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  Number 93 | Abril 1989
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Costa Rica

Costa Rican Follies

Envío team

As the Oliver North trial in Washington revealed details of Costa Rica's covert role in the contra war, corruption and drug scandals at high levels rocked that quiet Central American country. Two former Costa Rican Presidents and three Supreme Court justices were accused of corruption and drug trafficking charges this January.

In that same month, Costa Rican officials finally moved against US citizen John Hull, notorious for his involvement in building and supplying the contras' southern front from his ranch near the Costa Rican-Nicaraguan border. Underlying much of this scandal is the long shadow of Iran-Contragate. It is becoming increasingly clear that Costa Rican involvement in covert supplying of the contras has had a corrupting influence upon its government, from the judicial to the executive and legislative branches.

The Costa Rica-contra connection

According to recent testimony in the Oliver North trial, it was North who urged the formation of a contra southern front based in Costa Rica at a military strategy meeting with contra leaders in June of 1985. The session took place while a ban on military aid to the contras was in effect.

The trial also revealed the extent of official Costa Rican involvement in logistical support for the contras when a memo from courier Robert Owen to Colonel North was made public in early March. The message, labeled "For Your Eyes Only," concerned plans to build an airstrip for contra use near the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border. Owen's memo names former Minister of Public Security BenjamIn Piza, his vice minister and a former Civil Guard colonel as principals in the project.

Piza was rewarded for his pains by a 1986 visit with Ronald Reagan, who thanked him for his help in establishing the southern front. But, by late 1987, Piza and Colonel José Ramón Montero faced criminal charges in Costa Rica for their roles in connection with the airfield, despite approval at the highest levels for the project. In a 1987 interview, then President Alberto Monge admitted he authorized the airfield's construction after a visit from "officials from Washington."

Sleaze in high places

Recent scandals reveal that public morals in Costa Rica have been declining steadily in recent years. Ex-President Luis Alberto Monge and his Vice President, Armando Aráuz, were arraigned in January on charges of using the country's National Emergency Relief Fund to make personal home improvements. Ex-President Daniel Oduber was accused of accepting a $1 million campaign contribution from a US drug trafficker.

Costa Rica's Narcotics Trafficking Commission called for the resignation of three Supreme Court justices, the Costa Rican ambassador to Peru and legislator Leonel Villalobos, all in connection with the drug scandals. Villalobos quickly made good on his threat to bring others down with him by airing dirty laundry, accusing other Costa Rican officials of involvement in the scandals, including ex-President Monge, whom Villalobos says received Panamanian funds for his 1982 campaign. The insinuation is that these funds were drug-related.

Nor was current President Oscar Arias untainted by the scandal. In February, The Miami Herald reported that funds from an accused Argentine narcotics trafficker paid for rice and beans at Arias' 1986 campaign rallies. "That’s how those people work," said the head of the legislative panel investigating drugs. "They can use you without your knowing it. They can buy political influence and break the moral defenses of society."

In response to the accusations against other Supreme Court justices, Judge Francisco Chacón resigned. "I don't believe I should stay in the judicial branch in which Costa Ricans have lost faith," he explained.

Drug traffic in Costa Rica has skyrocketed in the last few years. Between 1980 and 1984, Costa Rican police captured an average of 2.2 pounds of cocaine each year. Without a major increase in police power, the amount confiscated since 1985 has reached 6,600 pounds. A narcotics specialist on the police force estimates that 3,300 pounds a month pass through Costa Rica.

In an unusual step, the Narcotics Trafficking Commission met with President Arias to discuss security measures in the wake of threats against their lives.

Hull arrested—at last

A January 26 letter to President Oscar Arias signed by 19 US Representatives—10 Democrats and 9 Republicans—urged that the case of imprisoned US rancher John Hull "be concluded promptly and that it...be handled in a manner that will not complicate US-Costa Rican relations." Arias responded angrily that, on human rights, "Costa Ricans don't take lessons from anyone."

Hull was arrested in Costa Rica on charges of drug trafficking and violation of that country's neutrality. The two charges are intimately related. George Morales, a pilot now serving time in Florida on drug trafficking charges, testified to the US Senate during Contragate hearings that he ran flights into Costa Rica with arms for the contras and returned with cocaine to Florida, using Hull's ranch to unload. Hull has also been linked by witnesses to the 1985 La Penca bombing, which killed several journalists and wounded ex-contra leader Edén Pastora in an apparent attempt to pin blame on Managua and justify US intervention in Nicaragua. Costa Rican officials also issued a summons to Octaviano César, brother of "moderate" contra leader Alfredo César, for involvement in the drugs-for-arms flights. Hull is free on $37,000 bail; no trial date has been set.

Why did Costa Rica choose to move right now against Hull, given that these charges have been public knowledge for years, and up to this point Hull has received de facto protection from Costa Rican authorities? San José's English-language paper, The Tico Times, speculates that while the move against Hull is part of the ongoing anti-drug campaign, its timing is due to a variety of other reasons. First, with the most serious charges against Oliver North dropped due to lack of access to secret documents, Hull can be tried without having an impact on North's case or on the Iran-Contragate scandal, now past history. Second, the move against Hull can be seen, in the words of one Arias government official, "as a message to Washington's new administration that this government will no longer tolerate contra activity on its soil." In the same vein, it may have been a concession to Nicaragua, as part of the preparations for the Central American presidential summit. Finally, there are those who see Hull's arrest as retaliation by Arias for the arrest on smuggling charges of his campaign supporter Ricardo Alem, Costa Rican representative to the Central American Bank of Economic Integration. US officials were believed to be behind Alem's arrest last June, in an alleged attempt to embarrass Arias in response to his sponsorship of the Esquipulas peace plan.

These corruption scandals occur at a moment of growing concern over Costa Rica's economic situation. The Costa Rican legislature delayed President Arias' departure for the February inauguration of Venezuelan President Carlos Andrés Pérez, insisting that he first answer charges that governing National Liberation Party members are implicated in the drug scandals. But underlying this demand is the legislators' annoyance that Arias has emphasized international initiatives, including a regional peace plan many more conservative politicians do not wholeheartedly support, at a time when they feel he should be facing up to economic troubles at home.

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