Central American countries seized a record amount of drugs last year, underscoring how the region has become one of the top suppliers of cocaine not only to the United States but Europe.
Of the nearly 248 tons of drugs seized in 2021, some 200 were cocaine and the rest marijuana, according to government figures collected by newswire Agence France-Press (AFP). The total was an increase of nearly 70 tons from the 180 tons taken in 2020.
Panama and Costa Rica accounted for about 80 percent of the drug haul in Central America. Panama seized some 128 tons, an increase of nearly 40 tons from the previous high set in 2019.
Costa Rica seized 71 tons of cocaine, a tick below its 2020 high.
The massive cocaine hauls came amid an increase in seizures of drugs concealed in containers on ships headed for Europe, according to AFP. Their destinations included ports in Spain, France, Croatia, the Netherlands, Italy and Belgium.
Panama’s top anti-narcotics prosecutor, Marta Barrios, told AFP that the rise in seizures on container ships is “due to the ease they present for shipments to countries on other continents.”
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Central America has served as a drug corridor for South American traffickers moving cocaine to the United States since the 1970s. But massive ports in both Panama and Costa Rica have made these two countries even more attractive to traffickers looking to feed the cocaine pipeline to Europe.
A glut of cocaine has been flowing from Colombia thanks to the easing of COVID-19 restrictions and record-high production. Traffickers, in turn, have been exploiting Panama and Costa Rica’s proximity to the Andean nation, Costa Rica Security Minister Michael Soto told newspaper La Nación.
Most of the cocaine moved to these countries arrives via maritime routes along the Pacific and Caribbean coasts, according to the latest World Drug Report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Much of it is smuggled in go-fast boats and drug-submarines.
Container trafficking, meanwhile, has become the preferred method for moving drugs to Europe. While Panama is known for its massive port, Costa Rica also has built up its port system, which caters extensively to Europe. A common export is fruit, which has become a favored cargo for smuggling drugs to Europe, since it must be moved quickly to avoid spoiling.
These Central American ports have also been shown to be vulnerable to corruption, both of security officials and port workers.
In Panama, more than 50 people, including police, were recently arrested on charges that they received, stored and stashed massive amounts of cocaine for the powerful Colombian trafficking group the Urabeños, also known as the Gulf Clan (Clan del Golfo). In Costa Rica, meanwhile, drug gangs have become adept at storing and loading cocaine into cargo ships docked at its Caribbean ports.