As drug gangs like the Sinaloa Cartel continue to penetrate Central America, even state institutions in relatively peaceful Costa Rica are increasingly infiltrated by organized crime.
On March 29, Costa Rican authorities arrested the head of a drug enforcement police outfit which was stationed in San Jose’s Juan Santamaria International Airport, the main international airport in the country. According to the Interior Ministry, the suspect accepted money from drug traffickers in exchange for allowing so-called “drug mules” to pass through airport security.
The Security Ministry has claimed that 27 police were arrested last year for criminal behavior, although it is unclear how many of these detainees had connections to drug trafficking. Police are not the only authorities to be arrested for collusion with drug trafficking networks in Costa Rica; drug cartels have also been able to penetrate relatively high levels of government. In February for instance, Walter Valverde Fernandez, an official in the anti-drug trafficking prosecutor’s office, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for passing on sensitive information to a Mexican drug trafficking network.
Cases like these have set off alarm bells in Costa Rica, which has long enjoyed a reputation as an outlier for its strong democratic institutions compared to other countries in Central America. With drug trafficking organizations increasingly basing their operations in the region, however, this may be set to change.
Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla acknowledged this threat during an interview earlier this year, claiming the country’s government has never faced such a serious threat. “This has to do with the institutions, and what [drug cartels] do is corrupt institutions to disrupt the legal system and the rule of law,” Chinchilla said. “I don’t remember in our whole history a menace like this from organized crime.”
Much of this threat has to do with changes to the nature of the drug trade in Costa Rica. In 2010 the head of the country’s Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) claimed that the country has evolved from being a midway point for drug trafficking organizations bringing their product north to serving as a “drug center” for international cartels. This was illustrated in February by the seizure of two tons of cocaine off the country’s Pacific Coast, the largest drug seizure that Costa Rican authorities had made in six years.The massive size of the interdiction indicates that the criminals were confident they would not be intercepted, and suggests they may have successfully moved such large shipments in the past.
Although little is known about the criminal landscape in Costa Rica, it is believed that the vast majority of international drug trafficking activity there is directed by the powerful Sinaloa Cartel. Several of the group's operatives have been arrested in Costa Rica in recent years. Drug Enforcement Administration officer Phillip Springer told the AFP in December 2010 that the agency believed the Sinaloans dominated Costa Rica, and have been stepping up their operations in the country. "For the last year and a half to two years, most of the drugs [in Costa Rica] belonged to the Sinaloans," Springer said.
He added that in 2008 the group started a command cell in the country, devoted to working with Colombian traffickers to try to turn Costa Rica into a major stopping point for drugs headed northward. This is a major concern for Costa Rican authorities, as the cartel has shown an alarming capacity to corrupt the highest levels of government in Mexico.
Drug trafficking organizations have already proved themselves capable of buying the loyalty of justice officials and police officers in Costa Rica. Given the buying power of groups like the Sinaloa Cartel, President Chinchilla is right to be concerned that even more authorities may be willing to sell out.