Cocaine Express

The Peninsula de Osa in Costa Rica is one of the most remote places in the world. This isolation makes the Peninsula vulnerable to international drug trafficking. Many hundreds of tons of cocaine move by land and by sea from South America to the United States, much of it smuggled through Costa Rica, either by land or by sea.

This is the Cocaine Express, and it passes right in front of our farm.

The cocaine processing plants and smugglers are concentrated along the northwestern coast of Colombia – not far from the west coast of Costa Rica. From here the cocaine is shipped to Costa Rica, then to either Guatemala or Mexico, and finally smuggled into the US. Much of the drugs are transported by water in fast moving boats or slow moving submarines.

The cocaine boats are usually fiberglass, about thirty-five to forty feet long, with a high, strong bow for banging through the ocean’s waves and three or four powerful outboard motors. (The preferred motor seems to be the Yamaha 150 HP.) Recently, the smugglers have demonstrated ingenuity and technical know-how by building slow-moving “submersibles” – fiberglass boats that lay nearly submerged in the water and are almost impossible to detect.

The smugglers move the cocaine in packages of twenty kilos each, which is about fifty pounds and easy for one person to lift and carry. I’ve seen several of these packages; they’re nothing more than sheets of hard, black plastic held together with rope or twine, and are not waterproof. However, each individual kilo of cocaine is wrapped carefully in layers of waxed paper and sheets of rubber and is waterproof.

Since the smugglers would rather carry more cocaine than gasoline, they carry enough gas to reach the west coast of Costa Rica, where they either take on more gas or abandon the boats and pick up others. Over the years, parts of the Pacific coast have turned into clandestine gas stations and cocaine transfer and storage points.

This Cocaine Express has inevitably drawn the attention of Costa Rican and U.S. law enforcement. Occasionally, the Costa Rican coast guard, working with the US coast guard, will intercept and chase a drug-runner. Video footage of these high-seas chases inevitably appear on the nightly news. We see the racing drug boat bouncing through the waves; we see vague shapes on the boat throwing packages into the sea – the traffickers frantically getting rid of the evidence.

Cocaine floats. The waves, currents and tides disperse the packages quickly and it’s almost impossible for the police to recover an entire load, especially if it’s dumped at night. The currents carry the cocaine in different directions at different speeds. The first time I heard about locals finding a package of cocaine was twelve years ago. Two U.S. citizens fishing just south of Drake Bay spotted a square, black package floating with the current. They investigated and could hardly believe their eyes – twenty kilos of cocaine!

They were gringos, but had traveled regularly to the area and were familiar with Drake Bay and Costa Rica. Both were avid drug users and delighted with the pure quality of the cocaine. “Direct from the factory!” one shouted. They managed to transport the cocaine to San Jose, where they sold it for two thousand dollars a kilo.

Since then, I’ve known of several locals who found cocaine floating in the ocean, or washed up on the beaches. Two years ago, I was visited by “Salvador,” an older campesino living near the beaches of Violin Island, across the Boca from me. We greeted each other, and Salvador pulled out a plastic bag containing a small amount of white powder. He asked me what it could be. I tasted it and it was cocaine, very pure. Salvador said he had suspected it was cocaine, but he wasn’t sure. He said he found a kilo lying on the sand not far from his house and asked what he should do with it. I counseled that anything connected with cocaine was likely to be dangerous.

Salvador paddled back across the river in his small dugout canoe. The next time I saw him, one month later, he had traded in his paddle for a new two-horse motor. Later, I learned that a taxi driver in Palmar Norte had helped Salvador sell the kilo.

This story has been repeated many times in the Sierpe District. As insiders, we learn about neighbors who suddenly appear with a new car, or new boat, or new motor. Carlos, a boat pilot who operated for years with one boat and one outboard motor, appeared one day in Sierpe with a large, new boat and two new outboard motors. He explained that the new boat and motors – valued at nearly forty thousand dollars – were bought by his “Mexican partners,” who then agreed to lease the boat to Carlos.

It’s been over three years now and these “Mexican partners” have never appeared in Sierpe and Carlos no longer bothers to mentions them. Meanwhile, he uses the new boat to haul tourists or on fishing expeditions. In our conversations with the locals, there was general consensus that the new boat and motors were, as one person put it, “un regalo del mar” – a gift from the sea.

And it’s not only boat pilots involved in this clandestine economy; the taxi driver mentioned earlier admitted he had helped others from the Sierpe District to sell kilos of cocaine – many of them “ordinary citizens” who happened to come across a few kilos washed up on the beaches. Most of these people were not drug users, or “traffickers,” or even knew traffickers, but because of Costa Rica’s tiny size and small population, the locals have little trouble making clandestine contact with the Costa Rican “Mafia” in San Jose. (I was surprised to see this “Mafia” treat these people with a certain measure of respect – they sent couriers to pick up the kilos, and then promised to pay later, sometimes in two or three weekly payments, but they always paid promptly and in full.)

Only one story came to my attention about someone turning in several kilos to the authorities. Otherwise, it seemed people elected to keep quiet about the cocaine, and sell it. In the words of one boat captain: “It’s like hitting the lottery!”


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