The Unwinnable War: Costa Rica’s Drug Trafficking Conundrum

EspañolOn October 10, 2010, a small Piper Navajo airplane crashed in a riverbank soon after taking-off from Tobian Bolaños airport, located just outside Costa Rica’s capital, San Jose. While the death of one of the two passengers on board was notable, the big news was the cause of the crash: the plane’s wings were too heavy due to excess weight.

The crash was nothing more than a footnote elsewhere in the never-ending war on drugs. In Costa Rica, though, it made major headlines. The commandeering of the plane — and its contents of illegal substances — personified the much bigger transition in the nature of Costa Rica’s role in the American continent’s drug trafficking market:

Costa Rica is no longer simply a bridge to transport illegal drugs; it is now also an operating zone.

Costa Rica has traditionally been used as the meeting point between the two most prominent drug cartel homes on the continent, Colombia and Mexico. With the collapse of many Colombian cartels, a paradigm shift resulted in the restructuring of the region’s drug trafficking organizations. Starting around the turn of the millennium, Mexican rings surged to be the dominant presence in Central America. With the surge, Costa Rica started becoming established as both a warehouse and trading center.
Police found 20 empty containers with acetic acid residue, a chemical used to process cocaine. Source: Tico Times.

More recently, there have been noticeable increases in suspected processing sites and discoveries of drugs by Costa Rican law enforcement. Between 2006 and 2009, Costa Rican police seized over 90 tons of cocaine, and more than 40 tons have been seized thus far in President Laura Chinchilla’s administration. So far in 2013, that number is 15 tons.

And it’s not just cocaine. In a bust last August, police found over US$200,000 worth of ecstasy. In addition, examples in the last month include the seizing of US$50,000 and heavy weaponry on a site near Irazú volcano and the discovery of a suspected cocaine-processing lab — equipped with four helicopter pads — in Costa Rica’s Limón province, along with a similar lab near San Carlos with a rocket launcher and more helipads.

The recent increase in drug confiscation and processing site discoveries is due in part to a refocused effort by the current administration to crack down on, and catch-up to, the advance of cartels operating inside their borders. The question that the country must now face is whether or not to continue down the path they’ve always been on in a war that many, including my PanAm colleague Carlos Sabino, characterize as unwinnable.

Costa Rica as a nation has for a long time taken a firm, though often inconsistent, line against drug trafficking. Through her tenure as president, Laura Chinchilla has also taken the politically popular stance of fighting against the cartels. That won’t stop now with her tenure almost at its end, and her seeking last-minute strategies to boost her regionally low approval ratings.

But like the nation’s hit-and-miss success rate, Chinchilla’s stance itself is not without controversy. Earlier this year she twice used the private jet of Gabriel Morales Fallon — who was under investigation by Costa Rican intelligence officials for possible ties to drug trafficking. The first instance, in March, was to attend the funeral of Hugo Chávez. The second was in May for a personal trip to Peru.

Further to the point of a hard stance, Costa Rica has harsher punishment (8-20 years) for drug trafficking than it does for murder (12-18 years). A national newspaper, La Nación, also reported in October of this year that 80 percent of arrests in Costa Rica are related to drug trafficking — and those arrests are on the rise.


However, the nature of those 80 percent of arrests is largely unknown, and very few arrests have been reported in the recent raids. Assistant Director Gustavo Mata of Costa Rica’s top police force, the OIJ, explains that the mountainous terrain where the cells have been operating makes arrests extremely difficult. He expanded on the broader topic by stating that Costa Rica may need to request help from allies to tackle the well-armed criminal organizations because “the strategy we’ve been using isn’t working.”

Which emphasizes the real problem. Strategies currently in place — and the severe legal punishments that accompany them — may be successful on smaller, individual cases. What they seemingly aren’t, however, is effective as deterrents against the operations of big, combative organizations.

With the manner in which cartels are using Costa Rica changing, another important decision is looming to determine the merits of engaging. Smaller victories are good for morale and political poll numbers. In the broader, practical picture, though, they aren’t much more than a ripple in the water. Elections are set for February 2, 2014, and that strategic decision will be with the new president. The one he chooses will be important to monitor in what is increasingly being labeled the world’s unwinnable war.

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