by Nick Miroff
Costa Rica is Central America's most stable democracy, a peaceful country that abolished its army in 1948 and now draws nearly a million U.S. tourists a year to its national parks and beaches. But it's also right in the middle of the world's most lucrative cocaine trafficking corridor.
|Hotel Si Como No (Markus Egger Photos)|
"People say in Costa Rica God's always watching over us. We don't have a lot of hurricanes, we don't have devastating earthquakes, we don't have devastating poverty; instead of having tanks and military, we have teachers and schools," Damalas says.
Authorities here say recent arrests of police officers on corruption charges show the institutions are standing up to the power of the cartels, but Chinchilla and others acknowledge that the fight is only beginning.
|US and costa rican coast guard seized this sub containing 7 tons of cocaine|
With the decline of local fisheries and new catch restrictions, Murillo says, the fisherman have turned to running million-dollar coke packages for the cartels. They pay well, he says, explaining how locals bring drug loads to shore or deliver gasoline out to sea for traffickers zooming north from Colombia in high-powered speedboats.
The new docks here creaking in the waves have two berths for U.S.-donated interceptor boats designed to chase down the smugglers. The Coast Guard hasn't had any on the Pacific until now.
"Many Belizeans look at the drug transshipment problem as not our problem," he said. "They look at it as a problem for the Americans or the Mexicans or somebody else. But I think we certainly are shortsighted in doing so. Because if we look at the Mexican experience, the impact of transshipment, being a country along that route makes us extremely vulnerable."
|Special Forces march through jungle of Belize seaching for drug traffickers|
The U.S. has given Belize about $15 million in security aid in recent years, mostly vehicles, equipment and training. It's a sliver of the roughly $600 million in drug war funding that has been provided or promised so far to Central America, whose governments are considered especially vulnerable to the corrupting powers of Mexico's wealthy crime gangs. "We are still sleeping, where everyone else is fighting for their lives on all our fronts," said Capt. Ian Cunha, a Belizean military commander along the Guatemala border. "The threat is overwhelming, in that our country could be simply overrun in a very short instant."