A new law in Costa Rica that seeks to make it easier for authorities to search for and destroy illegal runways could help to crack down on increasing drug flights, but reducing the now-constant flow of drugs could prove to be a larger challenge.
On September 21, Costa Rica's President Carlos Alvarado signed Law Number 9902, allowing armed forces to enter private property to search for, destroy and disable unauthorized airstrips.
According to the document, air surveillance will be able to carry out "ongoing reconnaissance" around the country to track runways. When a landing strip is found, landowners will be notified and given a chance to present legal documents, or the runway will be destroyed.
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Congresswoman Zoila Volio Pacheco, who proposed the law, described the law as “a step forward against organized crime” and “an operative instrument to prevent the flow of (drugs) into our country,” El Mundo reported.
Prior to this law, authorities did not have legal permission to access privately owned areas believed to contain landing strips used to land drug planes. In September 2019, Security Minister Michael Soto said the government was aware of 105 illegal runways which could not be destroyed. By March 2020, that number had grown to 141.
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Costa Rica is moving to try and prevent drug shipments landing by plane, a practice that is growing ever more common across Central America and that it previously had little ability to contain.
Until 2016, the Central American country only had one radar at the Juan Santamaría international airport in the capital, San José. It detected commercial flights. Additionally, the lack of ability to interfere on private property had left authorities in a legal vacuum as the region saw drug flights soar, Soto told CRHoy in August 2019.
However, most drugs still appear to be moving through Costa Rica by land and by sea. In May 2020, the Ministry of Public Security reported record amounts of drugs having been seized, with 19 tons found between January and March. This was compared to 35 tons of drugs having been seized in all of 2019.
Of the three largest hauls reported at the time, none came by air. In February, a five-ton haul of cocaine, the country's biggest ever in a single raid, was found at the port of Limón. In March, a boat was caught with three tons on board, also in the waters of Limón. And also in March, security forces seized two tons of cocaine in a vehicle in the town of Moín.
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, Costa Rica had been stepping up patrols along its Pacific waters, with seizures up accordingly.
But containing the building of illicit runways has been a rising challenge across Central America this year. By mid-September, 30 illegal landing strips had been destroyed in Honduras while Guatemala reported at least 15 more.
And in a recently published investigation about timber trafficking, InSight Crime reported how drug traffickers teamed up with loggers in Honduras to clear forest cover to build runways and then sell off the illegally sourced timber.