The Pacific Chase
By Dialogo July 01, 2012
The first time Police Lieutenant Ramón Zúñiga Camacho saw a semisubmersible with
cocaine intercepted off the Pacific coast in 2008, he had two reactions. One, that drug
traffickers often change their strategies to be able to move narcotics; and two, that it
shows the great economic power of those involved.
Lt. Zúñiga is Operations Officer with Costa Rica’s National Coast Guard Service in
Puerto Caldera, in the province of Puntarenas, about 90 kilometers from the country’s
capital, San José. “All of a sudden you realize you are not in a fair fight: they have
financing, they have technology,” said Lt. Zúñiga, a 22-year veteran of the Coast Guard. The
challenge for Costa Rican authorities is to protect their territory to prevent drug
traffickers from gaining ground.
Mauricio Boraschi Hernández, vice minister of the presidency on security matters
and also national anti-drug commissioner, told Diálogo that it is very important for the
country to exercise territorial control. This entails the development and improvement of
maritime, aerial and land interdiction capabilities to protect a territory whose sea area is
11 times larger than its land area from drug traffickers. “This is done based on teamwork,
on training and technology, and we are in a great fight to be able to improve these
services,” he added. He highlighted the fact that, because Costa Rica does not have an army,
many times the country is not included in international cooperation programs, so it is
necessary to have a high-quality police force that is capable of protecting the nation.
Pain for Some, Gain for Others
Given its irregular shape with peninsulas and bays, Costa Rica’s Pacific coast is a
favorite of South American drug traffickers because they can easily refuel there en route to
Mexico and the United States. “Each time one of these boats arrives to the coast of Costa
Rica, it brings with it stories of pain, family disintegration and death,” Vice Minister
Many of the boats that carry drugs from South America, especially from the area of
Puerto Buenaventura in Colombia, navigate in a straight line to Punta Burica, on the border
with Panama. “This is a mandatory route due to logistics and refueling aspects,” he added.
Vice Minister Boraschi said boats that carry cocaine hydrochloride aim for Panama or Costa
Rica for refueling, storage, re-exporting or transit purposes. On the other hand, on the
Caribbean coast, the trip is in a straight line and the distance is relatively short. Drug
traffickers can reach Honduras without having to stop on the coasts of Panama, Costa Rica or
Nicaragua. However, drug trafficking happens on both coasts of the country.
Operations carried out on the open sea with other countries are very important to
the Costa Rican government because they bring together resources and capabilities. An
example is their participation in Operation Martillo, which started in January 2012 to fight
drug trafficking in both Caribbean and Pacific waters. Through April 2012, 25 tons of
cocaine and other drugs had already been intercepted and seized and more than 50 people
arrested, according to statements by General Douglas Fraser, Commander of the United States
Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), that were published in the Guatemalan newspaper Prensa Libre.
In total, 14 countries are participating.
Because patrolling the open sea already has support from friendly governments,
Costa Rica is looking for more collaboration with Colombia, Ecuador and Panama to develop a
joint patrol system in the Pacific. The country also intends to reach an agreement with the
Central American countries as was done on the Atlantic coast, where it promoted a joint
patrolling agreement with Central American and Caribbean countries. The aim is to pool
resources and prevent drug traffickers’ boats from penetrating the Central American coast.
Although Costa Rica is a transit bridge rather than a destination port for
international drug trafficking, it does not escape the ill effects. Drug traffickers pay
Costa Rican fishermen for refueling in kind with drugs. The fishermen, seeing they cannot
sell the drug at international market prices, end up processing the cocaine hydrochloride to
turn it into crack that is sold on the streets of Costa Rica, which ultimately generates
violence and a public health issue. “This is a reality that not only Costa Rica but all
Central Americans have to deal with,” Vice Minister Boraschi said.
Allan Solano, head of the Drug Control Police (PCD) of Costa Rica, said that among
the drugs consumed in Costa Rica are crack, ecstasy, Colombian marijuana that enters the
country through Panama, Jamaican marijuana (known as high red) and hydroponic marijuana that
is grown in high-tech laboratories. The consumption of crack, he said, has resulted in an
increase in property damage, theft, robbery and homicide, Heroin transit to the United
States has been observed, but it is not intended for local consumption.
The head of the PCD indicated that police have made great efforts to eliminate
crack manufacturing and distribution structures in public spaces, abandoned lots and
buildings in ruins. The government as well as social and education institutions are also
involved in prevention activities and information programs on the topic of drugs.
Incursion of Hired Guns
On August 15, 2010, the first case of Mexican assassins operating in Costa Rica was
recorded. Two Costa Rican citizens were riddled with bullets shot from a vehicle in Limón,
on the country’s Atlantic coast. The reason: a probable settling of scores. Colombian hired
guns had already entered this Central American country in the 1980s, according to Mexican
Vice Minister Boraschi said “tumbonazos” or “hits” – stealing drugs from other
criminal groups – are a cause for concern due to the violence they generate. “At any given
time, probably days later after a ‘tumbonazo,’ we will have a death related to this hit,” he
said. He added that although Costa Rica has the lowest homicide rate in the region, it is
very high for a country that abolished the army in 1948. The rate of homicides per 100,000
inhabitants decreased in 2011 from 11.6 to 10, according to Costa Rican newspaper La Nación.
The new Coast Guard station in Puerto Caldera was inaugurated on April 7, 2011. A
donation of more than $3 million from SOUTHCOM helped with construction. Commander Edwin
Cantillo Espinoza, a Coast Guard legal officer, showed Diálogo the administrative offices,
barracks and floating dock. International contributions also helped rebuild a repair shop;
two speedboats were also donated. “The officers feel more comfortable in their new house,”
he said. The station is located at a central spot on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, allowing
Coast Guard units to cover places in the country that have fewer maritime interdiction