Vice President Laura Chinchilla this week presented a mammoth, 123-page bill to the Legislative Assembly to tackle the country’s worsening crime situation.
The bill proposes numerous reforms to the country’s laws, among other things, stripping foreigners of the right to buy firearms, allowing the police to use property seized from organized crime and extending the length of preventive prison time a judge can order.
“It’s not a perfect or infallible proposal,” Chinchilla said. “What we hope is that it will be a launching point to be used to arrive at an agreement.We think it’s time to create a balance of justice in favor of the victims, not just the accused.”
Chinchilla, with Judicial Investigation Police Chief Jorge Rojas, Public Security Minister Fernando Berrocal and Chief Prosecutor Francisco Dall’Anese, defended the bill with statistics charting the country’s downward spiral into crime.
Chinchilla cited a 748% increase in robberies since 1990 and a CID-Gallup poll that reported 65% of Ticos agree the country is a dangerous place to live. She also said 38.7% of Tico households report having been the victim of a crime.
By comparison, in Nicaragua, a country Ticos often deride as inferior, 18% of households report being victimized.
Members of the Special Security Commission, comprised of eight lawmakers, received the bill, some with open skepticism and one who wanted a more aggressive package.
Legislator Guyon Massey, of the National Restoration Party, was critical of the plan’s cost.
“There’s no budget to even fund this bill,” he said.
Rojas said the bill could pay for itself with the expanded seizure powers granted to the police and courts but he didn’t provide any numbers to support that claim.
Court spokeswoman Andrea Marín said it was impossible to know how much money was sitting frozen in Costa Rican banks because no one in the government keeps track of that information.
Most lawmakers present promised an exhaustive study of the bill and decried the lack of an appropriations bill to fund it.
Time is running out for the executive branch to submit an appropriations bill.
They have until the end of April and with the arrival of Semana Santa (Easter Holy Week) they have about a month.
Legislator Evita Arguedas, an independent, pushed Chinchilla to include another bill to stiffen penalties against corrupt notaries who practice marriages by proxy (See story on Page 5).
The vice president said that legislation could be easily added to this bill or the other seven the executive branch has proposed but the legislature hasn’t seen fit to pass.
“There are loopholes all over the place that people can take advantage of and continue committing crimes,” she said. “There is no magic way to fix all these problems but there are solutions. But if we don’t enter into a serious reform, it would be a delusion to pretend we’re resolving the issue.”
Berrocal called on legislators to pass a version of the bill.
“It seems the country is waiting on the Legislative Assembly for a response that transcends party politics,” said Berrocal. “If criminals attack someone’s home, we don’t ask if they’re PAC, PLN or PUSC.”
Dall’Anese said legislators should move swiftly.
“We’re getting to the point where we can never catch up with and process all the cases we have,” he said. “If we get past that point, it’ll be the end of Costa Rica.”
• Would dramatically expand power of the government to seize, spend and invest seized property from all criminal enterprises.
• Require municipalities to have a police force and allow them to charge a “special tax” to fund it.
• Give government employees, diplomats – as well as judicial witnesses and experts – special protection, making threats or assaults against them a felony punishable by four years.
• Elevate money laundering, sexual exploitation and human trafficking to felonies.
• Extend the amount of preventive prison a judge can order from one to three years.
• Require motorcyclists to wear a reflective vest displaying their vehicle’s license plate number, to prevent the common tactic of motorcycle hit men.
• Allow suspension of licenses for businesses that have had six or more stolen items harbored on their property during a year. They could also be fined 20 monthly salaries (roughly $8,800).
• Prohibit use of settlements in sex crime and domestic violence cases.
• Prohibit foreigners from legally acquiring firearms.
• Strengthen witness protection and anonymity by keeping their names out of case files.
• Require all banks and financial groups to keep documents and to provide them to authorities upon official request.
• Prohibit people with restraining orders from acquiring firearms.
• Grant communities the right to create controlled-access points to gather information on who is entering their neighborhoods as long as they don’t stop or impede access.
• Create a centralized, 24-hour judicial communications center to review wiretaps and transcribe them so cases can move forward quickly.
• Create a centralized intelligence agency to share information among all police forces.