“We Live Alongside Drugs in Bluefields”
Bluefields, capital of the South Atlantic Autonomous Region,
is embroiled in a complex and alarming problem that
makes one feel inundated and powerless,
the municipal mayor included.
The municipality of Bluefields covers 5,000 square kilometers and has over 50,000 inhabitants. Six different ethnic groups coexist there, which enriches us culturally but also multiplies our difficulties. Very low self-esteem with respect to the population of the Pacific side of the country predominates in all the ethnic groups.
The increasing waves of mestizos arriving in the South Atlantic through the continued push eastward of the agricultural frontier have increased inter-ethnic rivalry, which is generating new and worrisome levels of violence. The Atlantic Coast will only be transformed through the comprehensive application of the Autonomy Law in all its economic, political, social and cultural ramifications, because it was created largely to recover the value of the coast identities.
First place in all the wrong competitionsWe in Bluefields are famous on the Pacific side of the country for being the country’s most active drug traffickers. We are regrettably also in first place in several other tragic, but much less mentioned, areas. We are first in the percentage of adolescent mothers 15 years old or younger. It is public knowledge that many girls between the ages of 4 and 6 are paid a couple of córdobas (less than $0.15) by taxi drivers for oral sex. We are also first in liquor consumption and in the number of bars. We have the second highest population living with HIV/AIDS. And we have been in first place in venereal diseases since the seventies. On the other side, we rank very high, if not first, in the number of churches, which is an expression of the predominance of a very religious concept of life. Very religious, but not very Christian; a lot of rituals and prayers, but very little social commitment and solidarity.
As mayor, I have met numerous times with representatives of all the churches, with priests, nuns and pastors of all denominations to share my concern about these serious social problems and see what we might be able to do together. They are scandalized and respond, “We had no idea!” But once they do know, nothing happens; nothing changes. The religious sectors remain silent, removed from Bluefields’ serious social realities. It’s a real feat of double standards.
We’ve gotten used to living with drugsThere’s not a single police officer in the majority of communities in the municipality, which makes it easy to deal drugs. And in communities where there is a police presence, the officers have no means to intercept or control the super-modern speedboats that transport the drugs from the island of San Andrés and other Colombian keys. Our coasts’ magnificent fishing potential also facilitates the trafficking in drugs, which are smuggled onto land with the catch brought in by the fishing and lobster boats.
The villagers in both the northern and southern regions of the Caribbean Coast began to learn about drugs years ago, when Colombian traffickers would toss crated plastic sacks full of first marijuana and more recently cocaine if it was discovered that Interpol was tracking their boat. When these surprise shipments floated ashore, they were very well received, especially by the Miskito communities. The Miskito culture considers that “everything that comes from the sea, everything that comes from the river, everything that comes from the water, is a blessing from God.” And because the drug was thus divinely blessed, it was welcomed.
And it still is. There are coast communities where the reverend, the judge and the elders receive the drugs that wash up. These are then split up among them and sold. Poverty-stricken huts are transformed into beautiful residences overnight and everyone knows why. In what may be an exaggeration, the value of the drugs circulating through the different—and constantly changing—coast routes has been estimated at up to US$1.5 billion.
Two months ago I presided over a formal act, together with President Bolaños and US Ambassador Barbara Moore, who were visiting Bluefields, in which the US government donated three used boats so the National Police could patrol the coasts in an attempt to prevent drug trafficking. It seemed a farce to me, considering that the biggest drug dealing takes place in the United States; it is said that over US$11 billion in drug money is laundered annually in New York alone.
I’m the first mestizo mayor of Bluefields; I am a Spanish-speaking Sandinista governing a people with Somocista roots, Liberal traditions and pro-US sentiments. Dealing with the drug problem and all the other social problems in this adverse setting is riddled with difficulties. Before being elected mayor, I was a member of the Regional Council [the coast’s elected autonomous government] and chaired the Anti-Drug Commission, in which I was able to do absolutely nothing. Today, the Liberals are claiming that a PLC victory in Bluefields is a sure thing because Moisés Arana is mayor and that I’m nothing more than a “mayor on loan.” What I really am is a “blocked mayor,” blocked by pressures and manipulations from my own party, the FSLN, by pressures and manipulations from the Liberals and by incredibly limited resources. As mayor, I only administer pittances.
It must be borne in mind that the unemployment and impoverishment in Bluefields is such that drugs permit a great number of people to survive, although they also naturally generate rapid social decomposition. It has become normal to see drugged up adolescents and young people wandering through the streets of Bluefields, which has increased street crime because they steal to buy more drugs. It is calculated that you can buy drugs in around 260 places in the city. We don’t yet have a serious study that allows us to establish the proportion of young drug users in our area, but it is visibly growing. And there are some communities where 60-70% of the population—men, women and children—use drugs, be it marijuana or crack.
We are now setting up a drug rehabilitation clinic in Bluefields with support from the mayor of Palafox, in Catalonia, who is also a psychiatrist, and from other Catalan mayoral offices. This will be an extremely helpful social innovation.
Drugs have become a familiar daily reality to us all. Frequently, for example, the police chief will go to a Bluefields community and the pastor will help him organize a meeting with the local drug sellers, who openly confess that they are selling, but justify themselves by claiming that they don’t do drugs themselves. But after the meeting, nothing changes. When you go to some meeting and hear people explain that the only way they can put food on the table is by selling drugs, it’s hard to draw a clear line between morality, immorality, amorality and double morality. How have we gotten ourselves into such situations? Who can we turn to in order to deal with these realities appropriately? From whom can we demand action?
Half-way measures won’t doI’ve organized meetings with different state institutions following the latest drug trafficking scandal in Bluefields, in which the Bluefields anti-drug chief, Commissioner Larrave, and two other police officers were involved and are now in jail awaiting trial. I’ve argued repeatedly that if we really want results, we have to get fully involved in this problem. And that doesn’t mean closing the small sales outlets, the little housefront variety stores by which many people survive. You close one today and two open up tomorrow. Getting to the source of the problem means unmasking and going after the large-scale beneficiaries of the drug trafficking, who are upper-level authorities and business leaders based in the Pacific. In the drug issue, as in so many other national issues, everywhere you touch is rotten.
Like the rest of Nicaragua, Bluefields lacks ethical and moral leadership and this makes the fight against drugs and any other initiative aimed at social transformation very difficult. There is no ethical leadership in the political parties, the universities or civil society that can convince people and pull them together. This is as true in the Pacific as in the coast. There are a lot of movements in organized civil society, but they lack the capacity, or perhaps even the drive, to organize a disorganized civil society.
It’s tough being mayor when you can’t do anythingIt’s very difficult to be mayor when faced with situations that exceed your possibilities, when people expect miracles and you have no resources, and when institutional coordination is so complicated if you’re trying to get some initiative, some project off the ground. All state institutions have efficient people in intermediary posts, people willing to work, but often it’s those who don’t share that mystique who have the real decision-making power. Furthermore, centralism is still a real burden, while decentralization doesn’t function the way it should.
In Bluefields, the Regional Council has gone a year without functioning at all because of a fight between the FSLN, PLC and YATAMA benches. And it’s not even a political or ideological struggle; it’s a fight over power and control of the resources. Right now, the FSLN isn’t providing any solutions or viable initiatives in the coast.
The reality is that there’s a limited vocation for public service among elected and appointed officials and corruption is tolerated everywhere. I recently met with a hundred municipal employees and a large number of young students from the two universities on the coast, some 90% of whom openly claimed that in public office, “You have to do things, but you also have to steal.” How many generations will have to pass before that way of thinking, that vice of our political culture, changes?