Cablegate: Costa Rica: The Whinsec Solution?

Published: Mon 19 Nov 2007 04:04 PM
DE RUEHSJ #1999/01 3231644
P 191644Z NOV 07
C O N F I D E N T I A L SAN JOSE 001999
E.O. 12958: DECL: 11/15/2017
Classified By: CDA Peter M. Brennan for reason 1.4 (d).
1. (C) SUMMARY: The GOCR appears poised to release its
restrictions on students attending the Western Hemisphere
Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), reversing a May
2007 decision by President Oscar Arias. Minister of Public
Security Fernando Berrocal and Vice Minister of the
Presidency Jose Torres were both favorably impressed by their
visit to WHINSEC on November 5, accompanied by the
Ambassador, Emboffs and a Costa Rican reporter. Berrocal is
to recommend to Arias that Costa Rican personnel be allowed
to attend the full range of applicable WHINSEC courses, as
part of an overall police professionalization program.
Berrocal's trip, which included subsequent visits to JIATF-S
and SOUTHCOM, capped a six-month Embassy-SOUTHCOM-WHINSEC
effort to get GOCR security force training back on track.
With WHINSEC critics and opposition politicians already
counterattacking against the Berrocal visit, we will push him
to follow through with Arias, as promised. We will seek
action long before Berrocal's plans (not yet made public) to
depart the Ministry in early 2008. END SUMMARY.
2. (C) This impasse began on May 16, when Arias held a
"private" meeting with School of the Americas Watch (SOAW)
Latin American Director Rev. Roy Bourgeois and activist Lisa
Sullivan Rodriguez, who were traveling through the region to
persuade governments not to send students to the "former
School of the Americas," WHINSEC. Berrocal attended the
meeting, as did reporters from Reuters and Notimex, who broke
the story.
3. (C) Bourgeois was evidently as persuasive as Arias was
uninformed. Defaulting to his Nobel Peace Laureate role and
without understanding the importance of future WHINSEC
courses to Costa Rican police professionalization, Arias
emerged from the meeting to announce that once the three
students then at WHINSEC finished their courses (two in
Civil-Military Operations; one in Intelligence), the GOCR
would send no one else "to the School of the Americas." From
its regional headquarters in Venezuela, the SOAW declared
Arias's position a major victory, adding Costa Rica to the
list of countries (Venezuela, Argentina, Uruguay and Bolivia)
that reportedly "refused" to send students to WHINSEC.
4. (C) The surprise announcement stunned senior GOCR security
officials, once they realized that WHINSEC training for
specialized police and intelligence units would be cut off as
well. Costa Rican students had long attended both School of
the Americas (SOA) and WHINSEC. Over 160 attended SOA during
Arias's first term (1986-1990), including current police
chief Col. Jose Pizarro. Arias himself visited the WHINSEC
campus briefly, during a speaking engagement at Columbus
State University in 2002. Former police chief Col. Walter
Navarro is currently an instructor at WHINSEC.
5. (C) Senior security officials pressured Berrocal to permit
select Costa Rican students to attend WHINSEC courses,
"quietly," despite the President's decision. Berrocal
(wisely) demurred. Given the importance of Arias's actions
for SOAW, the presence of Costa Rican students would surface
sooner or later. The Arias administration could ill afford
the controversy, which would no doubt antagonize the
political left, with the CAFTA referendum planned for later
in the year.
6. (C) Pressured by persistent Embassy lobbying in June and
July, Berrocal realized he had a problem. IMET- and
SOUTHCOM-funded training at WHINSEC was essential to the
police professionalization program he sought. That funding
could not be used to send Costa Ricans to civilian police
academies, and even if so, none offered the range of
Spanish-language courses, nor the mix of other Latin American
students, as WHINSEC. Emboffs (and the Ambassador, to FM
Bruno Stagno) also stressed the wider bilateral impact of
Arias's decision. In effect, the President had shut the door
on the centerpiece of U.S. security assistance for Costa Rica
at the very time the Ambassador, Admiral Stavridis and other
senior U.S. officials were pushing for additional security
resources for the GOCR.
7. (C) Berrocal reportedly had two testy meetings with Arias
to change the President's mind. Arias charged Berrocal with
finding a solution, but one that would not directly undercut
the President's well-known credentials on demilitarization
and human rights. In July, Berrocal proposed an exchange of
letters with the Ambassador, which would permit Costa Rican
students to attend only counternarcotics (CN) and
counterterrorism (CT) training at WHINSEC. Berrocal told
Emboffs he could sell this to Arias, in light of the
continued successes in joint CN activities. Emboffs worked
with the Minister, at his request, to clarify the details in
the exchange of letters.
8. (SBU) The Ambassador's response noted that even this
arrangement would mean the loss of 13 course spaces, valued
at over USD 90,000 for Costa Rican students in FY2007. The
lost spaces would be in uncontroversial courses on human
rights, and needed courses on medical assistance. The
Ambassador's letter also highlighted the appropriateness and
effectiveness of WHINSEC training for Costa Rica, and argued
that any dichotomy between "acceptable" and "unacceptable"
WHINSEC courses was inappropriate and unjustifiable.
9. (SBU) The Ambassador invited Berrocal to visit WHINSEC to
see for himself. The week of November 4 was the first
workable time period for a WHINSEC visit, since GOCR
ministers could not travel during the July-October CAFTA
referendum campaign. (NOTE: Copies of the Berrocal and
Langdale letters were passed to WHA/CEN in July.) Citing
Arias's determination, Berrocal held firm to the CN/CT-only
formula, even after agreeing to visit Ft. Benning. WHINSEC
mitigated the damage by allowing Costa Rican students to move
into dedicated counter-drug or counter-terrorism classes. In
the end, only three human rights instructor course spaces
valued at USD 15,210 were lost to the GOCR (and made
available to other countries). That figure, of course, does
not cover the many man-hours lost in the preparation and
coordination to send those students to the courses.
10. (SBU) On November 5, Minister Berrocal and Vice-Minister
Torres, accompanied by the Ambassador, Emboffs, and a Costa
Rican reporter, visited WHINSEC and met with its commander,
Colonel Gilberto Perez, as well as other Institute staff.
During an office call with Perez, Berrocal noted that the
GOCR had been successful in counternarcotics interdiction
with nearly 55 tons of cocaine seized since the Arias
administration took office in May 2006. He added, however,
that Costa Rica urgently needed more police training that
would "best train its public forces in the best mind of its
public." He thanked Perez for the CN and CT training that
WHINSEC had provided to Costa Rica, but emphasized the need
to professionalize about 150 mid-level police officers.
11. (U) Perez underlined that WHINSEC was the ideal solution
to Costa Rica's police training needs and said the Institute
could offer, in addition to CN and CT, other courses such as,
but not limited to:
-Human rights
-Medical assistance training
-Leadership training
-Instructor training
-Intelligence officer training
Berrocal appreciated the offer and requested (and received)
complete course descriptions offered by WHINSEC.
12. (U) During the formal WHINSEC briefing, which emphasized
the strong emphasis the institute's curriculum had on
strengthening democracy and human rights, Berrocal was
singularly impressed with the role that certain NGOs, such as
Human Rights Watch, had played in the development of many of
WHINSEC's courses. He also acknowledged Amnesty
International's positive evaluation of WHINSEC's human rights
training as a model to be emulated. Following the official
briefing, Berrocal toured a mock drug lab (where students
learn how to identify and seize such facilities); an
"Engagement Skills Trainer," a virtual-reality simulator
using modified but realistic weapons, to train students to
differentiate civilians from criminals or terrorists in
highly stressful situations; and a medical training class.
13. (SBU) Prior to departing WHINSEC, the Costa Rican
reporter interviewed both Berrocal and Torres. In the
interview (and in post-visit comments to us), Berrocal said
that he would make a positive recommendation to President
Arias that Costa Rica should lift its restrictions on student
attendance and that they should be allowed to attend all
applicable WHINSEC courses. Torres echoed Berrocal's
14. (U) The Costa Rican reporter has already run two very
positive stories in his paper, Diario Extra, (popular daily,
circulation 150,000). In the first (November 9), he quoted
favorable comments by Berrocal, Torres, the Ambassador, and
the WHINSEC commander. The Ambassador highlighted that the
U.S. wanted to contribute and support the professionalization
of Costa Rica's police forces. Colonel Perez made it clear
to the press that "here there are no secrets" and emphasized
the open and transparent manner in which WHINSEC trained its
students. In the second article (November 12), Colonel
Walter Navarro (a former director of the Costa Rican Fuerza
Publica and currently an instructor at WHINSEC) emphasized
the professional training that he had received and taught to
other students. Navarro said in the interview that the
training WHINSEC offered could help fight the growing
criminal underworld problem in Costa Rica.
15. (U) The positive reports have sparked counterattacks from
WHINSEC critics and opposition political figures. On
November 15, Diario Extra reported that Father Bourgeois had
written President Arias to urge him not to renege on his
pledge in May to end Costa Rican training at WHINSEC. The
opposition PAC party, meanwhile, is reportedly planning to
invite Berrocal to testify before the legislature (probably
the PAC-led Counternarcotics Committee) to explain his
WHINSEC visits and comments. (Berrocal is on leave in the
United States. He will return to Costa Rica the week of
November 26.) Additionally, the English-language Tico Times
published an editorial urging President Arias to stick with
his May decision not to send any more Costa Rican police to
train at a military base.
16. (C) Berrocal's WHINSEC trip and the initial accompanying
media coverage went even better than we expected. Our thanks
to all those at WHINSEC and SOUTHCOM's TCA program who helped
make it possible. The minister now seems to have a clear
understanding of WHINSEC's mission, and the importance of its
contributions to his hoped-for police professionalization
program. Berrocal, in fact, had much of this information in
May, and therefore should have been prepared to deal with the
unfounded SOAW allegations then, but in this case the picture
gained first-hand at WHINSEC was worth far more than 1000
words. We will follow up when he returns to Costa Rica and
will be following up with VM Torres in coming days. We do
not want the SOAW counterattack to weaken Berrocal's resolve,
or to harden the President's determination. A CT/CN-only
solution is a half-measure. There is no substantive reason
for the GOCR to restrict Costa Rican participation at
WHINSEC. We would also like to wrap this up quickly, if
possible, as Berrocal shared with us on this trip, (but has
not yet made public) his plans to depart the Ministry
sometime between January and May of next year.
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