The Other Face of Costa Rica

Tommaso Ribaudo is an Italian student of economics in Costa Rica, where he moved two years ago after living for one year in the United States. During his studies he had the opportunity of dealing with the problems he found in the beautiful nation he lives in, but sometimes things are not as we expect them to be.

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During the last decade of the XX century Costa Rica, one of the most stable and peaceful democracies in Latin America (the country has no standing army since 1948), started to become one of the most visited places in Central America, thanks to the huge tourism industry built mostly on foreign investments. Now Costa Rica attracts 2 million visitors each year, more than 50% of the local population.

Alongside the tourism boom, especially during the last years, another industry started booming: the strategic position of the port of Limón made it a crucial spot for drug cartels that need to bring their product from the producer (mainly Colombia) to the consumer (mostly the US and Europe). It’s estimated that 17.5 tons of cocaine pass through the port each year and, with only 4 police stations serving a population of over 15,000, the “Narcos” now rule the city.

Even though the local market is growing with more and more locals getting involved in this industry, the major cartels who oversee the safe passage for drugs through Costa Rican territories are the “Caballeros Templares de Michoacan” (the Michoacan Templar Knights) and the “Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias Colombiana” (also known as FARC, the Revolutionary armed force of Colombia), respectively a Mexican and a Colombian criminal organization. These transnational organized criminal groups use the geography and the thick vegetation to protect their interests; two rivers are mainly used to move drugs from open sea to the hinterland, and drivers are paid around 25 USD to run the boats through the streams.

For the local population, and me, this is not breaking news. It’s not unusual to hear that someone died during the night; it’s not unusual to hear gunshots in the middle of the night, we’ve learned to live with it, to accept that this problem exists and to “live and let live”. You understand that, to live in paradise, you have to accept the hell that is around you.

But, on December 3rd 2013, Costa Rican government joint with the United Nation Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) launched the “Costa Rica Situation Report 2013: Drug Trafficking and the Threat of Organized Crime”. First of its kind in this region, the report focuses on providing information on drugs and human trafficking in Costa Rica, highlighting the main routes, the effects of different international and local trends in organized crime on the country and the relation between drugs consumption and violence. Their intent is to provide this information to local authorities, so that they can act accordingly.

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And it’s working, in part at least: even though the data shows that drugs passing through Costa Rica are rising, different police operations successfully tackled down many active groups: in 2013, 1.7 tons of cocaine were confiscated in one single operation, rising the quantity of seized cocaine to 5 tons in just that year; some time later a group related to the Mexican cartel that exported cocaine to Belgium was taken down. This are just two examples of the report’s results but, as the ex-president Laura Chinchilla said:”Costa Rica is victim of its own geography”; its strategic position will always attract international drug cartels and the war on drugs will go on.

But last September the 5th Latin American Conference on Drug Policies was held in San José, CR, and, as Giselle Amador, the executive director of Costa Rican Association for Drug Study and Intervention, said that the challenge that we now face is to find alternative ways to reduce violence, increase economic development and achieve the effective protection of human rights.The data shows that the murder rate in the last decade grew by 12% in the Latin American region, and it is possibly related to the current “war on drugs” approach.

The problem of violence and the increase in the prison population are two of the most serious, eloquent examples of the violations of human rights in the solutions provided so far,” said Graciela Touzé, president of Argentina’s Intercambios Civil Association; the war on drugs has brought more problems and solved none, but it is a necessary step to a better solution for a better world.

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