Costa Rica, U.S. team in narcotics fight
By Dialogo November 06, 2012
SAN JOSÉ, Costa Rica – Costa Rica seized more than 6.6 tons of narcotics in the first half of 2012, through a combination of Costa Rican and U.S. Navy patrols. Two of the year’s largest coastal marijuana seizures were the result of coordinated efforts.
In July, a U.S. Navy helicopter spotted a go-fast boat carrying 91 bales of marijuana. The Costa Rican Coast Guard apprehended the vessel and detained four suspects, while the crew of the USS Elrod collected the 4,900 pounds of marijuana aboard. The second seizure occurred in September, with the crew of the USS Carr recovering 4,134 pounds of marijuana. The combined street value of the recovered drugs exceeds US$8 million.
Cocaine also continues to be found in high numbers up and down the coasts. October saw several large cocaine busts, including a seizure of nearly a ton of cocaine in the Osa Peninsula in the southern Pacific, and an additional 119 kilograms (262.35 pounds) in balloons in the Caribbean port of Limón.
In another team effort in September, the U.S. Navy and Costa Rican Coast Guard captured 1,532 pounds of cocaine off the coast of Barra del Colorado on the Pacific side. Costa Rican officials captured an additional 758 kilograms (1,671.1 pounds) of cocaine along the coast throughout the month in solo efforts, according to the Security Ministry.
Help from the U.S. Navy
“The Coast Guard and Navy work closely with our partner nations everyday to interdict illegal narcotics trafficking the seas,” said Robert Landolfi, Tactical Law Enforcement Team South’s commanding officer, in a prepared statement. “Joint drug busts like this show that experience working together in action.”
In addition, nearly 25% of Costa Rica is protected land, and large portions of that land are infrequently patrolled and difficult to access – making it ideal for smuggling drugs or stopping over to refuel during transit.
In one of the largest drug busts in the country this year, police recovered nearly one ton of cocaine from a mangrove in Playa Seco National Park, spurring a surge of law enforcement and investigations to the area.
Following a July inspection of Manuel Antonio National Park, officials found seven docking stations used for suspected drug boats, along with evidence of encampments used by drug traffickers. These mangroves were all inaccessible by land, making it extremely easy for traffickers to refuel or stop for the night.
“They come in small boats and park on the beach,” Security Vice Minister Celso Gamboa told the press following the Playa Seco bust. “They bury the drugs for several days and then take them out for local consumption, possibly taking small loads to other countries.”
Yet the government is constrained by a lack of resources to fight traffickers. Only eight officers are available to patrol all 136,000 acres of Manuel Antonio Park, leaving much of the job to park rangers trained mainly in park conservation, not battling smugglers.
Drug submarines on the rise
While drug smugglers are getting sneakier, they’re also getting more innovative out in the open. In the past, cartels used speedboats or fishing vessels to either outrun or trick law enforcement, but now they’re more likely to bring drugs under the water.
Submarines, built in workshops throughout Central and South America at the behest of drug cartels, are becoming the new fashionable vehicle for smuggling. Most of these vessels are able to surface only briefly at night, enabling them to make the journey from South America all the way to the Central American isthmus completely underwater.
The first of these vehicles ever found for drug trafficking was apprehended in Costa Rican waters in 2006 carrying three tons of cocaine, and authorities have only seen the use of these vessels increase over time.
The real threat with these subs lies not only in their stealth but also in their capacity, said officials. In 2008, another submarine was apprehended carrying more than seven tons of cocaine – nearly double what the average above-water vessel is able to transport.
On Oct. 30, the U.S. Navy’s guided-missile frigate USS Carr seized more than 1,700 pounds of cocaine worth just over US$15 million in the eastern Pacific, according to press reports. Since June, the Norfolk-based vessel alone has seized about 3,900 pounds of cocaine and 4,100 pounds of marijuana.
New law beefs up coastal enforcement
Meanwhile, Costa Rica has partnered with U.S. and European forces to help patrol its coasts. Thanks to a new law passed by the Costa Rican legislature this June, 46 U.S. Navy ships will be patrolling the coast through the end of the year with permission to dock in the nation’s Pacific and Caribbean ports.
“Thanks to the National Assembly’s actions, we can now quickly transfer any suspects or evidence into Costa Rica’s legal system,” said Patrick Kulakowski, commanding officer of the USS Carr. “During our discussions, we all agreed that we must work together to successfully counter transnational organized crime.”
The USS Carr is just one of the many ships currently deployed in the Caribbean as part of Operation Martillo, or hammer in Spanish. This transnational effort, covering 42 million square miles of ocean, seeks to stop up common drug-trafficking routes by patrolling both the suspected launch and landing sites of most drug shipments.
Costa Rica disbanded its army in 1948, leaving its relatively small Coast Guard with the entire responsibility of protecting the nation’s waters. At the moment, it has only two helicopters, six patrol boats and 11,000 police officers.
“In reality this is a global problem, the drugs that come through our coasts go on to cause problems in other countries,” Mario Zamora, Costa Rica’s minister of public security, told the press in July. “We have to respect the fact that this is not just our problem.”