The recent bust of a cocaine trafficking ring in Costa Rica highlights how smaller, independent operators are moving into the transnational drug trade, as the Central American country remains an important transit hub for cocaine moving northwards.
On February 11, Costa Rican anti-drug police arrested eight members of a drug trafficking and money laundering ring, reported La Nacion. Seven of those detained were Costa Rican nationals and the eighth was a Nicaraguan citizen, reported AFP. The group's leader -- a semi-truck driver whose last name is Fonseca Vega -- was among those arrested.
Investigations revealed that the group received cocaine shipments from Panama and Colombia, hid the drugs in special compartments built into semi-trucks, and transported them to Honduras and Guatemala. The vehicles then returned to Costa Rica carrying cash.
During the course of the investigation, which began in August 2013, police seized 767 kilos of cocaine and $440,000 in cash. Seven other members of the organization, including six drivers and one individual who helped move the cash shipments, were arrested in previous operations.
InSight Crime Analysis
This bust highlights how small-scale, independent drug trafficking organizations have increased space to operate in Central America. As many of the big drug cartels have been weakened by law enforcement operations and internal conflict, more opportunities are opening up for smaller groups to participate in the transnational drug trade. This is a phenomenon that has been seen in Mexico, where the larger cartels have splintered and smaller groups now control some aspects of drug production and transport. Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala are also home to independent transport groups -- known as "transportistas" -- who do not appear to be allied to one particular drug cartel.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Costa Rica
These recent arrests in Costa Rica are also indicative of growing local involvement in the drug trade as the country's importance as a cocaine transit nation increases. Between 2006 and 2010, the number of local drug trafficking groups dismantled by Costa Rican authorities increased from 47 to 104, and in 2013 authorities detained members of what was reportedly the country's first transnational drug trafficking organization. Last year, Costa Rica seized around 4.1 tons of cocaine in three separate operations -- the largest haul in the country's history -- on Costa Rican fishing boats.