Politics has long been a magnet for drug money in Latin America. In the 1970s, Costa Rican politicians were accused of accepting contributions from the late Robert Vesco, a U.S. financier who settled in Costa Rica after fleeing prosecution at home. Vesco, some of whose money purportedly came from heroin smuggling, was a major backer of the winning party’s 1974 election campaign, according to former Costa Rican President José Figueres.
At the time, campaign finance activities were not regulated by Costa Rican law. Even in Vesco’s wake, they would remain unregulated for a long time—which, unsurprisingly, led to a new scandal a decade later, when the main parties in Costa Rica were found to have accepted contributions from a number of donors linked to the drug trade. One important donor was General Manuel A. Noriega, then neighboring Panama’s leader, whose involvement in drug trafficking would lead to his ouster from power by a U.S. military intervention in 1989.
By then the Costa Rican experience was hardly exceptional. The campaigns of Bolivian President Jaime Paz Zamora in the 1980s were tainted by accusations of links to drug traffickers, as was the 1994 campaign of Panama’s President Ernesto Pérez Balladares.