DEA payment to tax police here prompted probes

The U.S. Embassy admitted Thursday that a payment from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to members of Costa Rica’s tax police triggered investigations.

The embassy, in a written statement, also revealed that the money went to a new Costa Rican law enforcement unit that tracks suspicious container shipments. This was the first public revelation that Costa Rica’s tax police or policía fiscal had been enlisted in the hemispheric drug war.

Embassy press spokesperson Evelyn M. Ardon declined to answer questions directly and requested that reporters questions about the previously unknown payment be put in writing. However, hours later the embassy statement came as a reply, signed “United States Embassy, San José, Costa Rica.“ and did not touch on the key questions a reporter had furnished. The embassy statement also did not address the claim that the amount involved was some $20,000.

The original story broke in El Diario Extra Thursday morning. The Spanish-language newspaper said that the Costa Rican officials who received the money in spring 2011 “had a party” with $20,000 donated by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, using it to remodel a “safe house” for secret meetings and make purchases such as a computers, cameras, and electronics without oversight or protocol. The policia fiscal is a law enforcement branch of the Ministerio de Hacienda and specializes in monitoring fiscal, tax as well as import discrepancies.

Said the statement emailed by Ms. Ardon: “We understand the allegations made in the complaint were fully investigated in 2011 by both the Ministry of Public Security and Hacienda. All United States Government funds used in this project are accounted for and all protocols followed for the DEA financial assistance, which was requested by Costa Rican authorities.”

“All funds went to purchase official equipment that is being used in a public facility by a unit of Costa Rican law enforcement officers to track suspicious container shipments in Costa Rica. This unit has
the support of UNODC and has received assistance from the United States and other donor nations. Since it began operations in June 2011, this unit has assisted in the identification and seizure of hundreds of kilograms of cocaine from shipping containers, including the discovery in November in Moín of 153 kilograms in a container from Colombia.

“As the allegations in today’s article in Diario Extra relate to an internal matter of the Government of Costa Rica, we refer any further inquiries to the Ministry of Hacienda.”

UNODC is the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.

The article in Diario Extra stemmed from a complaint filed by a whistleblower within the Ministerio de Hacienda who claimed the money was spent secretly and without the knowledge of the minister or a vice minister.

At first, the complaint was handled internally at the Ministerio de Haciendo but later brought before the Contraloría General de la República, the article said.

The Contraloría is the nation’s budget watchdog.

According to Ms. Ardon, Ambassador Anne S. Andrew is outside of Costa Rica and could not be reached for comment. She probably was not involved in the payment by the drug enforcement agency which exercises autonomy here.

Drug investigations usually are handled by the Policía de Control de Drogas of the Ministerio de Gobernación, Policía y Seguridad Pública and a special section in the Judicial Investigating Organization. For example the Policía de Control de Drogas confiscated about 360 kilograms of cocaine during a truck inspection at the Peñas Blancas border crossing Wednesday afternoon.

The confiscation mentioned in the statement released by Ms. Ardon took place at the end of November. At the time, the discovery and arrest were attributed to the Policía de Control de Drogas, not the policía fiscal. A trucker had picked up an empty container at the Moín docks and agents discovered that it had a false wall inside which were packages of cocaine. The security ministry credited the arrest to workers who noticed some packages and gave an alert.

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