In a rare moment of consensus fueled by surging crime rates, lawmakers from the four main political parties agreed this week to prioritize crime bills.
They created a nine-member security committee to debate bills that would impose stricter sentences, protect victims, regulate arms purchases and fight organized crime.
The move marks a shift by the government’s National Liberation Party (PLN),which blocked an attempt to form a committee in country’s criminal code, anyone stealing anything less than ¢250,000 colones in value is considered to have incurred an “infraction,” rather than a “crime,” and is not arrested.
Changing the law to make robberies of less than ¢250,000 colones a crime punishable by incarceration is one of 42 bills before the Legislative Assembly intended to beef up law enforcement. The bills likely will be delayed by haggling over bills to implement the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States.
The legislature formed a special committee that will take the most important elements of the anti-crime legislation and forge them into one single emergency bill.
“We agreed on the urgency of trying to look for priorities in the legislation and, wherever possible, to prepare an emergency project with regard to security,” said Presidency Minister Rodrigo Arias.
The politicians’ concern has been heightened by serious crimes committed recently against officials, including cabinet ministers.
The daily La Nación reported that victims of crime include Rodrigo Arias, the president’s brother, who was robbed at gunpoint of jewels and other valuable objects.
Earlier in the week, Minister of Public Security Fernando Berrocal blamed much of the crime wave on foreign drug trafficking.
Berrocal implied that previous governments, at best, were soft on drug trafficking, something the Arias administration has worked to remedy, having seized record amounts of cocaine totaling 60,000 tons since taking office in May of 2006.
“The drug traffickers didn’t just start operating here on May 8, 2006,” said Berrocal, referring to when Arias took office.
The security minister also said the previous governments let tens of thousands of foreign nationals into the country, many of whom had criminal records.
Last year, Costa Rican police arrested Hector Orlando Martínez, a high-ranking member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), who authorities said was in charge of exchanging drugs for arms.
Berrocal said he wants to use $13 million seized from drug traffickers to help fund the police. “We can leverage those $13 million to about three times that sum,” said Berrocal.
Despite its crime problems, Berrocal said, Costa Rica is still safer than other Central American countries.
Crime has shot to the top of the government’s agenda as public outcry grows over the numbers of break-ins, car-jackings and assaults in Costa Rica.
According to the most recent numbers from the government, the homicide rate has jumped 50% since 1990, and violence doubled.
Crimes per 100,000 inhabitants between 1990 and 2006 jumped from 135 to 295, more than double. Robberies increased 700%, and drug-related crimes 280%.
President Oscar Arias met with top government ministers, and court officials have arranged a series of actions aimed at bringing the problem under control, including an increase in the budget of the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) by ¢7 billion (about $14 million).
The additional money will increase the OIJ’s budget to $68 million and enable it to employ 500 additional agents.
The announcement prompted OIJ chief Jorge Rojas, who had threatened to quit for lack of resources, to remain on board.
The government officials also agreed to assign additional judges to a criminal court that will operate 24 hours a day to process suspects charged with stealing items valued at less than ¢250,000 colones (about $500).Currently, because of the wording of the August.
Faced with alarming crime statistics and polls reflecting a worried electorate, President Oscar Arias’ administration also promised the Judicial Branch more resources and manpower last week.
The number of prosecuted crimes shot up by 117% between 1996 and 2006, according to the Judicial Investigation Organization (OIJ).
“The problem of security – or insecurity – is now an emergency for this administration and this country,” said Presidency Minister Rodrigo Arias, who works closely with the Liberation lawmakers.
Liberation legislators are now working to draft a bill addressing the most pressing security issues. Jorge Méndez, a Liberation lawmaker on the committee, said the bill might offer economic support to victims and witnesses who feel threatened and want to change homes or jobs. It could also criminalize the theft of objects under $220, now punishable only by fine.
Thieves can now avoid trial any time by negotiating a payment to their victim. Liberation’s bill would limit that right to once every five years, Méndez said. It may also regulate the use and purchase of weapons, as well as fast-track trials for defendant caught in the act of a crime.
Liberation will work with the executive and judicial branches and other legislators to draft the proposal, which it will likely present late next week, Méndez said.
He said Liberation blocked the committee in August because it wanted to prioritize bills required to implement the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA).
Still, lawmakers from the Libertarian Movement Party (ML) and the Citizen Action Party (PAC), who have clamored for the committee for months, accused Liberation of bowing to popular will, while stealing the limelight from their own efforts.
“Its all political strategy,” said Libertarian Luis Antonio Barantes, who first proposed creating the committee.