Outsourcing law and order

US troops to come to Costa Rica as Laura Chinchilla, the country’s first ever female president, is f

When Laura Chinchilla won office in February, it seemed that the thorniest challenge facing Costa Rica's first-ever presidenta would be scraping together the funds for the crackdown on public security she had promised on the campaign trail. Two months later, the Costa Rican legislature voted to host up to 7,000 US marines for six months, solving Chinchilla's problem of delivering her law-and-order platform without emptying state coffers.

The controversial vote reauthorised the 1999 joint patrol between the US Coast Guard and Costa Rican police to fight narcotrafficking and provide so-called humanitarian support. Propped up by Chinchilla's centre-right PLN, the measure passed by a vote of 31-8 in spite of a walkout staged by six deputies attempting to break quorum and prevent the vote.

A week later the opposition PUSC party challenged the law's constitutionality in the Supreme Court. They argue that Costa Rica's constitution bans not just the establishment of a military, but also any occupation by foreign troops.

The US flotilla will include aircraft carriers, destroyers, fighter jets and nearly as many troops as Haiti received after the severest humanitarian crisis the region ever suffered (they will also stay in Costa Rica for longer). This year President Barack Obama signed agreements allowing US troops to occupy bases in Colombia and Panama.

The US government has not commented on Costa Rica's decision.

More perplexing than the motives behind US geopolitical posturing in the Caribbean is what Latin America's oldest, most proudly pacifist democracy hopes to gain from this partnership. Though Costa Rica remains one of the safest countries in Latin America, several recent high-profile cases of narcotrafficking have inflamed public fears that the drug violence plaguing its neighbours may prove contagious.

Last month, the Mexican authorities confirmed the identity of 14 suspects detained in Costa Rica as members of the Familia Michoacana, moving South American drugs through Costa Rica. Reports of local drug seizures fill the dailies and some residents complain of violence spreading in the underbelly of San José.

To an electorate worried about deteriorating law and order, Laura Chinchilla, Oscar Arias's vice-minister of public security from 1994, seemed like the perfect candidate. After her inauguration in May, she duly promised a crackdown on crime within her first 100 days in office, but the state's never-ending fiscal crisis ruled out investment in the inept police force.

Keen to remain a Latin American favourite of the IMF and international investors, Costa Rican politicians compete to outdo each other in their commitment to fiscal prudence, impairing the state's effectiveness. A recent World Bank report blames a lack of political consensus for the legislature's sluggishness in tackling rampant tax evasion, resulting in low tax revenue and "fiscal vulnerability". Lack of investment in infrastructure and social services threatens to undermine the country's development.

More than 60 days into Chinchilla's first 100, the Joint Patrol agreement seemed like the perfect escape from fiscal constraints. The wave of panic over drug violence that Chinchilla rode to victory two months ago has guaranteed widespread quiescence about the inflammatory decision.

"It's better to have US soldiers walking around the country than hitmen and drug traffickers," reasoned the anti-drugs commissioner Mauricio Boraschi.

The Joint Patrol gives the United States a disturbing space to pursue its geopolitical goals in Latin America. But the greater threat to Costa Rican sovereignty is a state so feeble and so preoccupied with fiscal discipline that it must continue to outsource its obligation to provide security for its citizens to its aggressive northern neighbour.

The danger of the Joint Patrol, like any drug problem, is that this political quick fix will develop into dependency.

Samantha Eyler Reid is a research associate for the North American Congress on Latin America and writes about Latin American and Hispanic American politics for nacla.org. She recently finished her MSc in comparative politics of Latin America at the London School of Economics.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.