By Christine Pratt
Tico Times Staff
With cocaine production up 28 percent in Colombia and methamphetamine production on the rise in the U.S. and Mexico, the region's top drug cops agreed last week to work toward an anti-drug strategy that spans Central American maritime borders.
Last week's Regional Summit on Corruption and Drug Trafficking drew some 400 drug czars, attorneys general, prosecutors, ombudspeople and deputies from all over the hemisphere to Costa Rica, to discuss how they can work together to fight drug-running, money- laundering and corruption.
The hemisphere's justice ministers, including U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, were meeting here this week to discuss a host of crime and punishment topics related to the drug and corruption debates (see related story).
Drug summit participants signed the Declaration of San José, which declares drug trafficking a "crime against humanity" and urges the region's judicial powers to better coordinate efforts to investigate, prevent and punish drug criminals and money-launderers.
They also agreed to work toward a Regional Treaty Against Narco Activity, which seeks to create a regional police force, foment drug education programs, make regional drug legislation more uniform and create codes of ethics for congresses and public employees.
Top Costa Rican drug cops questioned at the summit last week agree that each nation's differing sovereignty laws make the U.S. goal of a "regional" police force unrealistic for now. But they enthusiastically called for more region-wide cooperation and information sharing to stop illicit drug shipments before they reach the U.S. border.
"Our problem keeps getting bigger, and I don't think that anyone can sit around any longer and think that their youth won't be affected by this," said Major Gen. Alfred Valenzuela of the U.S.' Florida-based Southern Command, the country's anti-drug support center for U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) efforts in Central and South America and the Caribbean.
In what has become an impassioned plea for hemispheric cooperation, given the U.S.- growing drug consumption problem and the $110 billion Valenzuela says his country spends yearly on drug rehab, the general told The Tico Times, "If we're not united, we'll never be able to fight the problem."
During his presentation, Valenzuela explained that cocaine traffickers now have refueling stations in international waters, allowing their speedboats to head farther out to sea to avoid detection on their way from Colombia to Mexico or the U.S.
He said analysts believe some 116 metric tons of the drug pass yearly through hemispheric waters, lands and air space en route to lucrative northern and European markets.
"There are more bales of cocaine floating around in the Caribbean than you'd ever believe," Valenzuela admitted to his fellow czars.
Although cocaine production in Perú and Bolivia is expected to have dropped by 26 percent and 17 percent, Valenzuela said production is up an estimated 28 percent in Colombia. Costa Rica's Public Security Minister Rogelio Ramos told The Tico Times last week that police are bracing for a boom in drug production this year (TT, Feb. 25).
The general said U.S. efforts to reduce Colombian production now center on a six-year "Plan Colombia," geared to cut production in half by 2006. The U.S., with congressional approval, hopes to pump $1.6 billion into anti-drug efforts there, for which Colombia has agreed to budget $4 billion.
During his presentation, the DEA's David Gaddis said seizures of illicit drugs through 1999 reveal a tendency of drug-runners to choose sea over land routes. In 1998, 34 metric tons of cocaine were seized in Central America. By 1999, the figure for seizures on land had dropped to 16,000 kilos, but was offset by 25,400 kilos seized in the Pacific.
The DEA suspects that some 59 percent of all northbound cocaine heads through Central American waters, airspace and territory, confirming the region's reputation as a "drug bridge" from south to north. The DEA estimates that 30 percent of shipments go through the Caribbean and another 11 percent are expected to enter the U.S. directly, Gaddis said.
He also cautioned Central America's police to be on the lookout for chemicals used to manufacture methamphetamines - synthetic stimulants now produced in greater number in the U.S. and Mexico.
According to a police source, meth manufacturers use the chemicals ephedrine, pseudoephedrine, acidic anhydride and others, which they import illegally from Asia. Although the chemicals have legitimate commercial uses, drug police often detect illegal shipments by studying defects or differences in bills of lading and other methods that they prefer not to disclose. "We don't want the narco to know what we know," the source said.
Gaddis called on his regional colleagues to remain alert to the possible increase in illegal shipments of these chemicals through Central America. He also warned about the continued smuggling of Colombia-produced heroin, which has been seized in every Central American airport over the last 12-18 months.
South American drug-runners' preference for ocean routes comes at a time when Costa Rica and the U.S. are poised to begin this month their first joint patrols of Costa Rica's territorial waters (TT, Feb. 25). Using armed Costa Rican patrol boats, most of which were donated by the U.S., and armed U.S. Coast Guard ships, both of which will patrol international waters along both Costa Rican coasts, police will work together to intercept northbound drugs.
The Joint Patrol Agreement, approved request authorization from the Costa Rican Congress before they enter Costa Rican waters. Only Costa Ricans may board suspect vessels detained in Costa Rican waters.
The head of the DEA's Costa Rican office, Vance Stacy, this week seconded remarks by Minister Ramos that three Costa Rican boarding teams, which will ride the U.S. ships, have been trained and other preparations advanced.
"We've cleared a final hurdle by making sure that the Costa Rican teams feel confident with what the law permits them to do without calling a judge to the scene," said Stacy, who added that the U.S. Embassy's Office of the Defense Representative has been critical in refurbishing Costa Rica's Coast Guard. "It's no good to make a drug bust if an arrest doesn't follow," he noted.
The joint patrols, along with other anti-drug-related bilateral negotiations between the U.S. and the Central American countries, represents a change in U.S. anti-drug strategy, according to Valenzuela and Ana María Salazar, deputy assistant Defense Secretary for U.S. drug enforcement policy.
Howard U.S. Air Force Base, in the Panama Canal Zone, served as a hemispheric anti-drug strategy and support center until it closed last year, when the 1977 Carter-Torrijos Treaty turned control of the Canal over to Panama. Regional U.S. military activity was transferred to the U.S. Southern Command in Florida. The U.S. currently seeks bilateral agreements with the hemisphere's countries to use its military ships and planes to patrol foreign waters and airspace for drugs. Agreements currently exist with Ecuador, Costa Rica and the Caribbean island of Curacao.
Valenzuela and Salazar said modern U.S. drug policy seeks to respect the sovereignty and laws of foreign governments - aspects that became priorities several years ago.
Both visiting U.S. drug chiefs confirmed what their Costa Rican counterparts insist - that neither country has formally discussed creating a refueling base at Costa Rica's Daniel Oduber International Airport in the northwest region of Liberia for U.S. warplanes participating in the joint patrol effort. But they didn't completely rule it out, either.
"The use of regional airports is part of our discussions with governments," Salazar said. "We're already using several airports, but we have not discussed with the Costa Rican government the possibility of using an airport here."
Despite growing U.S. consumption, Salazar insists that U.S. anti-drug efforts have been worthwhile, and that the following six years should result in significant reductions in the number of drugs arriving on U.S. shores.
By Christie Pashby (c) 2000
Tico Times Staff
An investigation into the botched raid of a private club that allegedly offered the services of child prostitutes found that a high-ranking police official may have been responsible for the raid's failure. He was detained Thursday.
Silva Hernández, the Judicial Investigative Police's (OIJ) special prosecutor investigating the August 1999 raid of the Green Door club, said the accused has yet to testify in his own defense, so she cannot release his name. However, after analyzing more than a dozen testimonies, investigators concluded that the suspect made key decisions that may have resulted in police failure to find any illegal activity at the club during the raid.
She said her investigation was not interested in whether minors were working as prostitutes inside the U.S.-owned club for men, the charge on which the raid was based. Instead, its purpose was to identify why not a single arrest was made during the raid (TT, Jan. 14).
The raid, which took place at 3 p.m. on a Tuesday, involved more than 40 police officers from a variety of divisions, including K-9, SWAT team, Intelligence and detectives. Police arrived at the club supposedly expecting to find underage prostitutes inside. None was found. Police briefly detained a few clients and one of the club's employees, but no one was arrested.
Hernández said she has reason to believe that by paying a surprise visit to the club hours before the scheduled raid, the suspect made sure no illegal activity would be taking place when police arrived. Witnesses testified that a group of men in masks arrived through the back door of the club the morning of the raid, led by the suspect.
"This is a typical case of police corruption," Hernández said. "And these things usually have to do with money."
However, sources close to the club say they had no police visitors or tips from any sources the morning of the raid. Walter Ramírez, a former administrative employee of the club, said it was business as usual on Aug. 10, and no illegal activity was taking place before, during or after the raid. He said it's possible that the club's three U.S. owners, who were not present the day of the raid, received a phone call warning them a raid would take place, but none of the employees was informed, and no special preparation took place.
"Probably he (one of the three club owners) was warned by the police that there would be a raid in the afternoon," Ramírez said.
None of the owners was available for comment.
According to Ramírez, only one remains involved in the club; the other two dropped out after the raid.
Adult prostitution is legal in Costa Rica. Pimping and child prostitution (under 18) are not, and a recently passed law establishes penalties of as much as 10 years in prison for sexually exploiting a minor.
The Green Door has been described by sources who visited it as a "classy, upscale" club for men. Most of the clients were from the U.S. For an admission fee of $100, they could spend the day at the large house in the east San José suburb of Los Yoses. Guests could enjoy an open bar and restaurant, steam room, Jacuzzi, swimming pool, weight and exercise room, and cigar room, as well as the possibility of an hour with one of the prostitutes who worked at the club, who charged $100 for an hour. Sources said when they asked for underage girls, they were told no minors worked at the club.
Ramírez said, "we had a very successful business going on" when the raid took place. He said the club had more than 150 clients a day, most of whom were traveling businessmen. He said 85 to 90 percent of the clients had sex with the prostitutes--80 women worked at the club on different shifts, keeping half of the $100 fee for themselves.
Ramírez said when police arrived, the club's owners gladly let them in, although the police seemed excessively violent. Television camera crews were on hand to tape the raid.
"The owners, my boss, was very strict to never, never get an underage girl," said the employee, who said he was also responsible for hiring the prostitutes. "He would say, 'Why should I have an underage girl if we're probably going to lose our business for that reason?' We didn't have anything to worry about."
However, other sources note that police needed firm evidence of criminal activity and the approval of a judge in order to stage a raid.
Casa Alianza, a non-governmental agency that battles the sexual exploitation of children in Latin America and collaborated closely with police on the Green Door raid, insists it has proof that there were minors inside the club, although spokesmen declined to describe the evidence.
Casa Alianza's Rocío Rodríguez said they are well aware that someone arrived at the Green Door hours before the raid to clear the place, as Hernández suspects. She wouldn't comment further on who arrived or when.
Hernández said she will be able to announce the suspect's name soon. The charge against a top police officer points to a possible high level of corruption within the security forces' ranks, leaving child-rights activists crying desperate foul. She said she cannot say what may or may not happen to the accused.
The "new" Green Door - with a blue door this time - is reportedly back in business.