Drug Trade Threatens Costa Rica’s ‘Pura Vida’ Reputation

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — A group of 14 prisoners tried to escape May 12th from La Reforma, Costa Rica’s largest prison. The attempted jailbreak was led by Nicaraguan inmate Erlyn Hurtado, who in 2005 was involved in one of the nation’s bloodiest massacres, and Johel Araya, who was shot six times in an escape attempt from the same prison in 2006.
Adam Williams | 27 May 2011

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — A group of 14 prisoners tried to escape May 12th from La Reforma, Costa Rica’s largest prison. The attempted jailbreak was led by Nicaraguan inmate Erlyn Hurtado, who in 2005 was involved in one of the nation’s bloodiest massacres, and Johel Araya, who was shot six times in an escape attempt from the same prison in 2006.

The escape attempt began when Hurtado opened his jail cell using a set of the prison’s master keys and held guards hostage with a .380 pistol, the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) said. Hurtado then opened Araya’s cell and freed another 20 to 30 more inmates. They used smoke bombs, fake grenades, radios and cellphones to corral 15 hostages — mostly prison guards — and demanded an escape vehicle.

After a three-hour standoff, Costa Rican police intervened to thwart the escape attempt. Hurtado, a fellow prisoner and a prison guard were killed in the ensuing shootout.

Just outside the prison gates, authorities found a vacant Dodge van stocked with AK-47s, ski masks, bulletproof vests, $2,000 in cash, food, bottles of water and homemade explosives. Despite round-the-clock surveillance and strict regulations against unauthorized parking, the Dodge had been on the property for four days.

“With the information we have obtained about the escape thus far in our investigation, it appears the criminals were operating under the assistance of someone working within the prison system,” said OIJ Director Jorge Rojas. “Our investigation will be aimed at determining who was responsible for assisting the prisoners in the escape.”

Last week, Rojas and Security Minister Mario Zamora said the escape attempt might be linked to drug traffickers.

“What we do know is that someone in the prison administration must have had strong connections and a motive for assisting the prisoners with the keys,” said Zamora. “Drug cartels are very wealthy and powerful, which often results in corruption.”

Three Mexican prisoners jailed in La Reforma were linked to international drug organizations at the time of their arrest in Costa Rica, OIJ said.

Cartels in Costa Rica Over the past few years, Costa Rican security forces, including the OIJ and the Drug Control Police (known by its Spanish initials PCD), have locked up several high-profile criminals tied to Mexican drug cartels.

In March, three Mexicans linked to the infamous Sinaloa cartel were detained at a residence in Cartago, east of San José. The men were in possession of 319 kilograms of cocaine valued at $12.7 million. They had been in and out of Costa Rica several times since 2007, and were being closely monitored by the OIJ. Two other men with suspected links to the Sinaloa cartel were arrested in February.

In May 2007, the OIJ conducted a raid known as “Operation Aztec” on a house in the western San José neighborhood of Rohrmoser. Seven Mexicans and one Colombian were arrested while remodeling the house as a cocaine storage facility for the Sinaloa cartel. A month earlier, the PCD raided a home in Tejar del Guarco, east of San José, and arrested two Mexicans in possession of 300 kilograms of cocaine and money in multiple currencies.

Mauricio Boraschi, director of the PCD, said earlier this month that Costa Rica acts as a bridge.

“The drugs have to be transported either by air, land or sea. Transportation is typically organized by Mexican organizations and has to move north through Central America,” he said. “To do so, Mexican organizations typically move drugs north by sea or air, as ground transportation is the easiest to monitor. When drugs are moved north via the sea, Central American ports are used.”

Costa Rica’s Public Security Ministry said police last year seized 9,900 kilograms of cocaine, the second-highest quantity in history, exceeded only by 2008 figures. The ministry also reported that 101 drug organizations were dismantled in 2010, a record high. From 2006 to 2010, 400 drug organizations were broken up, including 347 local groups and 53 international ones.

Chinchilla: Much more must be done

On May 4, four days shy of her one-year anniversary, President Laura Chinchilla told lawmakers what her government was doing to improve security for the country’s 3.5 million citizens. During her 90-minute speech, she mentioned “narcotrafficking” seven times.

“Today I am here to confirm the vision that is shared by everyone in the country: to make Costa Rica a more secure home for all of its residents,” she said. “To achieve that goal, we will do so by following one route: the route of human security. Never before has the word ‘insecurity’ defined so many of our lives.”

While Chinchilla boasted of her administration’s accomplishments in combating the drug trade, she warned that “we observe with alarm the relentless advance of organized crime and drug-trafficking threatening our democracy with potential corruption and extortion, as well as violence and delinquency.”

Most security officials agree that if Costa Rica intends to confront the drug traffickers, more help is needed — and fast. At present, the government has only one helicopter, and most of the Costa Rican Coast Guard’s patrol vessels are aged and incapable of pursuing high-speed boats in open waters.

People in rural towns throughout the country complain of a lack of police and security. Many towns with populations ranging from 1,000 to 5,000 have police forces of two, three or five officers that are required to patrol areas of several hundred squares kilometers of land and sea. Costa Rica’s former security minister, José María Tijerino, said in his final address that “the state of the forces in certain parts of the country is deplorable.”

PCD’s Boraschi agreed. “It is evident that the drug cartels are very powerful and can infiltrate places we used to consider untouchable, Boraschi said. “If we plan to keep drugs out of our country, it will require significant investment by our government. We need more police, we need better equipment and we need international assistance. If we don’t begin to put these pieces in place soon, the face of this country could soon be altered by drug-trafficking.”

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