LIBERIA, Costa Rica – On a recent Friday morning at a gleaming new international airport in Costa Rica, hundreds of tourists from New York and Minnesota emerged blinking onto the sun-blasted tarmac. At the other end of the runway, eight Americans zipped into tan flight suits aboard a massive white surveillance plane.
As four propellers roared, the P3 Orion flew out above the tourists and over the hotels and beach clubs of the Pacific coast, its bulbous radar dish scanning for speedboats loaded with U.S.-bound cocaine. In the cabin's bank of radar screens, a dot pulsed just north of Panamanian waters. The P3 swooped down to 1,000 feet and soared past a tiny Costa Rican fishing boat. Using a long-lensed digital camera, one of the military veterans snapped a string of photos. A colleague radioed the boat's details back to the U.S.
This prosperous paradise of golden beaches and lush cloud-forest preserves is throwing itself wholeheartedly into the U.S. war on drugs as a flood of cocaine shipments and a surge in domestic crime erodes Costa Ricans' sense of proud isolation from the problems of the rest of Central America. Crime levels here are among the lowest in the region, but many Costa Ricans fear even the slightest possibility that their country could become more like Mexico, Guatemala or Honduras, where the unchecked power of drug cartels and ordinary criminals have millions of people living in fear.
In 1948, Costa Rica abolished its army, plowing money into education, social benefits and environmental preservation. As a result, Costa Rican officials say, the country whose laidback national slogan is "pura vida" — pure life — is poorly equipped to battle ruthless and well-equipped Mexican drug cartels. To assist, the U.S. is patrolling Costa Rica's skies and waters while also providing millions of dollars in training and equipment. The Costa Rican government, in turn, has launched a tough line on crime backed by a top-to-bottom transformation of its law-enforcement and justice systems.
"Costa Rica is today the closest the US has to a protectorate in Central America," said Sam Logan, director of Southern Pulse, a risk-analysis firm focused on Latin America.
Fed up with crime, many Costa Ricans are welcoming the change. A wide range of serious crimes have risen sharply in Costa Rica over the last decade, though some, like homicide, have begun to dip.
"Security in general is going backwards. You can't walk in peace in the street, you're not at peace at home, or anywhere," said Roberto Arce, a 23-year-old university student.
But a small group of critics fear that the orderly and deeply democratic nation known as "The Switzerland of Central America" may be losing fundamental aspects of its identity by implementing its own version of the "iron fist" policies in place around the region.
"The United States' fight against drugs, militarizing it, using violence, above all in the cases of Colombia and Mexico, hasn't led to results," said Carmen Munoz, a congresswoman who oversees human rights and national security issues for the opposition Citizens' Action Party and has worked to block U.S. warships from landing at Costa Rican ports.
"We have a tremendous fear that their goal is also to militarize the war against drugs in Central America," she said.
In recent years, Costa Rica has become a base for warehousing and repackaging drugs from Colombia that are then sent north to Mexico and the U.S., officials say. Investigations have confirmed the presence of some of Mexico's most-feared cartels, including the Familia Michoacana, the Sinaloa Cartel and the Gulf Cartel, said Mauricio Boraschi Hernandez, Costa Rica's National Anti-Drug Commissioner. Police also suspect the presence of groups allied with the Zetas, the brutal paramilitary cartel blamed for some of Mexico's most gruesome drug war massacres.
Costa Rica's growing role in international smuggling has fueled the growth of local drug markets, criminal organizations and crimes ranging from homicide to simple burglary, officials say.
The country's crime levels remain the second-lowest in Central America, after Nicaragua, and while tourism hasn't suffered, concern about crime among Costa Ricans is sky-high: the regional LatinoBarometro found last year that Costa Ricans have the second-highest perception of insecurity in Latin America, topped only by Venezuela.
"We have a serious problem," said Carlos Alvarado Valverde, head of the Costa Rican Institute on Drugs, a government agency charged with coordinating national anti-drug policy. "You're not only seeing the growth of the internal market for drug consumption, but the youth are increasingly being recruited for the crime of drug trafficking ... we're talking about true national criminal organizations dedicated to this."
In response, Costa Rica's conservative government has proposed looser wiretapping laws, easier confiscation of suspect assets and quicker approval of US warships docking in Costa Rican ports. President Laura Chinchilla also wants to drop a longstanding ban on extraditing Costa Ricans for prosecution.
As her government cracks down, the United States is training its officials to detect drugs and laundered money. Washington is equipping Costa Ricans with gear ranging from night vision goggles to a $2 million satellite and radio communications station on the Pacific Coast linked to the U.S. anti-drug command in Key West. The U.S. spent more than $18.4 million in direct security to Costa Rica last year.
Logan said the U.S. has deeper ties to Costa Rica than to other Central American countries receiving security and financial aid from Washington. The links include hundreds of millions of dollars in annual tourism revenue and massive amounts of real-estate investment, particularly in retirement and vacation homes. And Costa Rica's lack of an army makes it particularly dependent on U.S. security aid, he said.
"The United States is, and continues to be, the best ally that we have," Boraschi said. "We're becoming, I believe, a good partner."
The United States has funded the construction of two coast guard stations on the Pacific coast and donated two new interceptor boats worth $1.8 million. It funded Costa Rican police training with Latin American military special operations forces at an annual exercise run by the U.S. Southern Command. The U.S. has also spent more than $500,000 to help build a police crime-mapping computer network that the U.S. Embassy likens to the CompStat system partly credited with helping the New York Police Department reduce crime to historic lows.
A U.S. Treasury expert on money-laundering is embedded with Costa Rican law enforcement, helping train them on the fight against illicit funds.
Officials say their crackdown is producing more arrests and drug seizures, although they acknowledge that the rising numbers may also be driven by a higher volume of drugs entering the country.
Seizures of cocaine are on the rise, hitting 15 metric tons last year, although the number has risen and fallen over the years. The number of drug organizations Costa Rica says it's taken down doubled from 2006 to 2012, when 110 local and international drug gangs were hit.
Costa Rica's prison population increased more than 50 percent from 2006 to 2012 after it implemented quicker trials for criminal suspects allegedly caught in the act. Costa Rica now has the third-highest incarceration rate in Central America, after El Salvador and Panama.
Many of those jailed in Costa Rica's drug fight are being held for relatively minor crimes.
Vanessa Jimenez Monge, a 34-year-old mother of three young children, was sentenced to eight years in prison on drug possession charges after police raided the house she shared with her brother, who was dealing crack and marijuana.
After a year behind bars, she hopes to get out in a little less than two for good behavior. Her children have been taken into custody by the government.
"With my children, it's has been my worst nightmare," she said in an interview, her eyes tearing. "They're almost institutionalized, just like me."
The director of the prison where Jimenez lives has become an unlikely critic of Costa Rica's get-tough policies after watching the population she oversees double during her six years in charge. Most inmates are there for drug-related crimes.
"'We'll put more penalties in place,' according to them that's the solution," director Mariela de los Angeles Chaves said. "It's not going to relieve the pressure."
Associated Press writer Cesar Barrantes in San Jose, Costa Rica, contributed to this report.