The international drug trade is seeping into Costa Rica.
What was once a regional issue confined primarily to the three “northern triangle” nations of Central America – Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala – has now spread across the isthmus.
During the first four months of 2011, members of Costa Rica’s Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ), National Police and Drug Control Police (PCD) have confiscated massive drug shipments intended for the U.S., Canada and Europe in ports on each coast, national airports, and on both international borders. Members of the infamous Mexican Sinaloa drug cartel were arrested in the Central Valley in March and February. Even the National Police are involved, with 13 officers arrested recently on charges of drug theft and intent to traffic.
The push to thwart increased drug trafficking has become one of the leading national concerns. In her written State of the Nation address (see story on Page 1) distributed on May 1, President Laura Chinchilla mentioned “narco-trafficking” on seven occasions.
“We observe with alarm the relentless advance of organized crime and drug-trafficking that is threatening our democracy with potential corruption and extortion, as well as violence and delinquency,” she said.
Chinchilla’s words echo concerns across the country. In the past year, residents from multiple regions, including Barra del Colorado, the Osa Peninsula, Puntarenas, Limón and the Central Valley, have told The Tico Times that the accessibility of drugs in their towns was one of their biggest worries.
In an interview last October in Barra del Colorado Norte, in the northeast Caribbean, first-year high school teacher Catherine Pérez said, “You know what the real problem here is? Drugs.”
While The Tico Times and other national media outlets have reported on escalating drug concerns in Costa Rica and Central America, international publications are starting to broadcast the concerns to a wider audience. An April 16 cover story in The Economist was titled, “The drug war hits Central America.” The magazine’s cover portrayed a revolver with gun smoke protruding from the barrel outlining a hazy Central America.
Despite the gritty image, the article inside was more concise with its depiction of Costa Rican reality. After mentioning the overthrow of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya in 2009 to exemplify regional instability, the magazine praised Costa Rica, though warned of its potential demise.
“Some Central American countries are doing better: Costa Rica is still one of the safest places in the Americas, for example,” the story said. “But its economic success is based on attracting foreigners as tourists, investors or retired residents. A deteriorating security situation will jeopardize its prosperity – and undermine democracy throughout the region.”
The ominous premonition that Costa Rica’s prosperity is in jeopardy is supported by an increasing number of drug seizures in recent years. According to Costa Rica’s Public Security Ministry, last year police seized 9,900 kilograms of cocaine, the second highest quantity in history, bested only by 2008. The Public Security Ministry also reported that 101 drug organizations were dismantled in 2010, a record high. From 2006 to 2010, 400 drug organizations were broken up, including 347 local groups and 53 international ones.
In his role as vice minister of national security issues and director of the PCD, Mauricio Boraschi is on the frontlines of that battle against drug cartels, local gangs and traffickers.
“This country needs to understand that we have arrived at a time when we need to undertake very drastic and very different measures to reduce drug trafficking. That implies using the national wallet,” Boraschi said during an interview last week with The Tico Times. “We have to understand that this fight is going to require investment, and historically our country hasn’t invested a lot of money in security. We have always been a very peaceful country that hasn’t had large security issues. But now that we are facing the threat of international crime organizations and we have to invest to protect what we’ve created.”
TT: What is the biggest challenge Costa Rica faces in terms of the drug trade?
MB: Currently, our greatest challenge is improving our equipment and developing our ability to reduce drug trafficking. Now we have inadequate equipment and personnel to do this.
One thing we need to do is improve the amount of aero-naval monitoring. We need to provide our Coast Guard with the ability to monitor ports and seas with helicopters and small planes. It takes days for our forces to patrol the water without helicopters or additional eyes in the sky. Our current system is inefficient.
In Costa Rica it is very simple. If the international community helps us, the fight against drug trafficking will improve. If they don’t, it is a fight we will lose. We simply don’t have adequate resources to win the battle on our own.
We need to be able to collaborate more to reduce the international drug trade, but we need equipment to do so. Costa Rica has one helicopter. One. We have a handful of small planes, though many don’t work. Almost all of our Coast Guard boats are old and were donated by the U.S. some 40 or 50 years ago. With such a lack of resources, we can’t adequately confront drug trafficking.
The other thing we need is a national commitment and culture that works together to fight and reduce drug trafficking. It is something that we need to establish here. Soon, we intend to launch a campaign to prevent the crime of narco-trafficking. [The campaign] will call for everyone’s help. This is a problem that requires the assistance of everyone, not only public security forces.
There are many people in this country struggling with drug addiction. Addiction is an illness and drugs are assassins. They ruin people, families, hope, everything. For us, it is integral to work with kids, youths and adults who work with children to prevent the consumption and traffic of drugs.
We are fighting against a very powerful enemy with infinite resources and who has the ability to pay people to join in the trade. If we don’t educate people against the dangers of this, we could lose more of our citizens.
You mentioned international assistance. What are your thoughts about the Legislative Assembly’s decision to block U.S. naval ships from coming to port in Costa Rica?
I respond to this question openly and clearly: It is part of the hypocrisy that exists among many Costa Ricans. On one hand, we are demanding international help. On the other, people are doing all they can to reject international assistance, even though help from the U.S. is fundamental to fight drug trafficking. The permission for U.S. Coast Guard boats to dock has been approved, but not Navy boats. What is not being understood is that U.S. Navy boats operate under the direction of the Coast Guard. That is something very important that needs to be clarified.
If we are serious about fighting drug trafficking, permitting the U.S. Navy to assist us in the fight is absolutely fundamental. It is disappointing that [Costa Rica’s] Legislative Assembly is debating this, even though allowing [Navy boats] is completely legal, constitutional and is an integral service to the citizens of the country.
Recently many people have commented on a lack of national police forces, as well as a lack of proper police training. Do you agree that there is a significant deficiency in the number of national police forces?
Absolutely. There are areas of this country, including hundreds of kilometers of coastline, that are unmonitored or understaffed. We must invest in more police forces and better police training.
Something that we consider fundamental, and a project that we are working on extensively, is to improve the capabilities of our police forces. The formation of our police forces is extremely important, and for that reason we are working very hard to improve the police academy. We have to improve the education, capabilities and formation of our national police, particularly as we see more drug trafficking entering the country.
“This country needs to understand that we have arrived at a time when we need to undertake very drastic and very different measures to reduce drug trafficking. That implies using the national wallet. We have to understand that this fight is going to require investment, and historically our country hasn’t invested a lot of money in security. We have always been a very peaceful country that hasn’t had large security issues. But, now that we are facing the threat of international crime organizations, we have to invest to protect what we’ve created. If not, the price will continue to be human lives.
Last year, the drug war killed almost 20,000 people. It is the worst war that is occurring in the world right now, and it is happening right here in Central America. It has become the most violent region in the world. The international community needs to realize that.
It has been reported recently that policies implemented by Mexico to fight the drug trade have forced drug-traffickers to move into other regions, including Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Do you agree?
Yes, absolutely. The Mexican drug war is very difficult, painful and sad. So much blood is being shed there. No one would ever want a drug war such as Mexico’s in his or her own country.
However, I do think the efforts by the Mexican government are valiant and that the sacrifices they have made have produced some positive results.
A war against drugs is a long one. It can last 10, 20, 30 years or more. It isn’t resolved in a year. Look at Colombia, for example. It took decades for the country to improve its reputation and diminish the drug trade. The battle goes on, but they are in much better shape than 10 or 20 years ago.
When you look at Mexico, you have to understand that it is a country with more than 2,500 municipalities or so. That’s a huge area to fight drug trafficking, and I think there has been progress there. Unfortunately, progress has forced drug traffickers out of Mexico and has put the other Central American countries at risk. Because of our proximity to Mexico, we are in a hot zone.
The only way for the Central American countries to prevent future drug wars on our soil is to heavily invest in the fight. That’s what happened in Colombia and what Mexico is doing now. But, it must be understood that this investment is not only Central America’s obligation, but also the world’s obligation. It affects us all, and the world must invest in aiding Central America.
Some say that legalization is the solution. What do you think?
I answer this very simply. I don’t believe it is a plausible solution.
When someone brings that idea up to me, the first thing I ask them is if they have any children. If you have a child and you take them to a mall or shopping center, if drugs are legalized, they will be able to buy drugs with their money. Drug companies would market and advertise, which could entice a child to buy them.
If we were to legalize drugs in Costa Rica, if a child came home high or had an accident or overdosed on drugs, we would be held responsible for making [drugs] accessible. We’re not talking about “Guaro” [liquor] or tobacco. We’re talking about drugs. Drugs are much more potent than alcohol or tobacco and have much higher addiction rates. Many drugs create a dependency on them almost immediately, such as crack.
As for marijuana, almost all addicts that are hooked on cocaine, crack, heroine or other drugs first experimented smoking marijuana. Marijuana is a gateway to other drugs… People say marijuana isn’t addictive but it is. It is a chemical that manipulates your brain and, if it becomes habitual, becomes addictive.
So, to me to talk about legalizing drugs is like talking about allowing people to kill themselves.