Costa Rica moves out of Mexico's, Colombia's shadow with homegrown global drug trafficking ring

Costa Rican authorities announced 17 raids across the Caribbean province of Limón early Tuesday morning that resulted in the dismantling of the most important Costa Rican drug-running operation to date, police said.

Authorities arrested 12 Costa Ricans in the raids, with one suspect still at large when this article was posted. A French suspect arrested in Belgium was key to the ring’s downfall, officials said.

Costa Rica’s Chief Public Prosecutor Jorge Chavarría said that the ring was the largest yet orchestrated by Costa Ricans, instead of Colombian or Mexican organized criminal groups. 

“History has changed,” Chavarría said, noting the sophistication and institutional penetration of the homegrown operation with links to Colombia, Jamaica and Belgium. “We now have Costa Rican groups who want to be entrepreneurs in drugs: owners of the drugs, the organization and the routes,” he said.  

Two National Police officers and two bank employees also were arrested in the sweep. The Limón police officers allegedly passed on information to the drug operation about police activities and seizures, according to National Police Director Juan José Andrade.

The Banco de Costa Rica tellers allegedly helped launder the organization’s profits, including more than $192,000, reportedly used to finance the group’s operations.

According to Public Security Minister Mario Zamora, ships ferrying cocaine from Colombia would exchange the drugs with Costa Rican fishing boats in the Caribbean Sea. The fishing boats would then transport the narcotics to Limón. From the port of Limón, the cocaine would be hidden in shipping containers traveling to Europe to be sold in Belgium.

Zamora added that the same criminal organization allegedly imported “High Red” marijuana from Jamaica for sale inside Costa Rica.

Law enforcement originally became aware of the Costa Rican drug operation during the investigation of a Colombian man with U.S. citizenship who was killed in San José on Nov. 3, 2011.

While authorities did not have exact estimates for the amount of drugs trafficked by the ring, which had been in operation for at least three years, Organized Crime Deputy Prosecutor Walter Espinoza said that the May 23 seizure of 1,385 kilos of cocaine this year was tied to the operation. Espinoza hazarded that the organization could have regularly trafficked such quantities.

Zamora said that the raids and arrests Tuesday were not related to the capture of a small plane found with a half ton of cocaine at a private airfield in Limón on Monday. 

Costa Rica has confiscated 17 tons of cocaine per year on average between 2005 and 2012, second only to Panama, according to a recent United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime report. 

“The penetration [of drug traffickers’ influence] in institutions and political parties, these are things that should worry us all. We shouldn’t drop our guard if we want to keep this democracy,” Chavarría said.