Fighting the Drug War, the Costa Rican Way

Police officers on foot patrol in Puntarenas, Costa Rica. Image by Nick Miroff. Costa Rica, 2011.

When I first heard officials in Costa Rica talk about the need for an “ecological” approach to the threat posed by Mexican drug cartels and the importance of “carbon neutral” solutions, I thought: Por favor--these guys are toast.

After all, the ruthless criminals who smuggle billions worth of cocaine through Central America aren’t thinking about their carbon footprint as they’re chopping heads off rivals and buying up cops and judges from Colombia to Ciudad Juarez.

So as top officials here told me recently with some pride that a new police academy under construction would be carbon-neutral, it seemed to reinforce the perception that Costa Rica is too laid-back and eco-friendly (i.e., soft) to mount a serious defense against the likes of the Sinaloa cartel or Los Zetas, as those groups and others look to take over new territory in Central America.

The drug war needs tough crime fighters, big guns and fearless public officials with perfect moral rectitude. Or at least that’s what seems to be lacking in the darkest corners of the drug war.

But then I thought of the embattled cities in northern Mexico that have been hit hardest by the drug war, like Monterrey or Juarez. Officials there increasingly acknowledge that the Mexican government’s military-led approach to fighting crime hasn’t brought more security, and that the roots of their problems lie in weak institutions, low levels of social trust and an easy susceptibility to corruption. Such deficiencies are not easy to overcome.

Costa Rica has no military, but it’s also Central America’s most peaceful and stable nation, with good schools, accessible health care, and a society that isn’t armed to the teeth. Can its so-called “social fabric” save it from the fate of other countries in the region, like Guatemala and Honduras, where Mexican cartels have brought a surge in violence and corruption?

Environmental values are a big part of that social fabric, officials here insist, and the same social conscience that leads people to conserve energy or not litter is what also encourages them to report criminals to police officers who don’t take bribes.

“For us, it’s really important that we don’t take a defensive posture, but a proactive one, and part of that is upholding our core values, including environmental protection,” Security Minister Mario Zamora, the country’s highest ranking law enforcement official, told me in an interview.

By building a new police academy that will be energy-efficient and carbon-neutral—with millions in U.S. support— Zamora said Costa Rican authorities are sending a message that they won’t compromise their principles, or act as if they operate outside of the country’s environmental standards. And that, Zamora said, reinforces bonds between police and the communities where they work, which is crucial to fighting crime and fostering public confidence in the authorities.

Ultimately, then, an “ecological” approach doesn’t mean buying solar-powered police cars or biodegradable bullets. It means looking at a criminal threat broadly, as a social problem as well as a law-enforcement one, and investing in programs and institutions that can put up resistance to the corrupting powers of the criminals.

Hard to say whether it’ll work. But more on this soon.