Released on 2013-02-13 00:00 GMT
Costa Rica, Panama in the Crossfire
Seized cocaine wrapped in small plastic bags
Evidence from high sea drug seizure.
(cc) Dulue Mbachu
As Mexicoa**s drug wars spread south beyond Guatemala and Honduras,
normally peaceful countries have fallen under the crossfire, Samuel Logan
and John P Sullivan write for ISN Security Watch.
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 Americaa**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 Mexicoa**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.
a**Around 65 percent of the drug smuggling traffic through Costa Rica and
Panama is maritime, and most of the rest is over land,a** 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
Mexicoa**s Sinaloa Cartel abducted two suspected Envigado Cartel members
outside Panama Citya**s Metro Plaza mall, just one sign of the countrya**s
burgeoning drug trade. It is fueling a new generation of gangs (108 gangs
at current count), paid a**in-kinda** 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
a**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,a** Adriana Beltran, senior associate for citizen
security for the Washington Office on Latin America, told ISN Security
But Bruce Bagley, chair of the Department of International Studies with
the University of Miami, remains cautious. a**Costa Rica is a target of
opportunity and must be aware of and alert to its institutional
vulnerability,a** 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 Ariasa** 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 whata**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 Americaa**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,”
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
Ricaa**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
a**the presence of Mexican cartels in Costa Rica is worrisome,a** 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.
Del Vecchio also recently told the Tico Times, that a**[preventing drug
trafficking] isna**t just a fight on the seas, ita**s also a fight in the
Despite concerns of corruption, Knierim remains very supportive of Costa
Ricaa**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 dona**t manage to hide.
On 7 September, officers with Costa Ricaa**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 PeA+-as
Blancas, the border crossing in Costa Ricaa**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 Ricaa**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