Drugs gangs battling over control of Costa Rica’s cocaine trafficking infrastructure and the domestic marijuana market are fueling an increase in violence in the country, which last year saw its highest-ever homicide rate.
Between the start of the year and April 27, Costa Rica has recorded a 36% increase in homicides compared to the same period last year, according to the Judicial Investigation Agency (Organismo de Investigación Judicial – OIJ).
Limón, a province with a port city of the same name, is the epicenter of the violence, with a homicide rate almost three times the national average.
Located on the country’s eastern coast, its Moín container port is a drug hub for cocaine heading to Europe and marijuana entering the local market. More than one-quarter of the homicides registered in the country last year took place in Limón.
The Pacific coast province of Puntarenas, and the province of San José, home to the capital city of the same name, are also violence hotspots.
Disputes over drug territories and settling scores are among the leading causes of murder, Randall Zúñiga López, general director of the OIJ, told InSight Crime. Professional murders carried out by hitmen account for 63% of all homicides this year, compared to 50% during the same period last year.
Police efforts to break up organized crime groups have led to skirmishes between gangs fighting for control of criminal economies, he said. This month, police arrested over 2,600 people in a week during “Operation Costa Rica Segura.”
“Many criminal groups have been dismantled, which generates a power vacuum in areas like Limón,” said Zúñiga López.
An increase in the supply of Colombian marijuana is also fueling rising violence, he said. Traditionally, marijuana consumed in Costa Rica has come from Jamaica. However, multiple seizures of so-called creepy marijuana indicate that it may be displacing Jamaican cannabis.
“Those who are dying, for the most part, are drug dealers who did not want to give up their plaza, did not want to pay a quota for the right to sell drugs, or simply tried to fight another criminal group,” he said.
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InSight Crime Analysis
Criminal groups vying for control of the movement of cocaine through ports, and of the local marijuana market, are pushing violence in Costa Rica to new levels.
Costa Rica has historically been an important transshipment point for cocaine bound for the US and Europe. However, the country recorded a significant drop in cocaine seizures in 2022, confiscating or helping to confiscate 33.1 tons, compared to 61.7 tons the year before. While this might indicate a decreasing role, other explanations may account for the lower seizures.
While most cocaine that leaves Costa Rica departs from Limón, storing shipments at the port is a risky choice for traffickers due to its notoriety as a drug departure point. Authorities are extra vigilant for potential drug shipments, and traffickers also risk the theft of their product, said Zúñiga Lopez.
To avoid Limón, criminal groups transport cocaine on speed boats from Colombia to southern Puntarenas, to towns like Golfito, Quepos, and the Osa Peninsula. They then transport cocaine to San José, located between Puntarenas and Limón, before moving it onto the eastern seaport, often on the same day.
From there, the drugs are put on a ship bound for Europe or the United States, according to Zúñiga López. Moving the drugs quickly makes it harder for authorities to detect and reduces the risks associated with storage in Limón, he added.
A shift in the local marijuana market is further fueling violence. Criminal groups importing Colombian creepy marijuana are attempting to dislodge rivals who have traditionally bought the drug from Jamaica.
This extra supply has resulted in lower prices domestically, and increased competition among criminal groups for control of domestic markets in major cities, according to Zúñiga López.