On May 23, 2018, Italian fruit exporter Salvatore Ponzo was found dead in a pool of blood, in front of the Italian Embassy in San Jose. Two gunmen had pulled up on a blue dirt bike as Ponzo and his girlfriend were exiting. Ponzo was felled by six bullets, his girlfriend was seriously wounded. This January, Italian courts shed light on who Ponzo really was: a cocaine smuggler who had stolen a shipment of drugs from his business partners, a theft usually punishable by death among drug cartels.
Costa Rican press initially reported that the young businessman had been murdered for unknown reasons, but rumors began to circulate that Ponzo was in fact a suspected drug trafficker who had established a Costa Rican fruit export company expressly to traffic cocaine to Europe. Ponzo, drug enforcement officials discovered, was one of many Italians who came to Latin America to set up drug trafficking operations. His company was called Tierra Nuestra Latina, and Ponzo seemed to everyone to be only interested in sourcing the best fruits for sale in Europe.
Ponzo’s operation was one of the first steps for drug cartels to escalate their activities from providing land transport and logistical support, to taking over the entire supply chain of drugs coming up from Colombia, en route to both the U.S. and Europe. Produce is an ideal vehicle for drug smuggling, since aggressive inspection of fruits damages the shipment. Inspectors are gentler with fruit. Costa Rica was initially ill-equipped to combat this type of sophisticated large scale, transnational drug activity.
Authorities discovered that many of the Italian businessmen involved with smuggling drugs in fruits out of Costa Rica had ties to the Italian Mafia, who already had well-defined networks in place controlling much of the European cocaine trade. Italian prosecutors uncovered that Ponzo’s fruit company had originally been established by his father, Maurcio Ponzo, an old-school Italian Mafia mobster. Ponzo senior became famous for having both the Colombian contacts to source the drugs, plus the network to move the drugs himself to Europe.
Salvatore was a well-known fixture in the fruit trade in Costa Rica, always in his Tierra Nuestra polo shirt and baseball cap. He visited every couple months to check on the operation, especially becoming known in Limon, where large containers of fruit left on the way to Europe. Paperwork was fairly easy to falsify, and customs officials easy to bribe. Limon is considered a drug smuggling epicenter.
Investigators have also discovered that Italian mob bosses use Costa Rica as a hideout/vacation getaway. One of the most famous such visiting Mafia capos was Antoine Lovine of the Camorra cartel. He was registered entering and leaving Costa Rica five times, with stays of six months or more.
These Mafia lords launder money through the purchase of luxurious properties. A spokesperson for the OIJ commented, “They are the owners of these properties, but their names are not on government registries. We know that these Europeans, who are the owners of drug shipments and pillars of the criminal establishment, come and go through these properties, even though their names are not on the titles.
”Ponzo claimed his goal was to “To obtain the best Golden Fruit, so that the whole world could enjoy this product.” Sadly, the real aim seems to have been to develop a better cocaine corridor through Costa Rica on the way to European markets. He seems to have gotten too greedy to stay alive.
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