Costa Rica and the Drug Cartels

Costa Rica is under threat.  Despite recent claims that “no terrorist groups or drug cartels lurk in the nation’s mountains and rain forests,” the evidence is quite the contrary.

Even back in 2011, journalists were warning of the cartel influence creeping into Costa Rica.  Since 2004, homicide rates – while still well below those of its neighbors such as Honduras and El Salvador – increased more than sixfold, and crime rates have doubled since the late 1990s.  The nation was becoming popular (and still is) as a “warehouse” for cocaine being shipped from Colombia up to the USA.

Some sharp lessons in realpolitik are coming to light for Costa Rica.  Back in 1948, the country abolished its military and began grossly underfunding its police services in order to allow greater spending on health, education, other social benefits, and environmental protection.  Now it has few institutional resources equipped to handle the growing cartel threat.  The police and judicial systems are also exhibiting evidence of corruption.  Polling data indicates that “nearly half of Costa Ricans consider citizen security the worst problem facing the country.”

By mid-2013, a national newspaper was already reporting the clear relationship between drugs and increasing rates of homicide (which is about double that of the USA) and other violent crimes.  A 2013 U.S. State Department report also noted the security force deficit for combating the drug cartels in Costa Rica.  Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel has a well-established presence in the country, as do the Gulf Cartel, Familia Michoacana, and the Zetas.  Costa Rica's international tourism industry also feeds the burgeoning local drug industry due to North American- and European-sourced “drug tourism.”  The United States is now “patrolling Costa Rica's skies and waters while also providing millions of dollars in training and equipment” in an attempt to address the growing cartel influence.  The prison population increased by more than 50 percent since 2006, and Costa Rica's incarceration rate is behind only El Salvador and Panama in Central America.

The international drug cartels are using Costa Rica's national parks as their refuges, both for smuggling cocaine up from South America and for growing marijuana.  Seizure rates for cocaine in the parks are exploding.  Often, the cartels sail the drugs directly into Costa Rica's ocean-bordering parks, and then move the drugs north into the USA via the Pan-American Highway.  Residents fear that the threat from the cartels is now much greater than was the threat from regional conflicts during the Cold War.  Declining fish catches and new environmental protections to protect fish stocks are also pushing many fishermen toward the drug industry.  Senior U.S. narcotics agents acknowledge that Mexican cartels have “command and control” operations inside the country.

In addition to trafficking and drug production, the cartels are using Costa Rica for money-laundering, with upwards of $4.5 billion (or more than 20% of the national GDP) moving through the country via tax evasion, crime, and corruption each year.  A chief prosecutor is quoted as saying, “[I]t’s now impossible to distinguish what part of the [Costa Rican] economy is illicit money and what part is legitimate. They’re so mixed up it’s impossible to distinguish.”  Crack use is also on the rise, notably among the one fifth of the population living below the poverty line and generally out of sight of the superficial tourism face that Costa Rica tries to project to the rest of the world.  Usage rates for this drug, which comes into the country via the South-to-North America cocaine pipeline, have tripled since the mid-1990s.  On a per-capita basis, crack seizure quantities are much higher than in the United States.

Internal security spending in Costa Rica is increasing in response to the cartels, up more than 120 percent since 2006.  Yet the country is still characterized by insiders as “a meeting point for the two most important mafias on the continent: the Colombians and the Mexicans.”  This shouldn't surprise anyone.  Back in 1985, the founder of the Guadalajara Cartel, Rafael Caro Quintero, was captured by the DEA at his mansion near Costa Rica's international airport.  The presence of drug cartels in Costa Rica is a problem more than three decades old, and yet it receives relatively scant and sporadic media attention.  With no air force, airborne territorial violations by the cartels are commonplace.  Airplanes can transit Costa Rican airspace with effective impunity.  The Costa Rican Drug Institute has quintupled the number of drug trafficking cases over the past decade.  Nearly 30 Mexican nationals are in prison in Costa Rica.

There may be some isolated emerging success stories.  The Knights Templar are finally running into potentially effective resistance from the Costa Rican authorities, but not before highly profitable operations had been established and conducted, and millions laundered through a variety of mechanisms.  And yet, the cartel-related materials are expanding in scope.  It isn't just cocaine and marijuana anymore.  There is now ecstasy, along with heavy weapons (including rocket launchers), helipads, cocaine processing laboratories, etc.  There are even connections between Costa Rican president Laura Chinchilla and potential drug traffickers.  In 2010, 128 tons of cocaine was transported over land across the country, nearly as much as in Nicaragua (140 tons) and far more than in Panama (80 tons), Belize (10 tons), or El Salvador (only 5 tons).  The drugs get hidden inside all types of material in the cross-country transit, including marble blocks, frozen sharks, and chemical tanker trucks.

Will the situation improve?  Some political leaders feel that “geography has condemned” the country, since it is the “waistline of the Americas ... between the producers and consumers.”  The U.S. street value of annual cocaine seizures is up into the multiple billions of dollars.  The White House lists Costa Rica as a major illicit drug transit or producing country.  Sex- and organ-trafficking are becoming more prevalent, too, posing another criminal threat.  Overall, the situation in Costa Rica is far from the eco-utopia the tourism brochures make it out to be.