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20 years

How Costa Rica and the U.S. are working together to fight narco-trafficking

Since January, Costa Rica’s security agencies have seized about 11 metric tons of cocaine, with more than half confiscated through the joint work of local authorities and the U.S. Coast Guard as part of Operation MARTILLO. (Courtesy Ministry of Public Security)

Since January, Costa Rica’s security agencies have seized about 11 metric tons of cocaine, with more than half confiscated through the joint work of local authorities and the U.S. Coast Guard as part of Operation MARTILLO. (Courtesy Ministry of Public Security)

By Mario Garita

June 23rd, 2014 (ISH) Costa Rica’s Coast Guard Service and the Judicial Investigation Organization seized 4,143 kilograms of cocaine on June 11 in a joint operation with the U.S. Coast Guard, as part of Operation MARTILLO, according to the Ministry of Public Security.

The drugs, which were hidden in three fishing vessels flying the Costa Rican flag, were ultimately heading to the United States and Europe, according to Minister of Public Security Celso Gamboa.

“This was a joint action carried out with the United States, but using intelligence information provided by Costa Rican authorities, and this is important to highlight, as it demonstrates the quality of our police force,” he said.

The Ministry of Public Security valued the shipment at about US$30 million.

Operation MARTILLO is a multinational project aimed at dismantling international criminal organizations, limiting their capacity to use Central America as a transit area. Operation MARTILLO includes Canada, Belize, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, France, Guatemala, Honduras, the Netherlands, Nicaragua, Panama, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States.

On May 6, also as a part of Operation MARTILLO, authorities seized 1,900 kilograms of cocaine concealed in the hold of a fishing boat off Costa Rica’s southern Pacific coast. A month later, they interdicted another fishing boat with 885 kilograms of the drug.

“The police have been working in different ways in the fight against drug trafficking, which has led to different results, such as the seven [metric] tons that have been confiscated in the last month,” Gamboa said.

Last year, security agencies seized about 20 metric tons of cocaine.

Additionally, intelligence work is being developed so authorities can better react to operational changes by narco-trafficking organizations, which are using the boats of young Costa Rican fishermen as maritime storage, according to the Ministry of Public Security.

The operations carried out since May have resulted in the arrest of 18 Costa Ricans Ricans – all of them between the ages of 25 and 45 – who were transferred to the Public Ministry to face international drug-trafficking charges.

“This is the result of an analysis about what’s going on inside the country. Drug traffickers are increasingly using the Pacific and also employing young and [non-suspicious] people,” Vice Minister of Security Gustavo Mata said. “We reached various conclusions, such as the fact that they are infiltrating our coastlines and that the pattern of using fishing boats is being repeated.”

Paul Chaves, a narco-trafficking expert, said the participation of the Costa Rican fishing industry in drug trafficking is nothing new.

“This started in the 1980s and has not stopped,” he said. “The traditional fishing sector in Costa Rica is bankrupt. The fishermen cannot earn a living and cover their needs by traditional fishing. What ends up happening is that drug trafficking finds an opening in the midst of this social-economic context.”

Authorities are paying close attention to the amount of fuel used by fisherman, as it often is subsidized by the state. They also are trying to understand the ways in which drug cartels contact people who live along the coasts, according to Chaves.

“What normally happens is that boats coming from South America don’t have the range to reach Mexico, so Costa Rican fishermen meet them on the high seas and supply them with fuel, or they store the drugs until another boat arrives,” he added. “The fishermen are paid with drugs and that is what they bring to Costa Rica.”

Since January, the country’s security agencies have seized approximately 11 metric tons of cocaine after confiscating 4.6 metric tons during the same period in 2013.

More than half of this total has been confiscated thanks to the joint work of local authorities and the United States Coast Guard as part of Operation MARTILLO.

“Intelligence work used in operations have produced results for the country and this makes us worthy of the confidence of international authorities, who can provide us with sensitive information to carry out these seizures,” said Gamboa, adding Costa Rica is grateful for the United States’ assistance in joint patrols.

The Ministry of Public Security is striving to increase the National Coast Guard Service’s response in instances of narco-trafficking, Gamboa added.

This has been the driving force behind the increase of the fleet from 30 to 74 vessels and the installation of radar equipment to monitor the narco-trafficking routes in the Pacific.

On June 12 the U.S. Embassy in San José donated high-tech equipment worth US$107,000 for the joint effort against maritime drug trafficking.

“Drug trafficking demands an amount of resources that is beyond the capabilities of the state,” Chaves said. “Given the limited capacity of Costa Rica to protect its waters and airspace, international cooperation has to occur and is something truly important in the fight against drugs.”

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  • rusty jones

    For every one the get ten more get bye

  • Ken Morris

    Remember the story awhile back about the humble fishermen inexplicably gunned down in broad daylight? I think we knew then what was really going on; now we’re reminded.

    And it’s all tragic. I don’t fault CR for doing what it can, because it is literally caught in the crossfire. There will be more murdered fishermen, more murdered students, more police and judicial corruption, more local kids on dope, more money laundering, and all the rest the longer this problem persists. CR has no choice but to combat it as best it can.

    However, as rusty points out, this is not a battle CR will win. Maybe it’s doing better than the 10% confiscation/arrest rate that is the usual estimate, but it will likely never reach 90%, or even 50%. The problems will only get worse over time, no matter what CR does.

    My understanding is that we can’t even pin all of the blame on the US, since a lot of the drugs end up in Europe too. Eliminate demand in the US, and there would still be a problem.

    However, after reading an interview with the general heading the Southern Command a few months ago, I was aghast at my own naivete. The general clearly explained that the objective of the Southern Command was to maintain US military dominance in the region vis-a-vis China and Russia, and was particularly leery of Russia’s offer of assistance to fight drug trafficking, since an increased Russian presence would diminish US military dominance. Indeed, the general pitched a fit about budget cuts, warning that they risked diminishing US military dominance.

    Meanwhile, the general said nothing of much note about the war on drugs, and his silence revealed a lot. Plainly, while probably not intentional, the US war on drugs has come to function as an excuse to keep a dominant military presence in the region, as well as a task to occupy the troops while they sail around maintaining dominance. Basically, the US has no intention of winning this “war,” or incentive to change policy, since the perpetual “war on drugs” justifies a perpertual US military presence.

    Read some ways, stories like this one in this article have much drama, and years from now may make movies as good as the ganster movies set during Prohibition in the US. And the drama can have engaging subplots of inernational cooperation. In the end though, I’m afraid that it’s only an entertaining drama set against terrible global drug policies, themselves a functional front for displays of military rivalry among the wannabe empires, with the result that humble fishermen are gunned down in broad daylight.

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