San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Violence, drug trafficking in Limón is latest in wider struggle against drugs in Costa Rica

Known for its tranquil beaches and relaxed atmosphere, the Caribbean province of Limón is quickly gaining the wrong kind of notoriety following several high-profile drug stories in recent weeks.

Dramatic incidents like the killing of turtle conservationist Jairo Mora captured international attention, and the daily La Nación ran several stories on how indigenous tribes in Limón have turned to the drug trade. While Limón bears the brunt of the violence from drug-related crime, the region’s troubles are part of a wider story. Over the weekend, La Nación reported that drug gang rivalries were the motivation behind the killing of two men in Pueblo Nuevo, Limón, on Sunday.

Long the exception to the drug violence that ravaged its neighbors in Central America and Mexico, Costa Rica finds itself increasingly involved in drug-related crime. Squeezed by police patrols, Caribbean drug routes shifted overland to Central America, and into Costa Rica, according to InSight Crime, a research organization based in Washington, D.C. 

We are prisoners to our geography,” Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla told The Wall Street Journal, referring to the country’s location between cocaine producers in South America and consumers in the United States. Soon after she made those comments, however, Chinchilla found herself on the defensive following revelations that she used a private plane allegedly linked to a drug cartel for state visits. 

Today, Costa Rica, known as the “Switzerland of the Americas” for its stable democracy and lack of standing army, has grown into a major distribution point for traffickers. Reports claim that drugs reach 39 different countries across four continents from the small country. Costa Rica also faces rising domestic drug consumption, including crack cocaine.

This week, La Nación ran several stories about how marijuana traffickers have embedded themselves in the Cabécar-Telire indigenous reservation in Limón. The newspaper highlighted a lack of police resources and infrastructure, difficult terrain and a lack of economic opportunities in the region as major hurdles to curbing the booming black market. 

While violence and dramatic stories grab the headlines, money laundering is the deeper story behind the drug trade in Costa Rica. Arthur Budovsky, a 39-year-old Ukrainian-born Costa Rican citizen, was arrested in Madrid, Spain, in May for allegedly operating the largest money-laundering operation in the world, according to the U.S. Justice Department. Budovsky, who was based in Costa Rica, laundered funds from drug traffickers and other criminals through the online payment company Liberty Reserve.

In 2011, Global Financial Integrity, a nonprofit research organization based in Washington, D.C., reported that an average of $4.47 billion passed through the country every year between 2000 and 2008, equal to one-fifth of the country’s gross domestic product over the same period. 

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