By Alvaro Murillo
SAN JOSE (Reuters) - Costa Rican police detained suspected gang members accused of making and trafficking the synthetic drug fentanyl, officials said on Tuesday, the first such arrests associated with the powerful opioid linked to an overdose crisis in the United States.
Four suspects were taken into custody, two Costa Ricans and two Colombians, along with 1,100 fentanyl pills in an operation backed by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration that included raids in three towns in central Costa Rica, Security Minister Mario Zamora said at a press conference.
The operation also turned up what officials described as a fentanyl laboratory.
The arrests "raises alarms because it confirms the presence of fentanyl" in Costa Rica, said Zamora. He added that the drug arrived from international gangs, but did not go into further detail.
As of last month, Costa Rican authorities had been carrying out 10 fentanyl investigations since last year, according to government data.
Fears that more fentanyl busts are likely coincide with rapid growth in both consumption and trafficking of the drug that is 50 times more potent than heroin, and follows a first-ever seizure of nearly half a ton (454 kg) of fentanyl pills in Honduras earlier this month.
Violent crime in Costa Rica has surged this year with homicides at a record, and the growth blamed on gang turf battles over the country's role as a major transit point for the illicit trade.
The fentanyl arrests come as around 70% of Costa Ricans disapprove of President Rodrigo Chaves' crime fighting record, according to a recent poll.
In the United States, around three-quarters of some 107,000 drug overdose deaths in 2021 involved an opioid, according to government data, as deadly fentanyl is increasingly mixed in with other illicit drugs.
(Reporting by Alvaro Murillo; Writing by David Alire Garcia; Editing by Bill Berkrot)