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Drug trafficking in Costa Rica – what is the status quo?


Henriette Jacobsen*


drug-sign_costa_ricaProtest sign during a rally in Costa RicaAs Central American countries now find themselves thrust into the front line of the drug trade and prey to organized crime, it has become a big priority for the Obama administration to help those countries taking on the drug cartels. But what exactly is the current situation in Costa Rica?

Around 60 people are sitting together in small groups that they have formed in Plaza de Democracia on yet another nice and warm day in San José. However, the events that have led these people to the square on this particular day have not been as peaceful as these people are, nor have they been as nice and warm as the day.

The people at the square today are protesters and part of the new group “Si a la legalización de la marihuana en Costa Rica” which has around 5,000 members. The movement is concerned about the United States’ involvement in Costa Rica and its help to combat the problems with organized drug trafficking groups. Therefore, they wantCosta Rica’s government to legalize the use of marijuana to prevent the same militarized situation that is currently in Mexico from occuring in Costa Rica. On April 20, they wanted a peaceful protest in the capital, an event which was organized via facebook, but the organizers received threats of sabotage and felt they were forced to cancel their happening. Still, 60 protesters decided to show up for the demonstration to show their dismay, while being watched by 30 uniformed police officers.


“There has been no aggression, no violence. The protest has been peaceful the whole time,” police officer Jorgé Calderón told The Costa Rica News shortly before the protesters broke up the demonstration.


Drugs are becoming a bigger issue in Costa Rica. When it comes to drug trafficking in Central America, Costa Rica is no longer just a supply transit center. Costa Rica’s president Laura Chinchilla has confirmed it. Traffickers have moved their operations to the country. Now drugs are being produced, processed and consumed in Costa Rica.

A decade ago, Central America seized less cocaine than either the Caribbean or Mexico, but in 2008 it intercepted three times more than the other two combined. The ever changing drug business has sought new premises. According to American officials, somewhere between 250 and 350 tons of cocaine, which is almost as much as the whole amount heading for the United States, now pass through Guatemala each year.

The impact of the new situation has been lethal. Guatemala’s murder rate has doubled in the past decade, according to The Economist. In both Guatemala and El Salvador, the rate of killing is higher now than during their civil wars. Guatemala’s government has estimated that two-fifths of the murders are linked to the drug business. Even in Panama, which is a much richer Central American country and a popular retirement spot for wealthy foreigners, the murder rate has almost doubled in the past three years.

Even the richer countries can’t combat the drug cartels

The fact that Costa Rica and Panama are no longer just corridors for the drug cartels has come as a surprise to many in the region. The two nations are much better off and better governed than their neighbors. In Panama 26.4% of the population live in poverty and that number is only 18.9% in Costa Rica as opposed to 68.9% in Honduras and 54.8% in Guatemala. Costa Rica is one of the world’s oldest democracies and the life expectancy is on par with the United States. The others have suffered torpid economic growth in the past decade. According to the World Bank, almost half of Guatemala’s children are chronically malnourished, a rate which is the third-worst in the world and worse than Ethiopia’s.

Political polarization in Central America also makes it difficult for the countries to join in a common effort against the organized crime groups. The civil wars that left a ravaged Central America in the 1970s and 1980s between dictators backed by the United States and guerrillas backed by the Soviet Union and Cuba are over, but the conflict between the right and left lurks under the surface. In 2009, the president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, was removed by a coup because of worries and fears about his ties to Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez. This year will also see a bitter election in Guatemala. In Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega will seek a third presidential term in violation of the constitution.

The United States is highly aware of the big-time drug trafficking in Central America. In March, Hillary Clinton met with Costa Rica’s Foreign Minister, René Castro, in Washington to discuss the problems. The Secretary of State said the United States is committed to improving the security situation in Central America through a number of different channels.


“We are deepening our partnerships on regional security issues with Mexico, Central America, and Colombia, and Costa Rica plays a major role in that. We’re working to – work together on the Central America Regional Security Initiative,” Clinton said.


The Mexican bogey

As well as the murder rate going up, insecurity carries a heavy economic cost on the countries involved. Dealing with crime and violence is estimated by the World Bank to cost Central America around 8% of its GDP. The bank reckons that cutting the murder rate by 10% could boost income growth per head by up to 1% a year in the most violent countries. As an example, Walmart recently moved some of its Central American operations from Guatemala to Costa Rica partly because the insurance premiums caused by insecurity had gone up.

In Mexico, however, the long-lasting war against the drug cartels has had a deep impact on not only many human lives, but also the country’s economy. In times of rising crimes, many executives are afraid of doing business in Mexico. A survey by the American Chamber of Commerce in Mexico of more than 500 business leaders showed that 67% felt less safe doing business in Mexico this year compared with 2010. Many companies, according to the BBC, are now investing in extra security measures as a result of the fact that the drug cartels have turned into sophisticated organized crime groups that also participate in kidnapping and extortion.

The human rights situation in Mexico has been affected by the United States’ methods to control and eliminate the power of the drug cartels in Mexico. The Mexican military now has the power to carry out anti-drug and public security operations as well as to enact policy. Since getting this new power position in the country, the military has been accused of committing serious human rights violations such as rape, torture and illegal arrests. There have also been an increase in the number of killings and kidnappings linked to the Mexican drug cartels.

Will the same militarized situation also be the solution in Costa Rica in the future? So far the government has signalized that they are trying to avoid that by transforming and reforming the police program with assistance from the United States. Costa Rica’s police forces will be better trained, better led, more professional and more effective in order to persuade the rest of the region that military forces will not be needed to maintain domestic security, even if the drug cartels are also seeking new criminal methods.

* Taken from

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