Costa Rican Legislature Lets USS Rentz Dock, Turn Over Alleged Smugglers

Lindsay Fendt / ISH

Costa Rica’s legislature has voted to allow the guided-missile frigate USS Rentz to dock in Costa Rican waters. The U.S. Navy vessel promptly turned over three prisoners — two Costa Ricans and one Nicaraguan — to Costa Rican authorities along with nearly a ton of cocaine worth $78 million seized from their ship, the Capitán Erson.

The Aug. 11 seizure occurred in international waters, 216 nautical miles off Costa Rica’s Cocos Island. It came less than a week after the Rentz’s deployment. The Capitán Erson later sunk during a storm, with the three prisoners and the contraband safely aboard the gunship.

“We are very fortunate to have the USS Rentz and embarked Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachment on patrol conducting counter-transnational organized crime operations,” 4th Fleet Rear Adm. Sinclair Harris said. “This major seizure in the first week the ship is on station is a clear indicator that illicit activities are taking place and must be addressed.”

The USS Rentz was deployed along with 46 other U.S. Coast Guard and Navy ships as part of Operation Martillo. The counternarcotics program is a coordinated aerial and maritime effort among U.S., European and Latin American forces to monitor busy drug trafficking routes throughout the region.

USS Rentz is first foreign artillery ship to dock in Costa Rica

Since its creation in January 2012, Operation Martillo — which covers 42 million square miles of ocean — has led to the seizure of 318,133 pounds of cocaine and 25,052 pounds of marijuana.

In early August, Operation Martillo resulted in several other major drug busts, including the seizure of more than 1,500 pounds of cocaine valued at $24 million. That operation was a joint effort between the British Royal Navy and U.S. law enforcement.

Since June, the Costa Rican government has allowed 41 U.S. patrol ships to dock in Costa Rican waters. Costa Rica disbanded its military in 1948, and the docking of the USS Rentz marks the first time an artillery ship has been permitted to put ashore anywhere in the country.

Officials say the approval marks a shift in the Costa Rican government toward a firmer stance against drug trafficking, and re-affirms the country’s previous agreements regarding joint patrols.

“In reality this is a global problem. The drugs that come through our coasts go on to cause problems in other countries,” Costa Rica’s minister of public security, Mario Zamora, said in a press conference. “We have to respect the fact that this is not just our problem.”

Homicides up 22.8 percent in 2013

Though widely considered one of the region’s most stable countries, Costa Rica has seen a sharp increase in drug-related violence in recent years.

Homicides during the first half of 2013 increased by 22.8 percent compared to the same period last year, according to Costa Rica’s Judicial Investigation Police [Organización de Investigación Judicial, or OIJ]. Many of those homicides were drug-related.

The jump in violent crime has prompted Costa Rica’s Ministry of Public Security to step up coastal patrols. With only two helicopters, six patrol boats and 11,000 police officers to cover both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, Costa Rica is looking abroad for assistance.

In fact, Operation Martillo is just one of several joint patrolling efforts in Central America. In May, Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón visited San José to reaffirm Colombian-Costa Rican patrol efforts. During that visit, he offered help to Costa Rica’s National Guard.

The United States and Costa Rica have had joint patrolling agreements since 1999.

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