Costa Rica struggles to maintain its 'pure life' as drug cartels move in
December 31, 2011
PUERTO CALDERA: Costa Rican exceptionalism is deeply ingrained in the national psyche of a country that has long defined itself by the many ways in which it is not like the rest of Central America.
Even through the darkest years of the Cold War, when hundreds of thousands were killed in civil conflicts across the region, Costa Rica remained a sunny, stable democracy that had proudly abolished its army and instead had invested in public health and education.
Today almost 1 million US tourists visit Costa Rica each year. It has traffic cops who don't expect bribes, tap water you can drink and a national motto - ''pura vida'' (pure life) - that serves as a greeting, a farewell and an all-around expression of tropical beatitude.
But now, with Mexican drug cartels moving in, Costa Rican exceptionalism is being challenged by the same criminal forces dragging down the rest of Central America.
Costa Rican officials and US drug agents say the country of 4.6 million is one more chess piece in the traffickers' push for control of smuggling routes through the region, now the main conveyance for billions' worth of South American cocaine bound for the US.
Costa Rica's police, courts and politicians have never confronted a test like the one they face from the vast corrupting powers of the cartels, the Costa Rican President, Laura Chinchilla, said.
''I don't remember in our whole history a menace like this menace from organised crime,'' said Ms Chinchilla, who was elected Costa Rica's first female president in February 2010 after a law-and-order campaign. ''It doesn't matter what kind of ideology your government has, whether it's left or right. This has to do with the survival of our institutions.''
Costa Rica is still Central America's least violent country, but its homicide rate has nearly doubled since 2004 and record amounts of drugs have been seized.
Smugglers have been moving Colombian cocaine through Costa Rican waters and up the Pan-American Highway for decades, but in recent years Mexican cartels have established ''command and control'' operations inside the country, a senior US narcotics agent working in the region said.
''This is a perfect location and when you have a country with no army, that is extremely worried with people's privacy rights, who is going to stop them?'' one US narcotics agent said.
Mexico's Sinaloa cartel has had a presence in Costa Rica for many years, but rival trafficking groups are muscling in, Costa Rican officials say. ''We can't wait until the day that two pickup trucks loaded with 20 cadavers show up in a Costa Rican city,'' the Security Minister, Mario Zamora, said. ''We have to take measures now.''
Beefing up Costa Rica's security forces is also a priority for the US, which has helped build a new police academy, a national intelligence centre to eavesdrop on phone communications, and highway checkpoints with cargo-scanning equipment.
As Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and other countries in the region put soldiers on the streets to meet the escalating threat from the cartels, authorities insist they will wage the drug war the Costa Rican way, taking a holistic approach that emphasises community policing, social programs and a strong legal system.