With 100 thumb-sized pellets of cocaine in his belly, Robert Pardo had made it through security at JuanSantamaríaInternationalAirport, northwest of San José, without a hitch.
Sitting in his seat on a plane preparing to take off from Costa Rica to his hometown Amsterdam, in Holland, he would put on his headphones in an attempt to sleep and not think about the possibility that one of the ovules could explode during the 13-hour trip over the Atlantic Ocean.
He needed this, and it wasn’t the first time he needed it. The Dutch-Dominican had already made three drug runs to Europe from around Latin America, netting $10,000 a trip to keep his business going as a Latin dance event coordinator for Amsterdam clubs.
This would be his first trip from Costa Rica, a country that his partners in crime chose as a base for their smuggling operation because of its lax security, he recently told The Tico Times.
“The law here is softer. They respect tourists more,” he explained.
But this burro’s plane never made it off the ground before authorities escorted him off. Now he’s doing five years in Gerardo Rodríguez, an old police school-turned prison tucked between farmland in San Rafael de Alajuela, northwest of San José.
Pardo and other inmates who were part of one of a growing number of organized crime networks being detected in Costa Rica told The Tico Times this tropical tourism destination is winning a reputation among criminals for its toothless laws and lack of enforcement on immigration and organized crime.
A lack of resources for police, laws rife with loopholes and lax enforcement in an era of globalization have made this country a haven for criminals (TT,March 30,May 11).
“Criminals seek out market niches where conditions are most favorable for their business,” Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) Assistant Director Francisco Segura told The Tico Times.
The country has become a “storage room” for drug smugglers, Segura added, which is evident by the fact that cocaine, by the ton, has literally been popping up from Costa Rica’s world-renowned pristine oceans and beaches.
Police last week struggled to fish out a ton and a half of cocaine dumped in the Pacific by fleeing drug traffickers. The previous week, authorities near the Panama border dug up a metric ton of cocaine that had been buried on the Pacific coast Puerto Gallardo beach in a desperate attempt by three suspects to hide the contraband.
To attack organized crime head on, the Arias administration’s recently formed High Commission on Crime is preparing a proposal to submit to the Legislative Assembly.
A bill in the pipelines will put the burden on suspected money launderers to show authorities where their dough is coming from; create an online criminal information database accessible to all authorities; create a multi-agency emergency commission that responds to hostage crises and kidnappings, among other emergencies; and create one central office for phone tapping used in drug-trafficking cases, according to Segura, who helped edit the bill.
Though Justice Minister Laura Chinchilla, who is also the First Vice-President, has been somewhat tight-lipped about the bill’s details, it could incorporate parts of a proposal by former Public Security Minister Juan Diego Castro, who wants to extend wiretapping from drug-trafficking cases to all organized crime investigations, allow police to interrogate suspects without the presence of their lawyers, and require the Judicial Branch to maintain a publicly accessible Internet database of those convicted of certain offenses (TT, March 30).
The organized crime law will be part of the administration’s three-pronged attack on crime, Chinchilla told The Tico Times.
Chinchilla, also a former Public Security Minister (1996-1998) and National Liberation Party (PLN) legislator (2002-2006), said she is also pushing proposals for immigration reform and a reform to the penal code that would better protect victims and witnesses.
Costa Rica’s organized crime problem isn’t just drug-related. From violent deaths in the Caribbean province of Limón, connected to a Jamaican kidnapping and extortion ring, and Italian criminals using Costa Rica as a hideout, to Chinese mafia stung for offering bribes to Immigration officials, daily newspaper headlines in recent months are proof enough that the problem is multifaceted.
OIJ officials say that though Costa Rica has the lowest murder rate in Central America and one of the lowest in Latin America, homicide rates are increasing and an average 27 murders happen here each month.
A recent failed hit on the secretary general of small opposition party the National Unity Party (PUN) brought to light the fact that the number of paid murders in Costa Rica more than tripled last year, according to OIJ statistics. Most of these assailants have not been caught.
Hernán Zamora, who is also a former Vice-Minister of Housing, miraculously survived the gunfire by three men who entered his office and shot him three times, once in the head, at his law firm in the southern San José suburb of Zapote. Police arrested one of the suspects, though no motive has been established.
A Smuggling Warehouse
Drug seizures in Costa Rican waters and on land have been growing increasingly spectacular since President Oscar Arias took office. Authorities have seized more than 1,000 guns and 17 tons of cocaine so far this year, according to National Police statements.
“The market is opening up,” Chinchilla told The Tico Times. “There’s more supply and more demand.”
At the top, authorities suspect organized crime involves Mexican and Colombian drug cartels operating here. On the ground, many Costa Ricans are being affected by a problem in which unpunished robberies, many of which involve organized crime, are becoming a part of the daily landscape (see separate story).
The OIJ busted yet another Colombian drug ring and seized 2.5 tons they were storing last week in Alajuela, northwest of San José.
On May 24, OIJ agents seized 2.2 metric tons in a coke bust that was the fruit of two months of investigation and several raids on a Mexican-headed drug-trafficking ring’s storage rooms around San José. Authorities bagged eight alleged members of the ring that was transporting drugs through San José to the United States.
It was the second biggest drug bust of the year, after a similar bust of a Colombianheaded network operating in San José.
Last October, police made the biggest cocaine seizure in Central American history when they found a fishing boat loaded with 3.5 metric tons. Barely two weeks later, that record was blown to powder when authorities seized another eight tons on a fishing boat (TT, Oct. 27, Nov. 24, 2006). In November, officials found a semi-submergible homemade submarine stuffed with three metric tons in Costa Rica’s Pacific (TT, Nov. 16, 2006).
Former Security Minister Castro, also a lawyer, said the influx of drugs in Costa Rica has contributed to a widespread drug addiction problem here, which in turn has jumpstarted thefts and robberies.
“We’ve had to replace our air conditioner three times this month” because parts of it keep getting stolen, said Castro, whose offices are in downtown San José.
A whopping 96% of robberies reported in the past five years have gone unpunished, according to Judicial Branch statistics. Castro said he believes many other crimes aren’t even reported because residents believe it won’t make any difference.
“I’m not going to report it if they’re not going to punish anyone for it,” Castro said.
He brushed aside a recent United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report coordinated by Second Vice-President Kevin Casas which concluded that fear of crime in Costa Rica exceeds the reality of the problem (TT, May 11).
“They didn’t take into account how many crimes end up unpunished,” he said.
The crime bill Castro drafted and handed over to the administration in March would eliminate the highly criticized clause stating that theft of goods or money less than ¢250,000 ($480) are misdemeanors.
“This is the only country in the world that allows robberies up to $500,” Castro said.
His proposals, as well as proposed bills by Costa Rica’s Chief Prosecutor Francisco Dall’Anesse on organized crime and a bill Supreme Court president Luis Paulino Mora presented to the special crime commission in March to protect victims and witnesses, are to be part of the administration’s reforms.
The University of Costa Rica (UCR) also expects to present a plan in October to restructure Costa Rica’s oft-criticized, underfunded and understaffed police force (TT,March 30).
Back in the dingy Gerardo Rodríguez prison, Mexican citizen Hermeneguildo González, who is serving a 10-year sentence here for international drug trafficking, says organized crime is an economic problem above all.
“Many become smugglers because of their economic situation, thinking they’ll lift themselves out of poverty,” he said.He added that Costa Rica is also a popular base for smuggling operations because Costa Ricans physically appear more European than citizens from other Latin American countries and thus don’t stand out as much.
Pardo swears he won’t traffic drugs again after having seen fellow inmates extort and intimidate their own mothers to get a few extra bucks to support their addictions.
“I was trafficking, but I never saw the underside of drugs. After being here, I realize drugs are harmful,” said Pardo, who wonders how he’ll scrape together $1,600 for a plane ticket back to Holland once he gets out of jail next year.