Costa Rica stirs controversy by green-lighting U.S. warships

The U.S.S. Kearsarge is among 46 naval warships given permission to enter Costa Rican territorial waters between July 1 and December 31.

On July 1, Costa Rica’s legislative assembly approved a significant expansion of the U.S. counternarcotics presence in the country’s territorial waters. Members of the 57-seat legislature voted 31-8, with many opponents absent in an attempt to avoid a quorum, to allow U.S. Navy ships to dock and enter the country’s territorial waters to assist counternarcotics operations.

The United States and Costa Rica have operated since 1999 under a maritime counternarcotics agreement, whose text in Spanish is on the site of the U.S. embassy in San José. This agreement allows U.S. Coast Guard vessels, under a series of conditions, to carry out drug interdiction missions within Costa Rica’s territorial waters.

Since armyless Costa Rica lies along a drug trafficking route that is being used with increasing frequency, and since the Costa Rican police lack the personnel and equipment to detect and monitor trafficking, the 1999 agreement is not controversial. The new U.S. request, however, is different.

In a June 2, 2010 diplomatic note to the Costa Rican government – reproduced here in Spanish, from the Costa Rican congressional debate transcript (PDF) – the U.S. embassy asks Costa Rica to approve the possible entry into its territorial waters of a total of 46 naval warships over a six-month period (July 1-December 31, 2010). Taken together, these ships carry about 7,000 naval personnel and 200 helicopters.

Not all 46 are certain to come anywhere near Costa Rica. The diplomatic note reads, “The Embassy wishes to signal that not all of the indicated boats will visit Costa Rica, only those that need to make short visits.” Among the warships listed are:

  • The U.S.S. Makin Island, a Wasp-class amphibious assault ship, 258 meters long with 102 officers, 1,449 enlisted men, 48 helicopters and 5 Harrier aircraft aboard.
  • The U.S.S. Kearsarge, another Wasp-class amphibious assault ship, 257 meters long with 104 officers, 1,004 enlisted men, 48 helicopters and 5 Harrier aircraft aboard.
  • The U.S.S. Swift, a high-speed catamaran currently paying visits to several ports of call in Central America and the Caribbean for subject-matter exchanges with local militaries.
  • The USNS Comfort, a hospital ship, 270 meters long with 110 officers, 710 enlisted men and 73 civilians aboard.

The 1999 U.S.-Costa Rican counternarcotics cooperation agreement very specifically states that it allows the U.S. Coast Guard – defined in the agreement as “a police body” – to operate in Costa Rican waters. The U.S. government, however, is requesting the additional naval vessels “in support of” the Coast Guard’s anti-drug operations.

In order to comply with the letter of the 1999 agreement and classify their mission as “law enforcement,” these naval vessels would carry Coast Guard teams and fly the U.S. Coast Guard flag. The Navy personnel, however, “will enjoy freedom of movement and the right to carry out activities they consider necessary for the fulfilment of their mission, which includes wearing their uniforms while exercising official functions.”

While Costa Rica is concerned about the threat of narcotrafficking, whose related violence could damage its booming tourist industry, the U.S. warships’ prospective presence has generated vocal opposition. Since abolishing its armed forces in 1948, Costa Rica has prided itself on its tradition of demilitarization and peaceful conflict resolution.

“This gives a blank check to American troops,” said Costa Rican Congressman Luis Fishman, a supporter of the 1999 accord who led opposition to the new agreement. “The type of armament leads one to believe that these operations are more military in character, rather than for combatting narcotrafficking,” added opposition legislator Juan Carlos Mendoza. An online petition against the entry of U.S. naval vessels now has over 3,600 signatures.

Opposition leaders are threatening a constitutional challenge to the possible U.S. Navy deployments. They could prevail, as Costa Rican law tightly restricts the presence of foreign military personnel in the national territory. In the early 2000s, U.S.-Costa Rican negotiations to establish an International Law Enforcement Academy broke down when Costa Rica insisted that no military personnel participate as trainees or instructors. The ILEA now operates in El Salvador.

Harmless

This initiative by the US strikes me as harmless, and the reaction based perhaps on CR’s experience with DEA cowboys, if not more ideological baggage.

Either way, the US has to get real to the fact that it needs to explain itself better to all parties, and not expect the red carpet rolled out anytime it wants to engage in (perhaps reasonable) anti-narcotics interdiction activities.