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2012-06-25

Drug Confiscations Intensify Throughout Central America

Costa Rican police officers unload two tons of cocaine at San José’s Juan Santamaría International Airport in February 2012. [Reuters/Jesus Urena]

Costa Rican police officers unload two tons of cocaine at San José’s Juan Santamaría International Airport in February 2012. [Reuters/Jesus Urena]

By Dave Carey

Central American nations from one end of the isthmus to the other are stepping up their war on drugs.

Panama is maintaining its crackdown not only by intercepting narcotics shipments but also improving its tools to battle drug cartels. The National Police made headlines in early June when it busted a 32-year-old man in Aton with 40 kilograms of cocaine and 140 packets of smuggled cigarettes. That was followed by “Operation Puerto” — an intelligence mission that revealed four backpacks filled with cocaine hidden inside a shipping container full of wood.

Authorities are hoping to continue the mission to find out if the drugs were placed in that container in Panama, or if the narcotics were merely being smuggled through the country as part of a bigger plot. Officials, however, hope to build on those busts as they acquire more resources in their battle against drugs.

Panamanian Security Minister José Raúl Mulino said the installation of 19 new sets of surveillance radar along the Pacific and Atlantic coastlines could be up and running by March 2013. Private companies have donated thousands of square meters of land to aid this initiative.

“When we purchased the radars, we made sure they had a guarantee,” he told reporters, adding that training for Panamanian officials is also included in the contract.

Also making Panamanian officials smile earlier this month was the christening of four PC-200 patrol boats, valued at $80 million, that were donated by the Italian government. The National Air System (Senan) will begin using the vessels immediately.

“These boats will help fight drug trafficking and money laundering that other governments have allowed to abound until today,” Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli told reporters.

Guatemalan police put brakes on extortion racket

Meanwhile in Guatemala, the National Civilian Police has put the finishing touches on this month’s bust of a drug trafficking ring that had extorted about $500,000 from bus drivers and operators over the past four years. Eight arrests were made following accusations that gang members were demanding payments to not kill the civil servants.

“Via intelligence work, it was established that members of this gang got their orders from maras [gang members] being held in prison," an Interior Ministry spokesman told reporters. Guatemala’s attorney general, Claudia Paz y Paz, also has made headlines as she continues her crackdown on drug trafficking. Under her watch, the country’s homicide rate has dropped 5 percent, and five of the nation’s 10 most wanted criminals have been arrested. Also, she recently oversaw the extradition of two of the country’s top drug kingpins to the United States.

“We have tried criminals who once thought themselves to be untouchable,” she said in a recent press conference. “The level of impunity in our country is embarrassing. But we have made advances in Guatemala once thought impossible.”

Costa Rica also is making advances in the war on drugs as seven police officers were each sentenced to 22 years in prison for their role in a narcotics smuggling scheme. The officers were believed to have been part of a Colombian drug running operation that had an estimated 2,500 kilos of cocaine confiscated in three separate busts since 2009.

“This has to do with the institutions, and what drug cartels do is corrupt institutions to disrupt the legal system and the rule of law,” Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla told reporters. “I don’t remember in our whole history a menace like this menace from organized crime.”

Corruption crackdown continues in Nicaragua

In Nicaragua, officials also are trying to uproot corrupt politicians who are aiding drug runners in their country. Substitute Magistrate Julio César Osuna was arrested last month as part of a large sting operation. He is accused of using his power and influence to smuggle drugs, launder money and sell fake Nicaraguan IDs to drug traffickers.

“It was just a question of time before this happened,” said Roberto Orozco, a security expert at the Managua-based Institute for Strategic Studies and Public Policy, in a recent interview with Time magazine. “We had already identified narco-penetration in lower levels of government, where municipal and local officials have been bought by organized crime. This is especially true along the principal drug-trafficking routes, where we’ve seen the worst corruption among police and local judges. Nicaragua is not an island — it’s the belly-button of Central America.”

But many officials believe Osuna’s arrest is just the tip of the iceberg as major reforms in the country’s customs and passport policies are being debated.

“It’s very difficult to think only one person was involved in this, especially when so much money was at play,” said Rosa Marina Zelaya, former president of Nicaragua’s Supreme Electoral Council. “This uncovers a very serious problem — Nicaragua’s national ID system is broken, and this is more widespread than we realize yet.”

Police in Belize also were celebrating a victory in their battle against narcotic dealers last month when they busted a man in Benque Viejo for trafficking about 25 kilos of marijuana. The man, driving a grey Ford Escort, drew the attention of police when he nearly swerved off the road in front of a police car, before racing to the nearest intersection. There, the driver and passenger jumped into the nearby bushes hoping to elude police. Officials apprehended the man within 24 hours.

The following day, 26-year-old Abner Francisco Escobar, a naturalized Belizean citizen from Guatemala, handed himself over to police. Inspector Jesús Palma said he was identified as the driver of the vehicle and detained.

Honduras scores big cocaine seizures

Honduran officials also executed several big drug busts over the past few months. The first came early in May when two drug traffickers were killed and an estimated 400 kilos of cocaine were confiscated and destroyed as part of an aggressive operation near Ahaus. The shipment was intercepted as it was loaded onto a boat after being flown into the country. Then, less than a week later, a smuggling ship in Gracias a Diós which contained 36 bales of cocaine — an estimated 1.5 tons of the narcotic — was intercepted by law enforcement officials.

“Once the boat was identified, members of the Navy moved in three boats. At 3:42 pm they commenced the interception operation, wherein four people were captured, of which three are Hondurans and one a Colombian,” Honduran Chief of Staff René Osorio Canales told reporters. “The boat had no flag, and the detainees were interrogated.”

Finally in El Salvador, officials are struggling with the growth of street gangs that have taken on a larger role in dealing drugs, especially in larger cities. El Salvador, which averages 18 homicides per day, did make national headlines in April when it posted its first murder-free day since 2009. Law-enforcement officials are hoping to build on that momentum. “Drug bosses, cartels — they are using the local gangs,” Juan Bautista Rodríguez, head of the emergency response police in San Salvador, told reporters, “and this makes things more violent because the gangs are used more as hit men, and for revenge.”

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