Clandestine Airstrips Signal Costa Rica’s Role in Drug Trafficking

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Costa Rica located dozens of illegal airstrips used by drug traffickers in the last year along its Pacific coast, highlighting the country’s growing importance as a drug transit nation.

Between November 2015 and March 2016, Costa Rican authorities discovered 35 illegal landing strips, all of them along the Pacific coast, used by traffickers to move drugs and money, reported Costa Rica Hoy.

Out of the 35 airstrips, 18 were located along Costa Rica’s northern Pacific coast, seven along the central Pacific coast, and eight in the southern region.

The Ministry for Public Security (Ministerio de Seguridad Pública – MSP) said four of the airstrips have been destroyed and another two have been temporarily shut down. Some of the airstrips discovered were on private property, and in several cases the owners were allegedly unaware of their existence.

According to Costa Rica Hoy, the MSP is set to launch the next step of its operation, which will target airstrips located in other regions of the country.

“It won’t just be along the Pacific, it’ll be the whole country,” said Costa Rican Security Minister Gustavo Mata. 

InSight Crime Analysis

Over the past few years, Costa Rica’s growing importance as a drug transit country has become readily apparent. And, given the number of illegal airstrips detected — along with a recent spate of plane crashes — aerial trafficking appears to be in favor with drug smugglers. 

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Costa Rica 

As Luis Vargas, director of Costa Rica’s Air Vigilance Service (Servicio de Vigilancia Aérea – SVA), told Costa Rica Hoy, this is due to the lack of radar coverage in the region. Currently, Costa Rica possesses a single radar system at the Juan Santamaría International Airport in San José, which can only detect commercial flights.

As such, in June, the MSP began seeking resources to purchase 10 mobile radars — six of which would be placed along the Pacific and four along the Caribbean — in order to improve flight detection capabilities along Costa Rica’s coasts. Each mobile radar, however, costs up to $500,000. Costa Rica is also reportedly in discussion with the US Embassy to reopen a radar operated by the United States until 1995, but which would cost $6 million to put back into operation.

Until authorities are able to efficiently monitor the country’s air space, Costa Rica will maintain its appeal as an air bridge for traffickers moving drugs north from South America. Destroying airstrips may temporarily slow down the traffickers’ activities, but will likely to lead to a perpetual game of cat-and-mouse for local officials. 

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