By Samuel Logan and John P Sullivan for ISN Security Watch
Colombia and Costa Rica reaffirmed counternarcotics cooperation on 16 September, underscoring the reality of a new threat to security facing Costa Rica, a country known as the Switzerland of Central America.
While most analysts consider Central America’s northern triangle countries – Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras – to be the most affected by the regional drug trade, Costa Rica and Panama have in 2009 become de facto passageways, warehouses and money laundering fronts for both Mexican and Colombian organized crime.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reports that seizures of cocaine have increased dramatically in Panama and Costa Rica over the last few years.
In 2000, seizures of cocaine in Panama and Costa Rica amounted to 7,400 and 5,871 kilograms, respectively. By 2007, this quantity had risen to 60,000 and 32,435 kilos for both states, respectively.
This surge dramatically underscores the growing importance of these nations in the cross-Hemisphere drug trade. They have been caught in the crossfire of Mexico’s drug wars.
Many analysts observe that Panama could be an emerging narco-battleground. In addition to a suspected 2,000 coastal hideouts for maritime traffickers, there is an emphasis on overland drug routes.
“Around 65 percent of the drug smuggling traffic through Costa Rica and Panama is maritime, and most of the rest is over land,” Paul Knierim, an Agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) with experience in Central America and currently working as the staff coordinator in congressional and public affairs, told ISN Security Watch.
Extreme violence is also on the upswing. In April, alleged members of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel abducted two suspected Envigado Cartel members outside Panama City’s Metro Plaza mall, just one sign of the country’s burgeoning drug trade. It is fueling a new generation of gangs (108 gangs at current count), paid ‘in-kind’ with drugs by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and other traffickers.
Costa Rica: Encroaching on paradise
On 30 September, it was announced that Costa Rica would receive an additional $1 million in Merida funds to combat drug trafficking (this is on top of an initial $4.3 million allocated earlier this year). The funds are targeted to bolster the police and enhance efforts to counter money laundering.
“Contrary to the Mexico portion of the Merida Initiative, the Central American portion [also] includes a significant amount of funds for violence prevention. We were pleased to see that almost a third of the funding for the first year was earmarked for prevention and community policing efforts,” Adriana Beltran, senior associate for citizen security for the Washington Office on Latin America, told ISN Security Watch.
But Bruce Bagley, chair of the Department of International Studies with the University of Miami, remains cautious. “Costa Rica is a target of opportunity and must be aware of and alert to its institutional vulnerability,” he told ISN Security Watch.
Costa Rican police assigned to counterdrug duties had amounted to 183 officials assigned to the Policia de Control de Drogas (PCD). These officers are charged with combating a half-billion dollar drug trade that moves at least 1,000 tons of cocaine annually.
Since the second year of President Oscar Arias’ administration, when law enforcement registered a 400 percent increase in the amount of larger shipments – 500 to 1,000 kilos – moving through Costa Rica, the country has begun to organize a cohesive strategy to fight back, but observers are still concerned about what’s on the horizon.
Costa Rica, Panama and Nicaragua are not only shifting from transit to processing territories, they are becoming drug-consuming nations as well. The increased presence of drugs and drug gangs is stimulating a rise in crime and violence. Central America’s most peaceful countries may find a serious security challenge ahead.
“We haven’t yet seen an escalation of violence, but there is concern, so we’re focused on preventative maintenance and going after the kingpins,” Knierim said.
Earlier this year, in March, gunmen stole some 320 kilos of confiscated cocaine from a guarded storage unit in Golfito, a commercial center near the border with Panama. Security measures failed again, in May, when a helicopter carrying an estimated 347 kilograms of cocaine crashed on Costa Rica’s notorious Cerro de la Muerte, allegedly en route to a warehouse located near Turrialba, a small town just east of the capital, San Jose.
At the time, Public Security Minister Janina del Vecchio stated that “the presence of Mexican cartels in Costa Rica is worrisome,” adding that the helicopter crash supported her analysis that Costa Rica is used for cocaine warehousing as much as it has been used for transshipment.
Despite concerns of corruption, Knierim remains very supportive of Costa Rica’s security forces. “In my time in Costa Rica, I’ve had the pleasure of working very closely with their drug police and judicial police, and they are some of the most professional, hard working cops in Central America,” he said.
By land or sea
Drug traffickers have begun to use littoral routes on the Pacific side, as close as five to 10 miles off shore. At any sign of trouble, a number of estuaries and rivers provide cover. Some don’t manage to hide.
On 7 September, officers with Costa Rica’s Drug Control Police (PCD) stopped two fishermen steaming north about seven miles off shore and interdicted 1,095 kilos of cocaine. Just two weeks prior, officers seized 382 kilos of cocaine out of a boat parked on Garabito beach, near Jaco, a world renowned surf destination.
On land, the best route north into Nicaragua and beyond is through Peñas Blancas, the border crossing in Costa Rica’s northwestern corner. Both countries have placed a high priority on guarding this passage as it is considered a bottleneck for illicit shipments moving north over land.
One unintended consequence, however, is that more weight will pass through Costa Rica’s disreputable Limon port on the Caribbean coast, where officers seized 110 kilos of cocaine from four dock workers who were offloading a container that had arrived from the Colombian port town of Turbo, on the Uraba Bay, a long known drugs export zone.
Drug trafficking and the endemic criminal violence it breeds are a threat to the entire Western Hemisphere. The southern states of Central America are just encountering the risk involved.
At least two Mexican cartels, the rival Sinaloa and Gulf Cartels are active throughout Central America. It is near certain that the Zetas and others are active as well. Add to this the traditional Colombian cartels and transnational, third-generation gangs such as the Mara Salvatrucha, and the potential for cross-border drug wars and criminal insurgencies rises.