A July 2012 InSight Crime Investigation revealed how Nicaragua’s remote Caribbean coast has become a major logistics and transport hub for maritime smugglers, known as “transportistas,” who use the area to re-fuel and repair their go-fast boats and to collect intelligence on the movements of naval vessels and security forces. To cater to those needs, a series of mostly home-grown criminal networks have sprung up.
Recently, Colombian drug gangs, the Urabeños, Paisas and Rastrorojos, have fought for control of drug routes through San Andres island. They seek to claim the waters over the Caribbean coast, a natural path from Colombia’s Choco and Antioquia province. The other drug gangs operating here are from Mexico and Central America. Besides drugs, they traffic weapons and humans, especially along the Atlantic coast.
Nicaragua may have won in sovereignty, but it doesn’t have the means to assert its sovereignty. Nicaragua has limited resources, personnel, aircrafts, and support. In fact, Nicaragua has the region’s smallest navy — with only three go-fast patrol boats capable of remaining out at sea for more than a day. At least 54 of the Navy’s boats were once drug vessels captured by the government. Another 12 patrol launches were built in Nicaragua to replace wooden craft previously used in the 1990s. Further, Nicaragua is buying military equipment incapable of patrolling the ocean 200 miles off the coast.
On the other hand, Colombia has the region’s largest navy, and the highest military expenditure in the Western hemisphere. Nicaragua’s military budget is less than 1% of Colombia’s annual defense expenditures, which are greater than Nicaragua’s entire GDP.
That said, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has called the Nicaraguan Navy “one of Central America’s most effective agencies in narcotics interdictions.” (See also: Nicaragua prevents supply of military equipment to drug-traffickers.)
On November 30, a presidential decree, passed “with urgency” at the behest of President Daniel Ortega, authorized the U.S. military to conduct joint anti-narcotics operations in Nicaragua’s expanded maritime territory from Jan. 1 to June 30, 2013.
(Very important to note: This U.S. naval aid to Nicaragua is a clear message that the U.S. has recognized the World Court’s ruling. How will that affect Colombia-U.S. relations since the government of President Santos refuses the court’s ruling?)
But the foundations of the cooperation between the U.S. and Nicaragua are shaky. Nicaraguan President Ortega, a former Sandinista leader, often expresses his hostile views toward U.S. foreign policy, and has signed up Nicaragua to the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas, a group proposed by Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez to integrate socialist and social democratic governments across Latin America and the Caribbean.
Moreover, Nicaragua is the only country in Central America that has not approved the creation of a U.S.-supported Financial Intelligence Unit meant to monitor money laundering activity, according to the U.S. State Department. In March 2010, the Nicaraguan government disbanded a U.S.-trained anti-corruption police unit.
Then, there is the issue of airspace above the waters, which was previously heavily monitored by the Colombian Air Force. Intelligence revealed drug trafficking air routes are from Apure or Zulia in Venezuela to Peten in Nicaragua and Puerto Lempira in Honduras. These flights, which usually take place in the nighttime, are now freer to fly above the less monitored waters granted to Nicaragua.
See here a list of “the world’s deadliest cities,” according to a Mexican think tank, the Citizens’ Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice. These South and Central American cities are particularly dangerous because they are transfer points for much of the drugs working their way to North America.