English translation by Frank McMeiken
The Republic of Costa Rica is one of the oldest in Central America, and its origins date back to 1889, the year in which the first democratic elections were staged. Since then democracy has characterised the entire political life of the nation, interrupted only by a few brief periods of internal conflict. One of these occurred between 1917 and 1919 when a dictatorial regime was installed, and finally brought to a close thanks to the opposition of loyal Costa Rican elements and assistance provided by the United States. The key moment in the history of the country took place in 1949 when the constitution that is presently in place was adopted. The abolition of the armed forces, a key element in the constitution, was the act that has had the most permanent effect on the nation, and today after half a century, Costa Rica is famous throughout the world as "the nation that has no army ".
Despite Costa Rica being located in a notoriously ‘hot’ part of the globe due to its proximity to nations that have internal instability problems, or are amongst the highest producers of drugs in the world, over the years the decisions taken way back in 1949 have delivered unparalleled tranquillity and harmony, and are a clear demonstration that weapons are not always a deterrent against possible threats from external aggressors. Once the weapons were discarded, a large police force was created, named the Guardia Civil, which reports directly to the Ministero de la Seguridad Publica based in the capital, San Josè. There were around 7.000 officers serving with the force in 2008, and their primary role is that of maintaining public order, the control of frontier territories and coastlines, security at airports, and other institutional duties. Alongside this large force, there are further minor police forces such as those operating on a local rural level. Other highly developed agencies in Costa Rica are private companies which provide guards to patrol housing, commercial centres, and factories, etc. These are widespread, and casual visitors to the country can easily be struck by the seemingly vast presence in the territory of security forces, but will note that delinquency in the country is not a worrying problem: the over-riding sentiment seems to be "it is better to prevent than to cure ".
A very important section of the Guardia Civil is the " Vigilancia Aerea", which flies from a single operational base at the Juan Santamaria International Airport, just outside the capital, San Josè, and which is also known as Base no.2, a designation adopted after the old Base no. 1, situated close to the border with Nicaragua, was shut down. There are, however, in the border area, numerous airstrips which can be utilised by the aircraft for logistical support during the frequent reconnaissance missions flown in support of the border police who, utilising air assets keep the area under continuous control, guarding against clandestine immigration or illegal cross-border activities.
The present structure occupies a relatively small part of the civilian airport, with which it shares the runway, while is has exclusive use of a small apron and two hangars capable of accommodating all the aircraft in use, including the large Caribou. This, however, is usually left in the open air. The most spacious hangar is exclusively utilised for housing the other aircraft and helicopters, while the other is used for conducting maintenance activity. There are, in addition, sporting facilities, officers’ accommodation, a block which serves as a ready room for the aircrew on 24 hour standby, and an NCOs’ mess. Curiously, in the area adjacent to the apron we noted an old former USAF C-123K, probably abandoned following a problem that was not economical to repair. A former Avianca Colombia B 727 is used by the fire service, while also present were a Commander in Guatemalan markings plus a rare Mercy Air Antonov AN 2, N72AN, which landed with an emergency, and which has in the past been used as an experimental aircraft, and is now awaiting a definitive home.
The aircraft which have equipped the air section of the Guardia Civil since its establishment have always been types that were not suitable for combat, the sole exception being the four Mustang supplied gratis in 1953 by the United States to deter an invasion attempt launched by Nicaraguan rebels. On the cessation of hostilities the sole example still serviceable was sold to a private individual in the USA, this after only two years, and for the remaining period there has been an alternation of light aircraft and helicopters used for transport and reconnaissance, the latter concentrating on the national borders.
It was only at the beginning of the nineties, with the acquisition of two former-USAF DHC-4 Caribou, one of which being cannibalised for spares, and a MIL MI 17, that the service was able to deploy aircraft with sufficient weight that were suitable to conduct more meaningful transport or evacuate people from disaster zones. Besides the already mentioned aircraft, the Vigilancia Aerea presently operates two Piper Navajo, used exclusively for transporting the President and senior government figures, while a Piper Seneca II and four Cessna 206 Soloy are prevalently used for training, with secondary roles of transport and reconnaissance. The rotary winged fleet, besides the large Russian-built twin-engined helicopter, there are also two small MD 500E classic observation helicopters adapted to perform police duties, and in this context also undertaking a secondary training role. In terms of possible plans for the expansion of the flying unit, our guide, Sub-Lieutenant Carlos Aguilar, explained that at present the only firm order is for two Mc Donnell helicopters identical to those already in service.
The entire gamut of maintenance for all the aircraft on charge is conducted by the mechanics of the Guardia Civil, and only in rare cases, such as the installation of winglets onto the Navajo, does the service turn to outside support, in this case COOPESA, a specialist aviation concern located on the same airport. During our visit, we were given the opportunity to witness various levels of maintenance activity on two aircraft and a helicopter parked in the workshop hangar, revealing the excellent capabilities of the personnel who are capable of intervening on any part of the aircraft.
Also in the same hangar there was, unfortunately completely dismantled, one of the four Cessna 206, wearing a particularly unusual camouflage colourscheme and the roundel placed on the rudder, and additionally retaining a civilian registration, more precisely TI-SPD. In fact, only a couple of years ago all the aircraft were re-coded with an MSP prefix, an abbreviation of "Ministero Seguridad Publica", followed by three numbers. They also adopted the national flag, worn in different locations according to the aircraft type. The particularly colouring of the Cessna 206 caught our attention, as we have never seen published photographs of aircraft of the Guardia Civil in military colours prior to the introduction into the fleet of the Caribou and MIL MI 17.
Around 330 people are assigned to the organisation commanded by Col. Bolanos, and of these 40 are pilot, who fly on average around 250 hours per year, a high average figure, although there are alternating periods of absolute inactivity lasting up to two weeks, one of which coinciding with our visit! Part of the training for the aircrew takes place at San Antonio in Texas, where they participate in training courses provided by the I.A.A.F.A. facility, flying the primary trainers of the U.S.A.F. or in Cessna A 37B jets, again owned by the same force. Further preparation of the pilots is conducted at San Josè using Personal Computer information technology systems with flight simulators installed. Every pilot, on the basis of his capabilities, aims to gain certification to fly the large twin-engined Canadian manufactured DHC 4, and after this type conversion is considered capable of handling any aircraft serving with the Guardia Civil.
The only disappointing side to this "small air force", as it is jokingly known by the personnel of the Guardia Civil, is the total incapacity to counter the omnipresent and well-known drug traffickers who utilise aircraft for their transport needs. They do, in fact, roam almost unrestricted across the airspace of Costa Rica, understanding the lack of an apparatus of military control with aircraft and radar capable of countering this type of movement. This situation is caused by the lack of suitable material, and is certainly not down to the professionalism or motivation of all the components of the “Vigiliancia Aerea” and other sections.
However, during our stay in Costa Rica, the press were reporting, in very large capitals, the definition of a collaboration agreement between the countries of Central America and the United States government, aimed at enabling the latter to undertake a significant monitoring and control role using its sea, air, and land assets entire northern part of South America, thereby assisting and involving those nations which lack the sufficient means to undertake preventative actions against illicit organisations. The intervention of the United States was viewed in a very positive manner, as the nations which stand on the front line in the war against narcotics traffickers are not able on their own to keep control of this phenomena, which is in rapid expansion.
Special thanks to Col. Bolanos and Lt.Ten. Aguilar
Images and text by Giorgio Ciarini & Manuela Michelon
Published on JP 4 August 1998