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Organized crime prosecutor named new director of Costa Rica’s investigative police

November 23, 2015

Costa Rica’s Supreme Court elected assistant prosecutor Walter Espinoza as the new chief of the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) on Monday. Espinoza, a 47-year-old prosecutor specializing in organized crime, steps into the position as OIJ chief at a time when Costa Rica struggles with a spike in killings tied to organized crime.

Establishing a unit dedicated to fighting organized crime is one of the director-elect’s top priorities, he said during a news conference Monday. Espinoza also highlighted additional training for OIJ agents, coordinating operations with other police agencies, and anti-corruption investigations, among other areas on which he will focus.

The director-elect said the creation of a new unit was “complicated and would take time” – a less than rallying response for many concerned about a rising number of homicides and the ability of organized criminal networks to set roots in Costa Rica. He said the unit’s creation requires a formal study to establish its mission, staffing needs and other logistics.

Espinoza said the proposed OIJ organized crime task force would coordinate with other police agencies – including drugs, financial and immigration – but stopped short of describing the inter-institutional organized crime unit proposed by Public Security Minister Gustavo Mata in response to a wave of homicides connected to organized crime here.

The OIJ has been facing scrutiny over the professionalization of its officers, ranging from spying to abuse of authority. During the 2014 World Cup, for example, OIJ agents used law enforcement databases to snoop on Costa Rican goalie Keylor Navas’ family. In June, OIJ’s then-chief of Quepos was arrested for allegedly detaining U.S. nationals illegally in relation to a land dispute.

“Training is vital, important and part of what my advisers who accompany me will address,” Espinoza said, but did not specify which areas in particular the training would focus on besides making investigations more effective.

Espinoza has 24 years experience as a prosecutor specializing in organized crime, trying cases in drug trafficking, kidnapping and homicide. Espinoza’s was one of 59 names under consideration for the position by a nominating commission composed of representatives from the four chambers of the Supreme Court. After the names were culled, the final selection was voted on by the full Supreme Court.

The OIJ is the investigative arm of the judicial branch, tasked with investigating crimes and supplying evidence to help the Prosecutor’s Office try cases. The National Police – Fuerza Pública in Spanish – is tasked with preventive policing and handling active situations.

Espinoza replaces former OIJ Director Francisco Segura who retired in July, and temporary director Gerald Campos. He assumes the role of director on Dec. 1.

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