Costa Rica’s national parks are being used by drug traffickers to move cocaine, a trend seen across the region, where protected nature reserves are increasingly used to smuggle drug shipments and grow illicit crops.
One of Costa Rica’s largest drug seizures so far this year involved a ton of cocaine found on the beaches of the Palo Seco national park last January. As Costa Rican newspaper La Nacion reported at the time, the Pacific Coast beach is only accessible by boat and is surrounded by mangrove swamps, making it a convenient place for drug traffickers to stash their product. The drugs were buried in the sand in 27 sacks and would have been worth an approximate $100 million in the US.
As a recent report by Reuters points out, drug traffickers moving cocaine along the Central American coast have found convenient rest and recuperation spots in Costa Rica’s national parks:
"Drug traffickers come in, make new pathways into the park for their trucks and set up their camps, waiting for drug shipments to come in by boat," said Carlos Martinez, head of police in Quepos, a town near Costa Rica's most popular park Manuel Antonio, 80 miles (130 km) from the capital of San Jose.
"We've found gasoline containers, remains of water and food supplies and canvas used to cover up the drugs. They've even made themselves some benches to sit down and chat," he told Reuters.
Costa Rica has 28 parks, accounting for about a quarter of the country’s total territory.
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It is unsurprising that drug traffickers should find Costa Rica’s nature reserves to be a convenient stopover point while moving cocaine northwards. Remote, unpopulated, and difficult for law enforcement to access, the parks are natural refuge areas.
Cocaine is increasingly moved along Central America’s coasts in short trips with multiple stopover points, rather than trafficked during long journeys that cover huge amounts of ground. This makes it harder for authorities to keep track of the smugglers’ movements. Yet it also means that the smugglers need to find safe stopover points where they can refuel and not worry about arousing suspicions from the local community, if they don’t already have collaborators there. Unpopulated nature reserves like Costa Rica’s Palo Seco offer a low-risk way for smugglers to break up their journey.
Across Latin America, natural parks are also being increasingly used to grow illicit crops. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC) most recent coca cultivation survey for Colombia, coca is grown in 17 of Colombia’s 56 national parks. Even while coca production in national parks decreased overall in Colombia between 2010 and 2011, some parks saw marked increases, including an Amazonian park, La Paya, which saw coca cultivations go up by 61 percent.
There is also evidence that illicit amounts of coca are being increasingly cultivated in Bolivia’s national parks, especially the Isiboro Secure National Park, an area of 1.3 million hectares just over 50 kilometers from Cochabamba. President Evo Morales recently announced the creation of manual eradication units that would focus on containing illicit coca growth in the Bolivia’s national parks.
There is also some evidence that Mexican gangs have used national parks in the US to grow marijuana, according to findings by the George Wright Society, a conservation non-profit. In 2011, rangers removed over 26,000 marjuana plants from the Whiskeytown national park in California, and six people were arrested who were believed to be linked to a Mexican drug trafficking ring, according to a 2011 report by the Society. Marijuana cultivations have also been found in national parks across California, including Yosemite.
In some ways, the fact that more criminal organizations are using nature reserves to either move drug shipments or grow illicit crops is one sign that it has become too difficult to concentrate such activities in non-protected areas. The fact that human and drug smuggling routes along the US-Mexico border have appeared in parks like Texas' Big Bend could be interpreted as one sign that routes in less remote areas have become too risky to use.