By Jesse Froehling
American Reporter Correspondent
San José, Costa Rica
Jan. 28, 2006
COCAINE CRIME MARS PEACEFUL COSTA RICA
SAN José, Costa Rica -- On 9th street, in downtown San José, Costa Rica, a man with a Brooklyn accent stopped me late one night.
"You speak English, man?" I tossed a response over my shoulder and hurried on my way.
"Whoa! Whoa! Wait a second, man, where ya from?" Reluctantly, I stopped and listened.
"I came down here three months ago on business, but the coke was too cheap. Now look at me." I took in the man's bare feet, his shorts despite the chilly weather, his ratty flannel shirt.
"I need help, man. I gotta get help bad." The man described a rehab clinic in Pérez Zeledón in southern Costa Rica that he needed money to get to by bus. It would cost about $5. I passed over some change, wished the man well and heard the same greeting a week later. When I confronted the man, he shook his head.
"I ain't gonna lie man, I couldn't hold on to it. It all went up in smoke. I gotta get help bad - you got any change?"
A statement from the U. S. State Dept. Web site may shed light on the reason that more and more people like the Brooklynite are falling so quickly from grace here and why barely pubescent kids huddle over crack pipes in the streets of San José and eslewhere.
"The principal U.S. counternarcotics goal in Costa Rica is to reduce the transit of drugs to U.S. markets." As the United States dumps more and more money into curbing the flow of drugs crossing its borders, more and more of those drugs intended for markets in the United States are bottlenecking in Central America, including Costa Rica.
Before 1999, the primary method of trafficking drugs from South America to the United States was tractor trailer once the shipments reached Central America, the State Dept. said.
"Costa Rica's location astride the Central American isthmus makes the country an attractive transshipment area for South American-produced cocaine and heroin destined primarily for the United States. Its attraction to traffickers stems from: (1) dual coastline; (2) poorly-patrolled Pan American Highway; (3) porous southern border; (4) no military; and (5) a Coast Guard with limited resources," the State Dept. said.
But beginning in 2000, the United States started working with the Costa Rican government to curb the flow. The United States donated boats, vehicles, computers, communications equipment, drug dogs and sophisticated monitoring equipment to help catch narcotics shipments before they reached the United States, the Web site said.
As a result, the size of shipments crossing land borders became smaller yet more frequent and drug smugglers began utilizing a maritime jurisdiction 11 times the size of Costa Rica itself, the Website said.
To combat this, the United States began investing heavily in Costa Rica's coast guard, the Servicio Nacional de Guardacosta as well. In 2002, the amount of illicit drugs seized in the country increased dramatically from 2001. The amount of cocaine nearly doubled and the heroin seizures tripled. The amount of cocaine seized in the country in 2003 almost doubled the amount taken in 2002. The amount of heroin again tripled that was seized in the same year, said the State Dept..
In 2004, the trend continued. But even though Costa Rican law enforcement became more reliable, the amount of drug seizures again increased dramatically, the State Dept. said.
And 2005 saw more of the same. Drug agents seized more than two tons of cocaine off the from four Costa Ricans in a boat off the coast of Panama in Dec. 14. The seizure made 9,812 kilos seized for the year. The previous record was set in 1997 with 5,623 kilos.
There are two possible explanations. Either Costa Rica's drug enforcement methods have become more astute, or there are more drugs bottlenecking here.
Petty crime - which much of the time is involved with drug addictions - seems to be increasing. In less than a month, three reporters at a small English language newspaper in San José were involved in robberies or attempted robberies either as victims or eyewitnesses. Two of these assaults involved guns.
Ironically, although the U.S. State Dept. is throwing more and more money at the drug problem, many Americans who come here as tourists are caught in the cocaine web.
Ronnie, who says he hails from Santa Monica, Calif., is one. I bought him breakfast one morning after he told me this:
"I don't want money, man, I just gotta eat. A prostitue robbed me of everything and I get on the plane tomorrow." Two weeks later, I saw him hustling another tourist. As I took the bus out of San José that night, I saw him huddled in the same doorway the Brooklynite favors. An orange flame illuminated his face as he sucked on a test-tube sized pipe.
An old man who wanders the streets confronting gringos in broken Spanish has the same robbed-by-prostitute story. I've seen him four times.
A man who may have been an American was involved in a shootout over a crack deal gone wrong Jan. 14. The man, identified only as Gringo Loco apparently had a history with local police enforcement.
For the most part, San José serves as stopover for tourists rather than an actual destination. It's location in the middle of the country is convenient to split up long cross-country bus trips. But the transitory nature of the capital may be adding to the proliferation of the nose candy througout the country. Heavily touristed areas are becoming snow-covered as well.
Tamarindo, in northwest Costa Rica, is a once sleepy beach town that has become a hot spot for young international travelers. A year ago, officers in the town admitted that drug use was intensifying but there were no plans to increase police presence. The six officers then were so low on cash that they sometimes wouldn't respond to calls unless the complaintant agreed to pay for the gas necessary to get there.
Charges of corruption ran rampant, and in July 2005 the entire force was changed out. the department's old patrol car, that sometimes needed to be pushed to start, was replaced, said Alexander Valles, an officer there. Even though he recognizes that drugs are a problem in the town, illegal immigration tops his list of problms that affect it negatively.
However, the drug problem is only getting worse. It's nearly impossible to walk through the Mambobar, a popular night spot, without hearing: "Hey man, what you need? Coca, mota? (cocaine, marijuana?)" In the street out front, it is common to see groups of locals and tourists lounging about sipping from beer cans as the smell of marijuana smoke wafts in from the beach. One night I stepped into the bathroom and saw two kids cutting up lines of cocaine on the sink with their cedulas, identification documents. Instead of trying to hide it, they offered to sell me some.
In reality, the municipality and the police force has little reason to stem the flow of drugs there. Tourism is booming. Small hotels have sprung up like weeds in the past year and Burger King and Subway have recently set up franchises in the once tranquil town. Part of the reason for the boom in tourism is the town's reputation as a party spot with travelers and although they won't say it, authorities must be aware that the drugs and their dirt-cheap prices are a draw for many on vacation.
And though the State Dept. says that the Costa Rican government is directing more resources to address the serious threats posed by narcotics trafficking, like many other "serious threats" in the country, budgetary limitations continue to constrain the capability of the country to do something.
As long as that happens, the narcotics will keep piling up and people like Ronnie, the down and out Brooklynite and Gringo Loco will continue to use drugs, acquiring them by whatever means necessary, be it working, begging or robbing.