LAND-based drug trafficking through Costa Rica is decreasing, according to police, but a disturbing new trend is following that decline – more and more drug shipments are being destined for sale in Costa Rica rather than just transportation through it.
Police say one telling aspect of Costa Rica’s new role as a destination is that drug vendors here used to be almost solely locals, but in the last year authorities have apprehended more Colombians and other foreigners distributing drugs to the local market.
“That’s a major trend and evolution of this subject. What we used to see is Colombians doing business through Costa Rica, but not doing, exactly, the drug dealing,” said Paul Chaves, advisor to the Public Security Ministry and the Drug Control Police (PCD).
He said the change makes combating trafficking here a “different, different situation.”
THE trend also is worrisome, he added, because it could raise suspicions about Colombian immigrants and affect innocent Colombians coming to Costa Rica to flee the widespread violence in that country.
“Most of the Colombians here are honest people,” Chaves said. “But there is also a threat of Colombians with bad records – very few of course, but these very few will develop problems in Costa Rica.”
Drug Control Police agents on Feb. 19 arrested two Colombians and a Honduran they believe were leaders of a major drug distribution ring here, according to officials from the Security Ministry. Police said the suspects had two kilograms of cocaine and were attempting to close a sale in Hatillo, a southeast San José neighborhood (TT Daily Page, Feb. 20).
Other foreigners have entered the market as well. Chaves said dealers from Italy, the Netherlands and other European countries have set up small operations in beach towns and tourist hotspots throughout the country.
ALONG with the distributors, the types of drugs being sold in Costa Rica have changed. Chaves said the drug MDMA (methylenedioxymethamphetamine), commonly known as Ecstasy, has dramatically increased in popularity here recently.
According to a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) report, Europe is the world’s leading producer of ecstasy, and can make tablets for as little as U.S. 25-50¢ each.
Cocaine trafficking also remains a problem in Costa Rica, according to police. Shipments of cocaine – as much as one metric ton at a time – used to move through Costa Rica via semi trucks from Panama or one of Costa Rica’s major ports, such as Limón on the Caribbean coast, according to a DEA intelligence report.
But a series of large busts in 1998 and 1999 caused traffickers to begin using smaller, less-conspicuous vehicles for smaller shipments.
For example, in early January police in the southern town of Coto Brus seized 107 kilograms of cocaine hidden in the wooden double bed of a small Datsun pickup truck (TT, Jan. 9).
LARGER trucks remain a major method of drug transport, however. Chaves said the Public Security Ministry has established a solid link between trucks traveling between Guatemala and Panama and drug trafficking operations.
Police last week seized some 550 kilograms of cocaine in two separate busts at the Peñas Blancas border station, on the northern border with Nicaragua, according to Public Security Ministry officials. The busts involved three vehicles, all Guate-malan trucks.
Even when no drugs are found, Chaves said many Guatemalan trucks are suspicious because they travel empty both ways, or “the value of the cargo is not rational.”
Officials say sometime this year a new vehicle inspection center will open at the Peñas Blancas border station, creating a nearly impassable “strangulation point.”
The center, funded by the United States, will have the ability to check every vehicle coming through the station for drugs, and should serve as a powerful deterrent to any land-based operations, Chaves said.
That, coupled with additional maritime counter-drug assets acquired in the Joint Patrol Agreement signed with the United States in 1998, will help Costa Rica act as a shield to block shipments of drugs from Colombia headed up the Central American-Mexican corridor toward the United States, he added.
THE most recent study of the Costa Rican Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Institute (IAFA), which examines drug consumption from 1995 to 2000, shows a significant increase in the consumption of cocaine and marijuana among Costa Ricans. (The statistics, however, are not current enough to show how changes in trafficking trends may have affected consumption levels here.)
The annual incidence of cocaine usage more than doubled between 1995 and 2000, from .7 consumers per 1,000 persons to about two consumers per 1,000 persons. Most of those users only experimented with the drug, according to the study.
Only around 2% of the population here has used cocaine at least once in their lifetime, according to the IAFA study. In the United States, about 12% of the population has used the drug in their lifetime.
Crack cocaine use did not experience a similar increase during the same period, remaining at about 1 consumer per 1,000 persons.
MARIJUANA consumption levels increased significantly during that period.
The annual incidence of marijuana use grew from 1.06 consumers per 1000 persons in 1995 to 8.5 consumers per 1000 in the year 2000, the study showed.
The average age Costa Ricans start to smoke pot also dropped during that five-year period, from 18.5 years to 17.7.
Most marijuana consumed in Costa Rica is produced internally and has a lower THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol – the active chemical) content than marijuana in many other countries, and so is generally not trafficked out of the country, according to Costa Rican police and DEA reports.
The IAFA study did not include Ecstasy or the hallucinogenic drug LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide).