Inside a Drug Tourism Economy
We talked to a Costa Rican drug dealer about selling to North American scum.
Lead image by the author
The closer you travel to cocaine's origins in South America, the purer and cheaper the drug gets. Costa Rica is a main artery in the cocaine route for product destined for North America, and as such, it has a thriving drug economy—a portion of which is based on tourists from around the world who go there to party. The Central American country officially decriminalized drug use in 1988, but since decriminalization doesn't address supply, the black market continues to have control. In recent years, violence believed to be related to drug cartels has surged. From 2013 to 2014 alone, the murder rate went up 30 percent. Prisons remain over 50 percent overpopulated overall (women's prison populations, however, have normalized in recent years).
Though Costa Rica's economy has diversified to go well beyond tourism and agriculture, which it once primarily depended on, travel tourism itself still accounts for about 12.5 percent of its GDP. As well, Costa Rica's unemployment rate hovers just under ten percent.
This is part of a VICE Canada project investigating the impact of drug policy in Costa Rica:
Part 1: The War on the War on Drugs
Part 2: The Costa Rica Model: Why Decriminalization of Drug Use Sometimes Isn't Enough
Part 3: Inside a Drug Tourism Economy
Part of the tourism ecosystem Costa Rica plays host to includes travellers who are interested in partaking in drug use, namely the high-quality cocaine typical to the country. VICE spoke to a 23-year-old drug dealer who works in a beachside town on the east coast of Costa Rica to find out how tourism sustains his and his family's lives.
VICE: What is it like to sell drugs in a tourist town in Costa Rica?
Diego*: It's easy here. It's only people from other countries, because here is a point for tourists. It's the best work because you only need presentation talking with these people, and you need to say, 'I have good price, I have good this.' But that's not the real price for this.
How long have you been doing this for?
It's been my work since I was 18 years old. Before, I never worked because I was a student, but when my son was born and was a little baby, I needed to sell to eat and for the family to eat. You need an occupation, you need the money. I had this little boy, I was 18, and I needed money… Here it is standard: If you get caught by police, you go to prison. But I don't care, it is the life. You need the money, you do this… I did four years in jail for sale of drugs.
How was it when you went to jail?
For me, the experience? It was very hard, man, really. You don't live with a family, you don't live with your brother, you're with these other people—not just for selling drugs, but for killing a person.
If you are selling drugs, they put you in cells with murderers?
Yes. And in jail, selling drugs is my work too. For weed, I can get like 200,000 colones, $400 in the prison. Out here, outside the prison, you only know this work. When you get out of the prison and are here for a day, you can do like 100,000 colones here. It depends though, because the boss… This guy, nobody knows him, but if you need [drugs], only tell me and I can go for you.
So you hold nothing on you, you just get the money and you go?
How does tourism affect your business for selling drugs?
Here in Costa Rica, for example, the tradition is when all people come here, you look at something on the internet and you want to party here. They say, 'Look, the price in my country is more than here.' Because there, for one gram of cocaine, you can pay $100 or $200, but here you pay 20,000 colones (40 bucks).
How do your customers find you?
I need to find them. Here it is normal. Local people here, police... They can't speak English. I can have the police there and doing my business, and they can never know what happened. For this reason, you can go up to all people who are from other countries, and be like, 'Hey, where are you from? What is your name? How long are you staying here? Oh, you like to party? You smoke weed? You like cocaine? Acid? MDMA? Anything?' This is the business.
I noticed when I came here and walked down the street, almost every person is asking what you need.
Exactly. Not only me—there are like 20-something or more people dedicated only to this work here.
Do you work together or separately? Or is it like an independent thing?
All people here are independent. But you can work sometimes with other people. Me, I have a partner… He doesn't know the boss. I can only go to the boss because he trusts me. It depends on the person. Here you can go at life like survival, but when you know the business, you can do it with your English, it is perfect. Not only for this, but you can stay with like three girls a week: one from Canada, one from Italy, one from USA. And the other week, you can stay with ten girls or more… When you go to other countries to party, you need drugs.
How do you feel about Costa Rica's drug laws and policing?
It is standard, not for the tourists—once I sold a tourist 14 grams of weed, a half ounce, and the police came and looked at this guy with this and go, 'Hey, where are you from?' Oh so you speak English and not speaking Spanish, OK, go, go, sorry, you're welcome. But if I got caught with this, we'd go over to the police station, and they beat me up and later let me go. You don't have drugs anymore, you don't have money, cell phone, because the police steal it all. Here, the locals like me and others are nobody to the tourists. Here, people don't smoke crack. In San José, it is different. There, they smoke crack, and there are more locals than tourists. It's more dangerous.
What do local people think of drug dealers?
With local people, you never know if they are police because there are undercover police. I never sell to local people. Never, only to tourists… No, people do not look down on me here because of my work. I am also a musician.
What do you personally think of tourists who come here to party?
It's like me when I go to another country because I like all drugs. I need a good price, I need good friends… I need to do good with this person because I think of karma—maybe when I go to another country, it could be me.
So you treat your customers well?
Exactly. It's like me… But if I find out they have gone to someone else, I will raise the price.
How much profit do you make off a gram of coke?
The real price is 7,000 colones per gram here, $14. A good price for my customers is 25,000 colones ($45 US). A bad price is 35,000 ($62 US). For marijuana, the right price for 14 grams (half ounce) is 15,000 ($27 US); for tourists it's 20,000 ($36 US) or bad price, 25-27,000 ($45-$48 US).
What would you normally see cut into cocaine in Costa Rica?
Ibuprofen or baking powder. I would never do it, but other people here mix the drugs all the time.
Do you see yourself doing this for the rest of your life?
I have my plan… I need the money for my family, but if I can have money from this business, maybe 300,000 colones or more for three months, that is 900,000 colones. I think with this money, I can start a restaurant or bar. Maybe I can change later. Maybe in five or six years.
*Name has been changed to protect anonymity.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
With files from Kizmet Gabriel.
Follow Allison Tierney on Twitter .