San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Are Costa Rica drug cops getting better?

Two quarter-ton seizures of cocaine by agents at the Peñas Blancas border crossing with Nicaragua this week brings the total amount of cocaine seized by Costa Rican Public Security Ministry officials to more than 5 tons in 2012.

Drug Control Police (PCD) agents on Saturday discovered 256 kilograms of cocaine packaged and hidden inside the wheels of an 18-wheeler registered in El Salvador, according to a ministry report. Officials arrested the driver of the truck, a 31-year-old Salvadoran man with the last name Parada, as he tried to enter Nicaragua.

Parada was transferred into the custody of Liberia’s public prosecutor, in the northwestern province of Guanacaste.

PCD agents at the same port of entry seized an additional 224 kg Wednesday morning hidden in a truck with Honduran registration, as the driver tried to cross the border into Nicaragua. The driver, a 51-year-old Guatemalan man with the last name Pacheco, was arrested.

Added to the 4 tons seized in the first quarter of this year by the Public Security Ministry is cocaine confiscated by the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ), which keeps separate statistics. 

In 2011, public security officials seized 

more than 8 tons of cocaine and 12,742 does  of crack, which is measured separately from

bulk, powdered cocaine seizures. The ministry has not tabulated crack cocaine seizures for 2012. Additionally in 2011, Public Security Ministry agents destroyed approximately 1.5 million marijuana plants. So far in 2012, the ministry has destroyed more than 262,000 plants. 

Increased drug seizures present a chicken-or-egg type of conundrum. Do more seizures mean more drugs are being smuggled through an area, or do they indicate law enforcement agencies are doing a better job interdicting drug shipments?

“We believe the flow [of drugs through Central America] has stayed constant,” Public Security Minister Mario Zamora told The Tico Times. “We don’t have information or police intelligence indicating an increase in the flow of drugs.”

Zamora attributed this year’s seizures to increased police activity at border crossings and at sea, as well as more police on the streets.

“We’re not only stopping more drugs,” Zamora said, “but we are also detaining more people, which is to say we have arrested more than 1,000 people in the first three months of the year, and we also had a reduction in the number of homicides in the first three months of 2012 compared to 2011.”

Zamora said the number of homicides has decreased by 40 so far this year compared to the same period last year.

“Data indicate that what we are achieving with drugs we also are achieving in other areas of police work,” the minister said. 

Central America, including Costa Rica, is a key corridor for the shipment of cocaine and other drugs from South American producer countries to the United States, the world’s largest illegal drug market. The United Nations cites increased drug trafficking and competition between rival gangs over shipment routes as the main drivers of Central America’s skyrocketing violence. 

Costa Rica has largely escaped the worst of the violence seen in countries like El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, known as the Northern Triangle. Even so, the country registered a murder rate of 11.3 per 100,000 inhabitants last year. A murder rate higher than 11 per 100,000 is considered an epidemic of violence by the U.N. In 2011, Honduras registered 82.1 murders per 100,000 residents, the highest in the world. El Salvador registered 66 per 100,000 and Guatemala 41.4.

Those numbers have caused leaders of Central American countries, particularly Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina, to openly question the efficacy of the U.S.-led “war on drugs” (TT, March 30, Feb. 28, Feb. 17). Pérez Molina has called for discussions with leaders of affected countries on new strategies for mitigating the effects of the flow of drugs through the region, including the legalization of the use, transport and cultivation of illicit drugs (see story, Page 8). 

Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla – who has said that because of Central America’s location between U.S. drug consumers and South American producers, the region suffers from a “perverse geopolitics” – tentatively agreed to discuss new ways of tackling the drugs issue in Central America, but has not openly supported the idea of legalizing illicit drugs. Costa Rica has had a de facto policy of decriminalization for the possession and use of small amounts of drugs since the 1990s, Zamora said, due to lack of prison space to incarcerate small-time offenders (TT, March 2).

The U.S. government has firmly rejected Pérez Molina’s talk of legalization.

“Many people have said the issue of narco-trafficking is a problem of the United States,” Zamora said. “Maybe that was so in the ’80s when we only saw drugs passing through Central America and nothing else. In the ’90s and 2000s we’ve seen a surge in the market of drug consumers in Central America and in Costa Rica. Not all the drugs that pass through Central America are going only to the U.S.”

Zamora’s sentiments echo those expressed by Mark Wells, director of the Office of Americas Program at the U.S. Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, at a recent summit of Latin American and U.S. coast guards and navies. Wells said: “There is no country in the world  that can say they are only a transit country or  a producer country. … We are all consumer countries” (TT, March 23).

Zamora pointed out while the vast majority of drugs that pass through Central America are bound for the U.S. – officials estimate 90 percent of the cocaine consumed in the U.S. traverses the region – the dynamics of drug markets are shifting.

“Our national market, and above all our market for crack, is supplied from abroad,” Zamora said. “These are the new realities that we have to adapt to in the fight against drug-trafficking.”

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