A new criminal group in Costa Rica, Los Moreco, is causing concern as their tactics, reach and admiration for Mexico's Zetas make them a far more powerful gang than the country is used to dealing with.
Costa Rica's Judicial Investigation Agency (Organismo de Investigación Judicial - OIJ) has carried out several raids nationwide against The Revolutionary Movement of Organized Crime (Movimiento Revolucionario de Crimen Organizado - Moreco). The operation was described as a near fatal blow to the group, leading to seven arrests, the seizure of over two tons of cocaine and an array of weapons.
However, the leader of the group, José Efraín López Mendoza, known as M1, managed to escape authorities and remains at large.
He is thought to have close connections with criminal groups in the United States and is wanted by both by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). His escape also means that the group may yet be active.
Walter Espinoza, director of the OIJ, described Los Moreco as being a “professional and structured group, they have an ideology and a lot of internal cohesion," as well as a slogan: “honor, pride and loyalty.”
He added that their organization was modeled on that of Mexico's Zetas, down to each member being known by M for Moreco followed by a number, similar to the Zetas' naming pattern (Z1, Z2, etc).
The group is believed to have had ties to groups in Mexico, Colombia, Guatemala and the United States, and was responsible for moving at least 2 tons of cocaine to and from these destinations between 2018 and 2019.
InSight Crime Analysis
Amid a scenario of relative calm in Costa Rica, Los Moreco emerged as arguably one of the country's most sophisticated criminal groups in recent years.
Costa Rica had stayed away from most of the criminality and violence that has afflicted Central America, having disbanded its army since 1941.
Nonetheless, this former haven of peace has been showing cracks. Homicide rates have increased, while areas such as the Puerto de Moin, in the Limón province, have become crucial points for international drug trafficking.
The ascent of Los Moreco fits this pattern. Although only created in 2015, they quickly built up their capacity and were a reliable link along the drug trafficking chain from Colombia to Mexico and the United States.
In a recent case, they were found to be smuggling cocaine in shipments of scrap metal to Guatemala.
While the group did not have a long rap sheet, its leader does. In 2011, M1 was captured in Costa Rica in an operation against Colombian drug traffickers, whom he was helping to transport drugs through the country.
Colombian and Mexican traffickers in Costa Rica have been in the country for years, typically making alliances with small, local gangs to ensure safe passage of drug shipments.
The presence of Los Moreco seems to change things: the group is not a smaller criminal gang controlled by international structures. It remained independent, and had a presence in crucial areas of Costa Rica, controlling important drug trafficking routes through the provinces of Limón and Alajuela
The speed with which Los Moreco established themselves could mark a change in the so-called "Switzerland of Central America" where domestic criminal groups rise to become real players on the international drug scene, as its neighbors have seen.