Costa Rica’s Fateful Move: San José Expands its Role in U.S.- led Counter-Narcotics Efforts

On July 1st, Costa Rica’s legislature voted 31-8 to expand its bilateral cooperation agreement on security matters with the United States in order to intensify anti-narcotic efforts within the region. This agreement will allow 46 U.S. naval vessels carrying 7,000 Marines to visit Costa Rican waters until December 31st of this year. These ships will also be accompanied by 200 Black Hawk helicopters and other aircraft. The arrangement has prompted some criticism, particularly from Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla’s political opposition.

The most serious contention against the new agreement is that it will allow U.S. combat-ready equipment capable of military action into Costa Rican waters, whereas previous agreements allowed only U.S. Coast Guard vessels. Although this new arrangement will most likely prove to be innocuous, some of the local citizens’ and opposition legislative leaders’ outcries appear justifiable given the United States’ mixed track record of military and political intervention in the hemisphere. Washington cannot expect all Costa Ricans to cheerfully roll out the red carpet to greet the U.S. military; Washington policymakers would be wise to maintain an open dialogue with Costa Ricans and reassure them that all actions that will be undertaken are clearly within the legal bounds of the maritime agreement.

Warships: A Break from Tradition

The approval of U.S. warships to visit Costa Rican waters is based on a decade of anti-narcotic military cooperation, which began with the 1999 signing of the U.S.-Costa Rica Counter-Narcotics Maritime Agreement. This accord, which has become known as the “Joint Patrol,” provides for increased intelligence sharing and coordination in combating drug trafficking. The tenets of this pact recognize Costa Rica’s full sovereignty and jurisdiction over any persons or illicit materials captured in Costa Rican waters or on its soil. The U.S. State Department notes that this Joint Patrol “has resulted in a growing number of narcotics seizures, illegal migrant rescues, illegal fishing seizures, and search-and-rescue missions.”

This recent legislative initiative marks a significant shift in scope from the now-ritualized dance featuring Washington’s request for and San José’s approval of a U.S. maritime presence. The Joint Patrol, for example, allowed U.S. Coast Guard ships, but not naval warships fully capable of military strikes, to sail through Costa Rican waters. The newest agreement also stipulates that accompanying U.S. Marines “will enjoy freedom of movement and the right to carry out the activities needed to fulfill their mission.” Some fear that this could lead, in incremental steps, to immunity for any inappropriate or unlawful actions undertaken in order to successfully complete the designated mission. Luis Fishman, head of the opposition party Partido Unidad Social Cristiana (PUSC), criticized this new arrangement as providing a “blank check” for the U.S. government. The Partido Acción Ciudadana (PAC) and the Frente Amplio (FA) are also united with the PUSC in opposing the agreement.

However, U.S. military presence will likely be fairly limited on the mainland of Costa Rica. According to the country’s Security Minister, José María Tijerino, specific requests for U.S. ships to dock must be submitted a month in advance. Moreover, the diplomatic request that asks Costa Rica to assent to possible naval entry into its waters specifies which ships may request to dock for “short visits.” Among those listed are the U.S.S. Makin Island, the U.S.S. Kearsarge, the U.S.S. Swift, and the USNS Comfort, a hospital ship.

Police or Militarize the Drug War?

The issue of increased militarization is extremely sensitive in a country proud of its tradition of demilitarization since its armed forces were abolished with the 1948 Constitution. Increased militarization of the War on Drugs has not proven to be exceptionally successful in Mexico and the Caribbean; many question whether deploying 7,000 U.S. Marines and 46 warships is the appropriate strategy for combating drug traffic in the North-South corridor. The large number of U.S. Marines could be considered a disproportionate response to the scale of the problem in Costa Rica. However, as Southern Command General Doug Fraser is well aware, the great majority of maritime drug trafficking occurs between Colombia and the Central American countries of Costa Rica and Panama. In addition, as General Fraser explained at a recent meeting at the Center for Strategic and International Studies conference, many of the boats involved in trafficking are altering their routes from international waters into coastal, territorial waters. The recent shift in trafficking patterns increases the need for bilateral cooperation and provides an explanation for a greater U.S. military involvement in the area. Although a highly visible U.S. military presence could damage Costa Rica’s largest industry—tourism—it is important to note that escalating violence and disorder stemming from increased drug trafficking and common crime would be detrimental to the tourism industry. Costa Rica’s homicide rate has doubled in the last five years, reaching 11 per 100,000 residents.

Anti-Narcotics in a Broader Context

Although it is important to recognize the seriousness of the inter-American drug trade problem, it is also important to consider Washington’s accord with Costa Rica in the broader context of U.S. policy in the Caribbean Basin. Last year, the U.S. set up seven new bases in Colombia and reacted very disjointedly to the coup against Honduran President Manuel Zelaya. President Obama also recently authorized an additional 4,000 troops to be stationed along the U.S.-Mexican border. Especially as tensions grow between the U.S. and “New Left” leaders in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua, the U.S. must be careful to avoid furthering its reputation as being overbearing and interventionist. President Obama must scrupulously weigh the relatively poor standing of his administration (largely bequeathed by the Bush administration) within Latin America against the dubious benefits of an increased military presence in the region. Thus far, Obama has not markedly improved Washington’s image in the region since coming to office. This latest move in Costa Rica may do little to change that.