Nicaraguan Cocaine Bust Reveals New Cartel Route

US agents joined Nicaraguans for first time in interdiction effort

A RECENT drug bust on Nicaragua's southern coast and evidence of explosive growth in domestic cocaine consumption have alerted authorities here to the fact that, in addition to its other overwhelming problems, Nicaragua has a serious battle with cocaine on its hands.

The drug seizure at Popoyo beach on Jan. 12 netted the police 606 pounds of cocaine on the spot, with another 386 pounds recovered later in a bakery on the outskirts of Managua, Nicaragua's capital. Police say it is the largest cocaine haul in Nicaragua since a 1,500-pound drug bust in 1991. Combined with other, smaller caches, this brings the total cocaine seizures in 1994 to 1,230 pounds.

The narcotics bust, called ``Operation Ocean,'' involved two novelties. First, the Nicaraguans invited two agents from the United States Drug Enforcement Administration as adviser-observers. This was the first time the DEA had agreed to go beyond information sharing with Nicaragua's police force to participate in a joint interdiction.

For Nicaraguans, however, the big news uncovered by the Popoyo beach bust was that Colombian cartels are using Nicaraguan territory to ship cocaine to Guatemala for eventual transfer to the US.

DEA officials in Costa Rica say they have watched travel through Nicaragua grow over the past two years. One commented, ``the entire Central American isthmus is being used as a trampoline at this point, and we're seeing a lot of cooperation among traffickers from different countries.''

Drug use increases

Using Nicaragua territory as a staging area, however, isn't the only problem. The Colombians are also making strenuous efforts to develop a local market in Nicaragua as well. Erwin Areas, a spokesman for the the El Patriarca Foundation, Nicaragua's only addict rehabilitation group, reports that ``there has been a generalized offensive aimed at promoting cocaine consumption in schools and places of nighttime entertainment.''

According to El Patriarca's statistics, cocaine use leaped 100 percent in each of the last two years, leaving 40,000 Nicaraguans now addicted. Deaths from drug overdosing have also risen steeply, from 27 in 1991 to 60 in 1993. Though efforts to map the drug problem focus on the capital, the spread of hard drugs has had its greatest effects on Nicaragua's sparsely populated Atlantic Coast, an area inhabited in large part by Miskito Indians and blacks. Here, the police and Army presence is minimal and unemployment rates reach 80 percent.

Deputy Doris Tijerino, who was a police chief during the Sandinista years and is now head of the antidrug commission in Nicaragua's National Assembly, returned from a recent trip to the coast alarmed. ``We encountered eight- and nine-year-old children consuming crack on the wharf at regional capital Puerto Cabezas, along with lobster divers who snort cocaine to strengthen their resistance,'' he says.

Vulnerable to drugs now

Current police chief Fernando Caldera explains that the country's vulnerability to drug trafficking is a byproduct of political changes since 1990, when Nicaragua's Sandinista revolution gave way to the conservative government of Violeta Barrios de Chamorro. ``During the contra war,'' he says, ``drug traffickers knew that if they approached our coasts in launches they would run into a well-trained Army backed by widespread radar and counterespionage in the interior.''

But after a massive reduction of the armed forces began three years ago, plus severe cuts in the police budget, Caldera says, ``our defenses have fallen down.'' The severity of the budgetary restrictions can be judged from the size of the police's Antidrug Force, which deploys no more than half a dozen full-time officers in Managua, a city of 1.3 million people, while the Atlantic coast is hardly patrolled at all, offering the Colombians an inviting target.

Another of Caldera's problems is the unwillingness of the US State Department to let the DEA go beyond information-sharing to supply material help and training for Nicaragua's police. According to diplomatic sources, this is because the police are largely still Sandinistas and considered only tenuously under civilian control.

A product of the Sandinista revolution, the National Police has been criticized for not controlling strikes and demonstrations as the Chamorro government has asked. And doubts linger as to whether the police would arrest active duty police or military officers suspected of drug trafficking or terrorism.

But the new US Ambassador John Maisto, who praised the ``good cooperation'' between the two countries in the Popoyo operation, is said to want a normal relationship between Nicaragua's National Police and the DEA.

An agency official in Costa Rica indicated that with the proper resources, including basic narcotics investigation courses and training in the use of equipment that the DEA could provide, Nicaraguan police could do an ``excellent job'' of interdicting drug traffic.

Overcoming the causes of drug addiction will be more difficult. Social workers blame the growing malady on youth who leave school early and are then unable to find jobs, and family breakdown aggravated by massive joblessness among adults.

The result, says Charles Grigsby, who works with a group called Two Generations, ``is that some young people with nothing to do use drugs as a way of passing time badly.''

In addition to being one of the root causes of drug addiction, Nicaragua's 54 percent unemployment rate facilitates developing a local cocaine market.

Police who periodically raid Managua's Santa Ana neighborhood, the city's best known rendezvous for drug pushers, find that the local cartelito (little cartel) pays unemployed local residents to tip them off instantly any time they see the police coming.

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