Costa Rica seized 71.2 tons of drugs in 2020, a twofold increase in two years and a new record for the country, which has emerged as a major initial transshipment country for South American drugs en route to the United States. The year 2021 shows no signs of letting up, with 42.9 tons of drugs seized through July, a 32 percent annual increase over the same period in 2020.
“Costa Rica has demonstrated a strong commitment to fighting transnational crime during the past year,” said U.S. Navy Commander Lawrence Tinstman, senior defense official at the U.S. Embassy San José’s Office of the Defense Representative (ODR). “The significant increase in drug seizures has been the result of years-long collaboration between our two countries. Costa Rica is clearly dedicated to investing in its own security, which is making the Central American region — and the United States — more secure.”
CROSS-SECTION OF AGENCIES
Behind this collaboration is a team of U.S. government officials at Embassy San José who represent a cross-section of agencies. In the last five years, the United States has committed at least $159 million in security assistance to Costa Rica. The embassy’s ODR has facilitated both donations and equipment purchases, as well as supported training in aircraft and boat maintenance, advanced boarding techniques, and force professional development to help Costa Rica maintain its fleet of assets and improve operational effectiveness and professional expertise.
Costa Rica is also a significant contributing partner to multinational counternarcotics operations coordinated at Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATF South). The country’s security forces consistently respond to JIATF South cases and have contributed to record seizures in the region. “In recent years, Costa Rica achieved important air, sea, and land operations that culminated in historic drug seizures and the dismantling of organizations,” said Costa Rica’s Minister of Public Security Michael Soto. “This was possible thanks to the work of the men and women who make up the different police forces and the strong ties of cooperation that we maintain with various countries, including the United States of America.”
FIRST-EVER JOINT OPERATIONS CENTER
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) office has made major investments in citizen security and justice reform programs, as well as supported a helicopter aviation program that has enhanced Costa Rica’s counternarcotics capacity. The embassy’s ODR also worked together with INL to help Costa Rica set up its first-ever Joint Operations Center (JOC), where service members from Costa Rica’s various security forces work together to combat narcotrafficking and criminal activity.
Opened in 2019, the JOC is among the reasons Costa Rica is breaking drug seizure records, including 2.63 tons of cocaine in March 2021. The JIATF South Watch passed an alert to the JOC of a possible narcotics shipment taking place just off Costa Rica’s picturesque Caribbean coastline. A U.S. maritime patrol aircraft spotted a go-fast vessel moving at high speed en route to Costa Rican shores. In response, the Costa Rican Coast Guard launched several interceptors and chased the suspect vessel until it beached itself. Three suspects fled the scene and were picked up by a passing vehicle. The U.S. aircraft remained in support while the JOC coordinated ground units and ultimately detained the vehicle with the three suspects. Meanwhile, Costa Rica’s Aerial Surveillance Service had also deployed air support and identified another suspected go-fast vessel and vectored the Costa Rican Coast Guard to intercept it. This operation required a high level of multilateral coordination to achieve success, as the suspect vessel crossed territorial waters between Panama and Costa Rica.
“The seizure is one of the largest from a single maritime operation in recent years. It would not have been possible without the effective information-sharing and operational collaboration between U.S. and Costa Rican security services involved. The collaborative relationship among the security agencies at Embassy San José is among the best I’ve encountered in my 20-year Coast Guard career,” said Cmdr. Tinstman. “We’re modeling interagency collaboration and working with our Costa Rican counterparts to instill these values. We accomplish more together than apart.”
RECORD DRUG SEIZURES
Costa Rica is also making major investments in its security capacity. In December 2020, Costa Rica purchased three Metal Shark boats valued at $4.4 million to augment the capacity of the country’s Coast Guard. The embassy’s ODR supported the purchase through the Foreign Military Sales program. Since their commissioning, these vessels have been used in dozens of counternarcotics operations that have yielded multi-ton drug seizures.
With so many successful drug seizures, the Embassy’s ODR and the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) offices have worked together to coordinate the airlift of 125 tons of drugs for destruction at a DEA facility in Florida. The INL bureau is donating an incinerator and related infrastructure that will allow Costa Rica to begin destroying narcotics in early 2022. The two countries will continue maintaining a close partnership to combat narcotrafficking, ensuring drug seizures will continue to mount and Costa Rica will have plenty of work for its new incinerator.
Costa Rica, which abolished its armed forces in 1948, is a critical partner in the fight against drug trafficking. “We’re fortunate to have such productive relationships with our Costa Rican security service partners,” said U.S. Embassy Chargé d’Affaires Marcos Mandojana. “This country punches well above its weight class despite multiple challenges. Costa Rica is the partner we need in Central America to improve security for the entire region.”