On Sunday, Sept. 5 at 5:30 a.m., as the first rays of morning sun backlit the gray rain clouds and cast a dull illumination upon the blue rain-chopped Caribbean sea below, a Nicaraguan Navy mariner aboard a go-fast patrol boat trained his binoculars steadily on the dark image of a rapidly approaching vessel.
Less than 24-hours earlier, a similar navy patrol had exchanged machine-gun fire with a northbound Colombian drug boat loaded with 380 kilos of cocaine. The navy patrol quickly captured the Colombian vessel after one of the alleged drug traffickers was shot and the others threw their weapons overboard and surrendered.
On Sunday, however, the mysterious vessel spotted by the navy patrol was heading south, against the traditional flow of most drug traffic that passes through Nicaraguan waters. But the mariners aboard the navy patrol had enough experience to realize they weren’t dealing with ordinary weekend boaters out for a pre-dawn cruise.
The navy go-fast engaged the approaching vessel and ordered it to stop. The only answer they got was a hail of machine-gun fire, as the hostile craft veered west and sped full-throttle towards the shore.
The navy patrolmen gave chase, returning fire and killing one of the suspected drug traffickers – one of eight men aboard the drug boat. However, the foreign vessel made it to the nearby cove, where the suspected drug traffickers beached the craft at full speed and fled into the jungle north of Sandy Bay, in the North Atlantic Autonomous Region.
The navy mariners managed to capture one of the men on the beach, but the other six – including at least one Costa Rican and one Honduran, according to the testimony of the captured suspect – disappeared into the nearby village. The navy intelligence thinks local contacts probably helped hide the alleged smugglers from authorities.
Back at the abandoned boat, the navy sailors found 586 kilograms of marijuana, which they think was probably headed to Costa Rica from Jamaica or one of the other Caribbean producer islands.
After a busy weekend patrolling the Caribbean Sea, the Nicaraguan Navy’s scorecard read like that of the winning team: 1.06 tons of captured drugs, two captured go-fast boats (one in working order); one captured AR-15 assault rifle; one drug trafficker killed, one injured, three in custody and six missing somewhere in the jungle.
While it was an atypical weekend in terms of deadly shootouts on the high seas, in some ways it was also a microcosm of the Nicaraguan Navy’s greater efforts in the war on drugs: for every successful capture they make, they know at least two others are slipping through the net.
“What we are capturing is minimal,” Navy Admiral Róger González told The Nica Times in a recent interview in his downtown Managua office, which overlooks the ruins of the old city.
So far this year, González said, the navy has captured 8.6 tons of cocaine, up from 7.2 tons confiscated last year. But considering how many drug shipments are being trafficked through the region, that’s still just a drop in the bucket, he said.
González said that this year alone, it is estimated that Colombia will produce some 1,500 tons of cocaine – a 275 percent increase from a decade ago, before the multi-billion dollar U.S.-funded “Plan Colombia” was implemented.
Most of that cocaine will be trafficked across or around Nicaragua, due to its geographical location, the admiral said.
Long, Abandoned Coastline
Nicaragua’s extensive and remote Caribbean coast, dotted with small islands, rivers, lagoons and isolated beaches, has long been an inviting territory to drug traffickers. To help with transportation logistics such as fueling, food and water, some Mexican cartels have made inroads into Nicaragua’s Caribbean communities, winning sympathies by throwing around substantial sums of money in poor villages.
Though state intelligence has detected the infiltration of Mexican cartels along the Caribbean coast, González said military and police actions have prevented the organized crime syndicates from growing deep roots in the region. Nicaragua, he stressed, is still not used for drug production or storage.
Some Nicaraguans have clearly gotten rich from the drug trade. In the impoverished and remote coastal indigenous community of Sandy Bay, where most people live in simple wooden-stilt shacks, there are a couple of mansions that González says “are nicer than the nicest homes in Managua.”
But that is still more the exception than the norm, the admiral said.
And those who are getting involved with the drug dealers are playing a very dangerous game, he warned.
“Some people think it’s an easy way to make money, but they don’t realize that they are damaging their community and their families. They don’t realize that if they ever fail to comply with the orders of the drug dealers, they will be killed – or their families will be killed, even though they have nothing to do with it,” he said.
Still, González said, it’s hard for many people to resist the temptation of quick cash. Fisherman and beachcombers who find floating or washed-up bricks of cocaine thrown from planes and boats know who the local drug contacts are, and are able to sell the drugs back to them for $5,000 a brick, he said.
Throughout the coast in otherwise impoverished villages, new cement-block homes and brand new pickup trucks are sometimes an indication of who in town has had the fortune of finding a “white lobster” or “gift from God,” as the floating drug packages are known.
Still, González said, some people turn the drugs in to the military or police – wisely deciding not to get involved in the potentially lethal underground trade.
The Spoils of War
While Nicaragua’s expansive coastline and territorial waters (180,000 square kilometers of ocean on both coasts) offer lots of places to hide, the Nicaraguan Navy is putting up a heroic fight with limited resources. The navy has a total of 40 vessels – three of which are on patrol at all times. They are able to keep part of the fleet in running order by stripping down captured drug boats for spare parts.
In many cases – such as last Sunday – the drug traffickers ruin the motors on their boats by running them ashore full speed. But in other cases, when the drug traffickers surrender on the sea, the navy is rewarded with a new speedboat.
The war on drugs, in fact, provides all kinds of booty.
This year alone, Nicaragua’s armed forces have confiscated 24 vehicles, 7 airplanes, 34 boats, 96 weapons and nearly $5 million in cash. The police, meanwhile, have captured 175 vehicles, 113 weapons, 14 boats, 2 planes, 1 helicopter and nearly $2 million in cash – all just in the first 10 months of 2010.
Between the military and the police, Nicaraguan security forces this year have captured more than 12 tons of cocaine, destroyed thousands of marijuana plants and arrested 1,812 suspected drug traffickers.
“These statistics are recognized internationally, making us leaders in the region (in the war on drugs),” said Nicaraguan Army General Julio César Avilés.
While the navy is allowed to use the boats and weapons that they capture, all the drugs, money and vehicles are turned over to the judicial system.
Numerous corruption scandals have erupted over the past years involving millions in missing drug money and judges driving around in vehicles confiscated from drug traffickers. Nicaragua’s institutionalized corruption has recently prompted lawmakers to introduce new legislation to regulate confiscated drug booty and provide some semblance of transparency in how the money, weapons, vehicles and vessels are managed.
First Police Commissioner Aminta Granera said last week that she hopes the new law will provide more of the confiscated resources to the police and military who are putting their lives on the line to stop the drug traffickers.
Shifting Drug Routes
Nicaragua’s success rate in the war on drugs has also been noted by the Mexican drug cartels that are moving the contraband from Colombia to North America, says Admiral González.
“The cartels know that Nicaragua is the hardest part of their route,” González said. That’s why they’re changing their routes, trying to avoid Nicaragua as much as possible.
Others, meanwhile, have devised new ways to get through the country’s national territory, the top naval office said.
On the Pacific Ocean, he said, many drug traffickers are trying to avoid Nicaraguan waters altogether by passing the coastline some 200 to 300 miles out to sea. Meanwhile, on the Caribbean, drug traffickers are skirting Nicaraguan waters by going all the way out to the Colombian Island of San Andres and then up around to Honduras. Still others are breaking the shipments down into smaller boats and trying to pass through Nicaraguan waters undetected at night.
Along Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast and on the Corn Islands, residents claim it is not uncommon to hear speedboats passing at night without running lights. While the smaller boats are much harder to pick up on radar, not all are slipping through.
“Most of our drug busts on the ocean are coming at night,” González said.
The admiral said many drug traffickers have started to use the area of Barra de Colorado, on the northern Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, as a new staging area to divide up drug loads before making the push across Nicaragua. He said the conditions of Barra de Colorado make it a good spot for drug traffickers to avoid authorities (see separate story TT, Page 8).
Once the drugs are separated into smaller shipments, some are also being smuggled up the San Juan River into Lake Nicaragua.
Cooperation & Aid
In some ways, the international drug trade is one of the best examples of Latin American integration: the Colombians produce the drugs, the Mexicans transport and sell the drugs and Central Americans play an important logistical support role.
The response to such a globalized enterprise must also be one of international cooperation and integration, González stressed. The admiral said the Nicaraguan military is in constant communication with neighboring security forces as well as the U.S. Coast Guard, which provides direct intelligence to the Nicaraguan Army.
The U.S. government provides millions each year in drug-war aid to Nicaragua – $24 million over the past four years, according to U.S. Ambassador Robert Callahan. But President Daniel Ortega, who has repeated railed against the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), thinks the U.S. government should give much more.
“We are not satisfied with the $2 million that the United States gives Nicaragua – that’s just a few pennies; it doesn’t cover very much,” Ortega said.
The president also complained that the aid is conditioned for specific areas and that the DEA “asks favors of us” by asking Nicaragua to stop drug shipments here.
González agrees that Nicaragua needs more aid and support in the war on drugs, but says his mariners’ sense of patriotic duty and love for the patria have translated into success, even without the big bucks.
“We are willing to go out into the sea at any time, day or night,” the admiral said. “And with the few resources we have, we have learned to administer them well to have a constant presence on the seas.”