Costa Rica Seizures Show Heightened Focus on Pacific Drug Route

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Since 2020 began, major operations along Costa Rica’s western coast have brought in nearly 1,000 kilograms of cocaine showing the country’s increasing efforts to tackle drug smuggling in the Pacific.

Described by Security Minister Michael Soto as an “intense day of operations,” January 3 saw two separate drug seizures made by Costa Rican and US authorities.

The larger haul came during a patrol by the national coast guard in the Golfo Dulce, which discovered a beached speedboat. In a nearby house, authorities found nearly 700 kilos of cocaine chlorohydrate, a handgun, radio equipment, several satellite phones and GPS trackers. One of the suspects, who fled the property when the coastguard arrived, was later apprehended at a roadblock set up by national police, CRHoy reported.

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Another operation took place in the Pacific Ocean, 116 kilometers off the coast of the town of Quepos. Following up on observations made by a US search plane, a coast guard patrol boat intercepted a semi-submersible vessel carrying 300 kilograms of cocaine and piloted by three Ecuadorean nationals. The seizure marked the second semi-submersible captured in Costa Rican waters in less than two weeks, following a similar operation on December 25, according to CRHoy.

According to Soto, large-scale operations are not unusual during this period. “Since December 25, we have been carrying out some very intense work. We know from experience that criminals take advantage of holidays to import and move large amounts of drugs,” he told a press conference on January 4.

InSight Crime Analysis

The fact that Costa Rica made two rapid seizures so quickly in 2020 suggests that authorities may be redoubling their efforts after last year brought increasing attention to the country as a drug transshipment point.

On its Atlantic coast, Costa Rica saw its port of Limón named as an exit point for drugs headed to Europe and dealt with increased drug flow from Honduras. On the Pacific side, a ring of fishermen were discovered to have grown highly wealthy moving drugs up the coast in “fleets of drug boats.”

According to government figures, 2019 was a record year for cocaine seizures, with a total of nearly 30 tons seized by November, representing a 20.9 percent increase over the same period in 2018.

This increase can be attributed to two factors. On the one hand, improving successful anti-drug operations is a long-term security goal for Costa Rica, and has been integrated into the country’s Institutional Strategic Plan for 2019-2023. As demonstrated in the January 3 operations, Costa Rica is not going it alone. It has sought out cooperation with national law enforcement bodies, as well as the support of the United States, which maintains a Coast Guard presence in the region.

SEE ALSO: ‘Transportista’ Groups Expand Operations in Costa Rica

On the other hand, Costa Rica is an increasingly important transshipment point in the international drug trade. Like its neighbors, criminal groups in Costa Rica have shown a high degree of sophistication, using high-tech communications devices, GPS and semi-submersibles to coordinate efforts and evade detection. At the same time, increased law enforcement focus on Caribbean routes has pushed more and more smugglers to Central America’s Pacific Coast.

While the major seizures made earlier this month represent an important blow against these criminal economies, they also speak to a worrying security situation in Costa Rica. The country saw the national homicide rate reach a record 12.1 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2017, although this dropped to 11.7 in 2018.

Now, the challenge for authorities is to tackle trafficking on two fronts: reining in the dominant Pacific route, while not losing sight of the Caribbean and its lucrative connections to Europe.

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