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
Club legend Paul Scholes is scared United could disappear into 'the wilderness'
football
News
A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
science
News
Dawkins: 'There’s a very interesting reason why a prince could not turn into a frog – it's statistically too improbable'
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
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 apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

EYFS Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education require an ex...

Year 3 Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Year 3 primary supply teacher ne...

SEN Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: Supply special educational ne...

Regional ESF Contract Manager

£32500 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Birmingham: European Social Fund...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home