Costa Rica Unveils Electronic Surveillance Systems at Borders, Airports
SAN JOSÉ, Costa Rica — Customs officials and police from across Central America gathered in Costa Rica in early October for a groundbreaking new workshop in electronic border patrol procedures.
“Costa Rica has a robust electronic border system,” said Freddy Montero, Costa Rica’s coordinator for the Regional Program of Border Security in Central America (known by its Spanish acronym SEFRO). “We were the first Central American country to start any kind of integrated system and we have always been recognized as having the most developed program in the region.”
The workshop focused on Costa Rica’s implementation of two different electronic platforms: the international Advance Passenger Information System (APIS), originally created by the United States, and Costa Rica’s own program of the same name in Spanish, SIMMEL.
The two initiatives allow for the immediate transmission of passenger information as their passports are scanned. The information is then shared with immigration posts globally, as well as with Interpol.
Two platforms: APIS and SIMMEL
Under APIS — which is in use at country exit points at airports around the world — passengers walk through customs and have their passports scanned. By the time they board their flights, the system will have verified whether or not they may travel.
SIMMMEL works similarly on the ground, and has been implemented at each land border crossing post in Costa Rica. The system records the comings and goings of everyone who passes through the border and immediately shares that information with international law enforcement.
The two systems make it nearly impossible for wanted criminals to pass through border posts, and also checks for traveling permissions for minors in order to better monitor possible kidnappings.
“These programs have greatly contributed to our security,” said Montero. “You cannot have proper security without the proper monitoring of people crossing your borders.”
This year, SEFRO brought Central American officials to various countries in South America and Europe to showcase successful border protection programs. Costa Rica was then chosen as an example of a leader within Central America.
“It is important that the program also highlights good practices in the region,” said Montero. “There are good things going on here as well, not just abroad, and it is an honor to share our experience with our brothers in the region.”
Airport on itinerary of workshop participants
The 35 workshop attendees visited San José’s Juan Santamaría International Airport as well as the newly renovated Peñas Blancas customs station at Costa Rica’s northern border with Nicaragua — a project funded by the United States.
Costa Rica’s most notorious entry point for drugs is the Pan-American Highway, ending at Peñas Blancas, known as a “bottleneck” for drugs, as all land shipments passing to Nicaragua are forced to funnel through the border crossing.
During the first four months of this year, Peñas Blancas officials confiscated four tons of cocaine - equivalent to the amount seized in all of Costa Rica in the last half of 2011. An estimated 600,000 people per year and 400 trucks per day cross this border, which until this year was staffed by fewer than 20 border officials.
“The situation we have at Peñas Blancas is chaotic,” said Anabel González, Costa Rica’s minister of foreign trade, following a visit there in August. At that time, the border post consisted of a one-lane highway lacking any kind of basic infrastructure. Street vendors routinely wheeled their carts up and down the dead zone between countries, and truck drivers were expected to endure waits of up to 15 hours without bathrooms.
Peñas Blancas border crossing undergoes transformation
Costa Rica began the first phase of a $1.3 million transformation last year with funding from the United States, expanding the outpost’s operating hours. It now functions from 6 a.m. to midnight. Officials also blocked off the area between the Nicaraguan and Costa Rican border posts to anyone other than travelers.
“We met some resistance to that change in particular,” said Edgar Aguirre, director of the Peñas Blancas immigration office. “It needed to be done to make the border more organized and easier to monitor.”
This simple change has already had a huge impact, insuring that every person within the border has had his or her passport scanned and checked. In March of this year, the government finished the renovation of the main immigration building, providing space for 15 additional officers and heightening security with additional cameras. A new fumigation arc was also added to spray incoming trucks.
Still to come is an expansion of the access road to four lanes to be completed by year’s end, as well as an export checkpoint.
“These changes greatly deepened the level of security at Peñas Blancas,” said Montero. “It is so much simpler to monitor.”
Chinchilla says her country deserves world-class borders
President Laura Chinchilla announced during a July visit to Peñas Blancas her intention to modernize the rest of Costa Rica’s borders, starting with Paso Canoas at the country’s boundary with Panama.
“It is a matter of public interest that we modernize this infrastructure,” Chinchilla said. “This country deserves to have first-world class borders.”
Costa Rica — long known as the “Switzerland of Central America” — has in recent years boosted the number of cocaine seizures. Only El Salvador and Honduras, home to some of the region’s most violent gangs and drug cartels, topped Costa Rica last year in this regard, said the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
Costa Rican police detained a record 1,647 people in 2011, but it remains unclear if this is due to better police work or an increase in drugs coming through the country.