Officials expect nearly as many deaths on the nation’s hazardous, pothole-ridden roadways this year as there are Traffic Police patrolling them.
Traffic Police Director German Marín says his force is underfunded, understaffed and underequipped to take on the mounting death toll on the nation’s roadways. And while admitting corruption plagues his force, he told The Tico Times that citizens aren’t vocal enough in denouncing this corruption.
An average of more than 600 deaths on the roadways each year has prompted the Arias administration to present a roadway safety bill to Congress (TT, Nov. 3).
If approved, the plan would refurbish the nation’s deteriorated road infrastructure and pump much-needed funds and human resources into the struggling Traffic Police, part of the Ministry of Public Works and Transport (MOPT). In the meantime, higher concentrations of police will be on the roads through Jan. 1 to crack down on drunk driving this holiday season.
Marín, who has headed the Traffic Police for nearly six months, has worked with the department for 13 years patrolling the streets, and was an administrative aide for four different Traffic Police directors.
He said corruption is encouraged by a lack of resources in the department and a lack of initiative on the part of citizens. He said that though the Traffic Police has and will investigate corruption within its ranks, it is ultimately up to citizens to break the cycle of corruption on the nation’s roads.
The Tico Times recently sat down with Marín to discuss these issues. Excerpts:
TT: As part of the Roadway Security Plan, you want more officers…
GM: There’s an ideal and a basic number. Right now we’re around 800 officers. The idea is to arrive at 1,500. But the first 300 (included in the proposed Roadway Security Plan) are more accessible, budget-wise.
How much does it cost to employ 300 more Traffic Police?
It’s a very important number economically that has various aspects. It’s not just salaries. Each official means ¢200,000 ($386) in monthly salary. But they also need uniforms, speed sensors, reflective vests, helmets, weapons, standard equipment, whistles, boots …An optimistic figure would be ¢2 billion ($3.9 million).
Under the proposed plan, fines for all traffic violations would increase. (Driving under the influence would
increase from ¢20,000 ($38) to ¢280,000 ($540), for example.) Why do fines need to be increased?
Fines haven’t been increased in 13 years. That’s to say, when the law was passed in 1993, it generated a reaction in the driver…but over the years, it’s become apparent that the fines don’t affect the driver.
Is the problem weak fines, or is it the way the laws are being enforced?
No, no, no. They are two different things. The aspect of the law enforcement is one thing, but the other thing is that the fines no longer make the driver worry. Drivers violate the law then they pay the fine. They see it as very easy, very simple, very practical. They pay the fine and that’s it.
Higher fines could encourage corruption – abuses of power and the taking or soliciting of bribes.And we’ve seen a rising number of complaints being filed against Traffic Police (from 424 in 2004 to 550 in 2005)…
I wouldn’t say corruption is increasing. These are common complaints. I don’t believe an increase in complaints necessarily means an increase in corruption… If we have a bad official, it’s because he came with those principles and his morals are that way. That’s how he is, understand?
What needs to be done is reinforce the mechanisms (to fight corruption) by creating another special investigation office and by following up on all those complaints and being stricter. But all the same, officers always have been and currently are being fired for corruption-type cases.
Not 100% of complaints we receive (against officers) are for corruption. Most complaints we receive are for officers not carrying out proper duties and not conforming to their contract… though many of those cases could be tied to corruption, we can’t necessarily prove it.
In a lot of cases, citizens aren’t using the available mechanisms (to fight corruption).
This year, how many police have been fired for corruption?
Right now we have two cases … in which they were fired.
And last year?
I’m not exactly sure, but I think five were fired.
Can you explain a little more about the two cases of corruption this year?
Basically, there was this group, in which one (officer) was dedicated to informal transport of people. He was a member of this association… he was like a “pirata” (illegal taxi driver), providing informal transportation. Some (licensed) taxi drivers filed a complaint against the officer. But I can’t talk much about it because he is still going through the legal process. I can’t comment on the other case.
Public Works and Transport Minister Karla González agrees there is a problem of corruption within the Traffic Police… How does one confront the problem?
The citizen is very involved. The citizen is the one who foments (the process) or not. I’m not saying it’s their fault or not, but it is their responsibility to file a complaint… I’m always telling the citizen to file that complaint. Don’t participate!
We have been and are being strict against those who are proven to be involved in those types of activities. The message is clear: we must break the cycle of corruption.
I don’t think it’s a significant group… But it exists, like it exists in all agencies. It’s an internal problem. But here there is an external component – the driver, who facilitates this problem, participates, and doesn’t file complaints.
But in these cases, police are in a position of authority. Is there not more responsibility on the part of the police?
Totally … I’m not saying it’s the driver’s fault. I’m saying that often it’s difficult to detect and conduct an investigation because we don’t have a (formal) complaint, we don’t have the testimony of the person speaking out against the corruption.
Part of the Roadway Security Plan is to create another agency that would investigate corruption cases in the Traffic Police. Can you explain what that agency would do?
We’re analyzing that …I would say what lacks most are legal mechanisms. What we are trying to do is to make it easier to bring sanctions against Traffic Police … to make the process more agile.
If a traffic cop solicits a bribe, what are the channels a citizen has to complain against corruption?
As it is happening, call 9-1-1 and report it. Then you can come to MOPT and record your complaint in written form in the police inspection office. Or, inside the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ), there is a specialized Transit Office. The mechanisms have been created, and the channels are open. But we are planning to create another so it is easier.
Do you think $400 a month is enough for a Traffic Police officer? Can low salaries and a lack of resources encourage corruption?
Yes, I understand the concept… The idea is to increase salaries, too. They aren’t the most unfavorable salaries compared to other public sectors. We’re looking at how much a salary increase should be… The lack of resources has grown. Cars have motor problems, and are expensive to repair. We need more tow trucks, motorcycles, cars and pick-ups.
Want to File a Complaint?
Your best bet to file a complaint against a traffic police officer – whether for bribery, extortion or abuse of power – is to head to the specialized transit section of the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ), according to Verónica Salazar, secretary of the section.
Both the OIJ and the police inspection office of the Public Works and Transport Ministry (MOPT) will take complaints, but the OIJ has about the same number of personnel handling a smaller load of complaints. MOPT is swamped with an average of about 500 complaints it receives each year, compared to 21 cases OIJ has received and investigated this year.
“People go to (MOPT) because they don’t know that they can come to OIJ to file complaints against traffic police,” Salazar told The Tico Times.
Those seeking to file a report should do it as soon as possible, officials said. In fact, Traffic Police Director Germán Marín says victims of traffic police corruption should call 9-1-1 immediately after the incident, even before filing a formal complaint in either of the two offices. Victims should then file a formal complaint.
The police inspection office at MOPT can be contacted at 227-9668. The OIJ transit section can be reached at 295-3898 or 295-3903. Officials at both offices speak some English, or can contract translation services.
Though the MOPT office of police inspection investigates administrative complaints and OIJ branch investigates criminal complaints, either office will take a citizen complaint against a traffic cop.
Salazar said so far this year the OIJ branch has investigated eight cases of alleged abuse of power, 10 cases related to bribery or extortion, and three cases alleging negligence of duties. Each case is forwarded on to a public prosecutor and is settled in the Judicial Branch’s specialized unit of various crimes, a court that makes decisions regarding such cases, Salazar explained.
At MOPT, the police inspection office receives complaints and forwards them to the personnel council, an office of five who decide whether the complaint has enough evidence to be considered. If not, the complaint is sent back and the citizen filing the complaint is asked to provide more information.
MOPT received 550 complaints last year and has taken more than 300 complaints so far this year. According to Marín, two officers have been fired this year because of investigations based on complaints.
Asked what happened with the rest of the complaints, the police inspection office in MOPT referred the question to the personnel council. The personnel council referred the question to the court and Marín. The court also referred the question to Marín.
Marín told The Tico Times he does not have an account of what happens with each complaint. He said many of the complaints lack evidence, and thus never reach the level of an official investigation. In some cases, he added, citizens falsely accuse traffic cops of corruption because they are angry about a ticket they received.