Costa Rica: the next narco-state?

Costa Rica's authorities announced 17 raids by the elite Drug Control Police across the Caribbean provinces of Limón and Cahuita as well as locations in the capital San José Dec. 17, that they boast resulted in the dismantling of the most important narco-trafficking operation in the country to date—with ties to Colombia and Jamaica as suppliers of cocaine and cannabis, and Europe as an export destination. Prosecutor General Jorge Chavarria said that among the 12 arrested were two officers of Public Force, the country's national police, and an officer at the Bank of Costa Rica who facilitated laundering of proceeds. The ring was reportedly led by one Rivas Bonilla AKA "Tito" or "Patrón"—who kept ahead of the law for at least three years through tip-offs from his pal on the police force. Chavarría said that the ring was the largest yet run by Costa Ricans, instead of Colombian or Mexican networks operating within the country. "History has changed," Chavarría said. "We now have Costa Rican groups who want to be entrepreneurs in drugs: owners of the drugs, the organization and the routes."

Authorities say they first became aware of the operation during the investigation of a Colombian man with US citizenship who was killed in San José in November 2011. Deputy prosecutor for organized crime Walter Espinoza said that the seizure in May 2013 of 1,385 kilos of cocaine was tied to the ring. Espinoza said that the organization could have regularly trafficked such quantities.

Yet Public Security Minister Mario Zamora said that the raids were not related to the seizure of a small private jet found with a half ton of cocaine at a private airstrip in Limón on just one day earlier—pointing to multiple major trafficking operations on Costa Rican soil. Authorities said the flight had originated in Cali, Colombia, and two Guatemalan pilots were arrested. The jet's proprietor was identified as the owner of a chain of retail stores in Guatemala, who has since disappeared.

And on Dec. 16, the same day the narco-jet was busted, Nicaraguan police discovered 113 kilos of cocaine in a truck entering from Costa Rica at Peñas Blancas, the major crossing between the two nations, on the Pan-American Highway. The Guatemalan driver was arrested.

Costa Rica has confiscated 17 tons of cocaine per year on average between 2005 and 2012—second only to Panama in the entire western hemisphere, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. (Costa Rica Star, Dec. 20; Tico Times, San José, La Nación, San José, Costa Rica News, InSight Crime, Dec. 18; AP, Dec. 17; Prensa Libre, Guatemala, Dec. 16)

In the rise and fall of drug cartels across the western hemisphere over the past generation, first the Colombians were dominant through their control of the cocaine production zones. After the DEA-led campaigns that crushed the Cali and Medellín cartels in the 1990s, the Mexicans acheived dominance through their control of the entrepots into the US. Maybe now, with the Mexican cartels engaged in their endlessly bloody turf wars, the moment has arrived for the Central American middlemen to make their own bid for hemispheric dominance.

Cross-post to Global Ganja Report and High Times