Costa Rica, Central America join forces to combat narco-trafficking

The Enhanced Cooperation Agreement signed in March 2013 by Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama closes legal loopholes used by narco-traffickers and criminal gangs to operate in Central America. Above, counter-narcotics agents make a drug bust in the capital of Tegucigalpa. (René Novoa / ISH)

The Enhanced Cooperation Agreement signed in March 2013 by Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama closes legal loopholes used by narco-traffickers and criminal gangs to operate in Central America. Above, counter-narcotics agents make a drug bust in the capital of Tegucigalpa. (René Novoa / ISH)

By Rene Novoa

March 26th, 2014 (ISH) Central America has joined forces to stop organized crime and narco-trafficking.

Since January 2014, the heads of the countries’ legal systems have met every two weeks at the Justice Training Center for Central America and the Caribbean in Costa Rica to implement actions against narco-trafficking organizations and organized crime, according to Víctor Moreno, the secretary general of the Conference of Ministers of Justice of Ibero-American Countries (COMJIB).

“Topics discussed by the council include the harmonization of penal legislation to fight organized crime in the region, setting up a Security Commission in Central America and implementing a network of Central American and Caribbean judges and public prosecutors to protect victims and witnesses,” he said.

The meetings are the result of the Enhanced Cooperation Agreement to Fight Organized Crime in Central America and the Dominican Republic signed in March 2013, according to Moreno.

The agreement is an initiative of the Central American Integration System and COMJIB that has been signed by the attorneys general, senior Supreme Court justices, and ministries of security or foreign affairs in those seven countries.

“This cooperation agreement is essential for fighting narco-trafficking and organized crime in the region since our countries need to harmonize criminal legislation get convictions,” Honduran Supreme Court Justice Carlos Cálix Vallecillo said.

The agreement allowed for the October 2013 creation of the Law on Harmonization of Criminal Legislation, which is used to fight organized crime in Central America and the Dominican Republic. El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua haven’t ratified the law but are expected to do so between April and May, according to COMJIB.

“The law is about adjusting the Criminal Law Code in each country to a single, regional piece of legislation that governs organized crime offenses,” Cálix said. “It also ensures the operation of legal institutions in the countries as a single unit.”

Cálix Vallecillo said having the same drug laws in all seven countries will create a more efficient legal system.

“Before the Criminal Legislation Harmonization law, there were differences in crime or conviction definitions that often hindered extraditions or moving forward in a coordinated investigation, since what was classified as a crime in one country was [different] in another,” said Jorge Chavarría Guzmán, Costa Rica’s attorney general and head of the Central American and Caribbean Council of Public Ministries.

Since September 2013, public prosecutors in Costa Rica have been collaborating via videoconferences with Guatemalan, Nicaraguan and Salvadoran authorities on organized crime investigations, Chavarría Guzmán added.

Fighting organized crime

The agreement aims to effectively fight narco-trafficking, criminal conspiracy, money laundering, human, drug and weapons trafficking, bribery, embezzlement and the peddling of political favors, according to Cálix Vallecillo.

An estimated 900 gangs made up of 70,000 members, which include narco-traffickers and hit men for organized crime groups, are in Central America, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Additionally, the region is battered by gangs dedicated to human trafficking, according to the2012 UNODC Global Report on Trafficking in Persons.

Between 2007 and 2010, 15 countries in the Americas reported 6,000 cases of human trafficking, with 1,600 of them involving children. Human trafficking generated US$32 billion in revenue for organized crime worldwide in 2012, according to the UNODC.

“We are working together so by effectively applying the law, we can live in a safe and violence-free Central American region,” Cálix Vallecillo said.

The next step in implementing the agreement is to attack organized crime and drug trafficking through joint operations, according to Moreno.

“The countries will have legal instruments and procedures, including placing undercover agents throughout the region, making controlled deliveries of narcotics, bringing together international investigation teams and approving wiretaps,” he said.

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