Criminal network blamed for massive customs frauds

There is a criminal network bringing a high volume of personal-use goods, such as clothing and perfumes, into the country, according to customs director general Benito Coghi.

“We believe that this is just the tip of the iceberg, and we are cracking down on any suspects because there could be a bigger ring of people organized to commit fraud,” Coghi explained.

The findings come after analyzing patterns of companies that refuse to pay taxes on imported goods.

So far, almost $2 million in import taxes are still pending collection by the Ministerio de Hacienda, according to internal figures.

That amount includes all taxes which importers didn’t pay even though they were offered alternative arrangements between 2014 and last February, the ministry said.

Coghi explained that it might take somewhere between three to seven years for this process to come to a closure, and many times courts do not rule in favor of the government.

In 2014, the amount of import taxes disputed was $366,000. A year later it had increased to 1.3 million, a jump of 267 percent, the ministry said.

In an earlier interview, Coghi said he considered these tax evasions as a crime.

“It is a crime against human rights.” he said. “Even if we get this money back with interest, it would have lost part of its value, which we need today for social projects.” he says.

The debt comes from businesses that mislabeled or smuggled products that made their way into the country. Their irregular activity was then discovered in second inspections, customs officials said.

“So far, our collection capacity has been of 50 percent due to reasons of human resources,” Coghi explained.

Regarding the rate of import tax successful collections, the customs agency, the Dirección

This is a load of cigarettes police intercepted at a checkpoint in Tibás in August.

This is a load of cigarettes police intercepted at a checkpoint in Tibás in August.

General de Aduana, reports a total of $1.3 million in the last 26 months.  The Aduana is an agency of the Ministerio de Hacienda, better known as the budget ministry.

Costa Rica’s lengthy borders benefit smugglers who come from Nicaragua and Panamá. Fuerza Pública officers always are picking up motorists with trucks and cars stuffed with goods on which import tax has not been paid.

But the customs director general is talking more about systematic smuggling efforts that dwarf the alcohol, cigarettes, perfume and medicines that may enter the country in the trunk of a car.

The heavy duty smuggling is a paperwork crime in which products are described in documents differently than they really are. In the past, some business operators were known to have created companies in the United States with names that were very similar to those of well-known and reputable vendors. Then they simply would switch invoices for fake ones that showed the products have a much lesser value than were true. Customs inspectors would be misled by the similar name.

Kitchen appliances and electronic devices have figured in previous smuggling cases.

Sometimes the shipments rely on bribes and corruption. In September, judicial agents took into custody the head of customs at the Paso Canoas border crossing with Panamá. Officials alleged at the time that he was involved in the theft of a shipping container of cigarettes. The container has been held at the aduana agency there over paperwork problems with permits.

Investigators said that the value of the merchandise, the cigarettes, was 400 million colons or about $760,000. The container vanished last April and turned up during a later investigation in Costa Rica. The case still is pending.

Cigarettes are a prime product for smuggling because they can be sold at a much lower price when the smugglers have ducked import duties and taxes.

A reporter found that packs of cigarettes are available for 900 colons at some outlets in the Central Valley when the sales price at reputable supermarkets is about 1,500 colons or nearly $3.

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