‘Transportista’ Groups Expand Operations in Costa Rica

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A Costa Rican crime group earned more than $100,000 providing logistical support to drug traffickers — evidence that “transportista” services in the Central American nation are as lucrative as ever.

Authorities dismantled the group in mid-November after a yearlong investigation into its operations setting up clandestine airstrips in Guanacaste, a region in northern Costa Rica along the Pacific coast, Diario Extra reported. Seventeen people were arrested, including the group’s leader, Raúl Rodríguez Castillo, alias “Tio Tony,” or “Uncle Tony.”

SEE ALSO: Costa Rica News and Profile

The group charged between $100,000 and $150,000 for its services, which included building airstrips for drug plane landings, refueling planes, and readying them for takeoff to other countries, said Walter Espinoza, the general director of Costa Rica’s investigations department. The group freelanced, providing its services to various international drug trafficking organizations. It also reportedly had links to a former Costa Rican police chief who is currently serving a 10-year sentence for drug trafficking out of Guanacaste.

The head of a second transportista group was also arrested in November, but he was not charged with any crimes. Espinoza said the man was a hotel owner who was a “key piece” in a trafficking network led by a Colombian national identified only by his alias, “El ingeniero,” or “the engineer,” CRHOY reported. From his property in Bahia Drake, a small bay on Costa Rica’s southwestern coast, he provided food, fuel, and storage to the trafficking organization.

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As Costa Rica increasingly becomes a hub to receive, store, and move drugs to not only the United States but also Europe, transportista groups there will find a greater demand for their services.

Though not a new phenomenon, these groups are going to emerge “because of market demands,” Espinoza said after the November busts.

In August, authorities identified more than 100 tracts of land used to provide airstrips for drug planes —  a seemingly a massive jump from the 33 identified in 2016.

Minister of Public Safety Michael Soto expressed concern about the renting of private farmland to crime groups that traffic drugs from South America, saying that private property laws have hindered authorities’ ability to enter such properties.

Authorities in Costa Rica have also dismantled groups involved in maritime smuggling recently. This year two local fishermen were arrested for using fleets of boats to carry drugs up the Pacific coast.

SEE ALSO: Costa Rica’s Port of Limón Feeds European Cocaine Pipeline

While smuggling by go-fast boats and semi-submersibles remains the most popular way to move cocaine along Costa Rica’s coastlines, the increasing use of clandestine airstrips may come as a result of authorities having made maritime drug transportation more difficult, thanks to ongoing collaborations between US and Costa Rican coast guards.

Similarly, Guatemala has seen an uptick in drug planes this year, with at least 30 detected during the first nine months of 2019. The majority land on clandestine airstrips along the country’s border region with Mexico.

Like much of Central America, Costa Rica is well located for transportista organizations, bridging South American cocaine producing countries with the United States. Its shipping industry also provides traffickers ample opportunities to conceal drugs in fruit cargo headed to Europe.

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