Fri | Jun 2, 2023

Drug trafficking blamed as homicides soar in Costa Rica

Published:Saturday | April 1, 2023 | 7:06 PM
Police officers run a checkpoint set up in the nightclubs and bar zone of San Jose, Costa Rica, Jan 27, 2023. According to authorities, the Central American nation has reached its highest murder rate since the Organization of Judicial Investigation office has kept records. (AP Photo/Carlos Gonzalez, File)

LIMON, Costa Rica (AP) — In this colourful Caribbean port, where cruise ship passengers are whisked to jungle adventures in Costa Rica's interior, locals try to be home by dark and police patrol with high-calibre guns in the face of soaring drug violence.

Costa Rica logged a record 657 homicides last year and Limon – with a homicide rate five times the national average -- was the epicentre.

The bloodshed in a country better known for its laid-back, “it's all good” outlook and its lack of a standing army has stirred a public outcry as the administration of President Rodrigo Chaves scrambles for answers.

Where Costa Rica had previously been just a pass-through for northbound cocaine from Colombian and Mexican cartels, authorities say it is now a warehousing and transshipment point for drugs sent to Europe by homegrown Costa Rican gangs.

In Limon, that shifting criminal dynamic has mixed with swelling ranks of young unemployed men who make up the majority of the casualties in fierce territorial battles.

Martín Arias, the deputy security minister and head of Costa Rica's Coast Guard, said Limon's violence stems from disputes over both the control of cocaine shipped to Europe and the marijuana sold locally.

In January, authorities dismantled a ring working to smuggle drugs through the container port. Cocaine has been secreted into walls of the steel containers and even packed among pineapple and yucca headed for Spain and Holland.

Foreign drug traffickers used to pay Costa Rican fishermen to bring gasoline to their smuggling boats.

At first, the fishermen and their associates didn't have the contacts to sell their cocaine abroad, so they sold it locally as crack. But once they realised how much more the cocaine was worth in Europe, they began smuggling it out of the port, he said.

Meanwhile, marijuana was arriving from Jamaica and Colombia, and gangs fought over the local market. Victims of that violence are mostly in marginalised neighbourhoods, Arias said.

Costa Rican authorities classified 421 of last year's 657 homicides as “score settling.”

Former Security Minister Gustavo Mata estimated that 80% of the killings in Costa Rica were related to the growth in drug trafficking.

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