Cartels take cover in Costa Rica

With military crackdowns elsewhere, drug smugglers shift operations to the Central American country's vast national parks

Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica

The lush national parks of Costa Rica, with their rainforests, white beaches and thermal springs, have long attracted tourists from around the globe. Recently, they have lured more unsavoury visitors in the form of drug traffickers.

Organised crime cartels have turned to Costa Rica's treasured nature reserves as governments wage military offensives against the gangs throughout Mexico and Central America. In the mangrove swamps and jungles, the traffickers have found a vast, sparsely populated and thinly policed paradise that they can use as a haven on their way to smuggle Colombian cocaine to the United States. They also increasingly grow marijuana amid the cedar and lemonwood trees.

Costa Rica prides itself on not having a standing army, but the incursion has put lightly armed park rangers into the front line of the drugs war as they struggle to prevent hikers and swimmers bumping into any rude surprises. In January, the Coast Guard was called in for an unprecedented seizure of almost a ton of cocaine – worth $100m (£64m) on US streets – found in swampy mud in the Palo Seco park. In total, Costa Rican authorities seized more than 6.6 tons of cocaine in the first half of this year, in and out of parks, compared with less than three tons in the same period last year. In all of 2011, 8.9 tons of cocaine were seized.

Park rangers have also uncovered dozens of gangster encampments, complete with food supplies. "Drug traffickers come in, make pathways for their trucks and set up their camps, waiting for drug shipments to come in by boat," said Carlos Martinez, head of police in Quepos, a town near Costa Rica's most popular park, Manuel Antonio, 80 miles from the capital of San José.

Drug cartel expansion into Costa Rican parks is seen as part of a "balloon" effect of the narcotics trade, which has been targeted by military offensives in Mexico, Colombia, Honduras and Guatemala. Costa Rica's anti-drug tsar, Mauricio Boraschi, said: "You squeeze the balloon in the south, then you squeeze it at the top and what you get is pressure in the centre, so... the cartels' operations are extending to Central America." Police say the smuggling is carried out mainly by Mexican cartels.

Traffickers bring large amounts of cocaine out of Colombia's Pacific port of Buenaventura from where they can sail straight into parks such as Manuel Antonio, which has large stretches of Pacific beach, Boraschi said. They can then continue north on the Pan-American Highway, or organise further trips up the coast.

Costa Rica abolished its army in 1948, so is unable to pursue a Mexican or Colombian-style military crackdown. However, the government has strengthened co-operation with the US navy in hitting traffickers in the South Pacific. It also recently levied a tax on businesses to raise $70m for anti-drug efforts, including special police units.

The cartels have not attacked park rangers but there is increasing concern about the safety of travelling to distant corners of the reserves. "[Rangers'] duties used to be mainly conservation, environmental education and looking after park visitors," said Rafael Gutierrez, at the National Conservation Areas System. "Now their job has changed."

Costa Rica's 28 parks cover a quarter of the national territory, so there are almost endless marshes, mountains and jungles where traffickers can hide. To pull out the ton of cocaine in Palo Seco in January, officers spent an entire day fighting through mangrove swamp water up to their necks.

Costa Rica is particularly keen to control the gang's incursions as the parks are a major draw for tourists, with some 300,000 visitors a year. Tourism generates $2.1bn annually, roughly 5 per cent of gross domestic product. Police chief Martinez agreed that tourists were highly unlikely to bump into cocaine smugglers, but said they were keeping an extra eye out: "We're always looking for the adventurous surfer who could get lost looking around for the perfect wave."

Sport
Mourinho lost his temper as well as the match
sportLiverpool handed title boost as Sunderland smash manager’s 77-game home league run
Voices
Sweet tweet: Victoria Beckham’s selfie, taken on her 40th birthday on Thursday
voices... and her career-long attack on the absurd criteria by which we define our 'betters', by Ellen E Jones
Arts & Entertainment
Billie Jean King, who won the women’s Wimbledon title in 1967, when the first colour pictures were broadcast
tv
News
Snow has no plans to step back or reduce his workload
mediaIt's 25 years since Jon Snow first presented Channel 4 News, and his drive shows no sign of diminishing
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Life & Style
food + drinkWhat’s not to like?
Voices
Clock off: France has had a 35‑hour working week since 1999
voicesThere's no truth to a law banning work emails after 6pm, but that didn’t stop media hysteria
Arts & Entertainment
Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones now
tvMajor roles that grow with their child actors are helping them to steal the show on TV
Life & Style
Lana Del Rey, Alexa Chung and Cara Delevingne each carry their signature bag
fashionMulberry's decision to go for the super-rich backfired dramatically
Arts & Entertainment
Kingdom Tower
architecture
Life & Style
Sampling wine in Turin
food + drink...and abstaining may be worse than drinking too much, says scientist
Arts & Entertainment
Game of Thrones writer George R.R. Martin has been working on the novels since the mid-Nineties
books
News
Easter a dangerous time for dogs
these are the new ones. Old ones are below them... news
News
Brand said he
people
Voices
Actor Zac Efron
voicesTopless men? It's as bad as Page 3, says Howard Jacobson
Sport
Roger Federer celebrates his victory over Novak Djokovic in the Monte Carlo Masters
sport
Arts & Entertainment
The monster rears its head as it roars into the sky
film
Voices
For the Love of God (2007) The diamond-encrusted skull that divided the art world failed to sell for
its $100m asking price. It was eventually bought by a consortium
which included the artist himself.
voicesYou can shove it, Mr Webb – I'll be having fun until the day I die, says Janet Street-Porter
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit