Five men armed with 9mm pistols and machine guns ripped open a government storage unit in Golfito on the southern Pacific coast in the early hours of a Thursday morning in March and took off with 320 kilograms of cocaine.
Tying the hands and feet of two government security guards, they stole cocaine worth an estimated $9.7 million on the U.S. market that security forces had confiscated four days earlier.
Two weeks later, police apprehended 13 drug traffickers after a two-year investigation, involving more than 100 officers. The traffickers were involved in the transport of at least six kilos of cocaine, according to newspaper reports.
These are the kind of headlines that make Costa Ricans uncomfortable, concerned that drug traffickers are penetrating their oasis of peace and tranquility, in a country that has long been known “as the Switzerland of Central America.”
But, as it becomes more difficult to funnel drugs to the United States through Mexico, drug traffickers are seeking alternative routes throughCentral America.
In a six-year period between 2002 and 2007, the Costa Rican Drug Institute (ICD) estimates cocaine seizures in Costa Rica increased from 2,955 kg in 2002 to over 32,000 in 2007. But the increased confiscation is not only because the country is getting better at intercepting drug traffickers, but because more drugs are making their way through Costa Rica whether by land or by water, according to the 2008 World Drug Report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. The accepted percentage in Costa Rica for how many drugs are seized compared to the number of drugs that pass through the country is 10 percent. (TT, Jan. 30) Drug traffickers are finding Mexico to be too dangerous, violent and risky, which has caused them to look for other routes through Central America and the Caribbean,” said Bruce Bagley, editor of the book “Drug Trafficking in America” and International Studies department chair at the University of Miami in the U.S.
He said Mexico has been disrupted by increasingly violent turf wars between the cartels that control the drug routes in that country. And, as U.S. President Barack Obama announced Wednesday that he plans to target three of those organizations, Mexico is expected to be an increasingly difficult place for cocaine transporters.
New Routes Threaten C.R.
As drug trafficking routes shift away from Mexico, some are worried that Costa Rica doesn’t have the resources to stem the problem before it makes lasting impressions on the country.
The U.S. Department of State pointed out that specific factors make Costa Rica especially vulnerable to infiltration of drug traffickers, including: its dual coastline, poorly-patrolledPan-American Highway, porous southern border, lack of military and a coast guard with limited resources.
Francisco Dall’Anese, Costa Rica’s chief prosecutor, told The Tico Times in January, “Costa Rica is a strategic location because it’s narrow, with two coasts, you can drive from theAtlanticto the Pacific, and because … the few tools the police have. It’s a country that’s difficult to get caught trafficking drugs in.” The United States has been working alongside the Costa Rican government to curtail drug trafficking here, but U.S. officials admit that it’s a problem without an easy solution.
“Drugs such as cocaine are produced in South America and transported through a 6-million-square-mile zone, within an area that includes the Caribbean, theGulf of Mexicoand the Eastern Pacific,” U.S. Ambassador Peter Cianchette wrote in an e-mailed statement to The Tico Times.
“Increasingly, in recent years, Costa Rica has become a transshipment point where drugs are then transported to their final destinations by air, land and sea.”
He added, “This is a serious regional challenge that requires serious and sustained regional commitment and response, by consuming countries, source countries and transshipment countries.”
U.S. Aid ‘Disproportionate’
In the last 10 years, the United States has offered a cumulative $51 million in aid toCosta Rica, specifically to stop the flow of drugs and mitigate their effects on the country.
As part of the Merida Plan, the United States directed $4.3 million in aid to Costa Rica this year, an amount it hopes to double in 2009.
But Costa Rica officials say that’s not enough. They pointed to Mexico, a country that is receiving $400 million under the three-year plan, which was signed into law in June 2008 to combat the effects of drug trafficking.
“It’s totally disproportionate,” Vice President José Torres told Costa Rica daily La Nación recently. “We are in the center. Drugs from Colombia are dispersed equally throughCentral Americaas they are through Mexican organizations.”
On a visit to Mexico in late March, President Oscar Arias was equally critical of the amount of aid directed toward Central America and Mexico.
“Allocating $400 million a year to (Mexico) to combat the drug problem, of course is not enough. That’s what the United States spends in a day on the Iraq War,” he told the daily El Universal. “And that’s not to mention (the small amount of money) that has been assigned to Central American countries.”
Ambassador Cianchette responded, “Counting dollars is not the best way to measure the impact of United States assistance. We don’t want to simply help; we want to provide the type of capacity-building assistance that will help Costa Rica help itself.”
Maureen Meyer, Associate for Mexico and Central America of the nonprofit Washington Office of Latin America (WOLA), told The Tico Times last year that part of the reason Costa Rica didn’t receive more money is because they didn’t ask for it (TT, July 4, 2008).
“Sixty-five million dollars can be little more than a down payment for addressingCentral America’s pressing security needs,” she said. Her colleague, Roger Atwood, added, “There are many reasons (Central Americadidn’t get more), but part of it was the lack of concrete funding proposals by the Central American governments themselves, unlike the Mexicans,” he said.
In a statement issued to regional media to preempt the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago this week, Obama pledged further assistance in reducing the problems resulting from the drug trade. He wrote, “Security for our citizens must be advanced through our commitment to partner with those who are courageously battling drug cartels, gangs and other criminal networks throughout the Americas. Our efforts start at home. By reducing demand for drugs and curtailing the illegal flow of weapons and bulk cash south across our border, we can advance security in the United States and beyond.”