ONCE Costa Rica was a tourist paradise with unspoilt beaches and low crime – now cocaine cartels are turning its streets into a battleground.

The central American state, sandwiched between the long-troubled Nicaragua and Panama, has seen killings soar by 61 per cent in a decade – with the vast majority connected to turf wars.

Two tons of cocaine seized in Costa Rica

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Two tons of cocaine seized in Costa RicaCredit: AFP
Locals in the capital San Jose are searched by the police

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Locals in the capital San Jose are searched by the policeCredit: AFP
The country is popular with celebs like Millie Gibson

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The country is popular with celebs like Millie GibsonCredit: Instagram

Last year violent death went up by a third.

School children and tourists are now in the firing line, too, with hitmen carrying out assassinations in broad daylight and gangs moving into kidnapping.

For that reason the streaming giant Netflix is prepared to spend £1million on elite security when Holly Willoughby films a new reality show in Costa Rica.

Next week, celebrities will take part in the gruelling rainforest challenge titled Bear Hunt, which survival expert Bear Grylls will co-host with Holly.

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The small nation, which has a population of just five million, welcomes nearly three million tourists every year wishing to taste its rainforests and 600 sun-kissed beaches.

They include 45,000 Brits such as Little Mix’s Jade Thirlwall and singer Ellie Goulding.

But now the Foreign Office warns travellers to beware because “a number of foreign nationals including one British national have gone missing in recent years”.

British journalist Michael Dixon, 33, has not been seen since leaving his hotel in the coastal resort of Tamarindo in 2009 during a holiday and it is feared he was the victim of a violent crime.

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Five years ago the dead body of American bookmaker William Sam Creighton was found after he’d been kidnapped – even though his family paid a million dollar ransom.

It is the record 907 homicides in 2023 that is forcing Costa Rica’s peace-loving, democratically-elected government to take action.

Brit arrested after ‘smuggling cocaine disguised as milk’ out of Colombia

Death squads

The former Spanish colony has no standing army, preferring to spend its funds on education, but is now having to increase its numbers of armed police to deal with drug gangs.

Earlier this year Costa Rica’s Minister of Security Mario Zamora warned: “The violent activities of these types of groups are no longer confined to fighting between gangs, they are also confronting the forces of public order.” 

That followed three pupils in the drug-plagued Limón province being taken to hospital after being shot by stray bullets fired by an assassin wiping out an alleged rival around noon.

Limón, a city on the Caribbean coast, has become one of the biggest cocaine-trafficking hubs in Central America.

The pretty town of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca in Costa Rica

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The pretty town of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca in Costa RicaCredit: Getty
2023 was the most violent year since records began

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2023 was the most violent year since records beganCredit: AFP
Five years ago the dead body of American bookmaker William Sam Creighton was found after he’d been kidnapped

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Five years ago the dead body of American bookmaker William Sam Creighton was found after he’d been kidnappedCredit: Diario Extra
The bookmaker was killed despite his family paying a £1m ransom

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The bookmaker was killed despite his family paying a £1m ransomCredit: Diario Extra

Last year eight people were massacred in an attack on the farmhouse in the region. 

The attackers dressed as law enforcement officers and shot seven of the victims between eight and 16 times as they lay face down on the ground.

The dead included Dany Hernández Fernández, known as Ratón, who was a suspected trafficker.

Last month four men were each given 50-year prison sentences for what was the most deadly massacre in the country’s history.

A number of foreign nationals including one British national have gone missing in recent years

Foreign Office

Limón has the highest homicide rate in Costa Rica – at 33 per 100,000 people. In Britain the homicide rate is 1.2 per 100,000.

There were 14 murders in just 18 days this January and there is talk of a death squad operating in the port city.

But gangs also pose a threat in other parts of Costa Rica, with people scared to go out after dark in some parts of the capital San Jose. 

The country’s Judicial Investigation Organism has linked more than 60 per cent of the violent deaths to drug trafficking. 

And 80 per cent of the murders were committed using firearms.

Cartel Rica

The port of Limon is worst hit by drug murders

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The port of Limon is worst hit by drug murdersCredit: Alamy

Although Costa Rica does not have the right soil and climate for growing the coca plants that produce cocaine, it is on route from Colombia to the United States and Europe.

Cartels in Colombia have massively stepped up coca plantations in recent years to meet demand from countries such as Britain, which is the second biggest user of cocaine per head of population in the world.

Last month British man Scott Brown, 31, was jailed for seven-and-a-half years for trying to smuggle £1million worth of cocaine from Costa Rica in a table.

Brown, from Blackpool, was thwarted when an X-ray revealed the packages.

RAINFOREST ALSO A KILLER

By Matt Hellyer, ex-SAS jungle instructor

THREATS facing Holly and Bear range from snake bites in the jungle to soaring murder rates and kidnappings linked to Costa Rica’s crack cocaine trade.

A security team will recce where they will be living long before they get there.

You have to understand all the risks.

The last thing Netflix wants is to stumble into a narco camp in the middle of a rainforest.

And the environment is a killer: snakes, spiders, mosquitoes and diseases.

If Holly or Bear need an emergency evacuation they might have to chop down trees to create a helicopter landing site.

And that’s if they manage to raise the alarm.

Satellite phones don’t work if you can’t see the sky.

I would install communication hubs to ensure there was a comms bubble over the area.

Have emergency cars on standby and an on-call air ambulance.

I’d also make sure the celebs’ dedicated close protection officers are not just providing security, but also medically trained to work in that environment.

Also in March over a ton of cocaine was discovered in a container of pineapples on arrival at Rotterdam in Holland. Worth an estimated £70million, the country of origin was Costa Rica.

But Costa Ricans are also driving demand for the illegal substance.

The country is 13th in the global table of cocaine use per head of population and crack is sold for as little as one dollar a dose.

Kidnappings and robbery

Crime is not restricted to drug dealing.

In October 2021 US citizen Stephen Paul Sandusky, 61, was found dead with five of his employees at his coffee farm over a 100 miles south of the capital.

All of them were covered in petrol or shot in what the police believed was a robbery.

A rise in unemployment has been linked to the increase in violence, with one third of workers aged under 25 unable to find a job.

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The disappearance of Michael Dixon remains a mystery with his family in Bolton and London frustrated by a lack of breakthroughs.

His brother David said five years ago: “We’ll never give up looking for Michael, not if it takes the rest of our lives.”

Farmer Stephen Sandusky was murdered on his farm in a massacre

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Farmer Stephen Sandusky was murdered on his farm in a massacreCredit: Supplied
Michael Dixon disappeared in Costa Rica 15 years ago

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Michael Dixon disappeared in Costa Rica 15 years agoCredit: Facebook/ Help Find Michael Dixon
Holly Willoughby and Bear Grylls will host Bear Hunt

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Holly Willoughby and Bear Grylls will host Bear Hunt

Source: Sun

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