Costa Rica is “the happiest country in the world.” It is also called the “Switzerland of Central America.” Since the fall of the big Colombian cartels, the Mexican groups — until then mere recipients — have expanded through the territory and now control the local criminal groups. One of the only countries on the continent without an army, it has become an operating room and key point in the drug corridor. Now, say authorities, it is a Mexican colony.
“I want to make a movie,” he tells us.
“And what will it be about?”
“Drug trafficking, what else?” answers the prisoner.
His name is Ruben Martinez and he is from Chiapas. He is 52 years old and has been sentenced to 20 years in prison for drug trafficking. As if he wants to back up his statement, he motions at the pen in his shirt lapel. “It’s to write the script,” the man with thick, dark eyebrows, dark skin and blue eyes explains with absolute seriousness.
He arrived in Costa Rica a couple of years ago and bought a hangar to export merchandise, but he says his objective now is to warn the children of Chiapas about the dangers of drugs. That’s why he wants to use the big screen to show how illicit markets have always been in Mexico: in the time of cattle trafficking, during the Zapatista revolution…
During the first twenty minutes of the interview, he takes a break in relaying the plot to recall the decades he spent flying over Mexico, first in the south and then in the north.
“I flew planes a few times belonging to [the Sinaloa Cartel’s] Mayo Zambada, but as far as I know, I only transported passengers, never drugs,” he assures us.
The pilot is hurriedly drinking his second cup of coffee, with little sugar because he is a diabetic. We talk in the waiting room of the maximum security prison bloc of the Reforma Prison, 30 minutes from San Jose, Costa Rica. We are seated around a plastic table on which one of his lawyers, Gilberto Villalobos, has placed a thermos, cookies, some fruit and a file with hundreds of pages. Next to us, a Colombian man and his girlfriend eat lunch out of Tupperware. We are the only ones in this small 5 x 3 meter patio surrounded by barbed wire. Once in a while, two guards eyeball the tables.
“You want to know about drug trafficking?” asks the Colombian seated next to us, a stocky 30-something with a shaved head.
He tells us with a half smile that he worked for years in Panama and Costa Rica as a go-between for the Colombian cartels. He supervised the deliveries until the cocaine made it into Mexican hands. What he says, in reality, is a clear example of Costa Rica as a meeting point for the two most important mafias on the continent: the Colombians and the Mexicans.
While his neighbor speaks, Martinez takes notes on a small piece of paper. He reacts to any anecdote by opening his big eyes, and maintains long silences as though encouraging the interlocutor to continue his story. He never gets the chance to speak with anyone, apart from his three cellmates and his lawyer. His daughter lives in Chiapas, and the woman who was his girlfriend left Costa Rica some time ago. The last time he was going to meet her was on October 11, 2010, on the Nicaraguan border. The police stopped him. The day before, an airplane registered in his name had crashed with 177 kilos of cocaine hidden in the wings.
See InSight Crime’s complete coverage of organized crime in Costa Rica
In another wing of the prison, a blind, one-legged Guatemalan man is serving his sentence. Otto Monzon del Cid, 63 years old, landed in the Reforma Prison two days ago, after flying planes his whole life. It was the last thing he did before he was arrested.
On October 10, 2010, he got up as soon as he awoke and went to the Tobias Bolaños airport, 20 minutes from the capital. There, accompanied by Maximo Ramirez Cotton, one of his partners, he boarded a Piper Navajo airplane. He knew the equipment well: a quick, light double-engine, one of the stars of civil aviation in recent decades. Just one more flight for such an expert. However, after a few minutes the airplane began to tremble because of the excess weight in the wings and crashed in a riverbed. Ramirez died and Monzon lost his sight and a leg.
The following investigations pointed to Ruben Martinez. The Chiapas-born man was the president of the last three companies Monzon had worked for. The Guatemalan also pointed to him as his boss. According to the prosecutor, he was the leader “of the criminal organization.” He coordinated all the details of the operations so that the drugs would arrive at their destination. He also controlled the money.
“How did you find out the airplane had crashed?”
“On the border, when they stopped me,” responded Martinez calmly.
“No one informed you by cell phone?”
“I had it turned off that day.”
“But the airplane was your property. How did you not find out?”
Gilberto Villalobos intervenes before he can respond. He assures us that a few days earlier they had formalized the sale of the machine to a Guatemalan man.
“We assume that he does something illegal for a living,” the lawyer explains to us. “But you already know when it comes to these topics, it’s better not to ask questions for security reasons.”
“Then why were you trying to cross the border the day after the accident?”
“I was getting a few days rest in Nicaragua with my partner.”
An official stopped Martinez — who was accompanied by Elvis Mendoza, the fourth member of the organization and who is also in prison — when he tried to cross at an “unauthorized” point of the border. He had with him a briefcase with $70,000 in cash. The agent says that they offered him a “gift” as a last attempt to get him to let them go.
The authorities searched his properties. In the hangar they found various tools used to modify airplanes; in one of his houses, they found the “typical packaging” for packets of cocaine, as well as a notebook with scribblings about the shipments.
Most Costa Ricans, unlike Martinez, found out about the airplane crash on October 10. In other countries in the region, the story wouldn’t have taken up more space than a footnote, but in Costa Rica it made headlines in the newspapers’ online editions. During our visit, almost two years later, the anti-drug trafficking prosecutor’s office still considered Martinez’s case one of the most noteworthy during its relative success in the fight against organized crime.
The Switzerland of Central America — as they like to call themselves — is something else altogether: it is like a little-known neighbor who lives holed up in a house. Based in the most violent region in the world, Costa Rica has no army. While the citizens to the north cross borders with nothing more than an ID, Costa Rica demands a passport.
“If we could take off, raise the anchors, we already would have left and they would have had to visit us on Coconut Island [an idyllic Costa Rican natural park situated in the Pacific, 177 kilometers from the continent],” Mauricio Boraschi, the anti-drug czar, says ironically.
During the 1970s and 1980s — while Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua bled themselves dry fighting civil wars — Costa Rica invested in education, health, and development. Although it is not a rich country, it is the least poor. Despite a homicide rate of 9.7 per 100,000 inhabitants, higher than what the UN considers epidemic, its homicide levels are nine times lower than those of Honduras. Thousands of tourists come to the country each year to visit its volcanoes, natural parks, and beaches. In the airport, a sign welcomes guests: “Welcome to the happiest country in the world.”
However, the last Latinobarometro — a public opinion study that annually administers around 19,000 interviews in 18 Latin American countries — indicated that Costa Ricans were the Central Americans with the highest sense of insecurity. Since 2006, mutilated, burned and asphyxiated bodies have appeared, and shootouts between groups of hitmen have occurred during the middle of the day.
“I have heard Colombians laughing at Mexicans, saying they are cavemen,” says Boraschi, a thin man with a light-hearted manner.
This is how he sums up the paradigm shift that the country began to experience in 2000. After the collapse of the big Colombian cartels, there was a restructuring of the criminal organizations. Groups that had serviced the South Americans for years were left without a leader and a new lineage was born: the freelancers. The Mexican cartels gradually took control of these groups and took over the Central American corridor.
See InSight Crime’s coverage of organized crime in Mexico
The presence of Mexican drug traffickers in Costa Rica was not new. Some, like the mythical founder of the Guadalajara Cartel, Rafael Caro Quintero, had taken up residence in the country. The DEA captured him in 1985 while he was sleeping in his mansion, close to the international airport. Among his belongings was a diamond encrusted pistol.
What changed was the role of the Mexicans in the chain. Until then, explains Boraschi, they were receptive organizations: the Colombian cartels were responsible for the transportation, and with it, the risk. In the new millennium, the Mexicans took the initiative, sent their delegates to Costa Rica, assumed control of the operations, increased their presence and with that, the earnings.
A kilo of cocaine here is worth around $6,000. In Mexico it reaches $11,000, and in the United States, $50,000.
“If the Colombians had fought for the territory, who knows how many deaths we would have had,” speculates Boraschi.
In his opinion, the key factor is that the organizations that emerged after the large cartels learned from the errors of their successors and found more appealing markets: Europe and Asia. Since then, Costa Rica has become a Mexican colony.
Leonel Villalobos drinks an orange juice, looks at his cell phone constantly and greets the neighbors that pass by the cafeteria a few blocks from his house. He maintains the same friendly demeanor that prompted his meteoric rise as a politician. He is a former congressman, a former vice minister of security, a former secretary of the National Liberation Party, and a former presidential hopeful. That opportunity was lost 16 years ago when they found him with 1.5 kilos of cocaine in a house to the north of the capital.
He was with a woman with whom he planned to send more than 30 kilos of drugs to the United States. He had fallen for a trap set by the police. He was accused of working with businessman Ricardo Alem, who is in a Miami jail, with whom he ran a drug trafficking network between Colombia, Panama, and Costa Rica. He was sentenced to 12 years for drug trafficking, although he only served five days. Once he was free, he became the “lawyer of the narcos.” The majority of his clients are Costa Ricans, followed by Mexicans and then Colombians.
“When I went to jail, I had a degree in law. When I got out, I became a lawyer. I specialized in defending everyone who was a prisoner,” adds the lawyer in a dramatic voice.
He smiles while explaining that many of these prisoners have been free agents who worked at the service of Mexicans or Colombians. But now, he says, it’s mostly Mexicans who need that service. The Security Ministry says that the Sinaloa Cartel, the Familia Michoacana, and the remnants of the Gulf Cartel operate in Costa Rica.
A few months ago, Leonel Villalobos — Gilberto Villalobos’ “cousin” and partner — got a house in San Jose so that the Mexicans Ruben Martinez and Elvis Mendoza could serve their preventive detention under house arrest. Although the judge authorized the change, the government was not happy with the decision, nor was the neighborhood where the house is located. The neighbors took to the streets to protest. They alleged that “the neighborhood was in danger.”
“It is as if you live in a house and, next door, a rapist owns a house, and they tell him that he can’t live there even though he owns the house. The property rights were violated, and they did not carry out the judge’s decision,” explains Villalobos.
At his side is “Guido,” an Italian lawyer that has lived in between Costa Rica and Panama his whole life. He says that at one time he lived in the house of the singer Yuri in Mexico City, that he once saw a drug trafficker with a Ferrari in Havana and that, when we go to Colombia, we should call him because he can introduce us to a famous drug trafficker in his house, where he has offered to put us up. They both talk about their experience in the world of Costa Rican justice. They allege that the crime of drug trafficking has become “demonized” and that at the political level, as much as the judicial level, everything possible is done to close cases successfully, even if it means breaking the law.
For a time, authorities banned Villalobos from the Mexicans’ case for supposedly pressuring a police witness to testify in favor of his clients. Months later, the witness admitted confusing one Villalobos with the other Villalobos, and Leonel Villalobos was reinstated. Although he filed a complaint regarding the error, it was dismissed.
Last year Villalobos represented some Ecuadoreans, who were accused of transporting 320 kilos of cocaine. Villalobos says they were captured far from where the shipment was intercepted. The evidence, he says, was based on police wiretaps, which is legal, only if they are done by a judge in Costa Rica.
“The merchandise was never analyzed,” says the lawyer. “It was never determined whether it was actually cocaine or baking flour.”
The Ecuadoreans were sentenced.
Leonel Villalobos arrived at the trial with two white packets wrapped in plastic, which he placed upon the judge’s table. Before prosecutors, lawyers, witnesses and the accused, the former government representative began to yell in the courtroom: “I say that these are two kilos of cocaine. Can you, your Honor, prove that they are not?”
A few months ago, an unidentified helicopter passed through Costa Rican skies. With no air force, the surveillance system is unpredictable. There is no tracking system, just an alliance between neighboring countries and the United States to monitor the air space. Although the pilot was asked to land and identify himself, he never did. The helicopter made it to Nicaragua.
“We didn’t know what happened because we pass the baton to the next country when it leaves our territory,” says Carlos Alvarado, director of the Costa Rican Drug Institute (ICD), which is in charge of carrying out all drug confiscations and tracking the financial accounts of major drug traffickers.
In his office, located in a labyrinth of a building in the center of the city, Alvarado champions the peaceful fight against drug trafficking. Airplanes are not a priority because the major problem is maritime trafficking. Drugs arrive on both of the country’s coasts, and they are stored for months in apartments or isolated warehouses so they “cool down” and are more difficult to track. Costa Rica is a kind of 51,000-square kilometer warehouse. Later, the drugs are exported, most of the time by sea, while the money arrives by land.
One such case involved “Don Mario,” who has been a chauffeur for 40 years. Three months ago, a man called him about a job. It consisted of moving a trailer from Nicaragua to Costa Rica, the contents of which were unknown. The 65-year-old man offered to do the job because his son couldn’t do it that Tuesday and the pay was good. Only when he tried crossing the border and got stopped by customs officials did he realize that he would spend the rest of his life behind bars. One million dollars was hidden in his vehicle. Leonel Villalobos, his lawyer, knows Don Mario has little chance of getting out: “While they detain him, another ten trucks are crossing the border at the same time.”
From 2002 to 2011, the ICD quintupled its number of drug trafficking cases, from 100 to 500 a year, said Alvarado. This rise is also related to the Mexicans’ increased presence. After taking over the logistics, and therefore the earnings, the cartels also changed their way of paying. The money was substituted for merchandise and that is how the internal drug market started to grow.
“Central America stopped being a route that traffickers simply use [to move product],” says Security Minister Mario Zamora. “In the case of Costa Rica, the explosive increase in common crime came with the advent of crack.”
According to the latest National Survey of Drug Consumers, published in 2012, in the last 15 years the percentage of consumers rose from 0.4 percent to 1.2 percent.
When asked how they know that this is related to the Mexicans, prosecutors point to the violence. A decade ago decapitations, burning, and bodies enveloped in adhesive and asphyxiated were not part of the job. However, Costa Rica’s top drug trafficking prosecutor Walter Espinoza says that in 2010, three Costa Ricans who were investigated for their connections with Mexican organizations were burned to death. Recently, two Mexicans that were under investigation were found asphyxiated.
“We attribute this to the arrival of Mexican organizations to our territory and to internal fights between them, which could be because of trafficking, or to control the area, or as punitive actions,” Espinoza says. “Violence is their only recourse to show their strength.”
“Is it a process of colonization?” we ask.
Espinoza sits down.
“It goes from north to south, and it doesn’t stop,” he adds.
“If you are innocent, why are you in the maximum security section?” we ask the prisoner Ruben Martinez.
“Well, I don’t know. Because I’m Mexican,” he responds, before excusing himself and asking his lawyer for a black pen to continue with his movie script.
According to a study from the Ministry of Foreign Relations published last year, another 28 Mexican nationals are behind bars in Costa Rica. Authorities say they head up operations in Costa Rica, and were able to manage the new face of drug trafficking: more violent, more pragmatic, more profitable.
“Mexicans are more protective of the area, and they have different levels of greed,” Espinoza explains. “We have found that they have no interest in integrating into the social structure of our country; they come to work. And their work involves doing whatever it takes to get the profits promised by drug trafficking. On the other hand, Colombians brought their families and thought that Costa Rica was a country where they could make a living.”
In Costa Rica, the sentence for drug trafficking (8 to 20 years) is higher than the sentence for murder (12 to 18 years).
“At the political and judicial level, people think that all of our social problems are caused by drug trafficking, without realizing that everything derives from social inequality, the absence of opportunities and a consumer society,” the lawyer Leonel Villalobos says. “There are some that have done absolutely nothing, and they are sentenced. They sentenced one person for the supposed use of a telephone, and he was not even where the incident took place.”
Villalobos says the Mexicans are being condemned for their culture. The case of Ruben, his highest profile case, is being appealed. He insists Martinez sold the airplane days before it had crashed with the packages of cocaine; that the money that he had on him is registered at the notary in Mexico; and that it was legal, that his bank transfers had been approved by the international bank HSBC. Also, the lawyer says, no witness was able to place them at the airport in the days leading up to the flight; that he ordered the hangar be emptied before he flew that day and that no causal link exists that proves that the Mexicans had been drug traffickers. All of this evidence, he insists, has been thrown out by the courts.
“It’s difficult to win a drug trafficking case. Good thing that I only defend the innocent,” he says, laughing sarcastically.
With reporting from Alejandra S. Inzunza.
*This article originally ran in Domingo El Universal and was translated and reprinted with permission from the authors. See more of Pardo, Ferri, and Inzunza’s work at https://www.dromomanos.com and follow them on Twitter at @Dromomanos.