At daybreak on January 1, gunfire from a machine gun mounted on a car struck five men outside a church in Cieneguita, a small town on the outskirts of Puerto Limón, Costa Rica. Three of them died and two were seriously wounded.
The act of violence, which rang in 2020, has become all too common in Limón.
In the first two months of the year, the province of Limón saw 29 homicides, according to the Judicial Investigation Agency (Organismo de Investigación Judicial - OIJ). Sixteen of these happened in the city of Puerto Limón and at least 14 were linked to a settling of scores between criminal gangs.
"In my 25 years as a police officer, this is the greatest challenge that I have faced," Álvaro González, the OIJ chief in Limón, told InSight Crime.
The Evolution of Drug Trafficking
Limón is Costa Rica’s most important port, located in a seemingly perfect location. Sitting on the Caribbean Sea, it is connected to the Tortuguero Channels, a series of waterways winding their way through the Barra del Colorado Wildlife Refuge to Costa Rican border with Nicaragua. Interviews carried out by InSight Crime with local officials revealed that these channels are used extensively to move drug shipments. This has contributed to making Limón an important departure point for cocaine headed to Europe and other international markets.
People seem to strike it rich quickly in Limón. Driving down the road to the nearby town of Moín, mansions -- complete with impenetrable metal gates and extravagant architecture -- stood out next to small wood and cement homes that are typical of the region.
According to a Costa Rican journalist who asked to remain anonymous, this transformation began about 30 years ago when Costa Rica became a transit point for South American cocaine bound for the United States. Though local criminal gangs do not have the power or finances of their Colombian or Northern Triangle counterparts, they receive shipments of cocaine along the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts, store them in warehouses or farms, let the shipments "cool" for a while, and then export them through the port of Limón, the journalist said.
While they receive and handle South American cocaine shipments, drug trafficking networks in Limón import marijuana in bulk from Jamaica and Colombia.
"The Caribbean route has largely been supplied with marijuana from Jamaica, which is of higher quality with high percentages of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive element of cannabis," Carlos Alvarado Valverde, the former director of the Costa Rican Drugs Institute (Instituto Costarricense sobre Drogas - ICD), told InSight Crime.
He added, however, that "in recent years, imports of the drug from Jamaica have fallen sharply." Valverde stated this was reportedly due to two factors: maritime routes from Jamaica being severely affected by groups who steal drug shipments and an abundance of marijuana being exported from Colombia to Costa Rica along the Pacific and Caribbean routes.
InSight Crime requested clarification from local officials and port authorities on what impact the coronavirus quarantine across the region on drug trafficking through the port and in the area but no response was received as of publication time.
The Criminal Actors
A confluence of local and transnational drug trafficking has opened Costa Rica to a range of criminal actors, from small gangs to influential smuggling organizations.
Officials in Limón told InSight Crime that criminal gangs own properties along the waterways, where motorboats arrive loaded with marijuana or cocaine. These properties often include garages that serve as small hideouts. And while authorities have confiscated many of these properties and several ringleaders are behind bars or dead, the flow of drugs does not seem to have been affected.
"While the bosses change, business is always going to continue," Manuel Jiménez, a prosecutor in Limón, told InSight Crime.
The larger drug trafficking groups provide drugs to gangs that control local sales and are responsible for the high levels of violence in Limón. They provide services like contract killings, charging as little as 50,000 colones (around $80) per head, according to González.
And behind these groups are even more powerful actors, with legal businesses to hide behind and the financial clout to bribe authorities at all levels. The most well-known example in Limón is Gilbert Bell, also known as Macho Coca.
Bell was investigated in 2015 by Costa Rica's prosecutor for organized crime (Fiscalía Adjunta contra la Delincuencia Organizada - FACDO) for suspected links to an international drug trafficking and money laundering organization. Additionally, police and intelligence sources interviewed by InSight Crime said that the huge pier built by Bell in Portete, which is capable of welcoming huge fishing boats, served as a launching pad for drug smuggling boats. Today, this pier is in the hands of authorities.
The Perfect Breeding Ground for Organized Crime
A number of conditions have made Limón a breeding ground for organized crime.
According to State of the Nation (Programa Estado de la Nación), an organization that tracks development in Costa Rica, Limón has among the highest unemployment and poverty rates in the country. This is backed up by Costa Rica's latest census data, which states that Limón had an unemployment rate of 12.1 percent and that 47 percent of the population is involved in the informal labor market.
It was hoped that a new port, operated by the APM Terminals port complex in Moín, would boost employment opportunities in the region. But since the port’s inauguration in February 2019, unemployment has continued to rise in Limón. According to Semanario Universidad, the APM port actually resulted in around 1,000 jobs being lost by August 2019.
Additionally, officials told InSight Crime that organized crime has benefited from deeply rooted corruption, which largely goes unpunished.
"In exchange for financing election campaigns of mayors, drug traffickers are offered security, protection, information, territorial control," Mauricio Boraschi, the former chief of Costa Rica's national intelligence service and anti-drugs commission, told InSight Crime.
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Limón Mayor Néstor Mattis was arrested in December 2019 on charges including misappropriation of public funds and embezzlement. But he was only held for a matter of hours after a judge freed him due to irregularities in the arresting procedure. Two months later, he was re-elected. According to the publication Diario Extra, Mattis has reportedly been connected to the construction of Macho Coca’s Portete pier. Mattis has firmly denied all accusations against him.
There is little to suggest the situation in Limón will change anytime soon. Organized crime continues to be a growing economic engine, as shown by the largest single seizure of cocaine in Costa Rica's history being made there in February 2020.