A US$2 million dollar two-story mansion that is under construction, standing out in a middle-class neighborhood of La Guacima, Alajuela, is the most expensive asset seized from drug traffickers.
The residence, which resembles a large hacienda, lacks the finishing touches, is located just one kilometer from the Juan Santamaria (San Jose) international airport.
The registered owner is a corporation, and whose partners are in preventive detention (remand), suspected of being part of a criminal group dedicated to money laundering.
According to date from the Instituto Costarricense Sobre Drogas (ICD) – Costa Rican Institute on Drugs – as at September 30, there were 13,951 seized assets, their owners suspected of acquiring them with money generated from illicit activities.
Among the assets are 46 houses or lots, 10 aircraft, 1,377 vehicles and 5,177 items of jewellery, many of which are for sale or in the process of being donated to one or more public institutions.
From stuffed animals to men’s boxers, Guillermo Araya Camacho, director of the ICD, said that some of the items are on the books since the nineties.
“Sincerely, in those years, what we have left over are problems, there was no automated system and there are assets that cannot be consigned (disposed of),” said Araya.
The official explained that prior to 2009, when they arrived at a house of a drug trafficker, everything was confiscated, pajamas, underwear, even teddy bears. That year a law was passed that allowed authorities to seize assets that “generated economic interest”, that is items that could be sold to generate money.
“When I arrived (December 2014) there were about 25,000 item, we have already reduced it. We started a cleaning and classification process. For example, two years ago we had a scrap metal auction…we put goods in bad state in a container, such as drills, grinders, fans, kitchen appliances. Nothing worked. We cannot dedicate our resources to repair them. Three hundred and twenty-five objects. They were sold for ¢4.5 million colones,” said the head of the ICD to La Nacion.
As to the mansion, the official explained it is presumed it would be used for parties and to host distinguished visitors given the proximity to the airport.
The Ley contra la Delincuencia Organizada (Law against Organized Crime) and Código Penal (Penal Code) allows authorities to seize (provisionally withhold) an item where it is suspected that it was purchased with money from illicit activity. The item then passes to the State on the order a judge.
The money generated from the sale of the confiscated assets goes toward prevention, reinforcement of police work and the maintenance of the confiscated assets.
For example, the house in La Guacima has around the clock protection by way of private security because, after the arrest of the owners (a gang led by a Panamanian national), unknowns began to dismantle the property.
Araya added that today the seizures are less frequent compared to some years ago. The reason is that criminal organizations are less wasteful today, that is they now acquire the assets through unknown third parties, they don’t build, rather acquiring through leases, use accountants and auditors. In the past, the assets acquired were placed in the name of family members, a mother, sister, brother, father, cousin, etc.
In addition, criminal organizations now pay their vendors (drugs dealers) salaries and bonuses. In the past, they paid with drugs and whatever they could earn above the cost was theirs to keep.
“The way of managing is like a business structure. What they do is optimize their money. They even include their time in jail, they budget for it. It could be six, eight or 10 years later but when they get out, they have their money.
“Costa Rica has advanced a lot in the fight for the money laundering (…) we hope that the new law of ‘extinction of domain’ will tip the balance (in our favor) in the fight against crime and these new methods,” Araya said.
Araya added that the legislation now allows for the sale of the seized items and in the event that the court rules the return of the property (that is the owner is found not guilty), what the ICD does is hand over the money (from the sale).
Criticisms of the seizures. Criminal lawyers describe the new method of seizure (and sale) as “draconian” because in many of the raids the ICD exceeds in seizing items that have nothing to do with the investigation and/or is not duly proven that they have been obtained with money from drug trafficking.
Bac to the mansion. With respect to the La Guacima house, the presume owners, who are in preventive detention, are members of a criminal gang.
The leader is a Panamanian identified as Roberto Humberto Welch Sevillano, 41, and two Costa Ricans, one identified as Torres Olivas, 60, of Llorente de Tibas and a lawyer, Sánchez Pereira, 45, of La Guacima.
Welch was arrested in Corredores, Puntarenas, on December 17, 2015, wanted on an extradition order from Panama, from where he had escaped from prison, convicted of drug trafficking and homicide.
On December 7, 2016, the Ministerio Publico (Prosecutor’s Office) learned he was leading, from the La Reforma prison, a gang dedicated to money laundering. His preventive detention was extended until December 7 of this year. The same for Torres and Sanchez.
In addition, the Corredores Criminal Court signed off on Welch’s extradition, but, on September 1 last, the Court ordered the extradition deferred until the money laundering case in Costa Rica is resolved.