LIBERIA, Guanacaste – Hugo Uba, the new police chief of Costa Rica’s largest and fastest-developing province, listens to Jimi Hendrix.
He also likes Santana.
But he lifts both his hands up flat and wobbles them to show his shifty feelings about Metallica.
“So-so,” he says in English.
The man in charge of producing a safe and sound Guanacaste, the nest of Costa Rica’s golden-egg tourism industry, is well versed in U.S. culture.
The walls of his office are plastered with diplomas and certificates from U.S. military academies, including the controversial School of the Americas, where he trained and served as a tactics instructor for two years.
“I love Gringolandia, a lot,” he recently told The Tico Times, smiling through the gap in his bottom row of teeth before taking off in a police vehicle to pick up two U.S. friends at the nearby DanielOduberInternationalAirport.
With a flat face, stout frame and thick neck, Uba resembles a playful bulldog at times, though he exudes authority when he appears in front of a class of cadets. In general, he appears calm considering the task at hand.
Crime in the province’s coastal communities is skyrocketing, and, like elsewhere in the country, many victims aren’t even bothering to report incidents. Drugs are invading Costa Rica’s pristine beaches.
More and more residents are relying on private security companies, more and more of which are setting up offices in Liberia and environs.
But Uba, 50, maintains a level head.
“Where there is tourism, what happens?
There is prostitution, drugs, drinking, theft, so the police have to get in deeper… but I can’t put a policeman in every house,” he said over a recent breakfast of gallo pinto and avocado with The Tico Times at the Liberia police headquarters.
In reality, there’s barely a policeman in every town. When he arrived four months ago, for instance, there were a total of six police in the booming beach town of Tamarindo, where residents have long complained of a lack of law enforcement. Now there are 20.
He’s also planning on doubling tiny forces in Brasilito and Playas del Coco, and creating new police stations in those communities.
In Liberia, police are moving out of their old headquarters – once a Cold-War-era arms barracks the Culture Ministry now plans to turn into a museum – and moving into a larger, freshly painted building that will also serve as a training ground for recruits.
As part of the 4,000 new police President Oscar Arias has promised to put on the streets by the end of his term in 2010, the Guanacaste region will be receiving 150 cadets a year to augment the existing force of 666 in the region of 10 cantons – seven of which line the beach. Three-dozen new Tourism Police agents are also working at Guanacaste’s beaches, Uba added.
“Working on the beaches is totally different than working in the city,” Uba said, adding that efforts focus on tourism-related crime, drug abuse and offshore drug trafficking.
Many area fishermen, for instance, have been busted supplying drug-smuggling boats with gasoline. Police here also dedicate much time to border control efforts.
Police Since Birth
Raised by a father who was a police officer – and who was recently named the director of the NationalPoliceAcademy (TT, June 22) – Uba says he wanted to be a police officer as far back as he remembers. At 17, he said he entered the “military police,” a supervisory force that became extinct in 1982.
In 1984, he was sent to Panama, to the former headquarters of the School of the Americas, to be trained as an instructor, and ended up in the U.S. state of Georgia when the school’s headquarters were moved to one of the largest U.S. military training bases at FortBenning. After other stints as an instructor in the United States and Costa Rica, he found himself back at the School in 1995, teaching tactical troop movements, a skill he said has come in handy in Costa Rica while searching for drug traffickers in Guanacaste’s back country.
President Arias recently decided to stop sending officers to the academy that succeeded the controversial School of the Americas, criticized as producing military leaders that have violated human rights throughout Latin America (TT, May 18). Uba said he respects the President’s decision, though he stands by the school.
“If it wasn’t for the School of the Americas, a lot of Latin America would have fallen into Communism’s chaos,” he said.
Uba is one of nearly 2,600 Costa Ricans who have been trained at the institute, which was founded in Panama in 1946, moved to Georgia in 1984 and closed in 2001 amid protests about reports that the school was teaching torture techniques and that graduates were involved in slaughtering churchwomen and priests in El Salvador. It was succeeded by the also-controversial Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC).
Uba said U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy once asked him in Georgia why an officer from a demilitarized country was at the School.
“I told him it was the only help that Costa Rica’s police had received in years,” he said.
The Guanacaste police chief ’s right-hand man, Capt. José Cruz, with whom Uba works closely in decision-making and scheduling, also trained at the school in 1994.
Cruz said one of the biggest challenges here is to take on the problem of people not reporting theft and domestic violence, the country’s most common crimes. The problem is particularly thorny with tourists, who don’t take the time to report because they’re not in the country for long, he said.
“There’s no low season anymore. There’s always a flow of tourists,” said Cruz, bumping along a decrepit road in Curime, a neighborhood in Liberia he said is overrun with thieves and drug addicts.
Uba, who served as the director of the NationalPoliceAcademy’s Murciélago training grounds in Guanacaste before he was given his new assignment, has aspirations to be the nationwide director of the National Police.
He’ll draw from his training, and the connections he made with other Latin American police and military leaders in the United States, to make his way to the top.
“In the United States, they taught me to live 10 years in the future,” he said.