Costa Rica draws nearly a million U.S. tourists each year to its beaches and national parks, but the country is experiencing more crime as drug traffickers move more cocaine along the Panamerican Highway and up the coast lines. (Nick Miroff/The Washington Post)

Costa Rican exceptionalism is deeply ingrained in the national psyche of this country, a place that has long defined itself by the many ways in which it is not like the rest of Central America.

Even through the darkest years of the Cold War, when hundreds of thousands were killed in civil conflicts across the region, Costa Rica remained a sunny, stable democracy that had proudly abolished its army and invested in public health and education instead.

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.

Drug traffickers are increasingly trying to corrupt Costa Rican officials. The former Coast Guard officer on this wanted poster at the agency's Puntarenas station is a fugitive, accused of cocaine smuggling. (Nick Miroff/The Washington Post)

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.

“We can’t wait until the day that two pickup trucks loaded with 20 cadavers show up in a Costa Rican city,” said Security Minister Mario Zamora, shuddering at the thought of what that would do to the country’s tourism-dependent economy. “We have to take measures now.”

A holistic approach

Beefing up Costa Rica’s security forces is a priority for the United States, which has helped build a new police academy, a national intelligence center to eavesdrop on phone communications, and highway checkpoints with cargo-scanning equipment. But many vulnerabilities remain, and Costa Rica didn’t even have a centralized database with the country’s criminal records until this year.

“You don’t need to build an army, but you do need the mind-set that you must campaign against those forces that threaten your culture and your beliefs,” U.S. Ambassador Anne Andrew said. “That is something Costa Rica needs to step up to.”

As Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and others in the region send soldiers into the streets to meet the escalating threat from the cartels, authorities here insist they will wage the drug war the Costa Rican way, taking a holistic approach that emphasizes community policing, social programs and a strong legal system.

“A lot of other countries in our region are using their armies, but it’s not to bring more force or firepower,” said Zamora, the security minister. “When people want soldiers in the streets, it’s because the police lack legitimacy.”

Keeping that legitimacy is key to resisting the criminals, he said, one reason Costa Rican officials insisted that their new police academy be carbon-neutral, in keeping with the country’s environmental ethos.

“We have to uphold our values,” said Zamora, insisting that Costa Rica’s relatively high levels of public trust in government institutions are its best defense against organized crime and corruption.

But for good measure, Costa Rica also is boosting its conventional forces. Here in Puerto Caldera, the country’s main Pacific port, a new coast guard station opened in April with $3 million in U.S. funding, part of the roughly $500 million in security assistance to Central America that has been allocated by Congress since 2008.

The United States also donated two high-speed “interceptor” boats designed to chase down the smugglers who zip north from Colombia along Costa Rica’s jagged Pacific Coast. Before this year, the country didn’t have any such vessels.

Still, when asked whether the boats had made a difference in their enforcement efforts, Costa Rican coast guard officers shook their heads. The smugglers already are changing tactics, they said, moving cocaine in semi-submersible vessels far out to sea — well beyond the range of the new U.S. boats — or in slow-moving fishing trawlers that stash drug loads in their holds, hidden beneath thousands of pounds of fish and ice.

Costa Rican Coast Guard officers said they recently caught a fishing boat towing 500 kilograms of cocaine in watertight bundles below the surface, ready to cut the lines and sink the load if the authorities came too close. “It looked like a chain of sausages,” said coast guard Col. Miguel Madrigal. “It was pretty ingenious, actually.”

Madrigal and other officers say a decline of fishing stocks in Costa Rican waters and new catch restrictions have pushed more local fisherman into working for the cartels. For one-time payments of $20,000 or the equivalent in cocaine, the fisherman ferry drug loads to shore or deliver fuel out to sea so smugglers can continue moving north without having to come ashore.

Crime increase

More cocaine in Costa Rica has meant more local drug dealing and consumption, fueling petty crime and violence in a corrosive cycle that has spread across Central America. Costa Rica’s urban areas and beach towns have been hit by a surge in crack cocaine use.

Many of the roughly 60,000 U.S. expatriates in Costa Rica also live in those coastal areas, and some have responded by forming neighborhood watch committees not unlike those in American suburbs, amid worries that the country’s “pura vida” ways could be imperiled.

“Historically, we’ve been on a long honeymoon,” said Jim Damalas, a refugee from the Los Angeles advertising industry who built Si Como No, an award-winning, green-certified resort with panoramic views of the Pacific outside the town of Quepos. “That is a privilege some of us have taken for granted, and it’s what could get us into trouble.”

This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.