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Costa Rica: Protest in Defense of Social Security Ends in Riots

On November 8, 2012, there was a peaceful demonstration in the main streets of San José in defense of the Costa Rican Social Security Fund (CCSS for its initials in Spanish) by diverse groups from all over the country.

The protest was organized to demand that the government provide better care for insureds, stop cuts in the budgets of hospitals, clinics and health centers; it was also used as a way to protest against the state to guarantee the support of more specialists, and remove political appointments from the field of public health.

The activities went on without any major problems until the police intervened around noon. According to the testimony of participants in the march, the police action was divided into three segments, repeating until the evening. In the first operation, the police tried to disperse the protesters even though the protest was not over. Ale Montiel describes that moment in her blog Anchas Alamedas [es]:

Lo primero: Yo lo vi, no me lo contaron […] logré llegar a la avenida segunda y quiso el destino que a la 1:00 pm, estuviera justo en la esquina de la Caja, de primera en la fila para ver a los antimotines forzar la apertura del paso por la avenida segunda y retener a la gente en las esquinas del Teatro Nacional y de la Caja. […] Sobra decir que fue espeluznante y macabro, porque en ese momento, lo que vi eran señoras mayores y gente común y corriente, tan asustados como yo, al ver a los antimotines, que empujaban con los escudos a la gente para que no se movieran. Vi a la policía golpeando gente y amenazando a los peatones y a los periodistas.

First of all: I saw it, it wasn't told to me [...] I was able to get to Avenida Segunda and as fate would have it, at 1:00 p.m., I was right on the corner by the Caja, right at the front, and saw the riot police push through on Avenida Segunda and hold people on the corners by the National Theater and the bank. [...] Needless to say it was eerie and macabre, because at that time, what I saw was old ladies and ordinary people, all as scared as I was, seeing the riot police pushing people with their shields so they could not move. I saw police beating people and threatening pedestrians and journalists.

A public statements issued internationally by the Pabrú Présbere Center and the organization Human Rights Everywhere condemned [es] [pdf] the actions and unwarranted arrests by the police force:

Fuerzas de la UIP (antimotines) y GAO (anti crimen organizado), bajo la responsabilidad de Raúl Rivero, director de la Fuerza Pública, y del viceministro de seguridad, Celso Gamboa, detuvieron a mediodía a 20 manifestantes y dispersaron en tres ocasiones las concentraciones en las que se pedía una reunión con la presidente ejecutiva de la CCSS. En esas acciones posteriores fueron apresadas otras 20 personas. Entre los detenidos, que fueron liberados a las 10 p.m., había trabajadores del sector salud, sindicalistas, activistas, estudiantes universitarios e, incluso, un vendedor ambulante.

[…]
Las unidades policiales hicieron uso excesivo de la fuerza de la que no se libraron ni los diputados Claudio Monge y Carmen Granados, del partido Acción Ciudadana, y José María Villalta del partido Frente Amplio, ni periodistas dos reporteros del medio alternativo El País.cr

UIP (riot) and GAO (anti-organized crime) forces, under orders of Raúl Rivero, director of security forces, and of Celso Gamboa, the deputy minister of security, at noon arrested 20 protesters and on three occasions dispersed the crowds who were requesting a meeting with the executive president of the CCSS. During these actions, another 20 people were detained. Among the detainees, who were released at 10 p.m., were health workers, unionists, activists, university students, and even a street vendor.

[...]

The police units used excessive force from which nobody was spared, not even Claudio Monge and Carmen Granados of the Acción Ciudadana political party, and José María Vallalta of the Frente Amplio party, or journalists–two reporters from the alternative media El País.

The demonstrators remained at the site to protest the unjustified arrests. After another attempt at dispersal by the police in the afternoon, aggressive measures were taken to disperse the crowd, resulting in a heated encounter in which several demonstrators and police were injured.

RadioTemblorVideo [es] shared a video about the police repression during the day:

This situation has sparked distress in several citizen media authors who are trying to warn the public about the social and political implications of the repressive strategies by the government and security forces. Fanny Miralles writes in her blog Periodismo Ciudadano [es]:

La brutalidad y violencia de los cuerpos policiales anti-motines refleja lo que hay en la cabeza de nuestros gobernantes. Los valores que nos unen como Pueblo, Nación, Patria y República deben ser respetados por TODOS, especialmente por los que se dicen “representantes” de la ley.

NADA justifica la represión violenta de una marcha

The brutality and violence of the anti-riot police reflects what our authorities are thinking. The values that unite us as a people, nation, country and republic must be respected by ALL, especially by those who call themselves “representatives” of the law.

NOTHING justifies the violent repression of a march.

In another entry [es], s he adds an extract from judicial case law established by the Constitutional Court [es] with respect to freedom of expression and movement.

The issue of freedom of movement has been used to support the police action that sought to move the protesters off of public roads in order to restore vehicle movement in the area. However, this has been discussed by those who don't believe such action was necessary. That's what Josué Arévalo says in his blog Apuntes de un parcial irrescatable [es]:

Y la pregunta del millón, ¿está por encima la libertad de tránsito al derecho a la salud? Claramente no, y ni siquiera lo está por encima del de protesta, así lo ha dicho la Sala IV. Entonces la represión policial del jueves 8 de noviembre sólo tenía por objeto mostrar fuerza.

And the million dollar question is, is the freedom of movement above the right to health? Of course not, and it isn't even above the right to protest, the Constitutional Court says. So the police crackdown on November 8 was only intended to show force.

Twitter was inundated with messages, criticisms and comments with respect to the events after the demonstration.
President Laura Chinchilla (@Laura_Ch) [es] published a message about it:

@Laura_Ch: La policía protege al ciudadano y garantiza sus derechos y libertad de circulación. Los diputados contribuyen al diálogo y la paz social.

@Laura_Ch: The police protect the public and guarantee their rights and freedom of circulation. The legislators contribute to the dialogue and social peace.

The rejection of violence was a common theme among Twitter users. Javier Sánchez (@jsanchez) [es] wrote:

@jsanchez: Nunca he visto un sindicalista con mente abierta al diálogo. Por ahí vamos mal. Violencia genera más violencia #todomal

@jsanchez: I have never seen a unionist with an open mind about dialogue. That's where we go wrong. Violence begets more violence.

Olman Vargas (@olmanvb) [es] tweeted:

@olmanvb: El mensaje que da el gobierno es claro, si piensan seguir manifestándose les vamos a dar golpes

@olmanvb: The government's message is clear, if you're going to keep demonstrating we're going to beat you

José Daniel Clarke (@jdclarke) [es] emphasized the flaws that the security forces have been experiencing for some time:

@jdclarke: Si ya la Fuerza Pública tenía problemas de credibilidad, el daño que le hicieron sus jerarcas (y hoy siguen) es grande.#bienfuerzapublica

@jdclarke: If the security forces already had credibility problems, the damage done by their leaders (and continue today) is huge #bienfuerzapublica

Some criticized the participation by legislators present at the protest, like Ronny Rojas (@ronnyrojas) [es]:

@ronnyrojas: Sin duda, la inmunidad es un resguardo que no alcanza a protegernos de nuestra propia insensatez…

@ronnyrojas: Undoubtedly, immunity is a safeguard that is not enough to protect us from our own folly…

Others defended the police action, like @pin2d2 [es]:

@pin2d2: La policía no tiene que explicar NADA. Están tratando de disolver un disturbio.

@pin2d2: The police don't need to explain ANYTHING. They are trying to break up a riot.

Deputies Villalta and Granados waived their immunity in order to be participants in complaints against and by [es] police, claiming they were victims of physical assault during their interactions at the demonstration. The participation of the Congress members had been criticized by some citizens, like Julio Córdoba who wrote about it in his blog Ciencia Ficción [es]:

Unos diputados llegaron a buscar la popularidad que no han logrado en el cargo. Aunque tienen las potestades jurídicas para revolcar el gasto y perversión de prioridades que tienen la CCSS donde está, no las usan… por inútiles o ignorantes.

Some legislators went to find the popularity they hadn't got in office. Even though they have the legal power to knock down the expenses and perversion of priorities the CCSS has now, they don't use it…because they are useless or ignorant.

During a meeting on Friday, November 9, attended by social groups, activists and students, it was agreed to gather the public for a march on November 15 against the abuse of police authority and criminalization of social protest. Also, participants were encouraged to express their dissatisfaction with the recently published Cybercrime Law (also known as the Gag Law) with punishment of up to 10 years in prison for journalists and the public who disseminate secret political information.

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