Officials from the United States and Costa Rica on Wednesday said they need more streamlined and efficient measures to help prevent Costa Rica from being used as a base of operations for organized criminal groups, such as Liberty Reserve, a massive online currency operation that the U.S. feds shut down last Friday.
Liberty Reserve owners and managers are accused of laundering some $6 billion in the past seven years from a base of operations in the suburbs southwest and north of Costa Rica’s capital.
“As Liberty Reserve and other recent cases demonstrate, organized crime, with its illicit and violent activities, is already a threat to Costa Rica,” U.S. Ambassador Anne S. Andrew said. “One of the priorities of our government is to dismantle these organizations.”
Following a meeting with Costa Rican officials to analyze bilateral cooperation on security affairs, Andrew said she wants to “send a clear and strong message that Costa Rica will not be a refuge for transnational criminals.”
Agents from the U.S., Spain and Costa Rica last Thursday and Friday arrested most of the top collaborators of Liberty Reserve, and searched several offices and homes linked to the group, which has operated in Costa Rica since 2006.
Two other primary players in the business – one a naturalized Costa Rican from Morocco and the other born here – remain at large.
In announcing a three-count indictment in New York on Tuesday against several Liberty Reserve operators, U.S. officials referred to the company as the “bank” of the criminal underworld.
In Costa Rica, officials arrested a Russian man named Maxim Chukharev, 27, believed to have helped run the company’s technical infrastructure. He awaits an extradition request by the U.S.
The leader of the group, Arthury Budovsky, was arrested on Friday in Spain en route to Costa Rica from Morocco. Budovsky renounced his U.S. citizenship last year and became a naturalized Costa Rican through an arranged marriage, The Tico Times reported on Monday.
Costa Ricans are protected by the constitution from extradition to the U.S., except in certain drug trafficking cases.
“It shouldn’t be easier to become a naturalized Costa Rican than it is to obtain residency. We have to be more demanding with whom we allow to be naturalized,” Public Security Minister Mario Zamora said.
The minister said the administration would push for a new law that would allow the judicial branch to extradite Costa Ricans on a case-by-case basis.
Zamora said adopting such a law would be a “solid message, not only to Costa Ricans, but also to foreigners who seek to become naturalized Costa Ricans to avoid prosecution.”
Gustavo Mata, assistant director of the Judicial Investigation Police, acknowledged that Liberty Reserve was used as a virtual financial platform “by different organized criminal groups who participate in human, drugs and weapons trafficking, and child pornography.”
Among the items seized by Costa Rican police last Friday were luxury vehicles worth more than $1 million, including a 2012 Jaguar and three Rolls Royce autos, some of which, a source told The Tico Times, were allegedly paid for in cash.
Police also seized several documents and computers, evidence they said would be turned over to U.S. authorities, who also participated in the raids.
Costa Rican officials also said they were exploring the possibility of forming a special organized crime tribunal within the judicial branch.