How Nicaragua has been spared Central America's crime wave – so far
Nicaragua has one of the region's lowest murder rates, in part because its gangs are small-time and transnational cartels haven't moved in. But that may be changing as the Zetas are expand south.
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The big drug cartels do business in Nicaragua, and drugs have been transported in large quantities from South to North America via Nicaragua, particularly the Caribbean coastline, for at least three decades. However, the country has had its own traffickers that handle this business, generally working under orders of foreign groups. Nicaraguan authorities have reported the capture of Zetas members in the country within the last two years, but its not clear how far these were really integral members of the organization.Skip to next paragraph
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Up to this point, transnational groups have not had a good reason to set up shop in Nicaragua. The country is small and, as InSight Crime has noted, has tended to be a territory that drug shipments pass straight through, rather than being stockpiled or changing hands. Nicaragua’s poverty may even be a factor saving it from penetration by international drug cartels; security expert and former police chief Francisco Bautista told IPS that, "Our economy represents a mere six percent of Central America's GDP, and this is not of strategic interest for organised crime, which is used to moving money around in strong economies where they can camouflage money laundering and weapons purchases."
According to some analysts, this could be changing. For Monica Zalaquett, head of Managua-based NGO CEPREV, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama still have less violence than their northern counterparts, but they are on the same path. “What is really important is not that Nicaragua has less violence than its neigbors to the north, but that it has more than in previous years," she said in a recent interview with El Faro.
The Nicaraguan Instituto de Estudios Estrategicos y Politicas Publicas (IEEPP) warned last year that organized crime is beginning to sink its claws into the country: "organized crime is established, it already has logistical networks, support networks, that are penetrating institutions or exploring." The think tank highlighted a growing presence of Mexican cartels, which it said was encouraging the growth of local trafficking structures.
The Zetas are an expansionist group, and are present over Nicaragua's northern border in Honduras. If and when they decide to move into Nicaragua, the security situation could rapidly grow worse.
--- Hannah Stone is a writer for Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region. Find all of her research here.