Nicaragua's Curse of the White Treasure

(International Relations and Security Network, 27/09/2006)


Editor's Note: This is the third in a series of in-depth pieces on drug smuggling in the Americas. Each piece will focus on a specific city and the surrounding region, beginning with Buenaventura, Colombia and moving north through Central America and Mexico, to conclude with Washington, DC.


Nicaragua is not a cocaine source country, nor is it a major market for Colombian cocaine producers. It is not considered a major drug transit country by the US government. But Nicaragua lies on the western Caribbean route for drug smuggling from Colombia to Mexico, and when smugglers jettison water-tight packages of pure cocaine, it invariably washes up on Nicaraguan shores.


Many who live there, especially the indigenous communities that populate Nicaragua's Caribbean coast, consider anything that comes from the sea and rivers is a blessing from God. The discovery of a discarded package of cocaine is as much a godsend as it is a curse.


They call the cocaine packages “the white treasure.”


Since the late-1990s, when drug traffickers increased their use of the western Caribbean routes as the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and others shut down eastern routes, Nicaragua has had a growing drug problem. Crack use in Managua, the country's capital, can be directly linked to Bluefields, considered by many as a collection and staging area for cocaine collected from the sea and distributed throughout the country.


From the farthest reaches of Nicaragua's remote communities to the poor neighborhoods of the capital, crack cocaine has made its way through the country, enriching many who have no other options for survival, while destroying lives and compromising national security and public health.


The autonomous areas


The eastern half of Nicaragua is culturally removed from the more populated Pacific side. Few roads connect the country's distanced halves. And the government has institutionalized this separation by the denomination of two large tracts of land on Nicaragua's Caribbean side as the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN) and the South Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAS).


The Miskito Island archipelago off the coast of the RAAN faces a problem with fishing. Fishermen there catch lobster as small as four to five centimeters, but what they are looking for is not size as much as weight. Many of these fishermen are addicts, and they know a pound of lobster can be traded for one crack rock.


Some 4,000 fishermen work in and around the Miskito Keys. While they fish for lobster to maintain their livelihood, they know there is a chance of spotting a white package floating on the surface. One 20kg package can be sold for as much as US$60,000, according to a recent article by The Times of London. The paper also reported that up to three major drug trafficking routes passed through waters near the Miskito Keys.


On 25 April, the Nicaraguan navy seized a ton of cocaine from four smugglers – two Colombians, a Honduran and a Panamanian. They were transporting the drugs some 40km to the east of the Miskito archipelago, according to Nicaraguan military spokesman Adolfo Zepeda.


Some of the drugs found in the Miskito region remain there, or trickle down the coast. But, the majority of the cocaine catch is sold to local traffickers who transport the narcotics to the RAAS, where there are more land routes to the Pacific side as well as a major airport.


Bluefields is the focal point of this illicit traffic. It is a coastal town of some 50,000 inhabitants with a thriving tourism industry based on moving visitors up and down the coast through a network of rivers and mangrove swamps. Ferries facilitate the movement of cocaine back into Bluefields, where a local demand market, buttressed by over 250 clandestine drug sales points, creates an immediate reward for boat owners willing to take some risk in transporting cocaine.


Bluefields transit point


When the cocaine arrives in Bluefields, it enters from regions to the north or the Corn Islands, located off Nicaragua's southern coast. They are considered a refueling point for boats that embark from Colombia's San Andres Island, located in the Caribbean Sea between Colombia and Panama.


The local market demand in Bluefields is, in part, buoyed by tourism, but there is also a healthy demand among the local population, which is plagued by unemployment. Men and women, desperate to make a living or simply get through the day turn to crack to ease their suffering.


“I remember when I was mayor and some ladies came to speak with me because one of their husbands had been arrested and she had to continue to sell drugs,” Moises Arana, the mayor of Bluefields from 2001 to 2005, told ISN Security Watch. “She had no other way to survive because she had to provide for her children,” he added.


“Some 80 percent of the people [in Bluefields] are unemployed,” and this leads to depression, Arana said by way of explaining the reasons behind the Bluefields crack market.


Writing in Nicaraguan magazine, Envios, while still mayor of Bluefields, Arana stated that in some meetings he would “hear people explain that the only way they can put food on the table is by selling drugs.”


Arana highlighted that poverty exacerbated local drug use. “There are some communities where 60 to 70 percent of the population - men, women and children - use drugs,” he said.


Corruption also plays a significant role in maintaining the status quo of the drug trade in Bluefields. Jailed traffickers are often released within days because they are able to pay off policemen, judges or just about any authority in a position to enforce the law.


"Juice," a local dealer in Bluefields told The Times of London that he would not spend 17 years for a recent bust for 15 kg of cocaine taped to his body. “In a situation like mine, I have to pay my lawyer $2,000, the state attorney $2,000, and the judge $3,000. I still got plenty of cash left,” he said.


“In Bluefields it is easier for a man [to be imprisoned] for stealing a chicken than for involvement in the drug trade because the drug dealer has a lot of money,” Arana said, adding that the corruption was a serious problem at the national level, as well.


He argues that the drug trade and the corruption that goes with it is a national problem, not just something that afflicts the coastal city of Bluefields.


The Managua “narco”


Nicaragua did not have a reliable land route from Bluefields to Managua until a massive rebuilding effort was started in late 1998 after damage from Hurricane Mitch that same year.


The repair of the infrastructure dramatically facilitated land travel from the Caribbean autonomous regions to the more populated Pacific coast.


The side effect of this development was the creation of a drug trafficking link between Nicaragua's Caribbean coast and the more populated Pacific side cities, especially Managua.


Dr Dennis Rodgers of the London School of Economics is an anthropologist who has returned to Managua on a number of occasions to observe the social development of an impoverished neighborhood there called Barrio Luis Fanor Hernandez.


He was careful to point out that his observations of the growth of the drug trade in the neighborhood could not be used to generalize the drug trade in all of Managua, yet his contact with the community gang's top drug leader offered insight into what the drug trade was like in one of Managua's poorest neighborhoods.


“The drug economy in the [neighborhood] where I work in was pyramidal in shape, divided into three tiers,” Dr Rodgers told ISN Security Watch.


“At the top was the ‘narco,' who wholesaled cocaine. Then came the ‘pushers,' who bought from the ‘narco' and then ‘cooked' the cocaine into crack, which they sold in bulk quantities from their houses. The lowest rank of drug dealers were the ‘muleros,' who were principally the local youth gang members, and who sold small quantities of crack,” he said.


Dr Rodgers explained that the “narco” was originally from the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua and maintained familial contacts there.


“[The narco] quickly institutionalized this, first through family contacts, and then by spreading out his network of beach combers, which eventually led him to meeting the actual drug runners, and very quickly he developed a fully-fledged supply network which reached right to San Andres, via Corn Island. The drugs then came over to Managua by a variety of land routes,” Dr Rodgers added.


Such scenarios have likely been repeated in other impoverished neighborhoods around Managua and in other urban centers along the Pacific coast of Nicaragua.


A deepening public health problem


Managua's population has grown to over 170,000 in the past decade, with many Nicaraguans migrating from the country to the capital city where public health intuitions are more prevalent and the hope of employment higher. The result, however, is that many who settle in Managua find drug addiction quicker than employment.


The National Development and Research Institute (NDRI) is a New York-based research organization founded to study the reasons behind drug abuse, AIDS, and other related areas of public health. A recent study of drug addiction and AIDS, conducted by the NDRI, sought to define drug abuse patterns in Managua.


The research team interviewed at length 121 individuals: 64 were active users, 47 were in the middle of rehabilitation, six had completed rehabilitation, and four did not use drugs but had served jail time for trafficking drugs.


The study concluded that most individuals interviewed were either currently unemployed or had never had a job. Sixty-four percent had been to jail at least once; fourteen had been in jail over ten times in Nicaragua or other countries, including Panama, the US and Switzerland, for drug trafficking or violence associated with street gangs.


Nearly all of the people interviewed claimed that crack was the number one drug in demand in Managua, and over half knew someone who had died of an overdose.


The research team also learned that some university students had obtained work in the drug delivery business, but taxi drivers remained the most involved in transport between points of sale and delivery in Managua.


Drivers interviewed by the research team claimed they knew of at least one or two drug sales points in every neighborhood of the city. Gas stations, in particular, are popular sales points and operate 24 hours a day.


In a 2003 article published by Nicaraguan daily La Prensa, data from the Nicaraguan National Police revealed that there were some 409 drug sales points, called “expendios,” each serving as many as 195 clients a day.


The response


Nicaragua's National Police is the front line against drug trafficking in the country. Outgoing National Police Commander Edwin Cordero claimed that under his tenure, the National Police seized over 13,000kg of cocaine between 2004 and 2005.


In 2001, Cordero more than doubled the amount of weapons and vehicles in use by the National Police.


Cordero's successor, Aminta Granera, has received a comprehensive security strategy formed by Cordero, and close to US$55 million to execute the plan, which includes an anti-drug component, over the next three years.


But even with these steps, some say there is still more to be done. According to Michael Braun, chief of operations for the DEA, “Central American countries are ill equipped to handle the threat of drug-trafficking.”


On 26 April, just one day after the Nicaraguan navy seized one tonne of cocaine some 40km from the Miskito Islands, Braun testified before the US House of Representatives Government Reform Committee's Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy, and Human Resources.


“Police and other drug enforcement agencies [in Central America] are often under-funded and receive inadequate training,” Braun testified, adding, “The corrupting power of illicit drug trafficking organizations on the governmental institutions of Central America significantly increases the difficulties of mounting successful drug enforcement and interdiction efforts.”


It appears Moises Arana, the former mayor of Bluefields, would agree.