By Mario Garita
March 14th, 2014 (ISH) Narco-traffickers are known to move drugs using light aircraft, boats and evensubmarines, but now they have added another method: helicopters.
Between October and November 2013, Costa Rican authorities found nine clandestine heliports used to transport drugs from Colombia to northern Central America, Mexico and the United States, according to the Ministry of Public Security.
In the past 10 years, Costa Rica has gone from being a transit point for drugs to becoming a place where drugs are warehoused, according to Paul Chaves, an expert in security and drug-trafficking issues.
“[In the case of the heliports], drugs entered Costa Rica by sea, were transported to another location in the country and stored before being shipped abroad,” he said. “That’s why helicopters have become more important. Since the Costa Rican police don’t have many helicopters and those are not armed, helicopters have become a very reliable way for drug traffickers to transport drugs [across the country].”
The Judicial Investigation Organization (OIJ) is on the trail of José Arnoldo Díaz Castro, a 30-year-old known as “Pelleja” and alleged leader of a local drug-trafficking organization with ties to Mexico.
The group smuggles large quantities of cocaine into the country through the Barra de Tortuguero and Parismina areas on the Atlantic coast, 200 kilometers northeast of San José. They transport the drugs to heliports on boats through canals and rivers.
In early 2013, residents in the country’s northern region alerted police to helicopters flying at very low altitudes, according to the Ministry of Public Security.
In October and November, authorities found and dismantled nine heliports and two camps on private estates in northern Costa Rica.
Public Security Minister Mario Zamora said officials gained access through the mountainous terrain using paths cleared by the property owners. Access to the property is very limited, and it becomes impassable during the rainy season from May to November.
The raids netted large-caliber weapons, including a rocket launcher, ammunition, US$50,000 in cash, barrels of fuel and two Honduran passports.
“The drug warehouses are very difficult to access, which makes helicopters the ideal method of reaching them,” Chaves said.
Additionally, helicopters can fly under the radar, making them difficult to detect.
On Nov. 14, the OIJ arrested five alleged Costa Rican members of the drug-trafficking organization, including a border patrol officer suspected of helping Díaz import the drugs without being detected.
Díaz may be in Honduras or Nicaragua, where he likely fled in November after police raided his house in Guácimo de Limón, 54 kilometers north of San José, Zamora said.
The drug traffickers also operate in Honduras and Panama, leading Costa Rican authorities to request help from those countries to apprehend them.
“We have to remember that borders do not exist for drug traffickers; regions do. … And if we acknowledge that border areas tend be the most isolated …, then we realize that these areas are the best suited for these types of organizations,” Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla said recently.
The Ministry of Public Security’s efforts are focused on sea and land routes, as the police’s air response capability is minimal, according to Public Security Vice Minister Celso Gamboa.
“The problem with our aircraft is that they are not armed, and that makes an aerial interdiction impossible,” he said.
However on March 9, the United States Embassy in Costa Rica assisted the Aerial Surveillance Service (SVA) in purchasing a police helicopter, which will help identify drug-trafficking camps in mountainous areas.
SVA Director Oldemar Madrigal said the aircraft is equipped with night-vision technology, external lights, a hook for external cargo and the NOTAR (No Tail Rotor) system, which reduces noise to avoid detection by narco-traffickers.
Chaves said another way to investigate narco-traffickers’ use of helicopters is to monitor the sale of helicopter fuel.
“Helicopters use fuel that’s difficult to obtain. It can be obtained only from the Refinería Costarricense de Petróleo (RECOPE) and at airports,” he added. “This makes tracking the fuel the most effective way of understanding exactly where these helicopters are flying within the country.”