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
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
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
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
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 ...
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
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
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
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
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
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

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.