Arms Destruction in Costa Rica

Tasneem Jamal

Derry O’Connor

The Ploughshares Monitor Autumn 2006 Volume 27 Issue 3

Derry O´Connor served as a Young Professionals International (YPI) with the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress in Costa Rica. YPI interns are sponsored by Foreign Affairs Canada; Project Ploughshares serves as one of the administering agencies.

Costa Rica has no army but does have a national police force, the Fuerzas Publicas. In their arsenal the police have a wide range of surplus small arms and light weapons (SALW). Many handguns and rifles have been confiscated from civilians, collected at crime scenes, or seized in raids. Other weapons, including assault rifles, have been donated by foreign sources through such initiatives as the US Military Aid Program. These donated weapons are often old and ill-suited to the needs of a civilian police force like the Fuerzas Publicas. However, they might still be attractive to criminals or collectors and could find their way onto the illicit weapons market and be trafficked anywhere in the Americas.

In 2001 the United Nations announced its Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects. The Programme of Action (PoA) calls for all participating states to

regularly review, as appropriate, subject to the respective constitutional and legal systems of States, the stocks of small arms and light weapons held by armed forces, police and other authorized bodies and to ensure that such stocks declared by competent national authorities to be surplus to requirements are clearly identified, that programmes for the responsible disposal, preferably through destruction, of such stocks are established and implemented and that such stocks are adequately safeguarded until disposal.
(Section II Article 18)

In the spirit of the PoA, then Costa Rican Public Security Minister Rogelio Ramos ordered that the National Arsenal identify and destroy any surplus weapons and munitions by the end of November 2005. Approximately 3,600 surplus weapons were identified, disarmed, and stored to await destruction. A list detailing the manufacturer serial numbers (MSN), the make, and the type of each weapon was sent to the Small Arms and Demobilization Unit of the United Nations Development Programme’s Bureau of Crisis Prevention and Recovery. In late November, the bureau sent a Small Arms Destruction Expert to Costa Rica to oversee the destruction process.

Official approval to begin destroying the surplus weapons came from the Public Security Minister on November 29. Invited to attend proceedings at the National Arsenal were representatives from the Costa Rican Ministry of Finance, the Comptroller General, and the Ombudsman’s office, as well as representatives of Costa Rican civil society. I was present as a representative of the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress.

After a security and protocol debriefing from the UN inspector, the crates of arms designated for destruction were opened and the police prepared to identify the guns and then destroy them with electric saws. But before any weapons could be cut, members of the legal affairs division of the Ministry of Finance arrived. They refused to release the guns for destruction until, like all government property, they had been value-appraised and their national serial numbers (as distinct from their MSNs) identified.

On December 2, after several individuals from the Ministry of Finance had appraised the weapons, the Ministry gave the green light for destruction. Automatic rifles and sports rifles were cut in three places to destroy their firing capacity. Pistols were cut in two places. Unfortunately, as the UN protocol had been breached and each arm was not destroyed immediately after identification according to the MSNs provided to the UN, the UN inspector could not officially verify that the destroyed guns were the same as those listed. On December 3, police and government officials destroyed a small number of AK-47s in front of journalists and the general public in the city centre.

The next day, a further problem was identified: a few hundred weapons could not be located. By December 8, most of these arms had been found and destroyed, but 22 were still unaccounted for. It was only in mid-March that 22 weapons matching the description of the missing guns were located, although the MSNs of many of these guns could not be verified. By then the UN expert had returned to his home in New Zealand. I was again called in as a witness and saw the 22 guns destroyed. The directors of the arsenal were officially reprimanded for the delays in the process and suspicions about the missing guns.

This case illustrates some of the challenges involved in the destruction of surplus SALW, especially in developing countries. Many of the weapons donated to Costa Rica could not be used effectively by the police, but would still have value to illicit actors. Thus, an under-funded and poorly equipped police force was saddled with the responsibility of effectively destroying the weapons. The destruction of guns illuminates conflicts between national laws and UN protocols, and between local, national, and international jurisdictions. Different methods of identifying weapons can lead to confusion, guns can go missing, and the security process can be compromised, with the result that misidentified guns are easily siphoned into the illicit market. However, it seems that at least some of the problems faced by the Costa Rican police and government could be resolved by a universal weapons marking and tracing protocol that would ensure that the life of a gun, from manufacture to destruction, is well documented.

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