HomeInvestigationsCosta Rica in the Crosshairs (Part I)

Costa Rica in the Crosshairs (Part I)



Costa Rica’s rich democratic tradition and strong middle class makes it easy to forget in a region full of turmoil, civil wars and despair. However, in this, the first of a three-part series, investigator Michael Porth unravels the events that have laid the groundwork for the burgeoning criminal activity in that Central American nation.


Costa Rica is roughly the size of West Virginia, has a relatively stable democracy and economy, and does not suffer nearly the same levels of crime and violence as its neighbors in the region. Despite these characteristics, the country—particularly its role in the trafficking of illegal drugs and related illicit activity—should not be underestimated. As this report1 highlights in extensive detail, transnational criminal activity—particularly that of drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs)—is evolving and growing, with the most worrisome trend being the presence of Mexican DTOs and their collaboration with local drug traffickers. One must therefore be mindful of these groups’ operational expansion; moving outside of the Northern Triangle countries (Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala) is indicative of evolving trafficking strategies. There are a number of other trends and security risks described in detail that any researcher and policymaker in this field should know about.

(See part 2 and part 3 of this series)


Since the early 1980s Costa Rica has served as a transit point for drugs passing from South America into Mexico and the US However, recent news and intelligence reports show that—within the last few years—transnational crime (especially drug trafficking and money laundering) in the country is evolving and becoming more sophisticated.2 This case study will detail these changes and explain how the increased dexterity and potency of transnational criminal organizations (TCOs)—primarily drug trafficking organizations (DTOs)—threaten Costa Rican and US national security. The ultimate purpose of this analysis is to assess if TCOs operating in Costa Rica could plausibly collaborate with known terrorist groups in the smuggling of radiological and nuclear (RN) materials in the Latin America and Caribbean region.

This case study is the culmination of open-source and field research about TCOs operating in Costa Rica and the Government of Costa Rica’s (GOCR) response to weaken and dismantle their scope and power. Several types of transnational crime were considered for this report. Because of Costa Rica’s strong tradition of democracy3 and overall economic stability, there is a robust and thriving services industry fueled mainly by tourism.4 Under this rubric the author considered animal and human trafficking (especially of women and children), given the country’s biodiversity and popularity with child sex tourists, respectively.5costa rica t1 However, animal trafficking (principally tortoises) seems to be largely locally based and tied to cultural norms,6 and human trafficking is relatively small-scale, with no known ties to major human-trafficking rings, or to other major TCOs.7,8 Furthermore, there have been cases of arms trafficking in the country, but these are similarly smaller in scale (though the author offers further detail starting on page 20).9

Due to the overwhelming pervasiveness of drug trafficking and money laundering, the author will devote considerable data and analysis in this report to these types of crimes and the TCOs that commit them. While there are examples of Costa Rican nationals and foreigners alike who have committed money-laundering crimes without ties to drug trafficking, nearly all available cases that are transnational in nature involve DTOs, which strongly suggests a nexus between the former and these two activities. Given this body of data, therefore, attention will center largely on DTOs, their activity, and the GOCR’s response to them. Specifically, the author will analyze DTO operations since the early 1980s, how they have evolved, and GOCR initiatives to weaken these DTOs and curb both drug trafficking and money laundering.

Salient themes in this study are the types of DTOs operating in Costa Rica; the scope of networking between local and foreign DTOs; the types of criminal activities these DTOs are known—and suspected10—to participate in; specific trafficking modalities of these DTOs and routes they employ; and the GOCR’s response to these DTOs. Within the analysis of the GOCR, the author will detail specific strategies that the GOCR has used, and explain where institutional weaknesses exist; why these weaknesses exist; and how these weaknesses have a pernicious effect on regional—and ultimately US national—security and overall stability.

The field-research portion of this study took place between August 9 and 16, 2011. The author conducted a total of five interviews in the San José11 metropolitan area and in Bribrí,12 with each lasting about an hour. He secured these interviews both through contacts made during previous work experience in the country, and though contacts located in Washington, DC. Three interviews took place in San José. Two were with department directors within the Ministerio de Justicia y Paz (Ministry of Justice and Peace), and one with a journalist who specializes in crime and justice issues at La Nación, a major Costa Rican newspaper. The remaining two interviews took place in Bribrí. One was with a member of the Puerto Limón City-based13 Guardacostas (Coast Guard) and the other was with a former mayor of Talamanca County, located in Limón Province.

Brief History of Costa Rica’s Battle Against Drug Trafficking and Money Laundering

Costa Rica’s fight against TCOs started in the mid-1980s with its effort to curb drug trafficking, and later, money laundering. In the year 1986, the GOCR noticed—for the first time—a steep increase in cocaine seizures: from 30 to 40 kilograms annually between 1980 and 1985 to 600 kilograms in 1986.14,15 A representative from the Narcotics Control Bureau of the Ministry of Public Security in Costa Rica thought these increased seizures were due more to increased enforcement than volume.16 However, it is also noted that—during the period of spiked seizures in the country—US authorities increased the use of radar to detect drug-filled planes flying directly from Colombia into Miami and parts of Mexico, and increased anti-drug operations in the Bahamas.17,18 According to Luis Manuel Chacón—who was a deputy in the GOCR National Legislature in 1989—these changes in law enforcement pushed DTOs into Costa Rica, who in turn took advantage of the country’s weaker law enforcement.19,20

costa rica t2

The development of the GOCR’s anti-drug trafficking initiatives arose in response to the rise of drug trafficking through the country. Although the GOCR had signed and ratified the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs21 and the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances,22 spiked drugtrafficking activity made the GOCR aware that the “professional standards” of its police force were insufficient and its overall presence in its territory was weak.23 By the late 1980s, for example, it was discovered that Colombian DTOs were using around 250 private landing strips—and employing a host of people—to land and refuel drug-carrying airplanes that originated in Colombia and were headed to Mexico and various cities in the southwest US24 These DTOs ran these operations successfully despite bilateral intelligence-sharing agreements between the GOCR and US,25 which showed a major weakness of the GOCR’s capacity to either monitor its territory or enforce laws, or both.26

DTOs also laundered money through front companies, banks, and legitimate businesses, and employed Costa Ricans to help execute transactions. One particular example involved a Costa Rican official who fed large cash payments into three Costa Rican banks, whereupon checks were issued and sent to Panama and Colombia.27 Another example involved fugitive Mexican drug trafficker Rafael Caro Quintero,28 who—with the alleged assistance of well-placed GOCR public servants—moved into the country with a team of associates and tried to buy land and businesses.29 costa rica t3Traffickers also took advantage of lax regulatory measures at the country’s three main seaports30 —Puerto Caldera on the Pacific side and Puerto Limón and Puerto Moín on the Caribbean side—to smuggle drugs in shipping containers.31,32 In November 1987, for example, a Honduran-registered boat that originated its journey in Puerto Limón was discovered with 6,292 pounds of cocaine hidden in hollowed-out lumber after it pulled into Port Everglades33,34 (near Fort Lauderdale, FL).

Costa Rica’s strong and healthy democracy is the backbone of the GOCR’s relatively unobstructed and aggressive response to drug-trafficking activity in the country. In large part due to investigations by journalists at La Nación about the spike in DTO presence in the country in 1986, in the same year the Costa Rican Congress created a commission to investigate the scope of corruption in the country.35 Between 1986 and 1992, a total of three commissions were created.36 Due to the cooperative nature of the press and government during these commissions, three Supreme Court justices were forced to retire; the general manager of a major bank stepped down; a congressman was prevented from becoming the president of the legislature; and several government officials and police were fired.37 Efforts like these have helped keep GOCR’s institutions relatively robust and effective in their missions (especially the Judiciary).

costa rica t448 This cooperative activity marked the beginning of a long and continuous effort to build internal capacity to fight DTOs and the corruption that helps them prosper. The next section (TCOs Currently Operating in Costa Rica) will provide a more recent analysis of the types of TCOs (mainly DTOs) operating in the country, while the following section (DTOs in Costa Rica: Dynamics and Trafficking Modalities) will detail these groups’ operational dynamics and trafficking modalities. These two sections will provide the background and context for the GOCR’s initiatives—detailed in the last section (Costa Rica’s Current Capacity to Combat TCOs)—to fight these groups and their illicit activities.

TCOs Currently Operating in Costa Rica

The author’s open-source and field research determined that instances of drug trafficking and money laundering committed by TCOs far outnumber the cases of other illicit crimes like human and arms trafficking. It appears that DTOs are at the center of both drug trafficking and money laundering schemes, which strongly suggests a nexus. In terms of the numbers of groups, there are more Costa Rican DTOs than foreign ones, though the actual number of people sentenced for drug-trafficking crimes is even for foreigners and Costa Ricans. Finally, rather surprisingly, Costa Rican authorities have failed to uncover clear pictures of the leadership structure of foreign DTOs, so it is difficult to ascertain command and control of these groups, and at times impossible to know the destination of the drugs they traffic.38

Foreign DTOs (especially Mexican and Colombian) have been actively networking with individuals and groups in Costa Rica of various nationalities. In March and April 2011, for example, Costa Rican authorities arrested and detained nine Guatemalans—tied to unnamed Mexican DTOs—for drug-trafficking offenses at the Paso Canoas and Peñas Blancas border crossings, as well as in the Juan Santamaría International Airport.39costa rica5 Costa Rica’s Attorney General, Jorge Chavarría, stated that these detentions and seizures are an example of the “regionalization” approach that Mexican cartels have utilized recently, which is a response to greater enforcement in Mexico.40,41 As will be explained, Costa Ricans are sometimes affiliate members of foreign (primarily Mexican) DTOs, or actively network with foreign DTOs to fuel their domestic operations in either drug exports or drug sales.

While the author’s interviewees at times could provide specific names of DTOs operating in Costa Rica, this data is mostly unavailable. The author’s interviewee at La Nación, for example, stated that members of the Familia Michoacana42 and Sinaloa Cartels have been captured in the country.43 The author’s interviewee in the Coast Guard stated that several local drug gangs exist in Puerto Limón City, but are referred to officially following the barrio they operate in (for instance, the Banda [Gang] de Cineguita, or the Banda de Pacuare).44 It is unclear whether the gangs refer to themselves by these names. Furthermore, the interviewee in the Coast Guard explained that Colombians lead the crews operating go-fast boats through Costa Rican territory in the Caribbean, but no specific names could be obtained for the Colombian groups or their associations, either through this contact, or news articles.45

The only precise data regarding DTOs operating in Costa Rica is in the aggregate, either as groups or individuals (sometimes by nationality). Table 1 displays a breakdown of DTOs that Costa Rican authorities have dismantled between 2006 and 2010. Note the higher number of local and familial groups,46 and their steady growth. No names could be obtained for these groups.

When one glances through news articles about police operations against DTOs in Costa Rica, he or she gets the idea that the groups are generally quite small (anywhere from 2 to 20 people). While it is hard to make a direct correlation between the quantity of dismantled DTOs, the number of people sentenced for drug trafficking offenses, and the actual size of these groups, there is fairly certain evidence that no medium or large-scale DTO activity is currently taking place. When looking at Table 2, it appears that international drug trafficking is dominated by foreigners.

However, certain points need to be kept in mind when analyzing Table 2 and trying to determine the scope of Costa Rica vs. foreign participation in drug trafficking. First, actual movement of drugs into and out of Costa Rica is only part of the story. As will be discussed in the next section, trafficking also has a local component, which involves local drug storage, drug sales, possession of illegal arms, and money laundering. As Table 3 shows below, Costa Ricans outnumber foreigners for local drug-trafficking offenses.

Thus, trafficking drugs in and through the country also means that the domestic market is being fed product and meeting demand. When one considers all these factors, Costa Ricans are far more involved in the overall drug trade than foreigners. Table 4 displays the number of people sentenced for all drug-related crimes.

A limitation of this data is that it relies on sentencing statistics. It is acknowledged that general understaffing in the Judiciary has caused a prosecution backlog, so a glance at raw arrest figures can give a more accurate depiction of drug-related activity, as it happens year to year.49 Although Table 5 includes data primarily from the OIJ50—and in aggregate—it nevertheless gives an idea of the number of individuals who are involved in drug-related activity, as well as their nationality. Rather surprisingly, given the prevalence of Mexican and Colombian drug groups in the news, Nicaraguans follow Costa Ricans as the most-arrested foreigners in Costa Rica.51 Furthermore, although there have been some recent high-profile arrests of Guatemalans, U.S. citizens outnumber them in 2008 and 2009 in terms of arrests.

Part II Tomorrow: DTOs in Costa Rica: Dynamics and Trafficking Modalities

*Michael Porth is a former investigator for the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). He is currently a Security and Intelligence Analyst on Latin America and the Caribbean for Virtual Defense & Development International, Inc. (VDI).


1 This piece was produced as part of a research project undertaken by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) and funded by the US Department of Homeland Security. The views and conclusions contained herein are those of the author and should not be interpreted as necessarily representing the official policies, either expressed or implied, of the Department of Homeland Security or START.

2 Despite its vigorous efforts and willingness to cooperate both regionally and with the US, in September 2010 Costa Rica landed—for the first time—on the US President’s list of Major Illicit Drug Producing and Drug Transit Countries (US Department of State [DOS]. [2011]. Trafficking in Persons Report. Retrieved from https://www.state.gov/g/tip/rls/tiprpt/index.htm).

3 Since 1953 the country has experienced 15 consecutive democratic elections, with the latest taking place in 2010 (DOS, [2011]. Background note: Costa Rica. Retrieved from https://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/2019.htm).

4 Aguilera, R. & Barriga, F. (2011, August). Country Report: Costa Rica. Economic Intelligence Unit. Retrieved from www.eiu.com

5 Since 2001 (and into 2011), Costa Rica has been on the US State Department’s Tier 2 list of countries in compliance with the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (TVPA). In other words, the country is “making significant efforts to bring [itself] into compliance with [TVPA] standards,” though is still fighting the problem. Child-sex tourism propels the humantrafficking trade in the country. (DOS. [2011]. Trafficking in Persons Report. Retrieved from https://www.state.gov/g/tip/rls/tiprpt/index.htm).

6 On the country’s Caribbean side, tortoises have been killed and their eggs have been stolen from nests for local consumption for several decades (Interview with Coast Guard Official, Bribrí, August 12, 2011).

7 In 2010, for example, there were 25 cases of human trafficking involving 53 victims (Delgado, D. [2001, August 8]. OIJ lanza compaña contra la trata de personas. La Nación (Costa Rica). Retrieved from https://www.nacion.com/2011-08-08/Sucesos/OIJ-lanza-campana-contra-la-trata).

8 Extensive research of open-source material did not uncover a strong link to these types of TCOs.

9 Extensive research and an interview with a journalist at La Nación helped the author make this determination.

10 The author asked about possible Radiological/Nuclear (RN) smuggling in these groups to his interviewees.

11 Capital of Costa Rica, located in the country’s Central Valley.

12 This is a small town located in the southern portion of the Caribbean coast. It is part of the Bratsi District of Talamanca County. Talamanca is one of six counties that make up Limón Province, which runs along Costa Rica’s Caribbean coastline. The author chose this site due to both personal contacts and key characteristics unique to Talamanca. Specifically, Talamanca is highly protected in terms of land for environmental purposes (and thus has lower police presence), and it contains one of Costa Rica’s three official border crossings, which is located in a town called Sixaola. Unlike the other two—Paso Canoas in the south and Peñas Blancas in the north—the Sixaola border crossing lacks major security infrastructure.

13 Puerto Limón City is the capital city of Limón Province, and gets its name from the seaport located in city limits. Limón and Moín are the busiest of Costa Rica’s three main seaports (the other being Caldera in Puntarenas Province), and receive an estimated 80% of all port traffic (imports and exports) (US Embassy of San José [Costa Rica]. (2009, April 30). Costa Rican Ports: Another Saga in the Making? (E.O. 12958). San José, Costa Rica. Retrieved from https://www.nacion.com/Generales/Subsitios/Investigacion/2011/WikiLeaks/EntregaO/WIKILEAK205087.aspx).

14 Chardy, A. (1986, August 20). Costa Rica is new transfer point for U.S-bound drugs, officials Say. Philadelphia Inquirer, p. 13.

15 Gannon, J.D. (1989, February 1). Costa Rica waging a battle against drugs. St. Petersburg Times (Florida), p. 21A.

16 Ibid.

17 Chardy, A. (1986, August 20). Costa Rica is new transfer point for U.S-bound drugs, officials Say. Philadelphia Inquirer, p. 13.

18 Gannon, J.D. (1989, February 1). Costa Rica waging a battle against drugs. St. Petersburg Times (Florida), p. 21A.

19 Ibid.

20 Darenblum, J. (1992, February 28). Costa Rica winning war against drug influence in politics. Wall Street Journal, p. A15.

21 According to the International Narcotics Control Board, this treaty “codified” all existing drug treaties and streamlined them into a single convention to fight drug trafficking (International Narcotics Control Board. [n.d]. Single convention on narcotic drugs, 1961. Retrieved from https://www.incb.org/incb/convention_1961.html).

22 This treaty established an “international control system” for psychotropic substances (International Narcotics Control Board. [n.d]. Convention on psychotropic substances, 1971. Retrieved from https://www.incb.org/incb/convention_1971.html).

23 Darenblum, J. (1988, March 4). Costa Rica is in danger of losing its clean reputation: the Americas. Wall Street Journal, p. 29.

24 Ibid.

25 These were signed in 1975 and 1976.

26 It should be noted that, according to the author’s interview with the La Nación journalist, Costa Rica no longer has any known clandestine landing strips (Interview with La Nación journalist, San José, August 11, 2011).

27 Darenblum, J. (1988, March 4). Costa Rica is in danger of losing its clean reputation: the Americas. Wall Street Journal, p. 29.

28 He was captured in Costa Rica in April 1985 after having masterminded the murder of DEA agent Enrique Camarena Salazar in Guadalajara, Mexico.

29 Darenblum, J. (1988, March 4). Costa Rica is in danger of losing its clean reputation: the Americas. Wall Street Journal, p. 29.

30 There are a total of six seaports in Costa Rica. Outside of the ones already mentioned, the Pacific side also hosts Puerto Puntarenas, Puerto Quepos, and Puerto Golfito. Additionally, there are two “specialized” ports in Punta Morales and Fertica (Ministerio de Obras Públicas y Transportes [Ministry of Public Works and Transport]. (n.d.). Puertos de Costa Rica. Retrieved from https://mopt.go.cr/Maritimo-Portuaria/puertos.html).

31 Darenblum, J. (1988, March 4). Costa Rica is in danger of losing its clean reputation: the Americas. Wall Street Journal, p. 29.

32 Chardy, A. (1986, August 20). Costa Rica is new transfer point for U.S-bound drugs, officials Say. Philadelphia Inquirer, p. 13.

33 “Three tons of cocaine seized by US in Florida warehouse.” (1987, November 19). The New York Times, 11B.

34 This drug seizure was the largest ever in the US at the time.

35 Darenblum, J. (1992, February 28). Costa Rica winning war against drug influence in politics. Wall Street Journal, p. A15.

36 Ibid.

37 Darenblum, J. (1992, February 28). Costa Rica winning war against drug influence in politics. Wall Street Journal, p. A15.

38 Instituto Costarricense sobre Drogas. (2009). Situación nacional sobre drogas y actividades conexas. P. 41. Retrieved from www.icd.go.cr.

39 Arley, A. (2011, April 24). Nueve guatemaltecos han caído con drogas en el país. La Nación (Costa Rica). Retrieved from https://www.nacion.com/2011-04-26/Sucesos/NotasSecundarias/Sucesos2757687.aspx

40 Ibid.

41 Miroff, N. & Booth, W. (2010, July 27). Mexican drug cartels bring violence with them in move to Central America. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/07/26/AR2010072605661.html

42 This group originally affiliated with the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas, but has since split from these groups, and has functioned as an interdependent drug-smuggling entity (U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. [2009]. La Familia Michoacana Fact Sheet. Retrieved from www.justice.gov/dea/pubs/pressrel/pr102209a1.pdf).

43 Interview with La Nación journalist, San José, August 11, 2011.

44 Interview with Coast Guard official, Bribrí, August 12, 2011.

45 Ibid.

46 According to the ICD, a local group is one that is headed by a Costa Rican, and may participate in local or international drug trafficking, or both. While it may do business with a foreign DTO, it is not necessarily operationally connected to one. A familial group is one that is run by a family. For example, a mother could send her child to a school zone to sell crack. It is not clear if familial groups are supplied principally by local or international DTOs.

47 The year 2011 (current as of April) is included only because an interviewee at the Ministerio de Justicia y Paz personally gave the author the information, as it is not yet publically available.

48 These crimes include drug cultivation, storage, sale, distribution, and trafficking (local and international), as well as drugrelated money-laundering. Consult the Departamento de Planificación at judicial.go.cr/planificacion/Estadisticas/judiciales.html

49 DOS. (2011). International narcotics control strategy report, volume 1: Retrieved from https://www.state.gov/p/inl/rls/nrcrpt/2011/vol1/index.htm

50 This acronym stands for the Organismo de Investigación Judicial (Investigative Judicial Police), which is an elite police force affiliated with the Judicial branch. Specifically, it reports to the Ministerio de Justicia. More information on the OIJ is available in the last section (Costa Rica’s Current Capacity to Combat TCOs).

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