Costa Rica, laid-back land of ‘pura vida,’ succumbing to drug violence


PUNTARENAS, Costa Rica — All was quiet that night on the Promenade of the Tourists, the famed boulevard overlooking this coastal city’s white-sand beach and softly lapping waves.

But just a few miles from the bars and seafood cafes, Maribel Sandí was startled awake by rapid-fire, metallic bursts.

The 59-year-old grandmother emerged from her corrugated metal shack. It was dark, past 11 p.m., a muggy January night. Here, in the Bella Vista neighborhood, where young people sell scrap metal to buy crack, neighbors had gathered on the dirt road.

“There was a dead man,” Sandí said. The 21-year-old’s body had been “ripped apart” by a barrage from AK-47 assault rifles.

“We had never seen that,” she said.

Costa Rica has long been a model of progressive democracy in Latin America, a nation that abolished its army in 1948 and set aside a quarter of its territory for conservation. Hundreds of thousands of American and European tourists fly in annually to surf, hike the pristine rainforests and enjoy the laid-back “pura vida” vibe.

Now, this longtime refuge of tranquility is grappling with a jump in violence, driven by a little-remarked on phenomenon that is bedeviling several Latin American countries. Once merely way stations for illegal drugs heading to the United States or Europe, they are suffering abuse problems of their own.

Costa Rica is just one example. Farther north, in Mexico, cartels that pump out methamphetamines for Americans also are feeding a growing domestic market. The number of Mexicans being treated for amphetamine addiction — mostly involving meth — ballooned by 218 percent from 2013 to 2020, according to the latest U.N. World Drug Report.

In South America, the number of people using cocaine more than doubled in a decade, reaching an estimated 4.7 million people in 2020, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime reported. Consumption was particularly high in Brazil, Uruguay, Ecuador and Argentina, key transshipment points for Europe-bound cocaine.

Rising drug use does not always lead to more violence. But in some countries, battles over street sales have fueled an increase in bloodshed. Ecuador’s homicide rate tripled between 2020 and 2022 as drug groups fought over domestic sales as well as export routes. Costa Rica suffered a record 656 homicides last year, up 12 percent over 2021. In Mexico, disputes between dealers selling crystal meth have sent death tolls soaring in cities including Tijuana, Juárez and Manzanillo.

“The problem has come home to roost,” Laura Chinchilla, a former president of Costa Rica, told The Washington Post. “Our own people are using drugs and making it possible for these crime groups to exist.”

The major Mexican and Colombian trafficking organizations have little presence in Costa Rica. But for years, local criminals have provided logistical support, such as gasoline and motorboats, for the big cartels that move cocaine from Colombia to the United States and Europe.

At some point, the cartels began paying these low-level contractors in drugs. Many began selling that cocaine or turning it into cheap crack, creating local demand.

Small-scale drug feuds are…

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