What at first seemed like normal protocol has erupted into angry protests as some Costa Ricans complain their country’s sovereignty is being trampled. A vote last week in the Legislative Assembly gave the green light for the United States Marines to monitor the country’s coastlines for signs of drug traffickers.
The response caught the U.S. Embassy by surprise, which was amidst its Independence Day celebration at the time.
“We are not sure why there is this uproar,” said U.S. Ambassador Anne S. Andrew, explaining that the same request has been submitted each of the last 10 years under a bilateral agreement.
And the timing seemed rather odd, she added.
Costa Ricans will be the first to tell you that their once-peaceful country is suffering from a plague of insecurity. A 2009 study by polling company Unimer showed that Costa Ricans’ greatest fears relate to security and crime.
The problem has arrived mostly from the outside, Costa Ricans say, much of it on the backs of drug-smuggling cartels that have found room to maneuver along Costa Rica’s lightly protected coastlines and borders.
“This (protest) seems to arise at a point where there is no question that there is a serious security challenge ahead for Costa Rica,” Andrew said. In the last 10 years, she said, Costa Rican and U.S. efforts under the Joint Maritime Agreement led to the interception of 115,000 kilograms of cocaine and $24 million in laundered money off Costa Rica’s coasts.
Gringos Go Home
The approval process for U.S. ships to patrol Costa Rican waters has never been that of a rubber stamp. There’s a lot of preparatory work, due diligence and conversation involved, said Andrew.
The United States sends a complete list of all of the warships, marines, officials and equipment that might possibly need to dock in the country’s ports, and legislators always take their time in going over the information, Andrew said. And according to government sources, only 20 percent of the ships and forces listed ever make it to Costa Rican shores.
But this time, there was an abnormal amount of noise from the parties on the left, who say the U.S. is encroaching on their national sovereignty.
Gilbert Rojas was one of the people raising his voice. He stood outside the Legislative Assembly during the lunch hour on Monday surrounded by a small group of protestors.
“We don’t want a Yankee invasion,” he said. “We want peace in our country and we want them to leave. (The United States) hasn’t been able to fix the drug problem in Mexico, or in Colombia or in the United States. How are they going to be able to fix the problem here?”
Addressing drug consumption and transportation is a social issue, not a military one, he said, and it needs a solution that will confront it for what it is.
“How are 7,000 marines who are trained to kill going to help?” asked Francisco Guerrero as he made his way through the crowd to collect signatures in an effort to convince the Legislative Assembly to expel the U.S. military.
“We don’t have an army and we have never needed an army,” Guerrero said. “The U.S. presence here is unconstitutional and it’s against the peace, democracy and neutrality of our country.”
As the world’s largest consumer of cocaine, the United States has a war to fight within its own borders, he said.
A Legislative Hiccup?
During a legislative session earlier this week, Congressman Luis Fishman, presidential candidate for the once-dominant Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC) in the February elections, turned over his copy of the Joint Maritime Agreement with the United States and realized it had an expiration date.
When it was first approved in 1998, the agreement was granted a 10-year term.
According to President Laura Chinchilla’s representatives in the Assembly, the 10-year term was ruled unconstitutional by the country’s Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) following the original vote, so permission for U.S. forces in the country has been considered in 6-month increments ever since.
Fishman, along with left of center legislators in the Assembly, called for an evaluation of activities under the agreement over the past 10 years before another permission is granted.
“After 10 years that this Joint Maritime Agreement has been in effect, it is time to do a comprehensive evaluation of its effects and results,” said José María Villalta, legislator with the Broad Front Party during a June 30 legislative session. “I am not going to tell you that it has reduced the pressure of drug traffickers, or has further aggravated it, or has worsened the problem of shipments by land.
“Some think that this agreement creates a situation in which Costa Rica can only win; that with this agreement we are resolving the drug trafficking problem, but this is a risky assessment because, in recent years, the presence of drug trafficking has increased.”
In the meantime, Fishman’s party has challenged the most recent legislative approval of the military presence in the Sala IV, saying that legislators had “insufficient information” at the time of last week’s vote.
The Chinchilla administration has assured the United States that the July 1 Assembly vote will be honored and that they continue to have Costa Rica’s blessing to travel through the country’s waters with up to 7,000 Marines, five planes and 46 warships.
Coming Ashore in Costa Rica
For the most part, United States warships will remain offshore. They only come into port to refuel or to restock, which is infrequent, said the U.S. ambassador.
One atypical request in the recently approved 6-month permit is a 250-meter naval ship scheduled to dock in Limón from Aug. 20-30 to distribute humanitarian aid.
In place of fighter jets, it will be carrying a load of toys, doctors, dentists, medical equipment and engineers, said Andrew.
“The U.S. has always respected the sovereignty of Costa Rica,” she said, when asked to respond to the surge in protests. “I think Ticos can appreciate that the threat to their sovereignty is coming from organized crime and drug-trafficking and not from the U.S.
“These organized crime (and) drug trafficking operations do not respect … boundaries, and they have a massive amount of resources,” Andrew continued. “At this point, the question is what can be done to address the real threat to citizen security in Costa Rica. The United States has been a strong partner working with Costa Rica (on this), always with full respect for its sovereignty.”