Five alleged hit men arrested by Costa Rican authorities for plotting to assassinate top administration officials were deported back home to Colombia this week, where they were immediately let free.
The suspects had allegedly been hired by a powerful Colombian drug cartel to teach authorities in Costa Rica a lesson about meddling in the drug trade – police here have seized a record 40 metric tons of cocaine in the past year.
Not only has the plot sent a chill through the Costa Rican government as it ponders the pitfalls of its cocaine crackdown, but the way authorities handled the detained suspects sparked a flood of questions.
“I don’t understand why they were deported… It’s very strange that the suspects were returned to Colombia and set free,” said National Unity Party (PUN) legislator José Echandi.
Public Security Minister Fernando Berrocal and Presidency Minister Rodrigo Arias, the brother and spokesman of President Oscar Arias, topped the list of targets, according to two high-ranking police officials who asked The Tico Times to withhold their names.
Berrocal said Tuesday that the decision to deport the Colombians was made by the administration’s Security Council, comprising Berrocal,Minister Arias, Chief Prosecutor Francisco Dall’Anese and Jorge Rojas, head of the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ).
Minister Berrocal said the council feared Costa Rica’s justice system wouldn’t be able to handle processing dangerous suspects linked to powerful drug cartels, and opted to deport them instead. Specifically, they were concerned about the possibility of an armed attack to liberate the five Colombian suspects.
“Clearly we have to improve the system’s conditions – but I wouldn’t say that the system can’t handle dangerous people,” said Justice Minister Laura Chinchilla, who is also the First Vice-President. Chinchilla, also a member of the Security Council, wasn’t included in the decision to deport the suspects because she was out of the country at the time.
Immigration Police Director Francisco Castaing told The Tico Times this week that authorities couldn’t continue to hold the suspects because there’s no law on the books to punish conspirators whose plan goes unexecuted.
Though OIJ Assistant Director Francisco Segura has also told The Tico Times in the past there’s no law to punish those behind foiled conspiracy plans, Chinchilla said she doubts that’s the case.
However, the Justice Minister added she would “analyze” whether legal reforms are necessary.
Castaing said the alleged hit men may have been on the payroll of Colombia’s feared North Valley Cartel, an organization that has risen to power in recent years after authorities in Colombia cracked down on other cartels.
The mug of the cartel’s fugitive kingpin, Diego Montoya Sánchez, appears next to the likes of Osama Bin Laden on the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) top ten most wanted list. FBI Special Agent in Charge Michael Clemens has dubbed the Cartel “one of the largest and most violent drug-trafficking organizations in operation today.”
Legislator José Echandi, who’s the secretary of the Legislative Assembly’s Commission on Drug Trafficking and a former Ombudsman, said the commission has called on Berrocal to appear before it July 12 to explain the capture and release of the five Colombians.
The suspects left to roam free in Colombia was a shocker, but the fact that hit men would be hired to take out top officials wasn’t, Echandi said. Last month, three alleged hired killers entered a law firm in Zapote and put three bullets into Mario Zamora, the secretary general of Echandi’s political party (TT, June 15).Miraculously, Zamora survived the attack and has since been released from the hospital while authorities investigate the case.
“Killers for hire are no surprise here. The thing is, they usually go after people who aren’t famous,” Echandi said.
The foiled plot, in which at least one alleged assassin was paid $50,000 in advance, may have been in retaliation for a string of raids on Colombian-led trafficking rings that were operating in Costa Rica, said Security Ministry spokesman Ricardo González.
Based on intelligence from Colombian authorities and wiretapped phone conversations in which suspects spoke of a plan to eliminate two top officials, Costa Rican authorities arrested three of the men June 28 in Alajuela and two others June 29 in a bar in Esparza, Puntarenas, according to González.
The group had ties with a Costa Rican ranch owner in the Northern Zone who was going to provide them with a hideout. Also, a sixth man, suspected to be the group’s leader, had gone back to Colombia for more resources, Castaing said.
He said some of the suspects had entered the country as recently as 10 days before their arrest on “go-fast” boats that drug smugglers use to traffic contraband by sea.
The daily La Nación reported that at least one of the suspects had been in the country since 2002. That suspect, whose last name is Martínez, had been arrested and released for his alleged involvement in breaking a shop window in 2005. A month later, he survived three bullets during a shootout at a car wash in the eastern suburb of San Pedro.
Two of the Colombians had married Costa Ricans they allegedly don’t know, in what Castaing said appear to be marriages of convenience to obtain residency (see separate story). Another had a fake visa.
All five were deported on a flight to Bogotá Saturday accompanied by 10 Immigration officials. They were released Monday by Colombia’s Administrative Security Department (DAS). DAS spokesman Oscar Galvis told The Tico Times they had to release the suspects because there was no case against the detainees and they had no criminal history.
“It’s strange that with all the information they had about them in Costa Rica, (authorities) didn’t even present anything formal against them,” Galvis said, adding that if Colombia receives proof to develop charges against the suspects, they will be called in to appear in court.
It appears the fiasco may be a boon for the administration’s immigration reform proposal now in Congress (see separate story), and its ongoing efforts to design a reform to crack down on organized crime by giving authorities more leeway in investigations (TT, June 15).
“We have to put strong controls on immigration.We can’t let so many people in and we have to be very careful with our refugees. We are one of the countries with the most refugees per capita,” Echandi said.
The case of the hit men comes on the heels of Costa Rica’s attempts to not only control immigration flows, but to coordinate with Colombian authorities to investigate potential organized crime here.
Last August, authorities here nabbed Héctor Orlando Martínez, a leader of Colombia’s most powerful rebel group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), wanted for his alleged part in killing some 140 people in Colombia, including the 1999 massacre of 47 police. The FARC has used extortion, kidnapping and drug trafficking to fund their long-running war on the Colombian state.
After the arrest of Martínez, who has since been deported, and other suspected guerrilla group members here, Costa Rican and Colombian authorities collaborated to investigate the presence of such groups by checking on the backgrounds of 18,000 Colombians with residency and refugee status here (TT, Sept. 15, 2006).
The investigation into the backgrounds of 10,000 Colombian refugees in Costa Rica, however, was criticized by the United Nationsas a violation of the refugees’ rights (TT, Sept. 29, 2006).
Berrocal released a statement Monday in which he said he respects the decision of Colombian authorities to release the suspects.
“I was informed that because there is no open case in that country, it wasn’t possible to keep the five deported Colombians detained for more than 24 hours. An investigation in both countries, however, will continue,” he said, adding that the five Colombians have been banned from entering Costa Rica for five years.
For Echandi, important questions linger.
“Why didn’t the Costa Rican government act? Terrorism and hired killings are international crimes,” Echandi said.
“Was it negligence on the part of Costa Rica or were they really not hit men at all?” he asked.