LIBERIA, Costa Rica (AP) -- On a recent Friday morning at a gleaming new international airport in Costa Rica, hundreds of tourists from New York and Minnesota emerged blinking onto the sun-blasted tarmac. At the other end of the runway, eight Americans zipped into tan flight suits aboard a massive white surveillance plane.
As four propellers roared, the P3 Orion flew out above the tourists and over the hotels and beach clubs of the Pacific coast, its bulbous radar dish scanning for speedboats loaded with U.S.-bound cocaine. In the cabin's bank of radar screens, a dot pulsed just north of Panamanian waters. The P3 swooped down to 1,000 feet and soared past a tiny Costa Rican fishing boat. Using a long-lensed digital camera, one of the military veterans snapped a string of photos. A colleague radioed the boat's details back to the U.S.
This prosperous paradise of golden beaches and lush cloud-forest preserves is throwing itself wholeheartedly into the U.S. war on drugs as a flood of cocaine shipments and a surge in domestic crime erodes Costa Ricans' sense of proud isolation from the problems of the rest of Central America. Crime levels here are among the lowest in the region, but many Costa Ricans fear even the slightest possibility that their country could become more like Mexico, Guatemala or Honduras, where the unchecked power of drug cartels and ordinary criminals have millions of people living in fear.
In 1948, Costa Rica abolished its army, plowing money into education, social benefits and environmental preservation. As a result, Costa Rican officials say, the country whose laidback national slogan is "pura vida" -- pure life -- is poorly equipped to battle ruthless and well-equipped Mexican drug cartels. To assist, the U.S. is patrolling Costa Rica's skies and waters while also providing millions of dollars in training and equipment. The Costa Rican government, in turn, has launched a tough line on crime backed by a top-to-bottom transformation of its law-enforcement and justice systems.
"Costa Rica is today the closest the U.S. has to a protectorate in Central America," said Sam Logan, director of Southern Pulse, a risk-analysis firm focused on Latin America.
Fed up with crime, many Costa Ricans are welcoming the change. A wide range of serious crimes have risen sharply in Costa Rica over the last decade, though some, like homicide, have begun to dip.
"Security in general is going backwards. You can't walk in peace in the street, you're not at peace at home, or anywhere," said Roberto Arce, a 23-year-old university student.
But a small group of critics fear that the orderly and deeply democratic nation known as "The Switzerland of Central America" may be losing fundamental aspects of its identity by implementing its own version of the "iron fist" policies in place around the region.
"The United States' fight against drugs, militarizing it, using violence, above all in the cases of Colombia and Mexico, hasn't led to results," said Carmen Munoz, a congresswoman who oversees human rights and national security issues for the opposition Citizens' Action Party and has worked to block U.S. warships from landing at Costa Rican ports.
"We have a tremendous fear that their goal is also to militarize the war against drugs in Central America," she said.
In recent years, Costa Rica has become a base for warehousing and repackaging drugs from Colombia that are then sent north to Mexico and the U.S., officials say. Investigations have confirmed the presence of some of Mexico's most-feared cartels, including the Familia Michoacana, the Sinaloa Cartel and the Gulf Cartel, said Mauricio Boraschi Hernandez, Costa Rica's National Anti-Drug Commissioner. Police also suspect the presence of groups allied with the Zetas, the brutal paramilitary cartel blamed for some of Mexico's most gruesome drug war massacres.
Costa Rica's growing role in international smuggling has fueled the growth of local drug markets, criminal organizations and crimes ranging from homicide to simple burglary, officials say.
The country's crime levels remain the second-lowest in Central America, after Nicaragua, and while tourism hasn't suffered, concern about crime among Costa Ricans is sky-high: the regional LatinoBarometro found last year that Costa Ricans have the second-highest perception of insecurity in Latin America, topped only by Venezuela.
"We have a serious problem," said Carlos Alvarado Valverde, head of the Costa Rican Institute on Drugs, a government agency charged with coordinating national anti-drug policy. "You're not only seeing the growth of the internal market for drug consumption, but the youth are increasingly being recruited for the crime of drug trafficking ... we're talking about true national criminal organizations dedicated to this."