High profile killings, the corrosive influence of drug money on cops and the communities they police, and those who launder illicit earnings topped the headlines for crime in Costa Rica in 2013.
But despite these dramatic, sometimes gruesome stories, 2013 wasn’t necessarily a bad year for law enforcement.
Dramatic cases like that of Jairo Mora, a murdered 26-year-old sea turtle conservationist, caught international attention, but nationwide, the number of homicides has been decreasing since 2010, according to the Public Security Ministry and a recent report from the United Nation Office on Drugs and Crime. Costa Rica’s homicide rate reached a three-year low of 8.9 homicides per 10,000 inhabitants in 2012, down from 11.5 in 2010.
Public Security Minister Mario Zamora said that an apparent increase in the number of drug busts was more a function of successful police work than explosive growth in the drug trade.
“The more we fight [against illicit drugs], the more of it we’re going to see,” he said.
Scroll down for a rundown of the top five crime stories of 2013:
5. Costa Rica seizes more cocaine than any other Central American country
Costa Rica likely seized more cocaine than any other Central American country during 2013, estimated to come in at nearly 20 tons. Between 2005 and 2012 the country seized an average of 17 tons of cocaine annually, according to a December 2013 report by the UNODC. During President Laura Chinchilla’s administration, authorities have seized more than 44 tons of cocaine. Only Panama has confiscated more of the narcotic than Costa Rica during the last decade.
4. Mysterious ‘drug camp’ helicopters
During October and November, it seemed like every other week brought new revelations about secret camps in Costa Rica’s isolated mountains that were equipped with clandestine helipads, assault rifles – even rocket-propelled grenades – and tens of thousands of U.S. dollars. The Judicial Investigation Police, or OIJ, raided four such camps between Oct. 9 and Nov. 8.
The Tico Times also reported claims of other unidentified helicopter flights in indigenous Bribrí territory in the southern Talamanca region.
Authorities believe the camps are most likely related to transcontinental drug trafficking, perhaps by the Sinaloa or Knights Templar cartels, as cocaine moves north from Colombia into Mexico and eventually the U.S. in exchange for money, guns and chemical agents used to process narcotics.
3. Organ trafficking claims at least 13 victims
Easily the most gruesome crime of the year, an alleged international organ-trafficking ring was revealed when OIJ frog-marched Dr. Francisco José Mora out of San José’s Calerdón Guardia Hospital on June 17.
Authorities accused Mora, the former head of nephrology at the public hospital and alleged ringleader, and eventually several other doctors and a pizzeria owner of soliciting and extracting kidneys, paying victims up to $20,000 for an organ. According to a UNODC report, 13 people fell prey to organ trafficking in Costa Rica during 2013.
You can still get a slice (sorry) of pizza from the Akropolis restaurant where the owner allegedly connected victims with the doctors, now that it has reopened in La California neighborhood of San José.
2. U.S., Tico authorities bust the ‘largest’ money laundering scheme in history
Digital currency operator Liberty Reserve allegedly moved some $6 billion, much of it laundered money for criminal organizations, gaining the mantle of “bank of choice for the criminal underworld,” according to U.S. prosecutors in New York.
U.S. law enforcement said that the unlicensed money transfer business was the “largest” money laundering operation in history.
Costa Rican, Spanish and U.S. law enforcement rounded up the firm’s principals, including one-time U.S. citizen Arthur Budovsky, on May 24 in a global sweep that took place in New York, Spain, and Costa Rica.
In a sign of her entrepreneurial spirit, Budovsky’s Costa Rican wife, Yessenia Valerio Vargas, who was a street vendor selling empanadas when Budovsky’s attorney paid her to marry the Liberty Reserve founder to gain residency, filed a claim to collect half of her jailed husband’s assets.
1. ¡Jairo Vive!
The brutal, fatal beating of Costa Rican turtle conservationist Jairo Mora caught the attention of the nation and the international community – including a U.S. Congressman – leading to questions about the nexus of organized crime, turtle egg poaching and tourism in Moín, Limón, on the northern Caribbean coast.
In the early morning of July 31, balaclava-bearing OIJ agents raided several homes in Moín and other nearby towns. Seven suspects received six months of preventive detention as they await trial for Mora’s murder. The suspects are allegedly members of a criminal gang linked to other cases of rape, robbery, and gasoline thefts, according to court documents.
Costa Rica’s Environment Ministry is currently exploring options to create a protected area on Moín Beach that would allow park rangers to patrol the area, and a recent executive decree would allow them to be armed.
THE TICO TIMES’ YEAR-IN-REVIEW 2013:
–The 8 most fascinating Central America stories of the year