SAN JOSÉ, Costa Rica – The Central American country is boosting its counter-narcotics operations in response to an increase in drug activity nationwide.
A plane carrying 173 kilograms (381 pounds) of cocaine crashed just outside the centrally located capital of San José in October of last year. The plane, which was flown by two Guatemalan pilots, left from Tobías Bolaños Airport, San José’s second-largest airport.
The pilots were working for Mexican-owned tourism company Aeroturismo de América, which had been operating at the airport for several months. The plane was filled with so much cargo it barely cleared the runway during takeoff, witnesses said.
“What we are seeing is a new model of drug trafficking in Costa Rica,” Security Minister José María Tijerino said in October. “We are located in a corridor of international drug trade, and we must improve security measures by land, sea and, as this event demonstrates, by air.”
While Costa Rica isn’t dealing with narcotics trafficking concerns as severe as some of its Central American neighbors, its government has deemed security and reducing narcotics trafficking its top priorities.
President Laura Chinchilla, the Security Ministry and members of the Foreign Ministry have enhanced national security forces and established international counter-narcotics trafficking pacts with other nations to show the government’s commitment in its fight against drugs.
The most notable undertaking occurred March 30, when Chinchilla and Tijerino inaugurated the nation’s first border police units in two towns along the country’s northern border with Nicaragua and two towns along its southern border with Panama.
The 153-member force has been divided into squads of about 40 and dispatched to the border towns.
Chinchilla said the Security Ministry invested more than US$1 million in training and equipment. The border police’s assignment is to limit the amount of drugs and weapons trafficking along the border.
“We cannot ignore the fact that the international drug trade passes through our borders,” Chinchilla said at the force’s inauguration in the town of Los Chiles, which is near the border with Nicaragua. “As the push of the drug-traffickers increases, we must increase the number of forces there to limit the damage they cause throughout our society. These units will give us greater capability and range in protecting our territory and defending the nation.”
More than 9,900 kilograms (21,825 pounds) of cocaine were confiscated by the National Police and the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) in 2010, according to the Security Ministry. The majority of the seizures were made on the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border and in the central Pacific port town of Puntarenas.
During the past five years, cocaine confiscations have reached an all-time high. In 2005, 5,000 kilograms (11,023 pounds) were seized, according to the Security Ministry. But in the past five years, an average of 13,200 kilograms (29,101 pounds) has been seized annually. In 2007, about 18,500 kilograms (40,785 pounds) of cocaine was confiscated, according to the Security Ministry.
“There is without question an increasing amount of cocaine that has been found throughout the nation,” said Jorge Rojas, the director of the OIJ. “It’s more and more common and we’ve seen it far more in recent years than 10 to 15 years ago. It is something we are confiscating with increasing regularity, almost daily.”
In 2010, there were 53,689 drug and arms-related arrests made in Costa Rica, according to the Security Ministry.
In February of this year, the OIJ arrested three Mexican nationals accused of attempting to form an international drug-trafficking organization in the town of Cartago, east of San José. The three men, who were arrested with 319 kilograms (703 pounds) of cocaine and more than US$12.7 million in cash, are suspected of having ties to the Sinaloa Mexican drug cartel.
The three men had been in and out of Costa Rica dozens of times since 2007, according to Costa Rica’s Immigration Office.
In 2010, the Security Ministry claimed to have arrested members of 101 drug organizations, including 87 national organizations and 14 with international ties. In the last five years, the Security Ministry has broken up or arrested members of over 400 drug-trafficking organizations. In 2006, the ministry arrested members of 54 drug-trafficking organizations, a figure that has almost doubled in five years.
Last month, Chinchilla encouraged the National Legislative Assembly to permit U.S. non-military ships to dock in Costa Rica to in an attempt to reduce narcotics trafficking nationwide. But the Legislative Assembly is blocking a Joint Patrol Agreement between Costa Rica and the U.S. that would allow the U.S. Navy to enter Costa Rican waters.
The agreement, which was signed in 1999, is being reviewed in Costa Rica’s Supreme Court.
Costa Rica will continue to try to improve national police forces and establish regional pacts with neighboring nations to reduce narcotics trafficking, as it tries to maintain its neutral identity as the “Switzerland of Central America.”