Costa Rica’s Special Operations Unit Cracks Down on Organized Crime

By Geraldine Cook
February 05, 2016

Five hundred agents with the Costa Rican Government’s Special Operations Force have struck severe blows against organized crime in their first three months of service.

The Special Operations Unit within Costa Rica’s Public Security Force has been highly successful in its fight against narcotrafficking and organized crime groups since its inception in October.

The Special Operations Unit’s 500 agents “have managed to seize 114 kilograms of crack, equivalent to approximately 100,000 doses of the drug, in addition to 114 firearms,” Public Security Minister Gustavo Mata Vega told Diálogo
in an interview. The unit also has seized “a significant quantity of ammunition and magazines. The results are positive and compelling.”

During their first three months on the streets, the agents investigated more than 34,450 people and searched more than 3,800 motor vehicles and more than 2,240 motorcycles. Checking cars, trucks, and motorcycles for suspects, drugs, and other contraband is a key component of the unit’s mission.

“It is important to check cars and motorcycles because those vehicles are used to transport criminals when committing their offenses,” Mata explained. “We have also seized significant sums of money as proceeds from the sale of illegal drugs. Operations are conducted in a precise and coordinated manner, wherever gang members traffic drugs or commit murder or in areas throughout the country with high crime rates.”

Costa Rican security forces are continuing to crack down on organized crime in 2016. During the first 20 days of January, the Special Operations Unit, the Drug Enforcement Police (PCD), the National Coast Guard Service (SNG), the Air Surveillance Service, and the Regional Drug Enforcement Program seized 548 kilograms of cocaine, 1,750 doses of crack, and two tons of other narcotics, the Public Security Ministry reported on January 21st.

The unit, which is made up of specially-trained officers from the PCD, the Police Intervention Unit, and the Operational Support Group, “has led to important changes in the operations that target micro-trafficking and seizures of weapons being carried illegally,” Mata stated. “These security personnel have contributed to the recognition of our special forces.”

Reduction in homicides

The Special Operations Unit’s success has helped reduce the level of violence in Costa Rica, which has a population of nearly five million. Thirty-seven homicides were recorded nationwide during the first 20 days of January – a mark well below the about 60 that were documented monthly in 2015, according to Mata.

“We are going to keep it [the Special Operations Unit] going,” Mata added. “We are seeing a significant reduction in murders. In [January we saw] positive results.”

Serving in the Special Operations Unit is dangerous, as “the challenge of safety is one of the most important challenges facing this unit,” Mata stated. “Organized crime is made up of very violent people.”

Much of the country’s violence is connected to drug trafficking and organized crime. In 2015, the country recorded more than 500 homicides – about 200 of which were linked to drug trafficking – and had a
homicide rate of 11.4 killings per 100,000 residents, Walter Espinoza, the director of the Judicial Investigation Agency (OIJ) told the Costa Rican newspaper La

Transnational criminal organizations

Transnational criminal organizations engage in drug trafficking and other illegal activities in Costa Rica because of its strategic geographic location, which makes it a key transshipment point for South American cocaine. Drug traffickers transport cocaine from Costa Rica to the United States and Europe or sell it within the country, according to “Drug Trafficking and Organized Crime Threats in Costa Rica, 2013,” report published by the OIJ and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Drug trafficking groups from Mexico and Colombia are operating in Costa Rica, according to the OIJ and UNODC. Costa Rica “will give no quarter to organized crime or allow it to grow in our country,” Mata said. “This is a country of peace and democracy. It is a country built on citizen security. Therefore, there is no room [for organized crime]. We are taking timely measures.”

International cooperation is a key component of Costa Rica’s strategy to combat transnational criminal organizations. The country’s security forces cooperate with those of partner nations, including countries in the region and the U.S.

“The countries in this region must work together to address the criminal element in this region if we are going to see any results,” Mata explained. “The idea is to work uniformly, to build ties and conduct joint operations so we can make progress,”

Cooperating with the U.S. Military is an important facet of Cost Rica’s approach to fighting organized crime. The importance of such cooperation was underscored on January 4th when the SNG, in cooperation with the PCD and the U.S. Coast Guard, intercepted a vessel in the Pacific Ocean with 83 kilograms of cocaine and three Costa Ricans on board.