For a country that prides itself on recycling newspapers, glass bottles and polyethylene plastic bags to protect its environment, it seems only fitting that Costa Rica also puts confiscated narco-trafficking vehicles to good use – turning them against the very criminals that once used these cars, boats and planes to sneak drugs into the country.
SAN JOSÉ, Costa Rica — For a country that prides itself on recycling newspapers, glass bottles and polyethylene plastic bags to protect its environment, it seems only fitting that Costa Rica also puts confiscated narco-trafficking vehicles to good use – turning them against the very criminals that once used these cars, boats and planes to sneak drugs into the country.
Mauricio Boraschi, vice-minister of Costa Rica’s Security and National Anti-Drugs Commission (PCD), presented firefighters in the small town of Sarchí, northwest of San José, with a shiny 2004 Nissan Murano in June. The sleek, cherry red sport-utility vehicle — which came equipped with a red patrol light and satellite system — was once the property of drug smugglers.
“At one time this vehicle was used in a disgraceful manner by people involved in a macabre business,” Boraschi said. “Today, this car is being put in the hands of firefighters and will bring hope, optimism and life to many people.”
The PCD said that 600 to 900 tons of drugs pass through Costa Rica annually. As the amount of trafficking in Costa Rica increases, the government is bolstering national security forces to combat the various methods drugs make their way into the country. In mid-June, an additional 357 graduates of the police academy joined the national police force, part of President Laura Chinchilla’s “constructing a safer country” initiative.
“The security of our citizens has become the country’s biggest concern,” Chinchilla said. “This group of new, dedicated police represent Costa Rica’s increased commitment to protecting our peaceful country from crime, delinquency and the ever-increasing scourge of drug-trafficking.”
In September 2010, Costa Rica was added to the U.S. government watchlist of the world’s top 20 drug trafficking or producing countries for the first time ever. Drug seizures during the past two years are nearing all-time highs.
In 2010, police confiscated 9,900 kilograms of cocaine, the second-highest amount in national history, bested only by 2008 figures. During the first six months of 2011, according to the PCD, Costa Rican police and security forces have seized more than 6,000 kilos of cocaine, with 211 drug busts resulting in 226 arrests. Of the 226 people arrested, 129 were Costa Rican nationals, and 82 of them were involved in international drug rings, authorities said.
The PCD has confiscated 52 vehicles, 25 firearms and about $650,000 in cash this year.
On July 23, security forces found 514 kilos of cocaine and heroin in a house that was rented by several Guatemalan men in Curridabat, east of San José. Besides the drugs, the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) also confiscated three automobiles and $130,000. In early June, police arrested a truck driver in the western province of Puntarenas with 378 kilos of cocaine. A week later, another man was arrested with 560 kilos of cocaine in a farm truck in the northwest province of Guanacaste.
As drug busts occur with more frequency, arrests are often accompanied by vehicle, motorcycle, boat and airplane seizures. In 2009 and 2010, national police and security forces confiscated 192 vehicles, 29 motorcycles, 14 boats and three small airplanes that had belonged to drug traffickers.
Back in 2002, when the inventory of confiscated vehicles and money began to accumulate, in 2002, Costa Rica’s Legislative Assembly passed Law 8204, known as the “Law of Narcotics, Psychotropic Substances, Use of Illicit Drugs and Connected Activities.” This permitted vehicles and goods confiscated during drug raids to be distributed to state banks, government entities and nonprofit groups.
“The PCD will be allowed to conserve the confiscated goods to achieve their objectives, donate them to entities of public interest, primarily organizations geared towards prevention or repression of drug use, or auction them off,” the law reads. It also states the PCD would redistribute any such vehicles, ships, boats or airplanes to government and public agencies that could put them to use once the traffickers were found guilty in court.
Considering that Costa Rica allocates 0.3 percent of its Gross Domestic Product on security and defense, Law 8204 has significantly helped the country’s security forces. Alexandro Romero of the Costa Rican National Air Patrol said that since 2007, the only additions to the air patrol fleet have been former drug-trafficking planes.
“We have added four new planes to the fleet in the last four years and all were once the property of narco-traffickers,” Romero said. “In total, 10 of the 15 planes we use to patrol the air and protect this country from drug trafficking were confiscated from the traffickers themselves.”
The same goes for Costa Rica’s Coast Guard. As more and more drugs are pushed through Costa Rican waters, trafficking arrests have surged, resulting in the confiscation of several vessels.
Mario Barrientos, director of the National Coast Guard Service, said 12 of the country’s 34 patrol boats were formerly owned by drug traffickers. He added that most such boats have several motors and expensive navigation devices, meaning they’re often much better-equipped than the Coast Guard’s own vessels.
“These boats are usually of a very high quality and provide immediate assistance and service to the protection of our country,” he said, explaining that confiscated planes and boats often need only to be added to the national registry and painted before being approved for patrol duty.
Besides confiscated boats and planes, the OIJ and National Police say vehicles once used by drug-traffickers now patrol the country’s streets. They’re also utilized by several district and municipal fire stations, such as the town of Sarchí as well as San José’s Juan Santamaría International Airport. That includes a large black Hummer once owned by drug smugglers which now patrols the airport’s entrance.
In 2007, two 18-wheeler trucks were donated to the Costa Rican Railroad Institute, while more recently compact cars have been given to national radio and TV broadcaster Sinart, the San José Orphanage and Eco21, an environmental nonprofit group.
While confiscated vehicles certainly help Costa Rica’s security forces fight crime, Boraschi said he would like to see more international collaboration and more funding.
“At this time, we have one helicopter in Costa Rica. One. We have a handful of small planes, though many were confiscated from drug-traffickers and several don’t work,” he said. “Almost all of our Coast Guard boats are old and were donated by the United States about 40 or 50 years ago. With such a lack of resources, we can’t adequately confront drug trafficking in this country.”