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Costa Rica’s top prosecutor: Judicial branch must get better at policing drug cartel influence

May 16, 2014

Mexican and Colombian drug cartels have infiltrated Costa Rica’s judicial system, bribing and possibly threatening judges, the country’s top prosecutor said Friday, following the arrest of a high-profile judge accused of working for drug traffickers.

Early Friday morning, Judicial Investigation Police arrested superior court judge Rosa Elena Gamboa and charged her with influencing cases on behalf of drug traffickers in the Caribbean province of Limón, an important trafficking route for marijuana from Jamaica and cocaine headed north from South America.

“I said it three years ago, and I’ll say it again: Mexican drug cartels are behind every operation that you see us dismantling. … And that influence leads to local criminal groups confronting each other with AK-47s in the Mexican tradition of controlling territory. If you control the territory, you control the market,”  Chief Public Prosecutor Jorge Chavarría said Friday morning.

Chavarría said Costa Rican judges need more supervision, better training and higher pay to crack down on cartel influence, an increasing concern throughout the country’s justice system.

“We’ve got a serious problem recruiting personnel,” Chavarría said. “Not only is it that people are badly trained coming out of the universities, but it’s also an issue of young people not willing to work in [drug trafficking regions] because they’re scared.”

Chavarría said “both coasts are penetrated by drug traffickers, including the Southern Zone, which is on the verge of becoming another Juárez,” a reference to the violent border town between Mexico and the U.S. that in recent years has been plagued by violence related to the illicit drug trade.

In Costa Rica’s Southern Zone, Mexican and Colombian drug cartels meet and negotiate “massive quantities” of cocaine shipments, and “in Drake Bay, boats are all over the place transporting tons of cocaine. Floating barrels of gasoline delivered to traffickers by Ticos are frequently discovered, and the same thing happens in the Atlantic,” he said.

“Both coasts and the Southern Zone require an aggressive institutional policy to strengthen quality standards [in the judicial branch], and for that we need special incentives in terms of personnel,” he said.

Friday’s arrest of judge Gamboa was the result of a three-year investigation in which several officials from the Prosecutor’s Office and the judicial branch approached Chavarría to warn of Gamboa’s alleged links to traffickers in the Limón area.

But Chavarría said that corruption cases involving judges are hard to prove, due to the independence judges exercise and poor oversight by judicial inspectors, particularly in areas outside Costa Rica’s capital.

“We’re very concerned, and we think that instead of judicial review after rulings are made, there should be more supervision and control over what these judges are doing. The current system of judicial inspections isn’t working, and we can’t keep doing what we’re doing. We need to overhaul the system to face current reality,” Chavarría said.

“When we’re dealing with the quantities of drugs that we’ve seen – a ton captured at sea, for example – that’s called being caught in the act. It’s a flagrancy court issue, yet suspects are being released on minimal bail amounts, and some of these are people with no known residence in the country,” Chavarría said. “We’re very aware of these types of rulings, and we will continue investigating.”

In response to the case, Justice Zarela Villanueva, president of the Supreme Court, announced a bill to centralize the prosecution of organized crime and drug trafficking in San José.

The prosecutor said Gamboa operated openly in Limón, allegedly approaching fellow judges to urge them to release drug trafficking suspects with the argument that “they are good people who live in the area; I know them.”

“Prosecutors have been complaining about this type of behavior. These prosecutors are spending their resources, and sometimes we make gains, but it’s not enough,” Chavarría said. “We’re dealing with a difficult situation, which is the independence of the judges. So what needs to be done is a review of the arguments judges use in their rulings to see if they’re valid or not.

“But we’re not only dealing with corruption, we’re also dealing with fear,” he added. “Maybe some of these judges are being threatened.”

 

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