net- work through the project zone which would be financed by the U.S. military and constructed by U.S. military en- gineers. Under Secretary of Defense Fred Ikl6 announced in November that 400 to 1,000 U.S. military personnel would participate and that "the dis- patch of combat engineers would be the first such joint exercises in Costa Rica." This unilateral declaration created a minor uproar, especially because U.S. road plans appeared modeled on simi- lar efforts along Nicaragua's other bor- der with Honduras, where there is heavy fighting. U.S. diplomats noted that if foreign military personnel came to Costa Rica unarmed, it would not be necessary to secure approval from the country's congress. But even after the U.S. Embassy tactfully began to refer to the combat engineers as "citizen soldiers," Costa Rican officials were apprehensive. They suggested that while roads would be welcome, soldiers would not, since there were plenty of unem- ployed Costa Ricans quite capable of building highways. Meanwhile, 13 U.S. Army engineers were already at work in the north instal- ling 37 prefabricated barracks for Rural and Civil Guards. U.S. Navy Sea Bees, who were greeted on arrival by top Costa Rican security officials, also completed a well-drilling project in the northwest. The drought stricken region could doubtless use the wells. But fears were again raised about possible paral- lels with Honduras when The New York Times reported that in areas of Hon- duras bordering Nicaragua, U.S. mili- tary personnel "drilled water wells for military camps and nearby civilian communities." In January the Costa Rican govern- ment announced that while U.S. mili- tary engineers would not come to work on northern roads because it might arouse suspicion, their participation in another well-digging project in the northwest was under negotiation. U.S. Ambassador Winsor branded opposi- tion to the project "paranoid." Because the northern zone is the only place in Costa Rica where no mountains separate the Pacific from the Caribbean, it will probably also be the site of a planned transisthmian oil pipeline. This project, intended to gen- erate foreign exchange, creates addi- tional security considerations in the north. Already a small naval base has opened at the Pacific terminus of the planned pipeline, just a few miles south of Nicaragua. Protecting the pipeline will require improved vigilance and could become a pretext for establishing a massive security force along the border. Mixed Relations with Contras Relations between the security forces and Eden Pastora's ARDE reflect the differences within the government be- tween those sympathetic to the contras and those who favor genuine neutrality and fear border violence will spill over into Costa Rica. Panamanian- and U.S.- trained Civil Guard patrols have raided contra camps and closed them down- at least temporarily. Other times, though, they have been known to turn a blind eye to contra activities and individual Civil and Rural Guards have been forced to resign or been transferred away from the border for assisting the contras. One off-duty Rural Guard officer has been killed fighting for the contras. The assistant director of the Rural Guard was pub- licly denounced as an ARDE collab- orator by a Guard major who was sub- sequently relieved of his post, allegedly for opposing the contras. Vice security minister Campos recently admitted that several subordinates had been lured by large cash payments into collaborating with ARDE. Contra leaders are often seen in San Jos6 and there may be frequent collab- oration between Costa Rican guards and ARDE, but official policy is still not to tolerate the contra presence. Costa Rica expelled some 60 U.S. and Cuban mercenaries ARDE recruited in Miami and recently brought charges against five ARDE leaders, including Pastora, for terrorism and "illicit as- sociation." In a December visit to the United States, however, Monge com- mented that he would not seek the ex- ,pulsion of anti-Sandinista forces from Costa Rica, since to do so would vio- late their right to political asylum. U.S. Bent on Militarization Even though Costa Rican leaders would like to have a more efficient police force, they are clearly not happy that the United States is bent on mili- tarizing their country. Costa Rica's vote in the United Nations against the U.S. invasion of Grenada, which sparked the resignation of hard-line Foreign Minister Fernando Volio, was followed by a declaration of "perpetual neutrality" that Monge hopes will keep the country out of any armed conflict in the region. The government has also denied the U.S. Navy permission to carry out exercises in Salinas Bay along the Nicaraguan border and turned down U.S. invitations to train Civil Guards at bases in Honduras, to participate in the Big Pine war games and to send ob- servers to the recently revived Central American Defense Council. Monge, however, who recently ac- cused the IMF of "destabilizing Costa Rican democracy," has little room for maneuver given the country's desperate financial situation. He is still trying to ac- commodate U.S. and IMF pressures and the opposing demands of Costa Rican neutralists. Six months before the Kis- singer Commission report called for giving more military aid to U.S. allies in Central America, a secret "working paper" prepared for the White House National Security Council and leaked to The New York Times, called for pro- viding Costa Rica with between $7 and $9 million annually in security assis- tance. This aid, several times current levels, could force Costa Rica down a path of increasing militarization and repression. This is probably opposed by most of its people and entails sig- nificant dangers for both domestic peace and international stability in the region.

Tags: Costa Rica, police forces, foreign relations, Militarization

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