Old Guns for a New War: The Resurgence of Arms Smuggling in Costa Rica

Costa Rica is implicated in the illegal arms trade

By Gregory Kipling | 2002-07-01 12:00:00

In December of last year, delegates from across Central America gathered in Costa Rica to thrash out a regional action plan on small arms trafficking. The need for coordinated action in this area is pressing. Although guns are not nearly as panic-inducing as anthrax or nerve gas, they are arguably weapons of mass destruction, killing over half a million people worldwide each year.

While experts disagree on the number of illegal weapons in circulation in Central America, they almost certainly number in the millions, with many left over from the civil wars which plagued the region until the early 1990s. In all too many cases, these weapons are finding their way into the hands of civilians, or else are smuggled into Colombia to be used by left-wing guerrillas or army-backed paramilitary squads.


Costa Rica, despite its pretensions of being an oasis of peace and tranquillity in a volatile region, is very much implicated in this illegal arms trade. In the 1980s, while next-door Nicaragua was in the throes of a CIA-backed insurgency, the government turned a blind eye to the Contras' use of ranches in northern Costa Rica as trans-shipment points for weaponry flown in from abroad.

More recently, the borderlands between Costa Rica and Nicaragua have seen a reversal in the flow of weapons. Seizures of southward-bound assault rifles, grenade launchers, and machine guns have been on the upswing since 1999, and even made headlines in the international press in September 2000 when a huge cache of arms, including 500 AK-47 rifles, 2,000 kilograms of military grade explosives and 10,000 rounds of ammunition, was discovered near Panama City. The contraband, destined for Colombian guerrillas, had reportedly crossed the entire length of Costa Rica hidden in bulk shipments of vegetables.

While Panamanian authorities were quick to claim a major success against arms traffickers, the seizure of the illicit weapons and subsequent trial of 23 individuals suspected of involvement in the smuggling operation have done little to stem the flow of arms through the region.

At the present time, at least four gangs specializing in weapons smuggling are thought to be operating in the jungle lowlands on either side of the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border. Working in cooperation with Colombian buyers and other Central American criminal groups, the gangs stockpile arms and ammunition in secret caches in Nicaragua before moving them across the border into Costa Rica. To avoid detection, the traffickers make use of remote jungle paths and the many small rivers which snake their way through the region. Once in Costa Rica, the contraband is shipped south in small batches, hidden either in trucks or coast-hugging speedboats. The arms are then smuggled into Panama before being finally handed over to buyers who flock to the lawless Darien region near the border with Colombia.

With recent reports suggesting that smugglers are becoming more brazen in their methods (villagers in northern Costa Rica for example are complaining of night-time overflights by helicopters and small aircraft believed to be carrying illicit weaponry) no one has any doubt that the illegal arms trade is a booming business in Central America. For the organized crime groups which dominate the trade, its attractiveness stems principally from the fact that it offers wide profit margins and minimal risk.

In Costa Rica, for example, ambiguous laws against arms trafficking have allowed some of those found guilty to escape with fines rather than jail time, while many simply walk free after charges are dropped because of a lack of evidence. This occurred most recently in October of last year, when a judge ordered the release of a man who had been arrested in connection with the discovery of 70 assault rifles in a truck traveling along the Inter-American Highway near the Costa Rican city of Liberia.

More than anything, however, the arms trade is being fueled by the high prices Colombian buyers are prepared to pay. In Nicaragua, the asking price for an AK-47 assault rifle is US$200. According to conservative estimates, the same rifle sells for US$400 at the border between Panama and Costa Rica, and over US$2,000 by the time it reaches Colombian soil. Moreover, smugglers can do even better if they are willing to accept drugs rather than cash, the going rate being one kilogram of cocaine for every four assault rifles delivered.

The exchange of arms for cocaine comes as no surprise to Costa Rican law enforcement officials, who have long argued that the routes and networks employed to ship illicit weaponry to Colombia are the same as those used to smuggle drugs to North America. However, in neither case have Costa Ricans escaped the ill-effects of the contraband which is passing through their country's territory. On the one hand, drug addiction and drug-related crime have taken their toll on the social fabric of communities, both large and small. On the other, assault rifles and grenade launchers are featuring in the arsenals of a growing number of criminals. They have used them to perpetrate a string of highly publicized abductions, killings, and armed robberies in recent years, including a commando-style assault in January on a supermarket near the capital San Jose.


The impact of arms trafficking is also being felt at an institutional level. Although corruption remains less a problem in Costa Rica than elsewhere in Central America, official collusion in the trans-shipment of weapons through the country is widely suspected. These suspicions re-surfaced most recently on February 6th, after an ex-policeman was caught near the Nicaraguan border with almost 100 assault rifles hidden in the back of his pick-up truck. An investigation was immediately launched to determine whether Costa Rican border officials had helped smuggle the weapons into the country.


Low-level corruption aside, the government of Costa Rica has taken a number of steps to bring arms smuggling under control. Police have intensified their patrols along rivers close to the Nicaraguan border, as well as making greater use of vehicle spot checks on the Inter-American Highway. At the same time, Costa Rican and Nicaraguan authorities have agreed to share intelligence on suspected arms traffickers, setting aside a long-simmering territorial dispute that has often impaired cooperation in the past.

While the jury is still out on how effective these efforts will ultimately prove to be, there is no question that the extra policing costs are an expensive addition to Costa Rica's already strained national budget. However, despite calls from the country's public security minister for American help in combatting the illegal weapons trade, little assistance has been forthcoming.

This angers many in the region, who believe the resurgence of arms trafficking is largely a consequence of the United States' US$1.3 billion aid package to the Colombian government known as "Plan Colombia," which has sent insurgent groups rushing to fill their armories in anticipation of intensified fighting. While it is ironic that the weapons being acquired by these groups are mostly left-overs from an earlier era of superpower meddling in Latin America, past experience offers little grounds for optimism. Without a commitment from all parties in the Colom-bian conflict to sit down together and negotiate a just peace, arms trafficking in Central America, and the use of such weapons against innocent civilians, is set to continue.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2002

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2002, page 6. Some rights reserved.

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