With Few Weapons, Costa Rica's War on Drugs Goes Badly

Costa Rica

COSTA RICA is wide open to cocaine smugglers laments Inte Minister Luis Fishman Zonzinski."We have no army, no radar, no planes, no boats," he says, ticking off the handicaps of this tiny nation. "There's very little we can do to stop the growing flow." Successful interdiction efforts in the Caribbean, Colombia, and Mexico are increasingly forcing cocaine traffickers to use Central American nations as refueling and warehousing points between US and European consumer markets. Costa Ricans feel particularly vulnerable. Costa Rica abolished its military in 1948, an event many Costa Ricans consider a cornerstone of their nation's enduring democracy. Neighboring states have struggled with dictators and repressive armed forces. But now Costa Rican officials say their poorly-paid, land-bound police force of 8,000 (of which 175 are antidrug specialists) is ill equipped to combat the incursions of well-financed narco-traffickers.

Minimal antidrug aid from US Washington has cut anti-narcotics aid each of the last three years. This year, Costa Rica received just $200,000 in such aid. Aid money has gone instead to Panama and other nations where the problem is considered worse, US officials say. Mr. Fishman says the US is making a mistake. "The US policy is to attack the problem in the producing and consuming nations. But it abandons the intermediate phase," Fishman says. "So we continue to be an open bridge for drugs, and the youths of the developed nations suffer the consequences." Funds are short, partly because neither US nor Costa Rican officials know exactly how bad the situation is. Fishman guesses that anywhere from two to four tons of cocaine pass through the country each month. Anecdotal evidence indicates the problem is worsening. Costa Rica, for example, was the first country in Central America to have crack - the inexpensive derivative of cocaine. And the price of cocaine is dropping here. It now costs $30 per gram on the streets of San Jose. In towns near the Panama border, the price falls to $3 to $5 per gram. This compares to $80 to $100 per gram in Miami, say officials. Costa Rican fisherman regularly find hard-cover-book sized plastic bundles of cocaine bobbing off the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. A common pattern is for planes and large "mother" ships to drop off cocaine cargo to smaller speed boats that ferry the drug to shore. An empty barrel equipped with a radio transmitter was recently found floating offshore. It had a 3,000-kilo (more than three tons) capacity. Cocaine is also being found in shipments of seafood, pineapples, and other perishables bound for the US. But the volume of cocaine seizures has fallen. Officials cite the loss of wiretaps - declared unconstitutional retroactively to 1973 - as severely hampering their efforts. Dozens of jailed traffickers have been freed since the decision was handed down last October. @BODYTEXT =

Strong judicial system Still, Fishman is encouraged by the government's quick response in enacting new legislation that should return this weapon to his arsenal in the next month or two. Despite its handicaps, Costa Rica does have a few key assets in its drug fight. Democratic institutions are considered stronger here. Corruption of the judicial system - a failing common in many Latin American countries - has been minimal. Once captured, drug crooks are less likely to elude punishment. "Unlike Colombia or El Salvador or Guatemala, people still believe in justice here," says Roberto Cuellar Martinez, assistant director of the Interamerican Institute of Human Rights in San Jose. "There's an integral social backing of the law. The police can use this in their fight." Next year Costa Rica will join a network of Caribbean radar installations - financed by the US - designed to track drug traffickers. "To know what's happening in our airspace will be progress," says Fishman. "But the big question is what do we do with this information? We still lack the boats, planes, and helicopters to respond."

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