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A Disgrace for Costa Rica – Opinion

June 30th, 2012

Jorge Rojas VargasI generally do not write op-ed blog posts, but today Costa Rica has lost a fine man who more than any other, has changed the face of professional law enforcement in Costa Rica.  His name is Jorge Rojas Vargas, pictured left, and while I have never met him personally, (or professionally thank God), I would consider it a high honor if someday I might make his acquaintance and shake his hand. He is to me a hero in a land where heros in government are hard to find.  I have delayed writing this post because I thought that just maybe… someone in the government might come to their senses and not permit this man to retire from public service. I mean all he really wanted was enough funding for he and his staff  to do their jobs. Sadly, that has not come to pass.  For shame.

Should you like more info on Mr Rojas and his importance to Costa Rica, read on…

The system of law enforcement here in Costa Rica often times confuses the newcomer or visitor.  A description of all the various branches would probably make for a great blog article, but today, I’m going to concentrate on how Costa Rica has managed to screw up and lose someone who many would agree, is the absolute premier lawman in the country.  His name is Jorge Rojas, a man this country simply cannot afford to lose.

Mr Rojas was, until today, the  director of the Organismo de Investigación Judicial (OIJ). In Cost Rica, the main police force, the Fuerza Publica, does not investigate crime.  Their job is to prevent crime and act as first responder when a crime has been committed.  North Americans, accustomed to having anyone in uniform handle all aspects of a crime often do not understand why the Fuerza Publica does not investigate. They simply respond to crime and provide support to other police agencies.

Crime investigation falls under the realm of the OIJ which might best be compared to the FBI in the USA.

Some history

Mr Rojas started with the OIJ 38 years ago in 1974.  His first assignment was with the Sección de Inspecciones Oculares, what would be better known to many as crime scene investigation (CSI).  Later assignments included  Robbery and Assault, Traffic Section and then Head of Criminal Investigation Department.  In 1997, he was appointed Deputy Director of the OIJ, and was appointed  Director 12 November 2001 with his inauguration taking place in January 2002.

Mr Rojas, perhaps single handedly, brought the OIJ into the 21st century with the latest crime investigation technique such as DNA analysis and testing, toxicology, chemical analysis and x-rays and numerous other investigative tools.  It was Rojas that opened the OIJ to women. The OIJ has grown enormously under his control and in all the right directions.

Sadly, much of his job the past few years has been attempting to just get proper funding and staffing for the OIJ.  I remember back in late 2007 when he told the Supreme Court (they actually control the OIJ and are responsible for their budget… kind of a silly arrangement) that he simply could not do his job without sufficient funding and would retire in early 2008.  At that time, Rojas explained that the OIJ received 58,000 complaints that year with an entire staff of 500 investigators. He stated, “This is not fair either for the complainants nor for the investigators”.  He also expressed great concern over the autonomy  (in this case the budgetary independence) of the OIJ. They caved and some, but not all, of the requested funding was provided.  His concerns regarding budgetary independence were ignored. The policy of increasing the annual budget loosely based on inflation and not on increased crime, increased complaints, or just maintaining or better yet updating the tools of the crime investigation trade continued…  guess those other things were just not important.

What really frosts my Twinkie, is that the government always seems to find plenty of money to hire more traffic police (transitos) with new cars.  Transitos, while occasionally needed for traffic control, seem to spend far more of their time enforcing the new and incredibly stupid (for the most part) driving laws, annoying the bejesus out of the tourists (and on occasion look to “supplement” their incomes from those same tourists, which, interestingly, is then investigated by the OIJ.  Gotta love it), but do little else and seem to not have to work nights!  One certainly never sees them after 5PM unless there is an accident. Meanwhile, those charged with actually  investigating and solving crime in Costa Rica go a-begging  are treated like the bastard brother.  But I digress…. You know its bad when I do run-on sentences!

Mr. Rojas did not retire but stayed on until now. He got 250 new agents. Better than nothing I suppose.

2010 – Two years On

In 2010 the US State Department reported that  235,000 criminal complaints were filed with the OIJ with only 4 percent (9,835 cases) going to trial and with a conviction rate of 61 percent.  That means just 6,000 convictions or just 2.5 percent of the complaints filed.

Today -2012

So here we are… nothing changes.  About a month ago, Mr Rojas again renewed his requests for funding.  This was in the face of a reduction to 4% from the expected  9% increase. Huh?

He stated that with those cuts, even the food for those incarcerated will be affected. The Director stated that this was going to have a profound impact on the OIJs ability to investigate and prosecute criminals. He renewed his concerns about autonomy for the police agency and the dire need for funding in the face of increased and certainly more sophisticated crimes including credit card and Internet fraud.

When he asked lawmakers for more money, he was told, as always, that his budget was part of the budget of  the Supreme Court (Corte Suprema de Justicia) and it was they who allocated the money.  Geez!  He is also concerned about judges who simply will not convict even in the face of overwhelming evidence.  The bad guys are out on the street.  Sounds like the US to me…

So today is his last day of work.


Perhaps the thing that bothers me the most is that, in my opinion, this sends a message to all Ticos that their government simply does not feel crime is an issue worth the time, effort, and money. Their government should protect them.  Of course there is a shortage of money… perhaps Germany is the only country not so affected by lack of funds, but the safety of the people must be held to the highest level. This is a failure of leadership.  Ticos, being Ticos will probably let this pass, but whoever replaces Don Jorge will face the same issues and will face, as all countries face, growing crime and ever-more sophisticated crime. At some point, violent crime must be addressed. Perhaps the transitos could become more involved in actual enforcement of crime?  Quien sabe? Naw… LOL… never mind.

Don Jorge, I thank you for your years of service.  I have no idea what you will do … lawyer? Consultant?  Regardless, I wish you the very best, and I want you to know that at least one North American living in your country has a deep appreciation for everything you have done.


The OIJ – Just some of their responsibilities:

  • Crimes against persons, rape, robbery etc
  • Frauds
  • Economic and Financial Crimes
  • Narcotics
  • Homicides
  • Crimes Against property
  • Juvenile Crime
  • Speculation in Transit
  • Kidnappings
  • Sexual Crimes
  • Prison housing and Transportation of criminals
  • Police Service Immediate Intervention SPII
  • Plans and Operations
  • Background Screening

If interested, the Museum of Criminology is located in the First Judicial Circuit building (OIJ) in San Jose.

6 Responses to “A Disgrace for Costa Rica – Opinion”

  1. Rich M on July 1, 2012 5:28 am

    Hi Tim,
    Thanks for sharing this, and importantly your commentary on it. I admit, I had planned to retire in Costa Rica after a few visits from the US. Last time, however, I got an up close perspective of the healthcare system there (my primary concern), and learned that like much in life, first appearances can be deceiving. I may well retire in CR, but I am continuing to learn as much as I can, and I thank resources like you that assist me in doing so.

  2. Ad Orientem on July 1, 2012 9:33 am

    Sounds like the J Edgar Hoover (less the civil rights abuses) of Costa Rica. Losing a good man is always hard. Losing him because of incompetence and bureaucratic idiocy/indifference is even worse.Unfortunately Costa Rica will continue to suffer in the tourist business from a reputation for high crime.

  3. John on July 29, 2012 7:50 pm

    I deeply appreciate your post as we are dealing with some of the same issues in the United States. After having lived in the U.S., in Europe, in Mexico and spent a lot of time in several Central American countries AND being a law enforcement officer here in the U.S. I have come to appreciate our system of justice despite its imperfections.
    Funding is a constant problem at the local level since contrarily to the Feds, we can’t print more money and borrow from the Chinese when we run out of cash. Despite this fact, we are better funded than in most of the world and have a favorable legal environment in which to operate. I visit Costa Rica and Panama often as I have family in Tamarindo and in Aguadulce, Panama. I have had many opportunities to talk to my counterparts there and even to do ride-alongs (in Panama City). I admire the (honest and dedicated) law enforcement officers in both countries who work for peanuts and operate in a very difficult legal environment with very few resources. This inside look at their work has been sobering on every occasion and has made me appreciate what we have back home. This perspective has also strengthened my resolve to keep fighting for appropriate funding for our profession as I have seen the consequences of failing to do that.
    I wish more citizens in our own country would take such a lucid look at law enforcement and the justice system as you have in this post.
    Thank you again and keep on.

  4. Eileen on July 31, 2012 1:09 pm

    Sounds like the global disease of corruption and greed have reached the beautiful shores of Costa Rica.

  5. Marco on August 6, 2012 10:08 am

    It truly was a sad day when he retired. Leaves you feeling like he still has lots of things pending and noone else will pick them up.

  6. JF Trimble on August 27, 2012 10:28 pm

    Similar problems with policing are present throughout Latin America. The governments through more uniformed officers at increasing crime problems, but without the necessary training, equipment, and systems to develop an effective police force. A police force needs patrol officers, investigators, technicians, and special units. It also needs a supportive and effective prosecutors office to avoid a ‘catch and release’ program for repeat offenders.