Organized Crime Grew; Big Cases Saw Verdict
Organized crime emerged as a momentous threat to Costa Rica’s security this year, and by year’s end the Arias administration still had not introduced promised reforms to combat the growing problem.
Chief Prosecutor Francisco Dall’Anese, who was re-elected in November for another four-year term, made call after call for more resources – legal, human and technical – to fight the increasing organized crime problem.
Authorities battling the growing drugtrafficking problem seized a record 55 metric tons of cocaine this year.
One of the administration’s biggest successes in combating organized crime came early this year from Immigration Director Mario Zamora, who instead of taking bribes from a Chinese human trafficking ring, used the ring’s offer to plan a sting on the organization.
Officials arrested seven of the network’s members in a flurry of raids in January, and Zamora, who spent the remainder of the year trying to push a massive immigration reform bill, was widely praised for his ethical leadership.
The administration’s crime-fighting initiatives received renewed attention in March, when former legislator and presidential candidate Ricardo Toledo’s house was attacked, resulting in the death of his domestic employee and a neighbor who tried to intervene.
Within days of the brutal attack, the Public Security Ministry had in its hands a draft of a bill to reform the nation’s criminal laws – including changes security officials had been requesting for more than a dozen years.
Three months later, the Vice-Minister of Housing survived an attack from suspected hit men at his Zapote law firm, in which he was shot three times.
Both cases were still under investigation at year’s end and the administration had yet to submit the reform to the Legislative Assembly. Some said the administration had overlooked organized crime reforms and instead gave priority to immigration reform, which would include provisions to combat some forms of organized crime such as human trafficking. The immigration reforms were still pending at year’s end, however.
Perhaps the most bizarre spurt of suspense this year came in May when a Russian citizen from a former Soviet state, enraged over a botched business venture, allegedly took hostage a compatriot at the Russian Embassy in San José. The hostage situation set off four hours of speculation as international media attention zoomed in and tried to decipher whether the Russian ambassador and other embassy officials inside the building had been taken hostage. It turned out only one man was taken hostage and the ambassador had stayed inside to help negotiate the situation.
No one was hurt in the incident.
The administration had what was perhaps its scariest run-in with organized crime in early July with the arrest here of five alleged Colombian hit men who reportedly planned to take out Costa Rican Security Minister Fernando Berrocal and the president’s brother, Presidency Minister Rodrigo Arias. They were deported back to Colombia immediately without charges and set free, raising questions about Costa Rica’s ability to take on sophisticated organized crime.
Skyrocketing robberies and thefts, a big threat to the country’s expatriate community and tourists, continued to go vastly unpunished this year.
But some big cases that were in Costa Rican courts for years resulted in guilty verdicts in 2007, among them the case of financier Osvaldo Villalobos, sentenced to 18 years in prison in May for fraud and illegal financial intermediation. At year-end, his attorneys were waiting for a response to his appeal in what has come to be known as “The Brothers” case. Villalobos’ brother Luis Enrique remained a fugitive.
In June, hospital worker Juan Carlos Ledezma was declared guilty of setting the Calderón Guardia Hospital on fire in 2005, a blaze in which 19 were killed.He was sentenced to 50 years in prison (see separate story on page Y4).
And in the most high-profile court case of the year, public defender Luis Fernando Burgos was found guilty of murdering his wife in 2006 and in September was sentenced to 35 years in prison. Gender violence experts celebrated the “historic sentence” as a victory for women’s rights in a country where the vast majority of domestic violence cases go unpunished.
Another case that made headlines this year involved U.S. businessman Narvin Lichfield, who in February was declared not guilty of abusing students at the now-defunct Dundee Ranch Academy, a behavior-modification school for troubled youth located outside the Pacific-slope town of Orotina.
Other high-profile cases weren’t so climactic this year.
Amid death threats against witnesses and prosecutors, state prosecutors continued to push for a conviction in the case of murdered Colombian-born Costa Rican radio journalist Parmenio Medina, slain outside his house in July 2001. The six-year-old case still hadn’t reached a verdict by year’s end.
Several chapters in Costa Rica’s epic, three-year-old ex-presidents corruption scandals were written this year.
The Chief Prosecutor’s Office filed formal charges in August against former President Miguel Ángel Rodríguez (1998-2002) and 10 others. Prosecutors charged Rodríguez with aggravated corruption and illicit enrichment for allegedly having received more than $800,000 in handouts from the French telecommunications firm Alcatel in a scandal that broke in 2004. Alcatel obtained a $149 million government contract in 2001 to provide GSM cell phone services to the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE).
And in October, a judge decided that ex-President Rafael Angel Calderón, Jr. (1990- 1994) and seven others will go to trial on charges related to another corruption scandal that also broke in 2004. They will be tried for allegedly pocketing as much as $9.2 million in connection with a $32 million loan from Finland for purchasing for equipment Costa Rica’s public hospitals.
The trials are expected to begin early next year.
As for ex-President José María Figueres (1994-1998), he may be off the hook. State prosecutors requested in August that a corruption probe against him be dismissed for lack of evidence. Since 2004, they had been investigating Figueres for receiving $900,000 from Alcatel,money he claims was for consulting services in connection with the 2001 ICE-Alcatel contract. At year’s end, a judge had yet to decide whether to officially dismiss the case.
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