Costa Rica is a country in Central America with a population of about 5 million people. While Costa Rica is one of the region’s safest, happiest, and most stable nations, Costa Rica is also a major conduit through which drug traffickers transport cocaine from Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru to illegal markets in the United States and Europe.
On February 14, the Costa Rican Drug Control Police (PCD) searched a shipping container in Puerto Moín, a seaport near the city of Limón. According to the Ministry of Public Security, which oversees the PCD, law enforcement agents discovered 5,048 kg (about 5.5 tons) of cocaine stored in 202 suitcases inside the shipping container. All together, the cocaine was worth at least $300 million. With respect to the size and value of the cocaine haul, the operation on February 14 was the largest drug bust in Costa Rican history. The PCD agents required an entire day to un-package and process the cocaine stash.
The shipping container in which the PCD found the cocaine was labeled as containing ornamental flowers. The destination for the container was the Dutch city of Rotterdam, one of Europe’s largest ports. Before the ship carrying the container left Costa Rica, PCD agents identified the vessel as suspicious and decided to search the cargo onboard. The police arrested the ship’s conductor, a 46-year-old Costa Rican man with no recorded criminal history.
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Michael Soto Rojas, Costa Rica’s Minister of Public Security, praised the PCD agents who discovered the cocaine and promised the government will remain committed to fighting drug trafficking. However, he signaled caution about his country’s abilities to effectively handle the problem. “On this occasion, thank God, we had a positive result, but I must say that in the past, and probably in the future, we might not be able to detect cocaine in these huge containers which move through the Port of Moín, at APM Terminals, in this case,” he said.
Costa Rica does not have a military, so the government sometimes struggles to prevent cartels from transporting drugs through the country, even with millions of dollars in security assistance from the United States. Gustavo Mata Vega, who led the PCD from 2015 to 2018, has called drug trafficking in Costa Rica a “tsunami” and a “constant bombardment.” Cartels “exploit air space and land and sea borders,” he stated in 2017, so that “when police find one shipment, three or four more enter.”
From 2010 to 2015, Costa Rican police confiscated over 100,000 kg of cocaine. The Public Security Ministry estimates that law enforcement only detects an average of 200 kg of cocaine per every 1,000 kg in transit from Colombia to Central America. The largest cocaine shipments consistently arrive in Costa Rica by sea, but they often leave the country by air. Cocaine shipments from Costa Rica containing hundreds of kilograms of the illegal drug have been found in airports all throughout the world. Lucrative “transportation services” have even emerged in Costa Rica as businesses to facilitate cocaine sales to foreign customers.
Additionally, some of the cocaine which traffickers bring into Costa Rica remains in the country for the domestic market. It is illegal in Costa Rica to use, possess, buy, or sell the dangerous and addictive substance.
Nathan Yerby is a writer and researcher. He is a graduate of the University of Central Florida.
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