Little drug traffickers and hitmen: crime and drug trafficking infiltrate Costa Rican schools

The country considered the fountain of peace and stability in Central America is being eroded by the lethal violence that drug trafficking has introduced in Costa Rica, with more than 820 murders reported before November 2023. This is a historic figure, in a context where increasingly children and young people are becoming both protagonists and victims. The organized crime that prevails in the streets of Costa Rica is now seeping into schools and high schools, where cold-blooded murders have already been recorded. A journey from coast to coast by DIVERGENTES allows us to sense the atmosphere that leads thousands of young people to dream of becoming the next crime boss

A student goes through a weapons check before entering the Liceo de San José, one of the largest educational centers in Costa Rica. Photo by Carlos Herrera | Divergentes.

On that Tuesday, two young individuals entered the classroom and inquired about Jazmín. Teacher Mónica replied that Jazmín was the student sitting in the front row, but she didn’t hear because she was focused on completing the Spanish exam to graduate from high school in 2023. The visitors started yelling at her, and she managed to look up, but she didn’t even have half of a second to respond to the accusations they made on behalf of another man nicknamed “Diablo.”

One of the young men fired ten shots into the woman’s body, causing her to collapse first onto the desk and then onto the floor, under the frozen gaze of her younger son, one of her classmates.

“There, el Diablo (the devil) sends his regards, bitch,” yelled one of the intruders as he ran towards Tortuguero Beach. The teachers, in shock, fled later through the river lying on the floor of a boat and covered with plastic for almost an hour, by order of the boatman, and never returned to this town on the northern Caribbean that now bears the sad mark of hosting the first murder linked to organized crime within a school in Costa Rica.

“The hitmen crossed a line that had not been crossed before,” admitted the Minister of Security, Mario Zamora, referring to the escalation of violence and the increasingly gruesome crimes due to clashes between drug trafficking groups.

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“It’s a structural problem that we let grow, and now it has reached educational centers,” explained the Deputy Minister of Education, Leonardo Sánchez. The country’s past security has become a painful present due to the growth of drug consumption and trafficking, but it seems to defy the logic of time and already suffers the criminal consequences in future generations, with the youngest and adolescents on both sides of conflicts.

The municipality of El Tortuguero, in the Costa Rican Caribbean, is one of the most violent areas where drug trafficking thrives. Photos by Carlos Herrera | Divergentes.

In 2023, there are already more than 800 registered murders, and it is estimated to exceed the 2022 historical record by 43%. The homicide rate could jump from 12.6 to 17 per 100,000 inhabitants in just one year, but there are areas where the blood toll is even higher.

Homicides are the leading cause of death for Costa Ricans aged 15 to 29, and schools also reflect the violent dynamics of drug trafficking. Jazmín was already an adult, but in her classroom, there were mostly underage students, recalls Gerardo Artavia, who is a police officer by day and a student by night.

That Tuesday, he tried to reassure classmates and teachers. He took everyone out so they wouldn’t see the woman bleeding on the floor, closed the door, and stayed guarding the scene while the rumor spread rapidly. They had killed the woman who, many suspected, sold drugs in this small and poor town that relies on tourism and money from drug trafficking. The attackers punished her for disobeying a nationally renowned drug trafficker leader, and there was the result.

“I felt useless,” says Gerardo Artavia, who remembers making the instinctive move to grab his revolver, but he was in class and had no reason to be armed.

He is one of the few who is not afraid to reveal his full name to talk about the murder, the frozen face of the victim’s son, the panic on the teachers’ faces, and the gruesome scene in the classroom that, supposedly, 8-year-old children would use for their lessons the next morning.

Reports from educational and police authorities later gave details on the incident on that Tuesday, June 20, 2023, at 6:30 in the evening. Classes resumed a month later. Several students now think that it was a rather predictable tragedy and see a possibility of it happening again.

Illegal drug trade is entrenched in the town, as in many others, especially in this Caribbean region and coastal municipalities, where in some, the homicide rate in September was 87 per 100,000 inhabitants. This indicator is more than five times the national average.

“Living in those areas is like living in the most complicated areas of Mexico,” said Leonardo Sánchez, Deputy Minister of Education, to DIVERGENTES.

The increase in the rate over two years between 2019 and 2021 is now recorded in just two months, noted economist Andrés Fernández, a social data analyst, in an article. Homicides of young people aged 18 to 29 increased by 60% in 2023 before November, and in minors, it’s even worse: 115 (from 14 to 30), according to official data from the Judicial Investigation Organization (OIJ).

Armed fights and revenge stories have worsened in Costa Rica, and now Jazmín is part of the highest annual murder figure in Costa Rica. It was the 419th homicide of 2023, according to judicial authorities.

Three months later, in September, it was confirmed that 2023 surpassed 2022 driven by disputes between drug trafficking groups that have been seeping into the streets, neighborhoods, bars, and now also educational centers.

After the murder in Tortuguero, one-third of the students in the last and second-to-last years left that school. Some moved to the daytime high school, but we don’t know about the rest. Jazmin’s son, her classmate, is a minor and now receives police protection. No one saw him in the classrooms again, but he continues studying remotely. Some classmates believe that the drug-selling business was a family affair and say it without being scandalized.

“If they’re going to kill someone, they should do it somewhere else.”

“Everyone knows what they’re getting into. What one would want is that if they’re going to kill someone, they do it somewhere else,” says a young student cold heartedly, who admitted to having seen the video of the murder recorded by one of the attackers and circulated on social media so that everyone in the town would know “who’s in charge here.”

These are the new realities of Costa Rica, which for decades prided itself on its peaceful and secure environment but has, in recent years, seen shootings on the streets in broad daylight not only in the country’s most troubled districts.

It is a different Costa Rica from the one portrayed in the tourist postcard, that country of privileged conditions that now a majority of the population fears losing. Security is the main problem reflected in polls, and political discussion is no longer dominated by the economy, much less social issues or the environment, but by murders, drug trafficking, crime, or the desire of some for tough measures.

Unprecedented: the shootouts

Pocora School. Principal Moises segura shows what has been seized at the school. Photos by Carlos Herrera | Divergentes.

In 2023, the country witnessed a video of a man shooting another with an automatic weapon in front of a school during the children’s arrival in a municipality called Paraíso, in the Central Valley. There was also news of the execution of a police officer while conducting an operation in a marginalized urban neighborhood in the metropolitan area, by a teenager. Before that, the death of a child, the son of a police officer, had made headlines, killed by a stray bullet that reached his room while he was asleep in the early morning.

There were also reports of a girl injured during the execution of an adult on a Sunday morning in a quiet municipality called Santo Domingo de Heredia, just a few meters away from where elderly people were playing bingo.

Additionally, there was news of a triple homicide of Colombian men in Garabito, a beach municipality on the Pacific, where the police also found a note with a message of alleged popular defense: “stop the killing and extortion of the people of Costa Rica. Wherever you hide, we will find you (…) Neither your money nor your luxury cars nor your luxury houses will save you.” All of this is unprecedented in the reality of this nation, which until recently scored high on the global happiness index.

For years, the country has tried to discreetly manage the deterioration in security to avoid scaring off tourism, investments, or its own identity as a peaceful country. However, the numbers and the cruelty of the crimes no longer allow for concealment.

That’s why, in the current year, businessmen and most opposition lawmakers called for a declaration of national emergency. Still, the government of Rodrigo Chaves rejected issuing such a decree with an argument that also seeks to protect the national reputation: it would only allow bureaucratic facilitations, and abroad it could be interpreted that Costa Rica is joining the list of Central American countries with a state of exception.

Little drug traffickers and hitmen: crime and drug trafficking infiltrate Costa Rican schools
Pocorá College. Photo by Carlos Herrera | Divergentes.

Chaves has stated that El Salvador, under Nayib Bukele, is now a “reference” in terms of security, ignoring allegations of human rights violations on Salvadoran territory. However, in Costa Rica, the situation and legal framework prevent replicating that model.

Without an army and proud of having abolished it in 1948, with scattered and resource-limited police forces, and with a judicial system that, despite higher penalties than the Latin American average, is geared towards protection, the country is facing existential dilemmas regarding the necessary approach.

Some advocate for social solutions or increased investment in security, while others aspire to the repressive methods imposed by Nayib Bukele in El Salvador. Meanwhile, Rodrigo Chaves presses for legal reforms leaning towards judicial toughness.

Among his positions, in addition to blaming lawmakers for questioning his proposals and the judiciary for applying alternative sentences to criminals or being too slow, the president calls for enabling the extradition of Costa Ricans wanted for international drug trafficking offenses and proposes an even more controversial change: treating minors as adults when suspected of being involved in hired killings.

The Minor Leagues of the Narcos

The role of young people and teenagers in the criminal wave is more than noticeable. Hundreds or thousands of them come from poor neighborhoods or broken families, with parents who have been in prison or absent, allowing gangs to provide the sense of protection that minors need, explains Deputy Prosecutor of Juvenile Criminal, María Gabriela Alfaro.

They have grown up in depressed environments in socially and economically deteriorated areas in Costa Rica and have become sources of cheap labor for drug trafficking criminal organizations, as former President Laura Chinchilla has reiterated. Many of these kids admire those who have quickly enriched themselves, and their aspiration is to follow that path, more attractive and exciting than that of school.

This was evident in Pocora, a rural district in the Guácimo municipality, which also belongs to the Limón province, the most violent in the country due to its social and economic situation, its proximity to the maritime route of Colombian drugs through the Caribbean, and perhaps because of the presence of ports that have served as trampolines for cocaine to Europe.

When we arrived at the school, a thin and dark-skinned boy had just jumped over the fence. The police had arrived for a routine inspection of the students, and the 14-year-old boy preferred to escape because he already knows what prison is like. His mother was an addict and no longer has a relationship with him. Now he lives, perhaps, with his ‘bosses,’ the drug dealers who suspect the school director, Moisés Segura.

Interviewing the student is almost impossible. He is elusive, looks distrustful, and leaves. Later, he lurks and observes from the corner of his eye. After the police leave, he walks confidently through the corridors, swinging his feet forward and opening his arms. We approach to talk to him, and he seems to get angry but answers three questions.

-How is this school?
-Very fun.
-How are your grades for the year?
-I’m definitely failing.
-What do you want to do when you grow up?
-Whatever it takes, man, whatever it takes.

Napoleon, as the director calls him for this report, turns around and blends in with other classmates. “Whatever it takes” is a bitter answer in this context. Another student also answers the question about his future desires. “A millionaire, you know,” he replies sarcastically. Others smile, and three look very serious and distrustful. They think the journalist is an undercover cop, so some walk away through the gardens surrounded by metal topped with barbed wire. The classroom doors are made of iron. The entrance gate is closed, and several signs warn that weapons are not allowed, and there are security cameras. At times, it feels like this is not a school but a lax prison.

A young man leaning against the wall caught our attention. He wore sunglasses on his hair and the complete uniform, an unusual sight here. Later, we learned that he is one of the top students, and the student teachers choose to represent the school at events.

He is a smart leader, but he prefers to define himself astute. He talks to us, being careful not to say anything compromising, claims to be always on alert and to have the ability to investigate his classmates before interacting with them or joining a group project.

“Here, any wrong step can have consequences,” he explains, along with another exemplary student who nods and adds, “just like with relationships, one has to know who to approach and who the friends or enemies are out there.” The boy takes it a step further: “I try to analyze who and in what circumstances someone might start a shootout or pull out a machete.”

In such an environment, it’s challenging to concentrate on studying English verb tenses, the physics formula for bullet speed, the history of this tragedy-scarce country, or the socio-economic characteristics of this region where employment is scarce. The kids close to drug gangs focus more on exploiting the student market, while others are more focused on protecting themselves, watching, and foreseeing things.

Here, there has been marijuana and cheap cocaine consumption, liquor sales, fistfights, knife fights on the other side of the gate, robberies, scissor attacks, ‘stabbing’ with sharp pencils, carrying guns, threats of silence, and sexual coercion, according to the students. The principal received a death threat along with a toy revolver. His predecessor warned him to be careful, as here are “the children of crime.” The counselor, Sairis Araya, says that on one occasion, she thought she was going to die.

It was April 15. The police had detected drugs on a boy, and they called his father, familiar with such merchandise but not pleased to see his son in trouble. At one point, the student ran to where there was a large knife, ignoring the orders of all authority figures: the principal, dad, and the police. Araya also watched in fear. Nothing stopped him, and suddenly he managed to snatch the revolver from one of the officers and tried to shoot. Luckily, he couldn’t figure out how to release the safety, but he was willing to do anything. It was class time, and the protocol for a shooting threat was activated. Classes were suspended, everyone went home; the priority is to protect themselves. The next day, some students skipped classes out of fear, but others see it as normal now.

“I thought about resigning because I could have ended up in a coffin,” the counselor told us. “Besides, my son is a student here, and I thought about taking him with me, but I’m from downtown Limón, and there, too, drugs and violence are everywhere, in plain sight because now many take pride in it. It doesn’t surprise me that a kid dreams of being a drug dealer, or at least trying to be. The other option here for many is to end up working on a pineapple plantation for a degrading wage.”

Teachers are afraid. They don’t know what their students are up to and don’t want to know. If they find out, it’s better to pretend, says an anonymous teacher. They also don’t believe they can change the lives of the kids, as the director acknowledges with Napoleon.

“The Devil” or Red Zones

Little drug traffickers and hitmen: crime and drug trafficking infiltrate Costa Rican schools
Inequality and poverty have been the breeding ground for the proliferation of violence. Photo by Carlos Herrera | Divergentes.

In a municipality near Guácimo, in Pococí, Vanessa Vargas, principal of a school, says that a decade ago, these problems were already present, but they were rarely talked about, and now everything is worse. She had to hear a student say he wants to meet ‘Diablo,’ the mythical boss invoked by the murderers of the woman in Tortuguero.

“When you hear those things, you know that all that’s left is to be wise not to end up beaten any day,” says the educator, who only sees containing this wave of violence as possible with a change in families. She corrects herself because she knows that much of the problem comes precisely from families.

In her school, they had to allocate part of the budget to buy metal detectors, to occasionally check students when they get off the bus. It doesn’t guarantee anything, but it’s at least a signal. Anyone can still hide drugs or money. For a kid used to violence or related to hitmen, that can be amusing, a girl at the school in Cariari de Pococí tells us. Next to her, a lady lamented that they confiscated the knife she uses to cut meat in cooking classes.

The municipality where Vargas works is part of the red spots on the national map, where nearly half a million people live amid poverty, crime, and drug trafficking, as explained by Deputy Minister Sánchez.

The problem is that the red category area could triple soon because there are districts that can go from an orange label to red. And that also doesn’t mean that other points are exempt. It is also understood in the metaphorical logic used by the Minister of Security to explain Costa Rica’s criminal situation: “we have a fire in the kitchen that threatens to spread throughout the house.”

Faced with that threat, educational centers are critical. “Where many see an extensive network of schools to enhance the development of new generations, others see a potential drug consumption market that covers almost 20% of the national population, full of manipulable and susceptible people,” says the Deputy Minister of Education.

“Many schools end up turned into minor leagues of violence or markets for drug trafficking. The priority here has ceased to be academic performance and even preventing student dropout. Now, directors fight every day to try to keep schools as an exception zone in neighborhood violence, although they know that many students are already involved with criminal gangs or are on their recruitment list,” he adds.

House on Fire

Little drug traffickers and hitmen: crime and drug trafficking infiltrate Costa Rican schools
The problem of violence and drug trafficking is not exclusive to poor or border municipalities. Photo by Carlos Herrera | Divergentes.

The problem is not exclusive to poor municipalities. The alert is also constant in schools like  Liceo de Costa Rica, an emblematic high school education institution located in the center of the Costa Rican capital.

The principal, Lenín Alvarado, explains while taking out a series of objects related to drug consumption that he has confiscated. He speaks carefully and lowers his voice when he feels he says something delicate. His office is monitored by a security camera, warns a small sign.

He has experience working in conflictive schools and now tries to control risks in this high school, where there are all kinds of students. “Here, there are children of drug traffickers, hitmen, and robbers sharing with classmates from very good families. The students themselves have expressed it, that sometimes in a conflict, they ask not to involve their father because he is the leader of a dangerous gang, and the situation doesn’t call for that.”

The director recalls that there was a moment when a car arrived every day at class entry time to deliver marijuana as if it were fruits or cookies for snacks, but gradually, he has implemented security measures to try to make the school “a neutral zone.” Every two or three weeks, police with specialized dogs arrive to search for drugs or weapons. Outside, a guard randomly uses metal detector paddles. Not a month goes by without coordination with the police, the Juvenile Criminal Prosecutor’s Office, or the National Patronato de la Infancia, the state entity in charge of assisting minors in risky conditions.

Alvarado would like to focus efforts on talking to parents, but there is not always a response. He recounts an occasion when he called a mom about the drug use of Ignacio, 13 years old, and she told him it wasn’t her problem, that she didn’t want anything to do with him anymore, and to find somewhere to take the boy. Coordination was made for custody by the State, but nothing more was heard.

Ignacio is unlikely to continue studying. It is probable that he will join the mass of young people who neither study nor work, a condition that offers a “very high” probability of entering drug trafficking or associated activities, said Deputy Minister Sánchez. In 2022, about 35,000 students dropped out of school, one of the reflections of the current crisis in the education system that has been admired by other countries for many years. Poverty affects almost 40% of the underage population.

Economic problems and lack of incentives may explain this high rate of educational expulsion, but it adds to new concepts about “success.” Academic growth to become a professional and live better is a goal losing ground to the ideal of making money quickly. “Also, there’s another factor that a student once told me very clearly: ‘Professor, I don’t want anyone to congratulate me on my grades, I want them to fear me, which is easier,'” said the counselor of another school in San José, one of the interviewees who fears having their name published in this report.

In the juvenile prison located on the road to the Caribbean, a young man serves a sentence for homicide and now composes songs to try to prevent others from falling into the same trap. He says the gang was like his family, and they promised to always protect him, that if he ended up in jail, they would visit him until he returned to the streets. However, since he was sentenced, no one has asked about him. Only his mother remembers him.

He sang it during an event organized by the Public Ministry to educate other young people, where they also screened a video with other testimonies. There, another imprisoned girl said she wanted to experience what it was like to be deprived of freedom. And another bold-speaking teenager lets himself be seen as vulnerable: “I miss my mom’s food.”

Prosecutor Alfaro is not surprised. She has been studying juvenile involvement in criminal gangs in the drug trafficking business for years. They are not gangs like the ‘maras’ that have brought blood to the Northern Triangle of Central America. They are illegal enterprises with the purpose of making money, and the sense of identity is just a pretext to attract young people to do tasks without exposing other relevant members of the group. That’s why, she explains, the boys are easily replaceable. A young person killed or arrested is not a great loss for the organization. “They are disposable.”

This is evident in crime scenes. They don’t have a single shot precision. There are almost always many casings left, hence the collateral victims. In 2021, there was one collateral death every 50 days, in 2022 every 20 days, and at the beginning of 2023 every eight days. “They don’t have the experience, knowledge, or capacity to do it more coldly, although they are acquiring it little by little, of course. They enter because they feel important and believe it is a way to climb up, as part of their immaturity and lack of development explained from neuroscience,” she adds.

A drug trafficking prosecutor spoke anonymously and summarizes it: “The kids think they are drug dealers and hitmen, but they’re just little drug dealers and hitmen, and that’s why they mess up. More than 20 shots to kill a person, of course, the danger is high for anyone nearby.”

So, is the solution to approve the government’s plan to increase penalties for them? Prosecutor Alfaro doesn’t hesitate to answer: “that is a mistaken approach; that way, we will continue to fail.” She had just mentioned that they are replaceable, that the talent pool is very large, and that Costa Rica already has the highest sentences in all of Latin America for non-adult murderers: those under 12 can be sentenced up to 10 years in prison, and fifteen-year-olds can receive sentences of up to 15 years.

The kids walking the marginal neighborhoods with a gun in their hands don’t know this or don’t care; they think they won’t be arrested or are not afraid of jail, which is more of a school. Or perhaps prison does scare them, but for many, it’s not worse than the life they already have, explains a police chief in Puntarenas, the municipality on the Pacific coast where crimes with kids born in this century have also increased.

In the Puntarenas province, there are at least ten gangs recruiting young people for the drug business and the fight for territories, as reported by the press citing judicial authorities. Violence in Limón has been in the news for several years.

These are entire neighborhoods of people with difficult access to jobs or with occasional jobs like fishing, where drug trafficking groups easily find their sellers, messengers, distributors, and hitmen. A pair of sports shoes, a new cell phone, or a bicycle may be enough for recruitment, but they also start receiving money for delivery services or information about the neighborhood or police operations.

This is how Kedwin, 17 years old, could have entered the path to his death. It was December 2022, and he told his mom, Karol, that he would go to the only hamburger joint in the Chacarita neighborhood, where he used to spend many of his nights with others of his age who no longer went to school. One of his friends called her at one point: they had killed her son with several gunshots. It happened as she knew it would at some point. Hiding in the kitchen of the business did him no good. He was just one more in this neighborhood of widespread poverty, where it’s not uncommon to see children playing at being hitmen with imaginary firearms in amusing imaginary shootouts.

“It’s very impressive what’s happening here. Some leave in cars or on bicycles and play at confronting each other with those toy guns that sound like real ones. People from one neighborhood against those from another neighborhood,” comments a pastor who refuses to leave the community, as several of the parishioners have done to escape violence or direct threats.

Karol, Kedwin’s mother, says she would like to leave too, but she only has enough to live in the precarious dirt-floored house from where she ran out that night. She claims to make a living by ironing clothes for others. Other neighbors suspect her too. Distrust is the norm.

The mother knows who killed her son and sees him often, but she doesn’t trust the justice system or the police. “No one will talk here. The rule here is to look and be silent because if not, you’re next,” she says, about an issue that concerns national authorities because it increases immunity and, therefore, the idea among young people that nothing will happen if they kill another. The reality is that some kids will end up serving sentences in prison alongside other inmates from older generations, like the abundant fishermen who fell into the Puntarenas prison for drug-related offenses due to the logistical services they provided to drug trafficking gangs at sea.

The United States Embassy came to a nearby neighborhood, Fray Casiano, in August to present its social rescue program with an investment of $11 million for social and educational programs, in the logic that the solution here is not police-related, as Deyber Rosales, a community leader, assured. The problem is that this program is limited, and the state does not have similar large-scale projects. Social investment has actually decreased in recent years, as have student scholarships and budgets for educational centers.

The criminal group extends a helping hand, and the youngest try to prove that they are willing to do anything. That’s the reason for the most violent crimes and the most sinister scenes, with tortured and dismembered bodies. “They are worse than us. See what I’m saying, my son is a monster compared to me. Sometimes one is scared of what they can do,” says a neighbor who served a sentence for murder. He agreed to send a brief audio for this report to the cell phone of a community leader. The lady, who asks to hide names, asks us to listen to the message carefully. “Listen well, those men who have already been there and done that are scared and fear what the new generations are doing. Imagine how we, normal people, feel?”.

La información que publicamos en DIVERGENTES proviene de fuentes contrastadas. Debido a la situación en la región, muchas veces, nos vemos obligados a protegerlas bajo seudónimo o anonimato. Desafortunadamente, algunos gobiernos de la región, con el régimen de Nicaragua a la cabeza, no ofrecen información o censuran a los medios independientes. Por ello, a pesar de solicitarlo, no podemos contar con versiones oficiales autorizadas. Recurrimos al análisis de datos, a las fuentes internas anónimas, o las limitadas informaciones de los medios oficialistas. Estas son las condiciones en las que ejercemos un oficio que, en muchos casos, nos cuesta la seguridad y la vida. Seguiremos informando.