Authorities have taken down the boss of the Moreco gang -- a uniquely powerful Costa Rica-based drug trafficking group with apparent ties to Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel.
José Efraín López Mendoza, alias "M-1," was arrested on August 13 while traveling in a vehicle on a San Jose highway, La Nación reported. Authorities say Mendoza, who died his hair blonde and grew a beard to disguise himself from police, was the leader of the Revolutionary Movement of Organized Crime (Movimiento Revolucionario de Crimen Organizado -- Moreco), a Costa Rican trafficking group formed in 2015.
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Mendoza’s arrest comes four months after he managed to elude capture during several nationwide raids targeting his organization.
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had Mendoza on their most wanted lists after he was accused of trafficking more than two tons of cocaine to the United States. Los Moreco used its connections to groups in Colombia to import cocaine before then shipping it out to Guatemala, Mexico and the United States.
Costa Rican authorities say Mendoza was in direct contact with Mexican kingpin Ismael Zambada García, alias “El Mayo,” who has served as the head of the Sinaloa Cartel following the arrest and later conviction of Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias "El Chapo."
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Authorities may have dismantled Los Moreco with Mendoza’s arrest, but the group represents a new type of threat for Costa Rica.
The Central American nation has long served as a transit point for drugs trafficked to North America, with local organizations playing a supporting role in their movement. Los Moreco functioned differently, carrying out sophisticated and independent smuggling operations, while its leader also maintained ties with one of Mexico’s most powerful criminal organizations.
Los Moreco’s ascendance likely stems from the fact that homegrown criminal groups in Costa Rica have for years sought to cement their role in the drug trade, partly by learning from Mexico’s cartels. Former Attorney General Jorge Chavarría referred to this as the “Mexicanization” of Costa Rican criminal groups.
In 2015, for example, Costa Rican hitmen traveled to Mexico to train with cartel assassins. Costa Rican groups also adopted the brutal methods of Mexican cartels, leading to an uptick in violence in 2017 and 2018, Chavarría said.
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In fact, Mendoza was so committed to having Los Moreco emulate Mexico’s cartels that he fashioned the group after the murderous Zetas, using the same naming pattern as the group. Walter Espinoza, director of the Costa Rica’s Judicial Investigation Agency (Organismo de Investigación Judicial – OIJ) , described Los Moreco as being a "professional and structured" group, with an "ideology and a lot of internal cohesion."
The group even had its own motto: “honor, pride and loyalty," he said.
Los Moreco isn't the first group in Costa Rica to have ties to the Sinaloa Cartel. In 2016, authorities took down a drug trafficking network that imported cocaine from Ecuador and Colombia before shipping it to Mexico. The group had a smuggling system that included clandestine warehouses, docks, safe houses and airstrips.
With the continued fragmentation of Mexico’s dominant criminal organizations, groups like Los Moreco have more space to maneuver, allowing them to serve not just as facilitators but also partner organizations.