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Cablegate: Costa Rica: First U.S. Navy Official Ship Visit In

VZCZCXYZ0009
PP RUEHWEB

DE RUEHSJ #0947/01 3392208
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
P 042208Z DEC 08
FM AMEMBASSY SAN JOSE
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 0327
INFO RUEHZA/WHA CENTRAL AMERICAN COLLECTIVE
RHBVGWU/USS UNDERWOOD
RXFEAH/COMNAVSOUTH
RHMFISS/DIRJIATF SOUTH
RUEKJCS/SECDEF WASHDC
RUEABND/DRUG ENFORCEMENT ADMIN HQ WASHINGTON DC
RUENAAA/SECNAV WASHDC
RHMFIUU/CDR USSOUTHCOM MIAMI FL
RUMIAGH/COMJTF-B SIMS SOTO CANO HO

UNCLAS SAN JOSE 000947

SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

DEPT FOR WHA/CEN, WHA/PPC, WHA/PDA, INL/LP AND PM
SOUTHCOM ALSO FOR FPA

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PREL PHUM PGOV MASS SOCI CS
SUBJECT: COSTA RICA: FIRST U.S. NAVY OFFICIAL SHIP VISIT IN
NINE YEARS HIGHLIGHTS IMPORTANCE OF JOINT MARITIME EFFORTS

REF: A. SAN JOSE 003
B. SAN JOSE 800

========
SUMMARY:
========

1. (SBU) From November 19-22, the USS Underwood (FFG-36)
visited the Pacific coast port of Golfito, making the first
official port call by a USN warship to Costa Rica in nine
years. The Ambassador led an Embassy-supported VIP visit to
the ship on November 21, which included members of the
national legislature, officials from the Ministry of Public
Security, and local politicians. Our goal with the VIPs,
which included some legislators critical of U.S. ship visits
and CN operations, was to clarify that U.S. vessels, whether
Coast Guard or Navy, perform similar law enforcement missions
under the bilateral maritime agreement with Costa Rica.

2. (SBU) This highly successful visit should smooth the way
for similar ship visits and operations in the future, since
any visit by an "armed" vessel must be approved in advance by
the Costa Rican legislature. The test will come over the
next two weeks as the legislature debates (and hopefully
approves quickly) the list of USCG and USN vessels that may
visit Costa Rica or operate in Costa Rican waters on law
enforcement operations in the next six months. In the past,
heated debate about U.S. Navy "warships" visiting "peaceful
Costa Rica" has sometimes delayed approval and canceled some
joint operations (although the USCG visit list usually has
been approved quickly). Meanwhile, joint maritime
cooperation between the U.S. and Costa Rica in 2008 thus far
has interdicted more than 12 tons of cocaine. The positive
political and public relations value of this type of visit
cannot be overstated. The Embassy is deeply appreciative of
the outstanding work of the Underwood and her crew in support
of Mission and USG objectives. END SUMMARY.

=============================
FIRST, WIN OVER THE COMMUNITY
=============================

3. (U) On November 19, the USS Underwood docked at the
Pacific port of Golfito, Costa Rica, to begin a 3-day
official port call. The ship, with a crew of over 200, is an
Oliver Hazard Perry Class frigate that is conducting joint
law enforcement operations in the eastern Pacific under the
terms of the U.S.-Costa Rica Joint Maritime Agreement.

4. (U) As part of the official visit by the USS Underwood, 25
officers and crew members volunteered their liberty time on
November 20 to do community service in the Golfito area.
They made carpentry repairs to a classroom at a local
elementary school; repainted the interior of the municipal
library; and delivered hygienic products to residents at an
elder hospice. The Golfito community was genuinely grateful
for the assistance, with some residents of the hospice
tearing up with joy as a result of the sailors' help.

===========================
THEN, EDUCATE THE LAWMAKERS
===========================

5. (U) As part of the November 21 VIP visit, nine legislators
from Costa Rica's national assembly toured the USS Underwood
and were encouraged to ask questions about the unique law
enforcement aspects of its mission in Costa Rican waters.
(Post used SOUTHCOM Traditional Commander's Activities (TCA)
funding to charter the aircraft to bring the legislators from
San Jose to Golfito.) The ship's captain, Commander Wesley
Smith, and Embassy personnel explained to the legislators the
strict law enforcement mission of the USN ship and its
embarked USCG Law Enforcement Detachment while it was
patrolling in Costa Rican waters. Visitors also viewed a
mock boarding of a small fishing vessel by the USCG boarding
team, which including a Shiprider from the Costa Rica coast
guard, who was onboard for counternarcotics and law
enforcement purposes.

6. (SBU) After the ship tour, Post's Office of Defense
Representative (ODR) staff, led by USCG Commander Mark
Camacho, gave a detailed briefing on the U.S.-Costa Rica
bilateral maritime agreement highlighting that:

-- the agreement permits "Shipriders" (Costa Rican law
enforcement authorities) to be aboard U.S. ships to help
conduct operations against drug trafficking suspects in Costa
Rican national waters or international waters. (A former
Shiprider actually gave the GOCR portion of the presentation
to the legislators);

-- the agreement also permits U.S. authorities to be aboard
Costa Rican vessels to advise how to approach and pursue
vessels suspected of drug trafficking; and

-- when necessary, the agreement permits U.S. vessels to
pursue and detain suspects while waiting for the Costa Rican
authorities to arrive on the scene. The GOCR retains the
sole legal authority to take suspects into custody and seize
properties in its territorial waters.

7. (SBU) To clarify further for the legislators, we briefed
that ship boardings could only be conducted by authorized law
enforcement personnel (USCG) aboard the USN assets, and that
no member of the Department of Defense (usually Navy) could
participate in boarding operations (except in a supporting
role operating the small craft used for boarding), detain
suspects or seize of drugs. To simplify the issue for the
legislators, we described USN assets as essentially "taxis"
for our USCG teams to use, since our Coast Guard does not
have enough cutters to conduct all of the international law
enforcement missions required of them.

8. (SBU) Finally, we highlighted to the legislators the
current relevance of getting the next ship list approved as
soon as possible, since the existing six-month permission
expired November 30. We also noted that last year, four
ships were not able to conduct port visits due to delayed
permission from the legislature, which meant a million
dollars of lost revenue to the local economy (including fuel
and tourism purchases, port fees, etc.). Fuel purchases
alone total nearly $150,000 of each ship visit, and there
have been 8-9 such visits annually (up to now only by the
USCG), over the last two years.

9. (SBU) All of the legislators (listed in para 14 below)
thanked us for the detailed briefing and asked several
questions. Most questions and comments focused on concerns
that every boarding operation should include a Costa Rican
Shiprider. We agreed that this was preferable, but
logistically speaking it is nearly impossible due to the
Costa Rican coast guard's limited manpower. Also, the
bilateral maritime agreement allows USCG-only boarding, as
noted in paragraph five above. (NOTE: A few days after the
VIP visit, we received a letter from Federico Tinoco, one of
the legislators in attendance and Chairman of the
Counternarcotics Committee, underlining this Costa Rican
concern. The letter charged the GOCR with "redoubling its
efforts" to participate with the U.S. so more Costa Rican
shipriders could be trained. END NOTE)

======================
DON'T FORGET THE MEDIA
======================

10. (U) Since nine years had passed since the last official
USN ship visit, there was significant media interest in the
USS Underwood. Local correspondents spent two full days
providing coverage of all activities that took place during
the visit. Reporters also participated in the tour of the
ship given to legislators and members of the Ministry of
Public Security.

11. (U) Media coverage came from various print, radio, and TV
stations, including: Radio Colosal (a local Golfito station);
Costa Rica's most-read daily Diario Extra; and TV channels 6
and 42. Radio Colosal interviewed Post's Information Officer
and ODR representative, focusing on the purpose of the ship

visit and details of the community service projects. Channel
6 broadcast a two-minute report on their Saturday (November
22) evening news, featuring the details and structure of the
USS Underwood as well as the significance of the bilateral
maritime agreement. They also reported on the Shiprider
program and how law enforcement boardings are conducted.

=======
COMMENT
=======

12. (SBU) The positive political implications of this visit
cannot be overstated. It was 18 months in the making (since
a similar, highly-publicized VIP visit to a USCG cutter in
Golfito in January 2007), and capped a number of briefings to
anti-US legislators (and quiet collusion with their pro-US
counterparts). Costa Rica's hyper-legalistic political
system and the anti-military, pro-disarmament views of the
government and society often made it very difficult to
provide military assistance here in the past. As Reftels
illustrate, challenges remain, even when providing
humanitarian assistance, and we should proceed carefully, but
the Underwood's visit illustrates how far we have come. The
willing participation of skeptical, often-critical
legislators from the main opposition party (the PAC) was
critical to provide them a clear understanding of the USN's
"role" in law enforcement. We believe they now grasp the
nuance that whether from a USCG cutter or a USN warship, it
is always a law enforcement team that conducts boardings and
the actual hands on searches, seizures and arrests under the
bilateral maritime agreement with Costa Rica.

13. (U) We would like to sincerely thank the captain and crew
of the USS Underwood, who made this landmark visit so
successful. Their community work and patient "education" of
key Costa Rican legislators reflected great credit upon
themselves and the United States Navy. This was an
outstanding example of "haze gray diplomacy." Well done!
END COMMENT.

=============================
THE PARTICIPATING LEGISLATORS
=============================

14. (U) The following members of the National Assembly joined
the Ambassador and Minister of Public Security Del Vecchio
for the VIP visit to the Underwood. We were careful to
invite all the Assembly's leadership and head of factions.
Notably, the loudest and most radical US critics declined.
Those participating included:

-- Evita Arguedas (Independent), member of the International
Relations Committee;
-- Jose Manuel Echandi (Independent),,member of the CN
Committee;
-- Saturnino Fonseca (PLN); member of the CN Committee;
-- Olivier Jimenez (National Liberation Party-PLN), local
member for Golfito;
-- Guyon Massey (National Restoration Party), 2nd Secretary
of the Assembly
-- Olivier Perez (Citizen Action Party-PAC), member of the CN
Committee;
-- Sandra Quesada (PLN), 1st Assistant Secretary of the
Assembly and member of the CN Committee (who had never
visited Golfito before, another fringe benefit of this event);
-- Marvin Rojas (PAC), member and former Chairman of the CN
Committee; and
-- Federico Tinoco (PLN), Chairman of the CN Committee.
BRENNAN

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