BARRA DEL COLORADO, Limón – In this remote town at the northern end of Costa Rica’s Atlantic coast, word has it that when the currents in the Caribbean Sea are strong, the likelihood of finding bags of cocaine washed up along shore is at its highest.
Long known to be part of the route for South American drugs as they make their way north to Mexico and the United States, the area surrounding the mouth of the Río Colorado, crossed by dozens of tributaries, creeks and canals, is a hotbed of the national drug trade. It is from here, say many in the town, that drugs make their way through these waterways into the heart of the country.
This largely uninhabited zone, which contains a 92,000-hectare (355-square-mile) natural reserve, is home to about 3,500 people who live mostly along the region’s two largest rivers, the Río Colorado and the Río San Juan. The latter forms the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Most residents make their living fishing and shrimping, selling their catch in small local villages or to feed their families.
The other well-known method of making a living in Barra del Colorado is selling drugs. This remote corner of the country, a region of thick jungle, hidden waterways and endless marshes, is the last stop on the northbound drug route before it reaches Nicaraguan waters, which are patrolled by the Nicaraguan Navy (see separate story Page N1). Using GPS, radios, walkie-talkies and cell phones, locals in the area arrange to meet drug traffickers out at sea. There, the exchange is made – drugs for cash – and the goods make their way inland, traveling by boat, bus and car.
The movement of drugs here, which has become more common over the last 10-15 years, is no secret. Residents of the two islands of Barra del Colorado, North and South, say they know who has scored deals in the drug trade. Among the predominant aged, dilapidated tin and cinder-block houses, there is the occasional large new one, with freshly painted walls, a manicured lawn and air conditioning. These homes, erected in the most humble of neighborhoods, are rumored to be the fruits of the sale of drugs.
“Look at the homes here,” said Barra del Colorado police officer Roberto Mata. “They are all humble, small, poor. They have tin roofs, tin walls and concrete floors. These are the homes of fisherman. The big, new, two-story stucco houses, these are not the homes of fisherman. These are the houses built by drugs.”
In addition to meeting drug traffickers in the open ocean to arrange deals, there are tales of Barra del Colorado residents who have struck it rich fishing for what some here call as “white fish,” or “square fish” or floating bags of cocaine.
Residents say that when drug traffickers offshore see an approaching Coast Guard vessel, the traffickers abandon trash bags and packages of cocaine, ecstasy, heroine and marijuana into the sea. In heavy rain or when the tide is strong, the “white fish” are taken by the current towards the beach, sometimes finding their way into a confluence of currents known as Dos Aguas, where fresh river water meets the ocean water. As they approach, local fishermen retrieve them. They then must decide what to do with their catch: do they turn it in to the authorities, or sell it and renovate their homes?
‘It’s the Same Story Everywhere’
Rodolfo Coto, a captain and 20-year veteran of the Costa Rican Coast Guard, opens up a folder on his computer and explains the pictures on the screen. A short, serious man with large ears and a thin mustache, Coto clicks on a file containing a mug shot taken during the first week of September.
The photo is of a black man with a wide nose and a blank stare.
“He is Colombian,” Coto explains. “We caught him last week in this boat.”
Coto opens another file containing a picture of a small, unmarked blue boat, of the type known here as a panga. Nestled into the rear section of the boat are nine blue plastic tanks of fuel. Two of the tanks were empty and the other seven were full.
“He said he was coming to fish,” Coto said. “But there is not one piece of fishing equipment on his boat. We can’t say exactly why this man was here, but you don’t fish without any fishing equipment and with nine tanks of fuel.”
Another picture was of the face of a dark-skinned Nicaraguan man with short black hair, also detained in early September. The man was found with several communication devices, such as a walkie-talkie and two cell phones, as well as guns and wads of $100 bills.
Coto then opened a series of photos of drug confiscations made by the Barra del Colorado Coast Guard, on the north side of the Río Colorado about half a kilometer inland from the river’s mouth. The pictures show identical square packages of cocaine wrapped in manila-colored paper strewn across a black plastic tarp. He has several pictures like this, all taken during the last few months. One of them shows meticulously wrapped manila packages of cocaine with a black label stenciled on the top of the bags that reads “R1.”
“We have traced the origin of these to Colombia,” Coto says.
According to Coto, in the first quarter of 2010, authorities found 42 boats with narcotics on board. The largest seizure was a garbage bag full of packages, containing a total of 200 kilograms of cocaine.
Coto then shows pictures of the infamous floating bags. One photo is of a manila package of cocaine floating in the muddy brackish water near the mouth of the Río Colorado. The other is a large black trash bag with a rope tied around it that is full of packaged cocaine. The bag is barely visible as it bobs in the murky water.
“As you can see, the bag is black and it’s very hard to see,” he says. “We come across these from time to time, but they are very hard to find.”
When asked where they come from, Coto shrugs his shoulders.
“Who knows,” he says. “From somewhere out at sea. They could have been floating for weeks before we found them.”
Coto also shows pictures of slaughtered manatees and dead tortoises floating in the water. Combating illegal fishing and poaching are part of the duties of the 15 or so patrolmen who work from the Barra del Colorado station. They also must check all passing boats for licenses, passports and immigration papers, appropriate fishing equipment, as well as safety equipment, such as life jackets and working radios.
Coto says sometimes a routine check for documentation results in a drug bust, while drug searches sometimes result in uncovering illegal fishing practices.
But none of this seems to surprise Coto. After working for years in Puntarenas and Quepos on the Pacific, as well as the nearby town of Tortuguero and the port of Limón, he seems defeated by what he has seen.
“It’s the same everywhere,” he says. “What you see here is what you see in Limón, in Quepos, in Guanacaste, in Puntarenas, everywhere. Twenty years ago, it was only illegal fisherman. Now drugs are the main concern. We do all that we can, but really, what can we do? We have a limited number of staff, and drugs are coming in from all directions. It’s sad. It’s sad to see drugs come into this country and contaminate our youth.”
A Three-Man Police Force
On the south side of town, about 50 meters past the end of the long, paved airstrip in the center of the town, sits the Barra del Colorado police station.
To refer to the station as a shack would be to give shacks a bad name. The police station is a simple wooden frame set atop cinder blocks. The roof is rusted tin, partially covered by black plastic to keep out the rain. The outer walls are made of a patchwork of tin, cardboard and scraps of wood. The interior wall between the station’s two rooms is a giant piece of cardboard stapled to the wooden frame. White pillow cases are draped over the holes in the walls, while the bunks for the officers are bare, without sheets.
When The Tico Times visited the station, the two officers on duty sat with their shirts off and their heads resting against the flimsy walls. They were watching television, occasionally gazing out the door toward the Río Colorado as boats zipped by on their way out to sea or into town.
The two officers on duty, Mata and Martín Chavarría, said they consider themselves powerless. In addition to them, there is one other officer on the force. With an estimated 600 people on the two islands that make up the town, they freely admit that their efforts to combat crime here are futile.
“Say there is a report of domestic abuse on the north side of the town,” Mata says. “One of us has to stay here and watch the station. When we arrive on the other side, one of us has to stay in the boat to guard the boat, because if we don’t, it will be stolen. That means that one officer walks into the town and has to try to calm the situation or make an arrest. It’s impossible. The people know that there is nothing we can do, so they don’t show us any respect at all.”
As for fighting drug trafficking, Mata shakes his head.
“Our job is to protect and serve everyone in all of Costa Rica: on land, on rivers and oceans, and in the air,” Mata says. “But we can’t do that without more support or better equipment. With only three officers, we are powerless.”
Mata adds that the motors on the police boats are inferior to the ones many local fishermen use, which he says are new and powerful. When asked how the fisherman can afford them, he laughs.
“What do you think?” he says. “You think a local fisherman can afford a motor that costs thousands of dollars? It’s drugs. Drugs bought those motors.”
Mata says the police have requested additional patrolmen on several occasions, but no support has yet been provided by the Public Security Ministry.
For these men, the only encouraging news has been the recent approval of a new station. Mata pulls out a sketch, provided by the ministry. The promised station looks modern, painted white with a blue roof. The sketch shows a wooden ramp on the outside of the building supporting an elderly woman in a wheelchair rolling up toward the station’s door. According to Mata, the ministry came in early September to choose the spot for the new building. Asked when it is expected to be completed, Mata says he doesn’t know.
“Until then, we’ll still be here,” he says. “Looking more like squatters than police officers.”
Patrolling the Front Yard
The scene at the office of the Barra del Colorado National Wildlife Refuge is no different, though perhaps the situation is the direst of them all. While the rangers occupy a nice cement-block house on the south side of the Río Colorado near the mouth of the Caribbean, the scope of their responsibilities is almost inconceivable.
Like the police, three park rangers watch over the refuge. Working in shifts of two weeks on, one week off, at full-force, two park rangers are responsible to protect the refuge.
This already daunting task is rendered impossible, according to the rangers, by a lack of assistance from the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry (MINAET).
“We have no working motors, no boats, (no car), no gasoline,” says ranger Abel Castro. “This is a country that prides itself on preservation and conservation of nature, but there are three rangers responsible for 92,000 hectares, working without resources. We are limited to patrolling the area in front of this house, and that’s it.”
Castro says the last time the rangers received fuel from MINAET was three months ago. When rains are heavy, water from a nearby swamp comes within five meters of the house, leaving Castro and partner Adolfo Bernal stranded on their own front porch.
In the meantime, illegal logging, poaching, drug smuggling, arms trafficking and illegal fishing run rampant in the confines of the park. Sitting at his computer, Bernal clicks on photos of empty sea turtle shells found on the beach, acres of decimated forest and a dead tapir caught in a manmade trap.
A few months ago, Castro and Bernal and their partner wrote to MINAET and explained the conditions of the refuge, mentioning their inability to monitor the vast region. MINAET responded not with more rangers, but by offering to move the three to Tortuguero National Park to the south. All have accepted the offer and will be relocated within the next month.
“Moving us out of here doesn’t solve anything,” Castro says. “Another group will come in and will have to deal with all the same problems. Without more staff here, this refuge will continue to be ravaged.”
‘No One Helps This Town’
Guillermo “Memo” Cunningham has lived in south Barra del Colorado his entire life. He has a restaurant and cabinas just off the runway. He is a big man, with a full head of white hair and thick, meaty hands.
For the last four years, Cunningham has served as the town representative for Barra del Colorado, which is in the canton of Pococí. He says he has incessantly tried to bring in government support for his impoverished village, but no one seems to be listening.
“It is the same with this government as it was with the previous government and the government before that,” Cunningham says. “We ask them for help, they tell us that support will come and it never does. It is the same lie over and over again. They are not interested in us. No one helps this town. We are naive to continue to believe their lies.”
As for the drugs, Cunningham says they are more prominent on the north side of the river, though he notices them beginning to seep into the south side as well.
“In recent years, the people of this town have had to turn to (selling) drugs,” Cunningham says. “Why? Because there is nothing to do. If you have a family, and that family has to eat, has to sleep, has to have clothing, and if the only way to have enough money to support your family is to work in drugs, you’re going to get involved. I’ve been able to provide for my family without it, but not everyone in this town can say that.”
Cunningham also criticize the inadequate efforts of the police and Coast Guard in the region to control drug traffic.
“They are as corrupt as anyone,” he says. “Everyone knows there are drugs here, but our police do nothing about it. Why? (Because) they’re getting a cut of the money as well.”
It’s 5:30 p.m. and the sun begins to set. Another long, hot day on the Caribbean has passed without rain. About a half hour before sundown, by law, fisherman must be out of the water. Around that time, boats make their way inland against the current of the Río Colorado and into the veins of Costa Rica’s northeast waterways.
Boats pass by the two-story Coast Guard station on the north side of the river, the reddening sun sinking in the west. As the last rays of the fading sun shine upon the white and light blue station, none of the 15 members of the Coast Guard are anywhere to be seen. No one is on the shore, no one in a boat on the river, and no one on the patrol deck on the second floor with binoculars.
Small boats with high-powered motors skip along the top of the water as they hum by the station. Suddenly, a small cheer rises from the station and floats out over the river. And in the dying strands of daylight, the silhouettes of the members of the Coast Guard can be made out on the north side of the building, playing a game of pick-up soccer. The cheer, the result of a goal scored. It’s the busiest time of the day for boat traffic on the Río Colorado.
Another unchecked boat speeds its way past the park rangers, past the Coast Guard and past the Barra del Colorado police, zipping its way into the heart of Costa Rica.