Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 353 | Diciembre 2010



Societal Validation for Drug Trafficking Is Growing

This expert on issues of public security and organized crime analyzes data and instances of international and national drug trafficking activity on Nicaraguan soil.

Roberto Orozco

Aphenomenon has appeared on the Caribbean Coast, in Managua and different areas on the Pacific Coast that we consider extremely dangerous: societal legitimization of drug trafficking. And it’s growing. National organized crime structures also exist in these places. When we hear the words “organized crime” we think of big Colombian or Mexican mafias, but national and local organized crime is already among us and it’s more dangerous than international organized crime. We at the Strategic Studies and Public Policy Institute (IEEPP) have already been warning the authorities.

What the IEEPP is and does

The IEEPP is an NGO set up in 2004 with the basic aim of studying security and defense issues. At that time we noticed there was no civil society representative working on these issues, so they were the exclusive property of the National Police and Nicaraguan Army. We also saw that civilians weren’t participating, neither the political leaders of these two institutions, nor those responsible for exercising legislative and democratic control over them. Furthermore, no trained personnel were studying these issues. These were our main concerns and the reason we came into existence.

We continued to specialize in the field as we went. We took courses at the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies (CHDS) at the US National Defense University and set to work. These days the IEEPP dedicates itself not only to studying public security and national defense, but also has other programs: transparency and public expenditure. We’ve grown to be an organization of 20 people, half of whom are in operations; and we have four senior researchers. In my case, I devote my time to the study of public security and organized crime from an academic perspective, but I don’t have anything to do with State intelligence bodies or the National Police. I’m just a civilian who conducts academic research to identify and understand the impact of these two phenomena. The nature of our work is to produce quality information for decision-makers, for those who design public policy. We undertake academic research into the reality and present our findings to the State.

Central America lies between
the supply and the demand

One of the first pieces of raw data we came across in our research into organized crime was this: drug seizures have been on the rise in Nicaragua since 1994. From that year on, seizures started to increase. But are all drugs that pass through Nicaragua caught? We don’t have information on how many drugs pass through Nicaragua, but the UN Office on Drugs and Crime has a theory that the amount of drugs decommissioned in any country is barely 10% or 20% of what comes into it. The UN has never revealed the method they used to arrive at this declaration and some academics and scientists dispute it, but it’s a figure that’s out there.

The Organization of American States (OAS) and the UN state that 90% of the cocaine produced worldwide passes through Central America. The Andean region—specifically, Colombia and Peru—is the world’s greatest cocaine producer. According to the UN, Colombia manages 80% of world production and Peru the other 20%, while Ecuador and Bolivia provide the raw cocaine paste. The country with the greatest consumption worldwide is the United States. According to the US Health Department’s latest survey in 2008, there are at least ten million drug users in the country, of whom two million use cocaine. This generates a significant demand for cocaine produced in South America.

It’s obvious that if the Andean region produces all the cocaine that circulates worldwide, and the US has the great consumer market, Central America is geographically situated between the supply and the demand and for this reason great quantities of the drug necessarily have to pass through the isthmus, whether by air, sea or land.

One among many illegal markets

It’s necessary to understand that drug trafficking is basically just one more market among the many legal and illegal ones that exist internationally. A theory appears in Illicit, a book by Moisés Naím, about the lost wars waged by national States against five illegal markets he identifies as the major ones: piracy, drug trafficking, people trafficking, arms trafficking and money laundering.

Some eleven illegal markets operate in Nicaragua, among them a completely harmless one, the illegal reproduction of film and music CDs. This piracy, now punishable under the Penal Code and Copyright Law, generates income for a huge number of Nicaraguan families on the order of US$ 100,000 a month, according to recently published studies.

It’s been estimated that illegal financial systems are sustaining the family economies of 60-65% of the Nicaraguan population and that most people who make a living from the informal economy in Nicaragua do so thanks to illegal markets. Drug trafficking is just one such system.

The only way we have of estimating the amount of drugs passing through Nicaragua is by analyzing the profile of the shipments that are seized. In 1994, 1,333 kilos of drugs were seized in operations by security institutions in the entire national territory. At that time it was a huge figure and was considered a success because only 300 or 360 kilos, 500 kilos maximum were seized previously. Starting that year, figures began to rocket. In 2005, 7,311 kilos were seized, so from a ton and a half we jumped to seven and a half tons. In 2008, 15,352 kilos were seized. Although we don’t yet have the figures for 2009 or this year, we can see a trend without any doubt, especially as indicators of trends can only be seen over time. What we are seeing is a growth trend, never a reduction.

To what do we owe this increase? There are various explanations. Some say that drug production has increased. Another reason could be that the Police are doing a more effective job. It could also be that coordination between our Police and the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and Coast Guard operating in the Nicaraguan Caribbean under the bi-lateral agreement signed between the Nicaraguan and US government is becoming more effective.

Most of those caught are Nicaraguan

Drug trafficking must be analyzed in both its modes: transnational trafficking, which refers to the huge shipments that pass from country to country until they reach the US and Europe, and national trafficking, technically known as micro trafficking, drug retailing or drug dealing.

In this regard, another piece of information that caught our attention is that 3,695 people were detained for activities related to drug trafficking in 2008. Of those, 1,887 were captured for international trafficking, only 2.4% of whom were foreigners. This means that nearly 98% involved in international drug trafficking were Nicaraguans. In that same year, 2,808 people were captured for domestic trafficking and all of them were Nicaraguan, none were foreigners. The next year, 4,646 people were captured for drug trafficking activities, almost 1,000 more than in 2008. Of these, 2,179 were arrested for international trafficking and all but 88, or 4%, were Nicaraguan. Most of the foreigners captured are Guatemalans, followed by Mexicans and Colombians.

So what are we seeing here? That a considerable quantity of Nicaraguans are already involved in international trafficking, and more and more of them are involved in both drug trafficking modes. Why? It’s simple: many people in Nicaragua get to eat thanks to drug dealing and that’s the major social impact of drug trafficking on our country.

Increasing Nicaraguan participation in both national and inter¬national trafficking means there are geographical areas of our country with a growing international drug trafficking presence and more and more Nicaraguan cities with people working in the domestic drug market. In 2009, 2,467 people were arrested for domestic dealing, 12.8% of them women.

The traffickers’ MO changed
because enforcement changed

The modus operandi of drug traffickers in Nicaragua doesn’t differ from the way they operate in the rest of Central America and in Mexico. It was stated that Central America was a transit route for drugs some seven years ago. But around three or four years ago Central American countries, Nicaragua included, ceased being just a transit route and started offering concrete support to international organizations in all aspects of their drug trafficking : intelligence information, security, logistics (fuel and food) and warehousing.

This has happened because the drug trafficking MO itself changed due to enforcement actions by the Central American countries’ police or military operations in coordination with the US Coast Guard and the DEA. Until a short while ago a speedboat carrying one or two thousand kilos of cocaine and equipped with three 200-horsepower outboard motors could leave Barranquilla or any coastal Columbian province and travel directly to Louisiana, Miami or New Orleans. In those days the US Coast Guard didn’t patrol Central American Caribbean waters. All this began to change around 1992 when Nicaragua was the first to sign a bilateral cooperation agreement with the US to prevent drug trafficking in Nicaraguan waters. Later on, thanks to international pressure, other Central American countries followed. US Coast Guard frigates and a DEA helicopter now patrol the Caribbean, mostly Nicaraguan waters, which is one reason more cocaine is seized in Nicaragua than any other country in the region.

With more vigilance, international drug traffickers had to change their way of operating. They no longer travel direct, but go from country to country. Rather than going from Colombia directly to Mexico, they now go to Panama and from there to Costa Rica, then to Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, hopping from country to country. In each place they hide drugs to carry later. To succeed in these operations, they’ve been building a network of logistical support along the entire Central American Caribbean coast, including Nicaragua’s, with people who provide them support: mostly in the coastal communities of Prinzapolka, Tasbapouni, San Juan de Nicaragua, Wawa, Whounta, Bismuna, Cabo Gracias a Dios, Prinzapolka and others. A broad social support base has been created in all these places. People in the community are assigned to supply all the international traffickers’ needs, providing them fuel and food, guaranteeing their safety, etcetera.

A state within the State
on the Caribbean Coast

There are now also armed groups of both Nicaraguans and foreigners who are responsible for the traffickers’ protection in these areas. Let’s not forget what happened in Walpasiksa, on Nicaragua’s Northern Caribbean Coast, on December 8, 2009, when a naval officer and a member of the National Police died in a shootout with Colombian drug traffickers supported by armed cells in that Miskito community.

They’re like a State within the State. One of the great vulnerabilities that drug trafficking takes advantage of is precisely the State’s absence. In these zones, by the time state authorities realize drug traffickers are present, they’ve already been working there for some time. How did they find out about Walpasiksa? Because a light plane belonging to Columbian drug traffickers crashed there. If it hadn’t, they wouldn’t have known, because the whole community was helping them. In the investigation conducted afterwards, an notebook belonged to a Columbian trafficker was found that contained lists of people in the community who received a monthly stipend for providing logistical support and guaranteeing security: between 3,000 and 5,000 córdobas ($137 - $230) a month each. Even the Moravian pastor was on the list. This indicates a high degree of legitimization or at least acceptance of drug trafficking activities in these areas.

Social legitimization of drug trafficking

A dangerous new phenomenon is on the rise in areas like these on the Caribbean Coast and also on the Pacific Coast and in Managua : societal legitimization of drug trafficking activities. People are legitimizing it because they see a development aspect to drug trafficking. It’s easy to imagine why. An abandoned indigenous Miskito community that gets its medicine from roots and leaves of jungle trees and all its food from the sea or the land, a community for which the State has never been able to provide infrastructure for economic development, or to show its presence through health or education, or even the police or army, sees a foreigner show up with an massive amount of dollars and only needs one contact in the community to start handing out money and buying people. How do we expect it to react?

If you look at the map of extreme poverty in Nicaragua, the one based on the unmet basic needs method, you’ll see that the Caribbean region has the worst indicators. In this sort of situation, the foreigner who hands out money quickly becomes the community’s leader because he economically maintains several members of the community or its main leaders or even the entire community. And people see that this business brings them benefits. With this money they can now build a cinderblock house instead of their little wooden plank one built on stilts so it doesn’t flood during the rainy season. Later they can have their own electricity system and a satellite telephone and satellite television too. In other words they see a change in their lives and see that drug trafficking is bringing them this change.

Our work and our responsibility are to tell the State what’s happening: in Nicaragua societal legitimization for drug trafficking is growing. When we tell them, the authorities reject this vision. To accept it would be to recognize they’ve had zero effectiveness in fighting drug trafficking on the Caribbean coast. We believe that in cases like this one, drug trafficking can’t be fought with enforcement actions alone, with bigger military or police actions. If the State can’t provide these communities with economic and social conditions so they can change their economic activity and choose opportunities for their development, they’ll go on supporting drug trafficking because it benefits them in a way the State never has. In other words, drug trafficking has replaced the State in offering direct benefits to these communities.

Bluefields and Managua finally
have something in common

Is something similar happening on the Pacific Coast, in Managua? Let’s look at some drug retailing data. For domestic drug dealers, retailing generates a weekly profit of US$170,000, equivalent to almost 40% of everything sold in a week in the Oriental Market, Central America’s biggest street market. According to official figures from the National Police’s Drugs Investigation Department, Managua is the main marketplace for the illegal use and sale of drugs and the place with the highest number of outlets in the country. Officially, there are 992 outlets in the whole country, but a former director of the National Police’s Drug Unit stated unofficially that it’s closer to 10,000. On the whole, I tend to believe him.

Bluefields is Nicaragua’s second market place for drugs. I just got back from there two weeks ago and what’s happening is dramatic. Drugs are being used openly in public places without any problem. People use them in squares or on street corners and when the police walk past, they have to look away because they could even get killed if they say something. A report from the Bluefields Psychosocial Care Centre states that in the first eight months of 2010 they treated 6,500 primary and secondary pupils for some degree of drug addiction. The drug dealers have set up business around the schools. The nuns in the Divino Pastor School in the Santa Rosa neighborhood are desperate; they don’t know what to do. The drug dealers have made holes in the school walls (which now look like Swiss cheese) to pass drugs through. They give them free to the children to create addiction. The Bluefields police chief, Commissioner Manuel Zambrana, said in a public conference that the police there no longer have the capacity to fight drug dealing in the city. It’s an institutional statement. The situation is extremely complicated because drug dealing has penetrated the city’s social fabric, turning over an enormous profit.

The same is happening in Managua. Drug traffickers have already managed to penetrate the social fabric of many neighborhoods and people no longer care if the police raid their home and confiscate a few drugs. There’s a big, strong market now that has set up an entire organization so these raids don’t mean a thing.

The structure is a chain with at least three links

A market such as this one in Managua and various other places in Nicaragua can’t operate without a structure, without a chain that has at least three links. The first link is the main supplier. He’s the one who obtains the drugs in considerable quantities and delivers them to the dealers, whether on concession or sold outright. We don’t have a figure for how many main suppliers there are in Managua, but we do know they don’t exactly belong to society’s lowest strata. We also know some of them have made such a profit that they’ve set up other businesses, many in the transport sector, a sector closely linked to international drug trafficking.

When these main suppliers deliver drugs on a concession basis they hand over a kilo for example to the dealer, who pays them and keeps some of the profit for himself. In these cases the dealer cuts the drugs, adding talcum or some other powder to make the kilo bigger and make more money. The next link is the owner of various outlets where the neophyte dealers go, those who are just starting. At the end of the chain is the user.

This chain is causing violence in the neighborhoods; it causes youth violence, promotes violence in youth gangs, and causes muggings, robberies with intimidation and other crimes. The sale and use of drugs has a direct impact on public order. We believe that police figures should detail the causes of crime, indicating how many of those registered are committed under the influence of psychotropic substances. We know about a whole range of crimes committed under the influence of alcohol but not how many are committed under the influence of crack, cocaine or inhalants.

In many places in Nicaragua drug dealers have started out selling little bags of crack and after a while have managed to become transport entrepreneurs or landlords or have bought up tracts of land in Managua’s shanty towns. The main supplier, the one with more money and more time in the business, goes to the poor shanty towns and buys one, two or three adjacent plots to set up another outlet there and start creating drug use and addiction. This happens regardless of whether the neighborhood is new, being developed or already established.

How drug money is laundered

Money from drug trafficking isn’t being laundered through the national financial system. The activity that causes most money laundering in Nicaragua is the smuggling of commerce through customs; all the merchandise, mainly cigarettes, that passes through customs without paying duties. The big traders that work in such smuggling deposit the money they make in banks in Panama and the Cayman Islands.

So how does drug trafficking money get laundered in Nicaragua? Through land purchases: urban lots and country estates. It’s also invested in companies and the construction of buildings and malls, furnishings and luxury cars.

The only national survey done in Nicaragua on drug use was in 2006. It was funded by the OAS Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD), which supported the National Council for the Fight against Drugs, a state institution responsible under Nicaragua’s Law 285 for guiding national public policy against drug use and trafficking. According to this survey, 4.8% of the country’s was using illegal drugs that year, around 250,000 people. Has the number of users grown or shrunk? Nobody’s done a second survey that might answer this question.

Nicaragua’s drugs of
choice and who uses them

The drug most used in Nicaragua is marijuana. In second place is crack, a cocaine derivative, and in third place powdered cocaine. In Nicaragua marijuana is grown, although not in huge quantities, in Matagalpa, Waslala, Jinotega, the Mining Triangle (the municipalities of Siuna, Rosita and Bonanza), and in Bosawas in the north of the country. Due to economic needs some farmers rent their land to marijuana growers. This marijuana is essentially for national consumption; it never reaches the international market and is sold mainly in Matagalpa, Jinotega and Managua.

Crack is consumed in great quantities. For a while it was considered the drug of the poor, but now it’s used by all social classes. It was believed that poor people used it because a small rock only cost 5, 10 or 20 córdobas, depending on its size. Smoking it would produce an effect in two or three minutes. After a short time, given that it’s highly addictive, they would have to use more.

Crack addiction is very intense. Experts state that no other drug causes such physical, psychological and emotional dependence. It’s a stronger addiction than that caused by cocaine, alcohol or marijuana, forcing one to use continually, which produces all sorts of illnesses and even death.

I was involved in an investigation on drug retailing in order to find out about illegal dealing in Managua and during it I had a chance to review the files of several NGOs committed to rehabilitating the capital’s drug addicts. In these files I found users who spent up to 30,000 córdobas a month on crack alone, close on US$1,500. A poor person couldn’t afford that, no matter how much he might steal. When I saw the surname of one person who consumed that amount I realized I was looking at people from society’s highest classes. Nobody’s aware of it because these people have the means to travel to Costa Rica or Miami to get treatment for their addiction. All we see are the rehabilitation centers run by NGOs, which are full of people with very little money.

A CICAD study prior to 2004 on the use of illegal drugs among high school students throughout Latin America shows a consumption range very similar to that of Central American young people: more or less 5% to 6% used drugs. Alcohol was also included in the study, and its most important finding was that alcohol led on to illegal drug use. The age when alcohol and drug use started was 13 to 14 among boys and 15 to 16 among girls. According to the study’s survey, use of other drugs starts after experien cing the effects of marijuana. They start with alcohol, then move on to marijuana and later to crack or cocaine. Currently we’re seeing many students smoking what they call “icing” or “banano,” a joint of marijuana spiked with crack or cocaine.

Organized crime in Nicaragua

If drugs are supplied to such a large domestic market in Nicaragua, it means that national organized crime structures exist. According to official figures so far this year, there have been 40 hit-man-style murders as a result of organized crime in Bluefields alone. The annual national homicide rate is 13 per 100,000 inhabitants per year; a rate already amply exceeded in Bluefields. The hit men carry out contract killings, which are always vicious; hit men kill to order. These murders are connected to drug trafficking and cattle rustling and when a drug trafficker kills, he’s making a show of his power. There are four reasons why a drug trafficker kills: when drugs are stolen, when money is stolen, when they’re ratted out to the authorities and when someone takes the boss’s woman.

The situation in Bluefields is getting more and more difficult. Gerardo Suárez, the Bluefields regional prosecutor, had to be taken out of the city by the National Police, secretly and quickly, according to a national newspaper. The unofficial information is that the National Police chief in Bluefields arrived at work one day and found a piece of paper on his desk that said: “Don’t mess with us, son of a b… because we’ll kill you.” In his very own office! Although this information hasn’t been confirmed officially, it was reported in the media. Trying to be impartial, I believe that Bluefields is going to be our Ciudad Juárez. Let’s not forget that early in 2004 four police officers were murdered in Bluefields, also inside the police station itself.

Drug trafficking in Bluefields has got to the point where it’s so powerful it’s now flexing the muscles it has in the social base that supports it. It already has enough power to mess with the local authorities, but it hasn’t yet messed with the national ones. The threat to the prosecutor is an indicator of the strength it has achieved: he wouldn’t have been threatened if they didn’t have the ability to carry through. It’s a threat that must serve as a wake-up call.

When I got to Bluefields I saw several Hummers on the streets, a luxury in contrast to the city’s poverty. Walking through some of this city’s neighborhoods, you can see houses that have no reason to envy the most luxurious ones in Managua. Don’t the local police realize this person or that one who didn’t even use to have anywhere to live is now a great millionaire? Of course they do, but it’s a huge risk for them, since they’ve already declared their inability to confront the local traffickers.

In Bluefields drug trafficking has invaded schools, universities and neighborhoods. When it reaches these levels the only available means of returning order is a direct enforcement coup. A stand-off, something like the Brazilian government had to do recently in some of the Río de Janeiro favelas, sending in the army and police to strike hard and break up the local strongholds. When drug trafficking has grown to such an extent no other intervention is possible.

The National Police tend to regard these as isolated cases, exceptional problems. But when systematizing all the information resulting from our academic study, we see a pattern that concerns us: a permanent presence of national organized crime structures in several of the countries’ municipalities.

The supply sources for the national market

National organized crime structures must be set up and operating in order to guarantee a supply of drugs to the national outlets. And they are. How are they supplied? There are four supply sources for the national market. The first is the payment in drugs made by the transnational organizations to those who provide them with logistic support. For example, there are cells in Rivas that help get drugs through the border zone and instead of bing paid with money, they’re paid with drugs, which then feed the local market.

Another source of supply is through theft. In Rivas there are organizations the police call drug “choppers,” which are led by former soldiers and police officers. They assault the transnational organizations. In one case there they stole 800 kilos of drugs, much of which ended up on the national market. Two men involved in this theft were subsequently killed when travelling on the Pan-American Highway. Their moving vehicle was sprayed with gunfire, in the best style of the Mexican mafias.

In Central America we’re aware of 20 national drug cartels: 7 in Guatemala, 4 in Honduras, 2 in El Salvador, 4 in Nicaragua and others in Panama and Costa Rica. All these cartels coordinate their actions with the two big Mexican ones: the Sinaloa cartel and the Gulf cartel.

At some point it was discovered that the reason for the theft of those 800 kilos of cocaine in Rivas was to move it from one cartel to another. On that occasion the National Police intervened in time and captured a cell of hired killers led by a Mexican and consisting of four Hondurans and three Nicaraguans. These people arrived in Rivas armed to the teeth and with a list of people they were going to kill, deaths the police managed to avoid. In my research this was the only sign I found relating to conflict between cartels on Nicaraguan soil. Such conflict will always be latent, will always constitute a risk factor because there will always be one group wanting to take advantage of the other’s weaknesses, to carve out more territory for itself.

I don’t know why, but in Nicaragua these conflicts still have a very low profile. Although I’m not saying there is, it’s almost as if there were some sort of agreement or pact based on the following terms: “As long as we don’t kill each other, don’t create violence, we won’t come to the attention of the authorities… As long as we keep a low profile in our work, we’ll be able to carry on transporting more drugs, making more money and we won’t get into trouble with the authorities…”

The third source of drugs for the national market is direct importation. Some internal structures that supply the local market have grown to such an extent they’ve become small direct importers in the international market and go to Panama or Costa Rica or straight to Colombia to import drugs for the local market.

And the final source is via the theft of confiscated drugs. The National Police now destroy drugs they seize straight away, but previously they were kept in the storerooms of the Supreme Court, because they were part of the evidence and as such were essential in the penal process. But they started disappearing from the storerooms, and and as there was no evidence of the crime for the judge to see, there was no crime and the criminal went free. This began to change around 2004 when the Penal Process Code went into effect, but several cases had to happen before the authorities were convinced that keeping drugs constituted a risk.

There are always corrupt police officers who supply the local market by pocketing confiscated drugs, and this is documented. The “clean sweep” plan organized by the National Police in 2006 to 2007 in Matagalpa, which was the biggest blow against local outlets by the police there, took place because the local drug traffickers they arrested talked: “We work in this because x and y (police officers) give us the drugs.” It was all documented in court cases. This reveals that a certain amount of institutional infiltration exists in the National Police, although not yet at the central level, the institutional command structure, but among officers in places where there’s more local organized crime, intense drug trafficking activity and a lot of drug money circulating. It’s in these places that the National Police has had to confront the clearest cases of internal corruption: Rivas, Bluefields, Bilwi and Chinandega.

In these places captured drug traffickers have escaped from police cells like ghosts who slip through the bars. And subsequent investigations don’t find busted padlocks or broken doors or any other sign of violence in the cells. Basically they escaped with the collusion of the group on guard in the police unit. And when the National Police’s Internal Affairs Investigation Unit analyses the case, they realize that individual police were linked to the fugitives.

In 2008 Chief of Police Aminta Granera had to go to Bilwi to reorganize the regional police command after three arrested Colombian drug traffickers had escaped from custody. It was soon common knowledge that they left the police cells accompanied by three police officers who were guarding them and who boarded a speedboat and accompanied them to Colombia. They were all captured in Colombia and the three police officers were deported back to Nicaragua. On arriving, when these three officers realized their institution was serious about processing them, so they spoke out on record: “We didn’t do it on our own,” they explained in the court hearing.

Are they isolated cases, as the National Police say? They may be, but again we can see a pattern in them that tells us otherwise. It shows us geographical areas that already have local organized crime structures immersed in activities supporting transnational organized crime. And it alerts us to the violence it could unleash in the country. After Bluefields, we fear that the next city with problems could be Rivas, another market place for national drug use, not just for its proximity to the border but also for the presence of tourists. Surfing attracts a lot of tourists to the beach at Tola and with them come those looking for commercial sex, people trafficking and along with this, drugs for sale.

The institutionalization
of organized crime

The pattern shows us that in cities where there’s a lot of international drug trafficking activity and where local organized crime exists to support it, more internal corruption cases are appearing in the Police. In Chinandega several drug traffickers left prison with a judge’s order for their release. The official version was that the signature on the order was forged.

What we’re seeing now is that from the low-level phenomenon of drug dealing and use, we’re jumping to a primary institutional level. It’s very worrying because this is how the expansion of drug trafficking started in Mexico.

When collusion with organized crime is institutionalized or starts to be institutionalized in a country, the power of drug trafficking expands. This power, which has economic, political and also armed dimensions, becomes a “powerful lord” who can no longer live with state organizations that don’t make deals with him. When it happens that certain things are not to his liking, violence occurs. The situation turns into what is known in political science as a de facto power, a power within a power. You get along with de facto powers, or there’s war. That’s how it’s always been in the history of organized crime: it forces you to live with it or it unleashes a violence that increases levels of public insecurity, anxiety, the perception that life isn’t worth anything. This is what’s happening today in Mexico.

The fight has to be coordinated regionally

Nicaragua is one of the Central American countries that collaborates most in the fight against international drug trafficking. To date it has had the region’s best results. When we compare drug seizures in other countries of the isthmus we can see that Nicaragua has the highest figures. Work in this area has been effective, but efforts by the State have focused on international trafficking, on the struggle against big transnational organized crime corporations, while we’re doing very little on the internal level. CICAD makes recommendations to governments and two years later evaluates how they’ve been observed. In its evaluations Nicaragua has performed excellently in the fight against international trafficking, but has been evaluated poorly on its efforts to curb internal demand. At least up to 2009, Nicaragua was doing absolutely nothing to reduce it.

It has been confirmed that Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast has become one of the areas on the continent with the greatest presence of organized crime. And it’s within this context that the beginning of the conflict over the Río San Juan must be placed. In our studies we’d already ascertained that two groups mentioned in this conflict were the most active receivers for international drug trafficking on the Caribbean seaboard, although they weren’t the only ones. According to press reports, it was already known that one of these groups, known as the Reborns, were involved in the murder of the four police officers in Bluefields in 2004. Information released by the police and the army about the activity of these groups in the Río San Juan area, the traditional route for internal traffic to Managua, and the Aragón farm is true.

It’s necessary to understand that organized crime forms a single enterprise the length of the Caribbean coast: Belize is connected to Honduras, Honduras is connected to groups in the North Atlantic Autonomous Region in Nicaragua, they are connected to groups in Bluefields who are connected to groups in Puerto Limón in Costa Rica, those in Puerto Limón with groups on Costa Rica’s southern border and so on until you get to the Kuna Yala indigenous people in the Panamanian Caribbean. They’re networks connected by drug trafficking.

Fighting drug trafficking in San Juan de Nicaragua, one point on Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast, is just a temporary measure. Soon enforcement actions will be reduced there and trafficking will break out in another area because there’s no real coordinated international effort among all the countries to ease the problem. It has to be made not just in Nicaragua but in all the Central American Caribbean, including throwing a retaining wall around the San Andrés islands, the point of departure for some of the drugs that arrive in Central America.

Why isn’t the US fighting
drug use more at home?

Many people wonder about the effectiveness of the US government in the fight against drug trafficking, since the United States racks up the most drug consumption in the world. They wonder why it dedicates so much energy to controlling drug trafficking outside the country and doesn’t work with the same energy to control internal consumption. Many doubt the results it presents. There are experts in the US who insist that huge efforts are being made to reduce the demand of their drug dependents, while others explain that these efforts will always experience limitations, repeating what all anthropologists say: getting high is a human activity. All through history human beings have sought this release. To the extent this human tendency exists it will combine with another: human ingenuity to supply drugs to those who want to get high.

Whether the US does more or does less or stops making efforts to reduce the demand altogether, there will always be those who bring drugs into Central America, Mexico and the United States. Always. And there will always be those who want to get high. This business takes excellent advantage of all human, institutional and economic vulnerabilities. Scientifically we can state that the sale and use of drugs could and should be reduced to a minimum, but we’ll never be able to make this business disappear completely. Was the US able to win the war on alcohol in the 1920’s, the Al Capone years? It had to legalize it because the costs of fighting it are higher than the costs produced by the effects of drug use.

To legalize or not to legalize...

A group of experts and eminent people got together in Colombia in 2007 to study the drug phenomenon and how to deal with it. Former governors from Latin America took part, among them Ernesto Zedillo for México and Sergio Ramírez for Nicaragua. There were also authors who attended, among them Paulo Coelho for Brazil. They analyzed this reality from all perspectives for a fortnight and came to the same conclusion.

Legalizing drugs is a controversial issue. It’s known that street violence and traffic accidents increased in the United States after alcohol was legalized, but even so, indices of violence would be less with legalized drugs than with keeping them illegal. It’s an issue that will be discussed for years. I think it will be a long time before drugs are legalized. The most recent attempt was one to legalize marijuana in California and it failed.

Resistance to legalization also has economic causes that include the existing system of government and the big budgets assigned to drug enforcement agencies. Legalizing drugs in the US would put a large part of the Justice Department’s staff out of work. The huge apparatus that exists there to fight drugs—the DEA, the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) and the FBI, which is just now getting involved in investigating drugs—would be considerably reduced. There would also be unemployment in the Coast Guard.

It would seem then that there are important gains for the State in maintaining the fight against drug trafficking, not only in the US but also in Mexico and the Central American countries. Our Presidents are always asking the US for more money to strengthen the fight against drugs. This money brings them benefits: more staff, bigger budgets and a wide range of investment in other areas. This side of the issue would need to be studied in greater depth.

What is to be done?

I don’t want to alarm you, I want to motivate you. What can we do? Something we can all do, which has been proved to be effective, is educate to prevent drug use. What we can do is what we’re doing: provide the national authorities with information. We’re a think tank, an academic research center. The most we can do is make public policy proposals, but it’s up to the State whether it takes any notice of us or not. Our discourse from the IEEPP to the State is this: “Gentlemen, we’re doing this research for you, so you can act now on this issue, while it’s still early, while there’s still something we can do.” Do they take any notice of us? Our obligation, our responsibility is to say it.

Roberto Orozco is a researcher at IEEPP.

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