Costa Rica and the United States, Solid Allies in the Fight Against Drug Trafficking

The Costa Rican government bolsters its capabilities with more tools to combat drugs.
Julieta Pelcastre/Diálogo | 23 February 2017

Capacity Building

To bolster its efforts against drug trafficking, Costa Rica received training from the United States and took receipt of specialized maintenance equipment and replacement parts for the King Air F90. (Photo: Costa Rican Ministry of Security).

The U.S. government donated equipment and tools to the Aerial Surveillance Service (SVA, per its Spanish acronym) of the Costa Rican Ministry of Security, to assist the public in emergencies and to reinforce the fight against organized crime groups that use the country as a staging ground for international drug trafficking.

The donation was made by the U.S. Department of Defense through the Embassy of the United States in Costa Rica, within the framework of the cooperation agreements between both countries. The announcement was made public on January 19th during a ceremony held at Juan Santamaría International Airport.

The Costa Rican Ministry of Security reports that the aid provided by the U.S. government is valued at more than $1 million. This includes training, an information packet on aviation maintenance, the delivery of specialized maintenance equipment, and replacement parts for the King Air F90 that the Drug Control Police had seized with two tons of cocaine in 2013.

Minutes away

Starting the last week in February, a team of four SVA officials will train on how to manage their flight hours and flight schedules better and on how to maintain the airplane’s main components. The training will last eight weeks and will be taught by a local Costa Rican company.

“The U.S. government’s support is resounding. Now more than ever equipping our security forces is fundamental in the fight that we are waging against organized crime and those groups that introduce drugs into our country,” Costa Rican Security Minister Gustavo Mata Vega told Diálogo.

For the first time in the last 30 years, the King Air F90 aerial vehicle has enabled government security personnel to conduct patrols as far as Isla del Coco, “a zone that is exploited not only by drug traffickers, but also by various organizations dedicated to illegal fishing, which is an increasingly big problem for Costa Rica,” Minister Mata stressed. This airplane enables SVA personnel to get to the island in 90 minutes, instead of the 36 hours that the trip takes by boat.

The airplane is also a key tool that benefits the Costa Rican people, given that it is actively used for medevac flights around the country. The King Air F90’s pressurized cabin is ideal for transporting patients to specialized medical centers. “This latest assistance [from the U.S.] bolsters our operational capabilities for doing higher speed and longer range air patrols over the open ocean in response to drug trafficking and organized crime in the Pacific zone, as well as for use in humanitarian missions,” SVA’s director, Captain Juan Luis Vargas Castillo, told Diálogo.

The United States cooperation is a centerpiece of Costa Rica’s strategy for fighting drug trafficking and transnational criminal organizations. Due to the increase in illegal flights over Costa Rica, in September of 2016, U.S. authorities provided a TPS 70 alert radar to detect aircraft making unlawful flights in the northern part of this Central American country.

“This system is enormously helpful to the SVA in monitoring our airspace. Its installation was made possible thanks to the effort of the Ministry of Security to stamp out activities linked to drug trafficking,” Capt. Vargas indicated. “We need to efficiently monitor our airspace and shield it with more radar so that Costa Rica loses its allure as an airbridge for traffickers moving drugs from South America to the United States and Europe.”

Future cooperation

Capt. Vargas stressed that the U.S. Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs is also working with SVA to set up a Canine Anti-Narcotics Unit to bolster security at Costa Rica’s four international airports, as well as to increase the capabilities of those canine anti-narcotics units already in service.

Cooperation between the two countries is on the rise. The U.S. Department of Defense will donate two C-145 Skytruck planes to strengthen SVA’s capabilities. The twin-engine planes, with room for 16 people, were designed and built for the U.S. Air Force. They will be delivered to Costa Rica in 2018.

“All of this cooperation is most welcome. However, it needs to be kept up as a strategy in the fight against drug trafficking rings, due to the fact that organized crime enjoys economic power that easily allows it to purchase better equipment and technology for its operations,” Minister Mata said.

These bonds of cooperation have yielded tremendous gains in recent years. In 2016, the Ministry of Security seized over 30 tons of cocaine, a sizable increase over 2015, when authorities seized 15 tons of the drug, and 2014, a year in which they seized 26 tons, according to data from the Costa Rican government. These seizures are the result of reinforced mechanisms for cooperation between Costa Rica and the United States in the area of security, as well as intelligence reports being shared among friendly nations. “Many of these operations are the result of the cooperation and reinforcement that we get from the United States. It’s incredible, they deliver us a huge percentage of our captures and seizures against transnational crime syndicates,” Capt. Vargas emphasized.

To fortify Costa Rica’s strategy in its fight against drugs, President Luis Guillermo Solís Rivera called on the Ministry of Security and its staff “not to let down their guard,” and urged parliamentarians in Costa Rica’s Legislative Assembly to bring the Domain Extension Statute into effect as soon as possible. The statute is a legal instrument that enables the state to inflict heavier blows on organized crime and drug trafficking.

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