When the government of Costa Rica asked for assistance in disposing of a huge stash of cocaine and other drugs they’d accumulated during the past two years worth of drug trafficking busts—in airports, in airplanes, and on the high seas—the US was only too willing to help.
According to a spokeswoman for the DEA in Miami, it went off without a hitch. At least that's what the DEA says. If anyone actually saw the drugs destroyed, they're not talking.
A 24-ton no peek burn run
From Dover AFB, the Air Force sent crew of 12 aboard a C-17 Globemaster called the “Spirit of Delaware,” a huge military cargo plane half-a-football field long and almost as wide, that despite its size can land on short (3500 ft) runways even if they’re unpaved or unimproved.
The C-17 picked up the cocaine at San Jose’s International Airport. Pallets of cocaine from the OIJ evidence warehouse were loaded in two vans. The transfer was overseen by 200 Costa Rican military and law enforcement officers in tactical vehicles.
24 tons of cocaine is worth as much as three-quarters of a billion dollars. Yet the spokeswoman was unfazed. Her tone was matter-of-fact. “We just took care of it,” she said.
Except, if anyone saw Costa Rica’s cocaine go up in smoke, they have yet to come forward.
So far, the explanations on offer are less than satisfactory.
But law enforcement officials in Costa Rica were asking it several months ago. Or, at least, “allegedly" asking it.
Because while no one is questioning that Costa Rica sent 24 tons of cocaine to the US to be incinerated, the operation has been received with what can be characterized as somewhere between skepticism and disbelief.
For one thing, the atmospherics are all wrong. Like the ritualized perp walk every notorious drug baron endures when caught, drug burnings are spectator events in Latin America, filled with ritual pomp. If he's there, El Presidente wears the sash of office. Generals in mirrored Raybans, decked out like beauty queens, medals shining like bling.
When Latin American drug agencies incinerate huge amounts of seized narcotics, which happens on a regular basis, there’s often a reviewing stand. Representatives from all the federal agencies involved in the bust stand around and smile. They watch each other. They eye the drugs. There’s a couple of speeches. There's the traditional group picture in front of the piled-up dope.
Only then do they fire up the torches, and set fire to the bonfire. Spectators discreetly move downwind.
But not this time.
24 tons of cocaine, representing two years worth of interdiction by Costa Rica’s Coast Guard Service, the Justice Dept (OIJ), the Border Police, the Fuerza Publica (national police force) will meet a peculiarly low-key fate.
When the C-17 arrives in Miami, a Costa Rican judge is on the plane. At least, he's rumored to have been on the plane. The judge and the Costa Rican Consul in Miami are supposed to be on hand to confirm the delivery and destruction of the cocaine.
No such advisory has been forthcoming.
The biggest question: “Why?”
“It had to do with new regulations from the Costa Rican EPA,” said the DEA’s spokeswoman. Cocaine, she insisted, requires special incinerators that burn at 816 Celsius (1,500 Fahrenheit), with multiple chambers that filter out the hazardous fumes and leave nothing but carbon dioxide.
Pieced together from several Costa Rican newspapers, the story of how 24 tons of cocaine flew to Miami on a US Government plane goes like this:
Prior to the massive airlift of cocaine to Miami in late July, Costa Rica's Justice Dept (the OIJ) used to destroy seized drugs at a cement factory incinerator, until several unfortunate incidents resulted in the cancellation of the contract.
Bags holding 20 kilograms of pure cocaine began to go "missing."
Costa Rica went back to stockpiling their seized swag. Later, when employees began to complain they couldn’t walk around the drug warehouse because it was stuffed to the brim with cocaine, the cement factory agreed to donate a mini-incinerator, which burns up to 300 kilograms per hour of cocaine.
“By February of 2012 they’d burned so much coke that the incinerator began to malfunction. Fumes began escaping the incinerator’s chambers. Those involved—including judges supervising the destruction—began getting high.”
Math for Meth-heads
Where exactly did Costa Rica get the 24 tons of cocaine they're turning over to the gringos?
"The cocaine had been seized over the course of the last two years during anti-drug operations in the country,” reported Costa Rica’s online newspaper CRHoy.com.
Two years. Two years worth of seizures would be June 2011 through June 2013.
In 2012 Costa Rican drug seizures totaled 15.5 tons. In 2011 they seized 7.4 tons. This year, when the US Air Force came calling, they were at about 5 tons.
Take half of the 2011 total (3.5), all of 2012 (15.5 tons) and year to date through July in 2013(5 tons.)
Except… remember that mini-incinerator the cement factory gave them that broke, but not before successfully incinerating what newspapers said was up to 300 kilograms per hour, for an unspecified length of time?
If the mini-incinerator worked for just one day before it broke down, Costa Rican officials would have shaved 7 tons of cocaine off their total. The C-17 cargo flight to Miami would have had just 14 tons of cocaine aboard.
So—in addition to the cocaine seized by Costa Rica over two years—where did the additional 7 tons of cocaine the USAF flying to Miami come from?
50-yard line seats for the Army-Navy game?
After 24 tons of pure cocaine from Costa Rica fell into their laps, US officials were perhaps understandably smug. It was the first hopeful sign that the Mexican drug cartels’ vise-like grip on US cocaine supply may be easing. The 24-ton import allowed the DEA to cut Mexican cartels’ market share in the US by at least five percent.
To convey the thanks of a grateful nation, Costa Rican officials should expect at least some 50-yard line seats at next year’s Army-Navy game. Especially if the coke is as pure as has been rumored.
"Costa Rica is today the closest the U.S. has to a protectorate in Central America," said Sam Logan, director of Southern Pulse, a risk-analysis firm focused on Latin America.
Perhaps because of the publicity, Costa Rica’s Dept. of Investigations (OIJ in Spanish) announced they will “no longer send” cocaine or other controlled substances to the United States. The way they phrased it suggests the 24 ton shipment was more than a one-time event.
Of course, in the drug trade, one never knows. Apparently, that’s the point.
Irregularities surrounded the flight.
Although it was a big story all over Central America, the massive coke haul to Miami didn’t make the papers in the States. One reason it played big in Costa Rica involves a curious circumstance peculiar to that country.
Because Costa Rica has no military, their constitution requires legislative permission for any foreign military forces to enter the country. And, in fact, a Commander Bradley Ripkey from the US Coast Guard sent a letter to Costa Rican officials requesting permission for the Air Force plane to land.
A brief investigation discovered that Bradley Ripkey is, as advertised, a US Coast Guard Commander. So, there's that.
But the Costa Rica Star revealed that no official permission had been given to allow the U.S. military flight into Costa Rican airspace. Nor were legislators informed about the massive transfer of narcotics into American hands.
"We are investigating the government for what happened,” said the leader of one of Costa Rica’s leftist parties.
“There is no law regulating the export of drugs. It's a unique situation to put them onto a U.S. military plane.”
A unique situation? Not hardly. The legislator was being too kind.
A long history of unique situations
Surely he remembered CIA pilot Barry Seal flying weapons down to the Contras on old C-123 military cargo planes, and then flying back with a cargo hold filled with tightly-wrapped packages of cocaine.
Surely he remembered CIA official John Hull, who used a landing strip on his ranch in Costa Rica to send planes north filled with drugs?
None of them are allowed into the tiny nation-state of Costa Rica today. They've been permanently barred for drug trafficking.
It is comforting to know that DEA chief administrator Michelle Leonhart, who traipsed around Afghanistan a few years ago on the arm of American drug trafficker Oliver North, will someday face sanctions too, just maybe not in this life.