Costa Rica Steps Up Drug Busts as Public Security Ministry Boosts Budget

Costa Rican anti-drug agents arrested nine members of a cocaine trafficking ring in an early morning surprise raid Apr. 7. The three-day operation at a house in Quepos, a village along the country’s central Pacific coast, brought in 901 kilograms of coke — most of it hidden underneath a mattress.
Matt Levin | 29 April 2013

Costa Rican anti-drug agents arrested nine members of a cocaine trafficking ring in an early morning surprise raid Apr. 7. The three-day operation at a house in Quepos, a village along the country’s central Pacific coast, brought in 901 kilograms of coke — most of it hidden underneath a mattress.

Quepos is only a short bus ride away from the popular tourist resort of Manuel Antonio, where just the day before, the director of Costa Rica’s police force had announced the arrival of 12 additional tourist police officers.

In a ceremony attended by the mayor and other local officials, Andrade Morales introduced the $4,000 mobile unit as part of a National Sports Day celebration that featured martial arts, skating, dances, a parade and a soccer game. “Today we bring more resources for tourist safety in this area, and we continue to support tourism, because they represent development for the country,” he said.

The cocaine bust in Quepos the following day demonstrated Costa Rica’s heightened success at catching drug traffickers. Officials said the plush house was being used to store cocaine for eventual shipment to Mexico, and from there, the United States. The cocaine likely came from Colombia, according to Mario Zamora, Costa Rica’s minister of public security.

Cocaine busts rising despite crackdown

Costa Rican authorities have seized 5.3 metric tons of cocaine so far this year. That compares to 15 tons in 2012, which was double the amount confiscated the year before. Costa Rica’s Ministry of Public Security said that’s thanks to its $400 million annual budget.

U.S. officials estimate that at least 65 percent of the cocaine arriving in the United States from South America comes through Central America. Over the past five years, the United States has spent $496 million on the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), a program designed to disrupt criminal and contraband movements in the region, improve crime-fighting infrastructure and increase cooperation among the region’s seven countries.

In addition, the U.S. military’s Operation Martillo seized or aided in the capture of 127 metric tons of cocaine, though automatic budget cuts will reduce U.S. aid for such efforts this year.

Most CARSI money goes toward the “northern triangle” countries of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala — which have the highest homicide rates in the world, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. In 2012, the Costa Rican Institute on Drugs reported the presence of Mexico’s Gulf, Sinaloa and Zeta cartels in Costa Rica. The cartels allegedly traffic cocaine to 39 destinations in Costa Rica.

Brownfield: Costa Rica ‘a victim of its own geography’

During a recent visit to Costa Rica, William Brownfield, U.S. assistant secretary of state at the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, called the country “a victim of its own geography.”

Costa Rican officials have insisted they are seeing positive institutional changes in its security forces. Security Minister Mario Zamora said police task forces have learned from training with U.S. authorities and have reported noticeable gains at rooting out corruption, prosecuting drug traffickers and aiding blighted neighborhoods.

Police reports of cocaine busts have been frequent throughout this year, and the country is on pace to seize a record amount. In early April, police busted a gang selling cocaine near a high school in Pavas, on the outskirts of San José. The arrests came after several neighbors called into an anonymous tipline.

With assistance from Operation Martillo’s naval ships, Costa Rican authorities have stopped drug runners passing by their waters and have forced cartels to alter their routes, Zamora said.

Local officials are learning more about their adversaries, who are getting more creative at hiding drug shipments.

“The traffickers place small speedboats aboard larger boats, usually fishing boats, and at some point along the route, they transfer the cocaine into the smaller boats,” said Mauricio Boraschi, Costa Rica’s anti-drug commissioner.

At San José’s Juan Santamaría International Airport, authorities are making more arrests for cocaine trafficking. On March 19, police caught an Italian tourist with liquid cocaine in six vodka bottles; a day earlier, airport security nabbed a Guatemalan who had swallowed 80 sacks of cocaine.

U.S. training boosts success rate, says Zamora

The Public Security Ministry said training with U.S. advisors has made Costa Rica smarter about going after trafficking and crime in general. The ministry now has better technology at its disposal and understands better how to discern money laundering cases.

The results have been so impressive that a recent Costa Rican poll showed violence as only the third biggest concern of citizens — behind unemployment and the high cost of living.

During Brownfield’s visit to Costa Rica, he met Zamora and Boraschi and confirmed that more assistance is on the way. An estimated $7 million will help train prosecutors, investigators, police officers and border control agents. The U.S. funds will support anti-drug patrols on land and in the oceans.

“We probably will see a more complicated situation that will require more effort and more collaboration between the United States and Costa Rica” over the next two or three years, Brownfield said.

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