Police Fear Mexican Cartels Reopening Air Bridge in Costa Rica

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A rash of plane crashes in Costa Rica has authorities worried that Mexican cartels are reactivating aerial drug trafficking routes in the country, highlighting concerns that law enforcement is unprepared to respond. 

Three small aircraft have crashed in Costa Rica over the past week, with two of those crashes involving Mexican nationals. Anti-drug police in Costa Rica (La Policía de Control de Drogas – PCD) suspect the spike in crashes means Mexican cartels are establishing an air bridge to transport drugs en route to Mexico, reported La Nacion

“Drug traffickers are seeing that it is complicated to transport shipments via land, because the police are there ready to detain them. Because of this, they turn to sea and air routes, where, unfortunately, we have little reach,” a representative of the PCD said.

16-04-13-Narco-Plane-Graphic

The planes carry drug shipments that usually arrive in the country by boat. Traffickers then transfer the drugs to small planes that fly at altitudes as low as 500 ft. along the coast to evade radar detection, making strategic stops in Belize and Guatemala.

Costa Rica’s Director of Civil Aviation, Enio Cubillo, told La Nacion that the country’s main radar system serving the Juan Santamaría International Airport in San Jose is ineffective at detecting smaller, low-flying planes on both the Pacific and Caribbean coast. There are plans to install an additional radar system on Cocos Island, an isolated national park located 550 km off Costa Rica’s Pacific coast. 

In speaking to La Nacion, Security Minister Gustavo Mata indicated that a military grade air defense radar system would be the surest way to detect narco planes, but noted that such a system can cost $18 million. The Minister mentioned the possibility of collaborating with “friendly” nations who have more sophisticated radar systems. 

InSight Crime Analysis 

Technology upgrades are clearly top of mind as Costa Rica considers how to respond to increased aerial trafficking, but the question of using force during air-based interdiction efforts is a politically and logistically fraught question. 

Regionally, so called “shoot-down” laws that permit authorities to down an aircraft suspected of trafficking drugs are active in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Honduras, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela. However, the US has taken a hard stance against such laws after Peruvian authorities mistakenly shot down a plane carrying two US citizens in 2001. As recently as 2014, the US halted anti-narcotics cooperation with Honduras after the passage of that country’s shoot-down law.

With no standing military and limited government aircraft to support law enforcement operations, it is unclear if Costa Rica would have the equipment necessary to use force as part of any air-based interdiction effort. Other tactical strategies could include focusing on the destruction of air strips or using radar to aid with ground-based interception of planes at their points of departure or arrival.

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