Today, Costa Rica draws nearly a million U.S. tourists each year to its beaches and national parks. It has traffic police who don’t expect bribes, tap water you can drink and a national motto — “pura vida” (pure life) — that serves as a greeting, a farewell and an all-around expression of tropical beatitude.
But now, with Mexican drug cartels moving in, Costa Rican exceptionalism is being challenged by the same criminal forces dragging down the rest of Central America.
Costa Rican officials and U.S. drug agents say this country of 4.6 million is one more chess piece in the traffickers’ push for control of smuggling routes through the region, which is now the primary conveyance for billions of dollars’ worth of South American cocaine bound for the United States.
Costa Rica’s police, courts and politicians have never confronted a test like the one they are facing from the vast corrupting powers of the cartels, Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla said.
“I don’t remember in our whole history a menace like this menace from organized crime,” said Chinchilla, who was elected Costa Rica’s first female president in February 2010 on a law-and-order campaign. “It doesn’t matter what kind of ideology your government has, whether it’s left or right. This has to do with the survival of our institutions.”
Costa Rica is still Central America’s least violent country, but the homicide rate here has nearly doubled since 2004, and record amounts of drugs have been seized as the government, with U.S. assistance, embarks on an unprecedented expansion of its security forces.
Smugglers have been moving Colombian cocaine through Costa Rican waters and up the Pan-American Highway for decades, but in recent years Mexican cartels have established “command and control” operations inside the country, according to a senior U.S. narcotics agent working in the region.
Instead of rushing the cocaine through Costa Rican territory, drug traffickers are increasingly using the country as a depot, said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity per security protocols. The smugglers store shipments along the coast or in safe houses near the Pan-American Highway until they’re ready to continue moving the cargo north.
“This is a perfect location, and when you have a country with no army, that is extremely worried with people’s privacy rights, who is going to stop them?” the agent said.
Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel has had a presence in Costa Rica for many years, but rival trafficking groups are now muscling in, Costa Rican officials say. Their nightmare is that the country could become another drug war battleground, like Honduras, which now has the highest homicide rate in the world, or Guatemala, where alleged members of Mexico’s Zetas cartel massacred 27 people on a jungle ranch in March 2010, decapitating their victims to stoke maximum terror.