This article is the third in a three-part series on Costa Rica's battle with the drug cartels. Together with GlobalPost's interview with President Laura Chinchilla, the series also explores the growing problem of money-laundering, and Costa Ricans' new attitude toward crime.
SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — Roger Carballo, 39, lived much of his adult life in the junkyards of a drugged-out underworld, and he still bears deep scars from head to toe to prove it.
One time, he said, he negotiated with a dealer to sell about $800 worth of crack-cocaine. He smoked it all instead.
If the drugs didn’t kill him, the drug lord’s reprisal certainly came close.
Carballo is visibly disfigured. Thugs chopped a chunk off his left ear and gouged 19 teeth out of his mouth.
Other scars remain from a gunshot through his neck, a stabbing in his forearm and leg beatings that left him with a severe limp.
Carballo’s brutal tales hail from the criminal underbelly of this Central American country, where about one-fifth of the population lives below the poverty line. It’s a bleak reality far removed from the pristine tourist attractions of tropical beaches and lush forests that echo with the deep roars of howler monkeys.
Read more: Are Costa Ricans abandoning peace?
Costa Rica — home of the much-loved adage “pura vida” (pure life) — is in the throes of a crack problem.
Traditionally, crack use was rare outside the United States and the United Kingdom. But that is changing, with surges in parts of Latin America and Africa, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
The cheap, smokable cocaine derivative tore through American inner cities in the 80s and 90s. Crack only began to surge in Costa Rica in the 2000s, an offshoot of the booming global drug trade.
As of 2010, some 1.2 percent of Costa Ricans aged 12 to 70 used crack in their lifetime, triple the rate found in 1995, according to household surveys by Costa Rica’s Alcohol and Drug Dependency Institute (IAFA). That excludes users who live on the streets. The same 2010 study found that 3 percent used cocaine or cocaine derivatives in their lifetime.
Read more: Laundering money in Costa Rica
The rate may seem low, but the problem has sparked concern in a country whose small, under-funded police force struggles to keep citizens safe as Costa Rica becomes more entrenched as a stop-off in the region’s drug corridor.
An estimated 80-90 percent of the cocaine that enters the United States, the world’s biggest consumer, transits through Central America by land, air or sea. These days drug runners have been leaving a trail of crumbs behind.
“We are no longer just a country on the way, we are a destination country” for drugs, said Francisco Dall’Anese, former chief prosecutor of Costa Rica, at a recent anti-corruption conference in San Jose.
Read more: Interview with President Chinchilla
International drug-runners pay local fishermen in cocaine packages for providing fuel for their boats, and to other local collaborators who help store the drugs in the country for shipment at a later date.
In some coastal villages, bricks of cocaine mysteriously float ashore after drug runners throw bags overboard when authorities are on their tail, Costa Rican narcotics officials say.
Ma and pa “narcofamilias” run home kitchens to cook and deal the rocks on the local street market.
“These are people, entire families, who are dedicated to narcotics trafficking — from the little kids up to granny. She could be just a dealer or ‘la madrina’ of the mafia,” Carlos Alvarado, director of the state-run Costa Rican Institute on Drugs (ICD), said. He pointed to one recent drug bust in which the family drug lord turned out to be a little elderly woman in a wheelchair.
Police crack seizures roughly tripled since the start of the millennium to hit a record 209,043 rocks, or approximately 31 kg of crack, in 2009, according to figures from the ICD. That pales in comparison to the 163 kg seized in the United States that same year, by the UN’s count. But Costa Rica is only about the size of West Virginia in area and half of Los Angeles, California in population.
It is a drop in the bucket of the hundreds of tons of cocaine that transit the region each year, but the crumbs left behind en route — normally cut with baking soda or other dilutants to make crack — are blighting the slums of Costa Rica.
“The local collaborators need to build an army of dealers to move the drugs. It is very disturbing to find that they are trying to recruit minors to sell drugs at schools and among the young population — and that’s something we cannot allow,” Alvarado said.
Some 12.5 per 1,000 high-school teens reported having tried crack in their lifetime, according to a 2009 study by IAFA.
The authorities blame crack abuse for much of Costa Rica’s crime woes. The police force struggles to keep the drug trade and connected crimes under control.
The government, faced with low approval ratings for seeming ineffective on crime woes, is pressing lawmakers to approve new taxes for fresh funds to bolster police crackdowns.
Carballo recalled how desperate urges for a fix thrust him into a vicious crime cycle to pay for his $1 to $2-a-rock habit.
Read more: The cost of security in Costa Rica
Before the drugs, he said, he was a nice, shy kid. Once he got hooked, ashamed of his habit, he left home and built a shack in the overgrown weeds of an empty lot. He would leave to get drugs and sometimes hold up or even stab passers-by to finance his addiction.
Now clean for two and half years, it shocks him to this day that he actually enjoyed it.
“It felt good treating people badly. The drugs made it satisfying,” said Carballo. “I scared even my own self with the things I would do under the influence.”
When Carballo started the program at Hogares Crea, a rehabilitation residence, he could not walk and had to be lifted out of a jail cell where he had served time for attempted murder.
“I came in like a dead man walking,” he said.
The center is stretched thin with recovering addicts. After completing treatment, Hogares Crea hired Carballo as a supervisor to keep tabs on residences around the country. He knows the program books inside and out.
During a recent interview, recovering addicts stopped by the office to greet him, thanking him for inspiring them to change, to become well again.
Gerardo Ortega, the rehab’s director, himself a former drug addict, said without a doubt if it weren’t for the international drug cartels there would not be such a heavy drug problem in Costa Rica. “The addictions are tremendous, and growing,” he said. “It’s too easy for narco-trafficking to get into this country.”