The container of ornamental plants had passed through customs at Costa Rica's port of Limón and was awaiting transfer to a ship headed to the Netherlands. But something about the shipment persuaded anti-narcotics agents to take one last look.
Their hunch was correct. Inside was over five tons of cocaine -- the biggest drug haul in Costa Rican history.
The February 15 seizure of a drug shipment that would have fetched nearly $140 million at wholesale prices at its destination was celebrated as testimony to the strides Costa Rica has taken to improve its drug interdiction capacity.
However, this success may prove to be little more than a silver lining to the dark cloud now hovering over the country. The seizure confirmed what has been increasingly evident in recent years: Costa Rica is now a major exporter of cocaine to Europe -- and the shipments it sends are being handled by ever more sophisticated national networks.
“On one hand we are happy, but on the other it is worrying because this network was moving very large quantities of drugs,” Juan José Arevalo, head of Costa Rica’s Drug Control Police (Policía Control de Drogas -- PCD), told InSight Crime.
Costa Rican authorities have yet to trace the whole journey of the five tons through the country. However, the drugs almost certainly entered through one of four main routes used by traffickers: the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, the port of Limón or the land border with Panama.
Most cocaine enters the country on go-fast boats, semi-submersibles and the stripped out and covered up boats known as low-profile vessels dispatched from Colombia, according to InSight Crime interviews with authorities. The majority of these shipments arrive to the smugglers' paradise of the south Pacific Ossa peninsula with its isolated beaches and coves. Some others are received on the Atlantic coast, where small narco-docks and stash houses line the banks of waterways in the wilds of the northern coastline or around the city of Limón.
Authorities have also discovered cocaine entering via the port of Limón, hidden in loads or packed into the structures of containers departing from the Colombian port of Turbo, while a small percentage arrives by land, crossing the Panama border in modified vehicles with secret compartments.
The trail of the five-ton shipment picks up in San Carlos, a major agricultural zone in the northeast of the country that has become the cornerstone of trafficking to Europe. San Carlos produces most of the fruit, vegetables and ornamental plants that are exported from Costa Rica -- the same products sought out by traffickers to conceal cocaine shipments.
In the past, authorities have uncovered farms and packing companies in San Carlos that act as fronts, set up or bought out by drug traffickers looking to hide cocaine in apparently legitimate shipments of pineapple, cassava and other products. However, in this case, the evidence points to a different technique: contamination en route between San Carlos and Limón.
“[The drugs] came without any type of protection, there were the packets and beneath them the pots with plants and soil,” said Álvaro González, the head of the Limón branch of Costa Rica’s investigative police, the Judicial Investigation Body (Organismo de Investigación Judicial -- OIJ). “This means that the driver left with the plants and at some point en route to the port, he stopped to load the drugs.”
To pack the drugs into the plant shipment, traffickers had to break the customs seal on the container and replace it with a replica -- a process that requires corrupt contacts from within the transport companies, the port concession, or customs officials to pass them information about container movements and seal numbers.
“They clone the seals,” said González. “When they break the originals to load the bags, it's because they have the information to replace it with another one that is the same.”
While authorities have investigated transport companies they suspect of being trafficking fronts, in most cases traffickers need only to pay off the drivers, many of whom are freelancers that the freight companies hire ad hoc to fill orders.
Containers then enter the port district, where there is a single scanner to monitor a daily flow of thousands of containers, which is operated not by police or customs but by employees of the port concession holder, APM Terminals.
In the case of the five tons, this critical stage passed without a hitch for the traffickers, and the container was waved through without scanning. It was only the expertise of the PCD agents that then prevented it from shipping out.
"In this case, it was a result of profiling,” said Gonzalez. The type of shipment and movements of the containers raised alerts with the PCD officials, who then inspected the exterior of the container.
The agents noticed an irregularity on the customs seal that was enough to persuade them to send the shipment back to the scanner. The x-ray image then produced left no room for doubt: 202 dark blobs that had no reason to be in a shipment of plants.
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The most pressing question now facing Costa Rican authorities is not how the five tons were trafficked, but who was trafficking them. Investigations are ongoing, but one thing is certain -- this was a sophisticated network trusted by Colombian traffickers to handle enormous quantities of product.
Costa Rica’s first trafficking networks arose three decades ago, when drug routes to the United States shifted from the Caribbean to Central America and Mexico. Their main task was to refuel drug boats making their way north from Colombia. Cocaine shipments soon began landing in Costa Rica itself, with local networks tasked with receiving, storing and organizing their transport north by land, sea or air.
Today, there are numerous trafficking cells dedicated to these same tasks. In the Pacific, security sources describe how experienced smuggling networks are charged with receiving shipments at sea, bringing them ashore and then delivering them to the warehouses, ranches and houses around the country that are used as stash sites. In the Atlantic region, criminal bands maintain docks, safe houses and vehicles used to receive, store and move both cocaine and marijuana imported for the national market.
“These networks are very organized, they have been acquiring properties near to the rivers and close to the coast, which facilitates the entry of the boats that bring the drugs,” said Manuel Jiménez, a prosecutor in Limón.
The task of organizing shipments then falls to different networks, which maintain the corrupt contacts and logistical capacity to contaminate containers.
“This requires different logistics because you need people with more specialized knowledge in issues of exports, customs, freight and shipping companies and even people within the port to gain access to information about which container is heading to which destination,” said Jiménez.
Should traffickers also require armed services, such as security for shipments or murder or kidnapping to collect on debts or settle scores, they can turn to local gangs whose core business is controlling national drug markets.
“These bands are closely connected to the issue of assassinations, which are usually related to problems with rival bands over the local drug market, but also for international clients,” Jiménez added.
The key evolution in recent years is who contracts and organizes these networks. In the past, this was the work of agents sent by the Colombian or Mexican owners of the shipments. However, while this is still sometimes the case, a growing percentage of shipments are handled by Costa Rican cocaine brokers.
For exports to Europe, these trafficking coordinators act as the point of contact with the Colombian owners of the shipments. They use their contacts and infrastructure to piece together a supply chain from entry to export in Costa Rica, contracting different cells to receive, store, transport and export the drugs.
Investigators that spoke to InSight Crime describe how these brokers maintain a low profile, moving freely within the legal world behind a façade of being businessmen or even lawyers.
“Today, the drug traffickers are not guys with two machine guns, four gold chains and a fancy car. The profile is different now -- they are businessmen with front companies,” said Jimenez.
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While Costa Rican authorities have taken down numerous mid-level gangs and transport networks, these more important figures have so far been untouchable.
“Local capos have fallen, little narcos that dominate certain territories and sometimes fight over them, who also might provide services for much bigger organizations,” said Mauricio Boraschi, a former national head of intelligence services and anti-drugs commissioner, who now works as a prosecutor in San José. “But if you ask me if any actual capos have fallen, then the answer is no.”
This failure to reach the top levels of the cocaine trade could prove costly, as it suggests Costa Rican drug trafficking is evolving more rapidly than the state’s response.
“What we see today is a weakening of the Costa Rican state in the face of these structures, and an advance in drug trafficking networks,” said Boraschi.
Whichever network lost the five-ton shipment will now likely be paying a high price. But with cocaine supply in Colombia and demand in Europe both booming, it is likely to make little difference to Costa Rica’s newfound place in the big leagues of transatlantic cocaine exporters.
“In Costa Rica, we are facing a tsunami of cocaine, and it is drowning us,” concluded Boraschi.