Snowden Aftermath: Why Is Obama Fixated on the "Switzerland of Latin America"?

Whatever its scenic attractions, Costa Rica has been touched by the ever widening war on drugs which has engulfed Central America and Mexico. As I reported as early as three years ago, smugglers use Costa Rica as a transshipment point for drugs coming from Colombia and Panama.
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For many in the United States, Costa Rica is a land of exotic beauty and natural rainforests. The small Central American nation has long promoted its eco-tourism industry and foreigners flock here in search of native wildlife such as sloths and jaguar. Unlike other countries in the region, Costa Rica has seen little civil strife over the years and has no standing army. Such political stability has attracted U.S. senior citizens, who see Costa Rica as the "Switzerland of Central America" and an attractive retirement destination.

Given Costa Rica's pacifistic history, recent news of U.S. espionage comes as something of a surprise. According to Brazilian newspaper O Globo, Washington has long conducted electronic surveillance on the tiny Central American country through the super secret National Security Agency or NSA. News of the spying program has led to something of a political firestorm in Costa Rica, and recently President Laura Chinchilla called for an "international debate" about the espionage. "To me, as a citizen of a disarmed democracy like Costa Rica, these things bother me, I don't like it," Chinchilla said.

Since we don't have the precise NSA memos on Costa Rica, it's difficult to know why Washington has been so busily gathering information on the small Central American nation. Perhaps, however, the NSA sees Costa Rica as an increasingly more important link in the Latin American drug trade. As I reported earlier, the NSA has incestuous links to whistle-blower Edward Snowden's former intelligence company Booz Allen. Together with the Drug Enforcement Administration or D.E.A., the two collaborate with the Mexican military to help prosecute the drug war at the regional level.

The Drug War Comes to Costa Rica

Whatever its scenic attractions, Costa Rica has been touched by the ever widening war on drugs which has engulfed Central America and Mexico. As I reported as early as three years ago, smugglers use Costa Rica as a transshipment point for drugs coming from Colombia and Panama. Without any armed forces and with long coastlines and poorly guarded borders, the country is vulnerable to the machinations of technologically advanced drug cartels. In San José, the government is woefully unprepared to fight the drug war, and has requested and received financial assistance from the U.S. through the so-called "Mérida Initiative."

Even with such aid, however, a flood of cocaine threatens to erode Costa Rica's peaceful image. In recent years, some of Mexico's most feared drug cartels have set up shop here, including the Familia Michoacana, Sinaloa Cartel and Gulf Cartel. Moreover, Costa Rica's role in international trafficking has spurred the growth of local drug markets, criminal enterprises and other crimes including homicide and burglary. Overwhelmed, the Chinchilla government has turned to the Obama administration, which has funded coast guard operations, donated interceptor boats and provided police training and special gear such as night goggles. In addition, the U.S. funds Costa Rican police training with other Latin American special operations forces at an annual exercise conducted by the U.S. Southern Command.

Despite such collaboration, the NSA may suspect that Chinchilla is wavering in her support of Washington's draconian clampdown on drug trafficking, and might have even believed that keeping tabs on Costa Rica's leader was politically expedient. Recently, many Latin American governments have expressed frustration with the Obama Administration's military strategy, and Costa Rica is no exception. Indeed, Chinchilla has said that drug legalization in Central America deserves a "serious" debate even if this goes up against stern U.S. opposition. "If we keep doing what we have been when the results today are worse than 10 years ago, we'll never get anywhere and could wind up like Mexico or Colombia," she has said. Chinchilla adds that even though the Obama administration wants to continue the drug war, Central Americans "have the right to discuss it" because "we are paying a very high price."

Combating Chávez's Successor

In addition to fighting the drug war in Latin America, the NSA has a wider political agenda in the region. As I explained in a recent article, the U.S. spying agency has conducted high level espionage on Venezuela, including the cataloguing of telephone calls and access to the internet. According to reports, the NSA collected information on everything from Venezuelan military purchases to the South American nation's oil industry. Angered by the disclosures, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro says the United States has "created an evil system, half Orwellian, that intends to control the communications of the world."

If the NSA is conducting espionage on the Maduro government in Caracas, the spying agency is most certainly monitoring Venezuelan activity throughout the wider region. In light of earlier and suggestive WikiLeaks documents, it seems rather unlikely that Costa Rica would be ignorant of such espionage and indeed may have even collaborated with Washington. As far back as 2004, former Costa Rican president Abel Pacheco met with U.S. diplomats to express concern about Hugo Chávez's intelligence gathering activities in Central America. According to the Americans, the Costa Rican government was "surveilling the activities of the Venezuelan cultural attaché in San José."

The attaché was believed to be an intelligence officer who was "meeting secretly with labor union officials, and has brought 200,000 USD into Costa Rica to pay labor activists to stage 'provocations,' perhaps during the upcoming Ibero-American summit in Costa Rica." Alarmed by alleged Venezuelan spying, Pacheco asked the Americans if the U.S. could provide needed intelligence on the matter. It's unclear whether Costa Rica and the U.S. deepened their intelligence ties as a result of perceived Chávez meddling, though American diplomats promised to refer Pacheco's request to higher authorities.

What's Behind the Story?

In light of such history, it seems unlikely that Chinchilla was unaware of U.S. spying. Perhaps, Costa Rica did not know of specific NSA surveillance programs, but the San José government has already proposed looser wiretapping laws in response to the escalating drug war. Moreover, Washington has spent more than half a million dollars to help build a so-called police crime-mapping computer network in Costa Rica, and a U.S. Treasury expert on money-laundering is "embedded" with local law enforcement.

Perhaps, like her Panamanian counterpart Ricardo Martinelli, Chinchilla is aware of U.S. spying but lacks high level access to all intelligence. As I reported in late 2010, Panama President Martinelli found himself under siege following revelations that he had sought U.S. assistance in setting up wiretaps on his rivals. According to WikiLeaks documents, Martinelli requested U.S. help "in building infrastructure to conduct wiretaps against ostensible security threats as well as political opponents." Appealing to the Americans, Martinelli said that Panama urgently required cutting edge technology when it came to fighting corruption and crime.

Specifically, Martinelli sought assistance from the D.E.A., which had set up a counter-narcotics wiretap operation in Panama known as Operation Matador. Under the program, the Americans collaborated with the Panamanian police and security forces but only under strict legal guidelines requiring a court order. In conversations with U.S. authorities, the Panamanians expressed frustration that Matador did not allow for "enough flexibility to select targets."

Apparently, Martinelli pressured the Americans to surrender their technology and employed "a variety of tactics ranging from straightforward requests to intimidating threats." Sounding the alarm bell, U.S diplomats suggested that if Martinelli succeeded in setting up his own independent wire program under the D.E.A., "he could blame it all on the gringos if it were exposed, which in this tiny country it inevitably would be."

While it's unclear whether the Americans finally gave in to Martinelli, WikiLeaks cables illuminate high stakes tensions between Washington and small Central American nations. Perhaps, as Costa Rica becomes more embroiled in the drug war, politicians will also seek access to sensitive U.S. intelligence or even try to blackmail the Americans like Martinelli in neighboring Panama.

Cautious Costa Rica

For the time being, however, the San José government has been extremely non-confrontational. Though Chinchilla has said that she would like to encourage a "debate" about NSA, she has not indicated what might be a suitable forum for such a wider discussion. In an odd aside, the President added "I think the healthiest thing happening is that it [the NSA scandal] has opened a broad discussion on what should be the balance between the protection of the security of a nation and its citizens, as opposed to respecting the rights of other nations." Chinchilla has said that Costa Rica is ready to encourage a "civilized dialogue" about electronic espionage "without demagoguery."

Meanwhile, Costa Rican ministers have had little to say about what the San José government might do in response to the allegations. Carlos Ricardo Benavides, the Presidency Minister, even declared that it would be "impossible" to undertake any concrete measures since recent reporting had not documented specific NSA activities in Costa Rica. "We take it very seriously but our response needs to be proportionate," Benavides added.

Perhaps, Costa Rica hasn't raised an international furor over NSA spying because the authorities already have access to the intelligence, or if not officials might wish to secure further access in future. Whatever the case, Costa Rica would find it difficult to hold the U.S. to account for its espionage as San José has deeper links to Washington than other Central American nations. Currently, the Chinchilla government receives hundreds of millions of dollars in annual tourism revenue from the U.S. as well as substantial amounts of real-estate investment, especially in retirement and vacation homes. In addition, Costa Rica's lack of an army makes the nation dependent on U.S. security largesse.

In light of all these factors, the Chinchilla government would probably prefer that the NSA scandal simply vanished from the headlines as soon as possible.

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