Another secret helicopter base raided by police

The discovery of another helicopter base in a remote area appears to show that drug smugglers have created an air bridge.

The Policía de Control de Drogas and the Fuerza Pública captured the base Saturday after exchanging shots with one of the occupants. One person may have been wounded, but all fled into the mountains, said the Ministerio de Gobernación, Policía y Seguridad Pública.

The location is on the skirt of Volcán Irazú near the community of Las Asturias in Pococí, Limón.

The ministry said that police confiscated five AK-47 rifles, two pistols and a number of containers, some filled with gasoline and some empty.

Like a similar base in northwestern Costa Rica in Limoncito de Cutris that was located in early October, there was a rough building that served as a living quarters and a helicopter pad.

Law enforcement learned of the location from neighbors who had heard the comings and goings of helicopters, just like in Limoncito. And inexplicably, the occupants of the base there fled and have not been captured.

The ministry did say that two Honduran passports were found among the other articles, which included an electrical generator and a cooking stove. Also located were about $40,000 in U.S. currency.

Investigators became aware of the use of helicopters to smuggle drugs May 5, 2009, when such a craft crashed in a  remote section near Cerro de la Muerte. Killed was the pilot, a person who had worked 15 years in the ministry’s Servicio de Vigilancia Aérea, and a passenger, identified later as a Mexican. The heavily loaded craft was flying to Turrialba from the Osa Peninsula. The flight was considered usual at the time.

The discovery of a second base Saturday raises the question of who is keeping track of what happened in the Costa Rican skies.

The illicit use of helicopters has been suspected since 2004 when the Israeli Defense Ministry said that U.S.-made surplus military helicopters have ended up in Colombia. The five helicopters were delivered to the Israeli Air Force as part of U.S. defense aid to the Jewish state.

The helicopters ended up in the hands of a private company that transferred them to Miami, Florida, with Mexico listed as the final destination. Instead, they ended up in Colombia.

More recently, residents in the high Talamancas  were surprised to see an unmarked helicopter land in their village of  Alto Cuén. The report is that June 30 an unmarked black helicopter landed bringing eight persons who identified themselves as evangelical missionaries. They handed out Bibles to every home. There was a Peruvian, two Costa Ricans and five Canadians, according to the story.

Later the new arrivals adopted military gear and attitudes. Fuerza Pública officers were sent by land to investigate, but what they determined has not been available despite repeated contacts with local police and prosecutors in BriBri.

The encounter has generated a litany of suspicions, ranging from drug dealers to survey work for a new dam, prospecting for precious metals and even a military action by the U.S. Fourth Fleet.

U.S. officials have said that about 80 percent of the drugs that arrive in the United States from the south come by sea. But the sea routes are increasingly better policed by international fleets in both the Pacific and Caribbean.

Honduras is well known as a landing point for fixed-wing drug craft, and police there have been blowing up informal air strips.

Costa Rica really does not have intercepter aircraft that could cause an unregistered flight to land. Land interdiction is difficult, as police found out Saturday, when two of their vehicles became stuck in the mud and had to be pulled out by a tow vehicle.

In what may have been a related action, judicial investigators and prosecutors conducted three raids Thursday night and early Friday in which they detained five men and a woman. The raids were in Curridabat, Sabana Sur and Barrio Escalante.  In the latter location, investigators found an arsenal of 27 rifles, six pistoles, a revolver, explosives and gun powder, as well as 492 kilos of cocaine, said the Poder Judicial.

Three of those detained are believed to be associated with the Fuerza Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, the terrorists and smugglers known as the FARC.

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