Posted: Feb 24, 2014 9:24 PM
Updated: Feb 25, 2014 7:26 AM
COSTA RICA - United States federal agents are hard at work 2,000 miles south of the border. Their mission is to stop cocaine from flowing north toward American neighborhoods.
"We are going to stop it before it reaches U.S. soil," a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer said.
"We'll interdict boats and aircraft that ... carry a much, much heavier load than anything you'll ever find ... going through the border," the officer said.
Cocaine trafficking has a direct link to crime in American, officials said.
Costa Rican officials can't fight the war alone. The country doesn't have the resources.
"The U.S. Border Patrol, they came and formed the border patrol here in Costa Rica," Costa Rican Minister of Defense Walter Navarro said.
Related Link: Visit the Special Report: Chasing Cocaine page
A CHANNEL 5 NEWS crew witnessed the similarities between the Rio Grande Valley and Costa Rica.
Just like in the Valley, drug traffickers try to get rid of their drugs and bail out when authorities spot them. Except in Costa Rica it happens at sea.
U.S. federal agents face off with international drug traffickers. Those criminals will risk anything to escape.
American surveillance cameras capture the chases, and their aftermath.
CHANNEL 5 NEWS is the first South Texas television station ever granted full access to top secret missions in Costa Rica. The news crew witnessed the work agents do to stop traffickers in the air, at sea and on land.
U.S. federal agents are helping start a border patrol in Costa Rica. The Central American nation has no military, no federal police and its borders are open.
"We are just scraping the top," U.S. Border Patrol Agent Jaime Fierro said.
Mexican and Colombian drug cartels settled in Costa Rica a few years ago.
"They use this country as a point of transportation. It (has) open borders, no checkpoints. You can easily bring the drugs, contraband, narcotics, what have you, into the country, stage them and then head up north," Fierro said.
Stopping cocaine loads in Costa Rica has a positive impact in the Valley, Fierro said.
"Obviously, we want to put the right person in place and avoid corruption. Train them correctly, and then build the foundation from there," Fierro said.
American authorities set up a training facility in Costa Rica. The training tactics mirror those used by Border Patrol agents in the Valley.
"It's a joint strategy between two friendly countries with common problems and common solutions," Navarro said.
Cadets are taught how to run a checkpoint. The goal is to stop the flow of cocaine.
The drugs are moved from Colombia to Costa Rica by airplane, boat or semisubmersible. The cocaine, in its purest form, is packed in large bales.
Traffickers dilute and repackage the cocaine in Costa Rica and ship it to Mexico, were it is diluted again.
The large bales are broken up into small packages and shipped to the United States.
Human smugglers also use Costa Rica as a stopping point. Nicaraguans regularly cross illegally into Costa Rica.
Many Nicaraguans carry sharp machetes as protection against border bandits.
"I think it's worse and worse in Nicaragua," Sylvia Flores said. She moved legally into Costa Rica from Nicaragua.
"The poor and the rich ... that's it. There's no middle class. Those with money exploit the poor," Flores said.
Flores owns a store about a quarter mile from the Nicaragua-Costa Rica divide. Flores said she constantly sees people entering the country illegally.
"Police catch them, they get deported and they turn around and come right back. It's an everyday problem," Flores said.
Costa Rica has only 200 agents patrolling its 186-mile northern border.
"We are going to probably see things that they didn't know existed - the smuggling routes, the smuggling techniques," Fierro said.
American and Costa Rican agents raided a remote helipad where they found jet fuel and cocaine.
Costa Rican officials said they also see the need to secure their southern border with Panama. They problem, they say, is the lack of manpower and funds to finance the operations.
Still, Costa Rican officials said their goal is to have at least 2,000 agents to patrol the country's northern and southern borders.
Other countries, like Colombia, also are helping Costa Rica build its border patrol.
The United States pumped nearly $1 million into Costa Rica's border patrol in 2012. The money covered equipment and training.
The lush jade jungles attract countless visitors to Costa Rica. The country also has become a destination for those chasing cocaine.
Massive amounts of cocaine flow through Costa Rica.
Drug runners use airplanes and large, fast boats to transport the cocaine.
Colombian and Mexican drug cartels settled in Costa Rica years ago.
Smugglers are known to open fire on authorities.
High-speed chases happen at sea. Smugglers will often abandon their go-fasts when they fail to outrun authorities.
Authorities use aircraft and boats to stop smugglers on international waters.
A group of U.S. lawmen are part of the effort to stop the flow of cocaine through Costa Rica.
The eight men are based at the naval station in Corpus Christi.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection runs top secret missions with a fleet of Lockheed P-3 Orion aircraft. The agents have orders to stop cocaine before it hits U.S. waters.
The seizures are nothing like the ones in the Rio Grande Valley.
"Large-scale seizures. We'll interdict boats and aircraft that will typically carry a much, much heavier load than anything you'll ever find on land, going through the border," a CBP supervisor said.
Last year, Border Patrol agents seized more than 1,800 pounds of cocaine in the Valley. The P-3s took down more than 119,195 pounds of the narcotic. The drugs had a street value of more than $8 billion.
"It's kind of a cat-and-mouse game. It just all depends on the situation," a detection enforcement officer said.
CBP agents fly over the Pacific and the Caribbean. They use state-of-the art surveillance equipment that allows them to spot speeding boats from high above the clouds.
"Most people look at the image and go, I don't see anything but a big blob there," the officer said.
Agents look at the screen and can tell what type of boat it is, how long it is and the weight of the load.
The airplanes are equipped with an array of cameras. The cameras can zoom in on the smallest detail.
The cameras capture images that serve as evidence of crime running rampant on the high seas.
The P-3s run nine-day missions. Each mission nets at least one bust.
CHANNEL 5 NEWS was given full access to one mission off the coast of Costa Rica.
Coast Guard airplanes also patrol the region. U.S. Navy cutters offer support on the water.
"We are one piece of the pie. We're a big piece, but a piece of the pie," the CBP supervisor said.
Central American nations, like Costa Rica, welcome the P-3s. The aircraft have flown out of Ecuador, Peru Colombia, Panama, El Salvador, Belize and Mexico.
The flights are vital to Costa Rica. The country does not have a military, federal police or coast guard.