If just one prosecutor in the Caribbean province of Limón were to succeed at all of his 470 cases, all of the available jail space in the country would be filled.
This scenario illustrates a major dilemma in the justice system, in which 348 prosecutors, struggling under heavy caseloads, have little incentive to aggressively pursue them, while judges have few options in sentencing.
“You have to understand the whole Costa Rican system is set up to avoid convicting and incarcerating people,” said Lillian González, the No. 2 prosecutor in the nation.
The situation is infuriating many police, causing an explosion in private security companies and leading some communities and individuals to arm themselves.
In recent weeks, statements from the Drug Control and Immigration Police have taken an increasingly impatient tone against a legal system that has failed to put violent, habitual offenders in prison.
One recent case in Barrio Primero de Mayo de Aserrí in San José inflamed law enforcement. Police had just raided and arrested the infamous “Pilo,” last name Corrales, for the second time in four years for running a crack empire and terrorizing the neighborhood with a gang of thugs.
“Authorities hope the actions of the narcotics agents contribute to returning the neighbors of Primero de Mayo to a peaceful situation and that the detainees won’t be freed so quickly as they have on other occasions,” stated a police press release.
Their hope was quickly dashed when a Desamparados Criminal Court judge freed him, requiring only that he check in with the court every 15 days, even though the alleged drug lord had already been convicted in 2003 and sentenced to eight years in prison.
Pilo is still out on appeal on that original conviction.
Public Security Vice Minister Gerardo Lazcares lamented the Pilo case.
“Preventive prison has to be used better,” he said. “The law can be abused, citing whatever article of the law to get people out of jail. There are some people that need to be in jail.”
Criminal Court Chief Justice José Arroyo said he couldn’t comment on the case, but noted judges are human.
“In many cases, judges make mistakes,” he said.“In the worst case, they could be corrupt.”
Immigration Police Chief Francisco Castaing said things have deteriorated to the point that foreign criminals have begun openly taunting police after they’re arrested.
He pointed to the case of a Colombian man named Castilblanco, who led a gang that specialized in assaulting tourists near the Irazú Volcano by puncturing their car’s tires and robbing them.
Castilblanco was arrested and deported in February 2007, Castaing said, but on his way out mocked the justice system, said Costa Rica was a fantastic place to operate and promised to return. It was a promise he delivered on as one year later he was arrested in San José and deported again.
“The foreign criminals consider Costa Rica a paradise to commit crimes in, given the lack of severity of the law’s application,” a press release states.
Vigilantism on Rise
While the system struggles to come to terms with years of nonexistent planning to confront the crime problem, some people are taking the law into their own hands. Gun registrations were higher in 2007 than any previous year on record, and stories regularly appear in the press about vigilantes taking control of the streets and their neighborhoods by attacking criminals (TT, Feb. 15).
President Oscar Arias acknowledged the crime problem in January, promising more resources and manpower for the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ). At the time, that agency’s chief, Jorge Rojas, was threatening to quit but reconsidered after the pledge from the administration.
But so far, the administration hasn’t delivered any appropriations bills to the Legislative Assembly to fund the pledges.
Clamoring for their share of any new funding, other agencies are arguing they need more resources, too.
“The increase should be distributed in an equal way to all agencies,” said Justice Vice Minister Fernando Ferraro, who oversees the country’s prisons. “If you increase the number of police but don’t have enough judges and prosecutors, you’re not resolving the problem. This is like a domino effect.”
Ferraro said the country desperately needs to either expand its existing prisons or build new ones. It also needs to renovate old ones. The daily La Nación recently reported there are only 475 spots remaining and that many prisons are decrepit, including a section of La Reforma in San Rafael de Alajuela, north of San José, that the Health Ministry ordered closed for sanitation violations.
“During previous administrations, Costa Rica never paid the bill coming due on security and it just kept getting larger and larger.”
‘No Answer to Impunity’
At the beginning of his term, Arias killed a maximum-security prison project left over from the previous Abel Pacheco administration that would have constructed 1,200 cells in Pococí in Limón province. They argued it was too expensive and inefficient.
Legislator Evita Arguedas, an independent formerly of the Libertarian Movement Party, called a press conference Feb. 14 in which she called out the executive branch for not delivering on its promises and for ignoring the rest of the justice system in promising additional funding only to the Judicial Investigation Police.
On behalf of Chief Prosecutor Francisco Dall’Anese, Arguedas demanded the executive branch pony up and deliver another ¢6.6 billion (about $13 million) on top of the ¢7 billion (about $14 million) promised to the Judicial Investigation Police.
“It’s the appropriate amount to enforce the promise by the executive to enhance security,” she said. “We still don’t have an answer to the impunity reigning in the country.”
Arguedas also called out the courts, saying they were not complying with the law by releasing recidivist violent criminals immediately.
“They should be deprived of their liberty but the judges are not complying with the law and letting them out on technicalities,” she said. “The way it works now is they commit acrime, are let out right away and they go right back to committing the same crime.”
The congresswoman said the prosecutor’s office on Jan. 30 rescinded a previous edict that allowed discretion in pursuing cases against individuals who commit crimes using violence.
“Now, it’s the judicial branch’s turn to make these measures effective,”Arguedas said. Chief Justice Arroyo said the judicial branch doesn’t work like that. “In the prosecutor’s office, there is a boss who gives orders,” he said. “That’s not how it works in the courts. I can’t give orders to a judge.”