According to members of the Bribrí indigenous community in southeastern Costa Rica, each day two helicopters fly over the Talamanca Mountains in mysterious flights near the Panamanian border. No one – including police and Civil Aviation officials – seems to know what those helicopters are doing in the area.
Some, including Marlon Sequeira, assistant director of the National Police’s Caribbean Border Regional Office, believe the flights could be connected to a series of raids on clandestine helipads discovered in recent weeks.
“One helicopter flies north at 5 a.m. and another comes in the opposite direction at 3 p.m.,” said Calixto Molina, leader of the Development Association for Indigenous Bribrí Territory. He said the helicopters chart a course north toward Guápiles, northeast of the Costa Rican capital, and near the most recent clandestine camp discovered on Friday.
In that raid, Costa Rica’s Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) – tipped off by local residents – found four helipads and residue of chemicals used in the processing of cocaine on a farm outside Pocora, Limón.
On July 30, and again on Oct. 29, Bribrí residents reported two separate helicopter landings in the high plains of Alto Coen, in Talamanca. In the first incident, five foreigners descended from a green helicopter claiming to be missionaries. Local residents were alarmed, however, as the strangers didn’t know how to pray and were dressed in military clothing.
“They had weapons,” Molina said, although none were found during a later search.
An indigenous family confiscated the passports of the helicopter passengers: three Canadian citizens, two Peruvians, and two Costa Rica men. Local officials later returned the documents to their owners, citing a lack of evidence that anything illegal had occurred.
Residents say the visitors threatened them after the passports were confiscated, but police dismissed their complaints due to a lack of evidence.
“We still have no answer as to who they are, where they come from, and what their interest in the area is,” Molina said.
Civil Aviation Director Álvaro Vargas told The Tico Times that no official complaints have been filed about the flights or clandestine helipads in Costa Rica, including in Talamanca.
“Radars cannot detect aircraft that fly near ground level or over remote areas, and it is easy to build helipads,” Vargas said.
In the last two years, Civil Aviation has worked with the Public Security Ministry to shut down helipads and airports that are no longer officially registered.
“Some of them used to operate years ago while others were built but never registered with us,” Vargas said.
Police in Talamanca say they have limited resources to monitor clandestine flights and suspicious landings. According to Sequeira, it took police 15 hours to arrive to the area where Bribrí residents encountered the helicopter. By the time cops arrived, the helicopter crew had flown away.
“We can only get there by helicopter or by foot,” Sequeira said, “but we don’t have a helicopter in Talamanca.”
“Police on the ground are not going to know what’s go on in the air,” said José Luis Villanueva, president of the Talamanca Cabécar community.
Costa Rica’s National Commission on Indigenous Affairs has requested more resources from the Public Security Ministry to monitor the area and look out for suspicious activities, including suspected drug trafficking.
“We urgently need a more effective police force to fight illegal drug trafficking because we are all at risk,” Villanueva said.
Some 8,000 indigenous people live in Talamanca, and 132 live in Alto Coen, where the suspicious helicopter sightings were reported.
Said Víctor Hernández, of the Indigenous Atlantic Network, “Police only go to those areas if they receive a call. In reality there is poor surveillance.”