Costa Rica latest stop for Mexican drug gangs

Monday, December 14, 2009

Mexican drug gangs are increasingly using Costa Rica as a pick-up point for South American cocaine headed north and the problem is likely to get worse, President Oscar Arias said on Monday.

Costa Rican police have seized close to 93 tonnes of cocaine between 2006 and 2009, nearly twice the amount the Central American country captured in the previous decade, according to Interior Ministry data.

"We are punished by our geography," Arias said, citing the growing trafficking activity as a major public security issue.

"I believe the United States has to make a much bigger effort to spend more in cutting down on (cocaine) consumption," he told a news conference.

Costa Rica sits halfway between the cocaine-producing Andes and Mexico, whose powerful cartels earn some $40 billion a year smuggling the drug to the United States and other developed countries.

Traffickers traditionally moved cocaine through Central America by plane or boat. They now are well implanted in Guatemala and also are using storage bases in Costa Rica, a nation long known as a haven of stability in a region blighted by street gangs and poverty.

"They're storing it here," said Public Security Minister Janina del Vecchio. "Now, they don't even have intermediaries but instead have Colombians here who leave the drug and the Mexican (cartels) pick it up."

Mexico is in the grip of a brutal escalation in drug gang violence that has killed more than 16,000 people since President Felipe Calderon launched an army-led drug war at the end of 2006.

The crackdown is one of the reasons driving traffickers into Central America as they haul in cocaine from Colombia and rival producers such as Peru and Bolivia.

Costa Rica's economy depends heavily on tourism dollars from visitors drawn to its virgin forests and surfing beaches.