By Julieta Pelcastre/Diálogo August 19, 2016 To help prevent transnational organized-crime and drug-trafficking groups from using Costa Rica as a transit point for drugs, U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) will donate two renovated Island-class oceanic patrol boats to the Costa Rican National Coast Guard Service. The donation, valued at $19 million, includes new communications and navigation equipment, ship renovation, weapons, and training on how to operate and maintain the vessels. After his meeting with Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solís in San Jose, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL), William Brownfield, announced the donation on June 22nd. “This is the largest collaboration ever between SOUTHCOM and Costa Rica,” Costa Rican Public Security Minister Gustavo Mata Vega told Diálogo. “The vessels that the Ministry of Public Security’s National Coast Guard Service will receive next year will be the largest that will be used to combat drug and human trafficking, human smuggling, illegal fishing, and environmental crime in Costa Rican waters, which had never before been monitored due to the lack of capacity of the country’s fleet up to now.” Long-time negotiations Negotiations between the Costa Rican Government and SOUTHCOM began two years ago during a visit from then SOUTHCOM Commander, General John F. Kelly, when the United States and Costa Rica agreed that reinforcing the Coast Guard’s capabilities would be mutually beneficial to both nations. The boats will be more than 34 meters long with a displacement of 168 metric tons and will have an overall length (LOA) of 33.53 meters, a maximum draft of 2.32 meters, and a beam of 6.40 meters. The patrol boats have been in active service for the U.S. Coast Guard since the 1980s. As part of the acquisition, they will be completely renovated and fitted with next-generation communication and navigation equipment. Once work is complete, they will have the operational range and maritime capacity to patrol Costa Rica’s extensive maritime territorial and exclusive economic zone waters. “Acquiring these ships has been the top security related priority for the U.S. Embassy country team in Costa Rica for the past two years. Placing these ships in the hands of a proactive and professional force like the Costa Rican Coast Guard will undoubtedly benefit the entire region,” said U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Daniel R. Fitch, deputy chief of the Office of Defense Representative in Costa Rica. “The realization of this donation is also a great example of what is possible when different agencies work together to accomplish one goal. In this case, the close collaboration between SOUTHCOM, INL, and the Costa Rican Ministry of Public Security was critical. The U.S. Department of Defense is donating the boats, Foreign Military Financing is funding the communications suite, weapons, and training support, INL is funding the refurbishment and spare parts package, and the Ministry of Public Security is increasing the Coast Guard by 110 sailors to man and support the vessels as well as increasing the Coast Guard’s maintenance budget,” explained Lt. Col. Fitch to Diálogo. Costa Rican sovereignty To operate the new vessels, a total of 40 sailors will undergo six months of training at a naval academy in Baltimore, Maryland. When training is concluded, the Costa Rican officers will sail the ships [“Juan Rafael Mora Porras” and “General José María Cañas”] to Costa Rica. The ships, each with a crew of 18 people, will allow Costa Rica to increase its presence and control of territorial waters from 1,200 kilometers to more than 5,500 kilometers in the Pacific Ocean. Those maritime areas are currently patrolled by U.S. frigates within the framework of the Joint-Patrol Convention between the two countries. Signed in 1999, the convention allows for highly coordinated patrols, the provision of information and equipment, professional officer training, and rescue operations. “We don’t want to be given the fish. What we want is to be given the fishing line to be able to reel in organized-crime organizations,” Mata Vega said. “We will continue working jointly with U.S. authorities to identify, detain, and inspect suspicious vessels.” Regional collaboration The Costa Rican Government recognized the support of the United States as another piece of the puzzle to finalize the commitment and the actions being developed with regard to security. The U.S. Government, in turn, indicated that the transfer of the two vessels would not have been possible without a firm commitment of the Costa Rican Government to provide the National Coast Guard Service with the resources it needs to operate the patrol boats. “This is an excellent example of what we can accomplish when our governments invest jointly in security. Costa Rica can be very proud of having intercepted more drugs at sea than almost any other country in the region,” Brownfield reported during a June 22nd press conference at the Presidential House. According to the Ministry of Public Security, security forces confiscated more than 13 metric tons of cocaine between January 1st and August 1st this year. Meanwhile, more than 19,000 tons of cocaine were confiscated in 2015, and 134 international criminal organizations were dismantled, according to the Costa Rican Drug Institute. Transshipment route Costa Rica has become a bridge for criminal groups. Drug traffickers are using small go-fast boats that are difficult to detect. Many of those depart from Ecuadorian and Colombian ports in the Pacific Ocean, traverse Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands, and continue on to Mexico and the United States through Cocos Island in Costa Rica. Drug traffickers usually unload and store cocaine in Costa Rica, with the intention of subsequently shipping the drugs to Guatemala, Mexico, the United States, and Europe. “The added range and capability of the ships will benefit the Costa Rican economy and environment by providing presence in Costa Rican waters where illegal fishing is prevalent. Moreover, the Coast Guard will disrupt established drug routes that pass through Costa Rican territorial waters, thereby protecting Costa Rican sovereignty and increasing collaboration with the Joint Interagency Task Force South.” explained Lt. Col. Fitch. In this context, SOUTHCOM has contributed to strengthening the maritime fleet and the installation of new police checkpoints on the Caribbean and Pacific coasts of Costa Rica. In January 2015, the U.S. Government donated six Eduardoño boats to the Ministry of Public Security to patrol the border checkpoint of Delta, in the province of Limón. The donation included spare parts for the six boats, two transmission devices, and six propellers with a total value of more than $1.1 million. “Thanks to SOUTHCOM’s cooperation, the National Coast Guard System will have a new Coast Guard Station in the port city of Golfito, Puntarenas, on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica starting in 2017. This project will cost $2.5 million because it includes two additional projects: a floating dock and a hangar,” Commissioner Martín Arias, director of the National Coast Guard Service, explained to Diálogo on April 14th. These donations, which are a key component of Costa Rica’s strategy for combatting criminal groups, also strengthen the cooperation and bonds of friendship between Costa Rica and SOUTHCOM. “SOUTHCOM identifies strongly with our nation’s cause, and that is rooted in several meetings we have had with SOUTHCOM’s high officials. We have cooperated more closely on defense matters, and we have tightened our bonds of friendship,” said Mata Vega. “Costa Rica has new announcements to make on this type of cooperation on the part of SOUTHCOM.” A hemispheric alliance is essential in the fight against crime. “We should be clear that no country will be able to win the fight against organized crime, criminal groups and terrorism on its own. It is important to establish alliances at the regional and international level where everyone acts as one in a number of areas so that we can continue working for the well-being of society,” concluded Mata Vega.