Nicaraguan Police, Military Battle Organized Crime Along Caribbean Coast
By Dialogo September 03, 2013
Nicaragua’s national police, with backing from the military, is ratcheting up the fight against violent organized crime groups that use the country’s sparsely populated Atlantic coast to ferry drugs to Honduras and Mexico.
National Police Chief Aminta Granera unveiled on Aug. 1 a “Special Security Plan in the Mining Triangle” of Nicaragua’s Northern Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN in Spanish). Since then, the police have captured 23 people wanted for murder, femicide, aggravated robberies and drug trafficking.
The plan focuses on the‘mining triangle’ of Siuna, Bonanza and Rosita, where authorities have opened seven new police stations and have provided 142 officers to increase security at area schools. Since the launch, police have seized 56 illegal firearms, including AK-47s, revolvers, shotguns, rifles and pistols.
Gen. Julio César Aviles Castillo, commander-in-chief of the Nicaraguan Armed Forces, told local media that 500 soldiers will support the police in the execution of this special security plan.
“The mobilization of our security forces around the current wave of violence in the ‘mining triangle’ is actually a knock-on from issues that began two years ago,” said Francisco Bautista Lara, Nicaragua’s former police commissioner.
Pandillas prey on vulnerable communities
In 2011, local street gangs known as pandillas received a boost when transnational organized crime groups hired them to traffic drugs and weapons from Colombia through to Honduras and on to Mexico.
“Since then, both the RAAN and the Southern Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAS) have been exploited by these groups who prey on communities split by internal conflicts, high unemployment, poor education, inequality as well as increasing indigenous land and border disputes with Honduras,” Lara told Diálogo.
The official homicide rate in this ‘mining triangle’ was 49 per 100,000 people two years ago — which exceeds the homicide rates of both El Salvador and Guatemala, Lara said.
“Organized crime is a huge regional problem contributing to a massive rise in homicides this year, not only in Nicaragua but also in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras,” said Monica Zalaquett, director of the Managua-based Violence Prevention Center (known by its Spanish acronym CEPREV).
“These heavily armed groups [from Mexico and Colombia] operating on our northeastern and southeastern coastline are now more and more involved in a mix of drugs and arms trafficking, money laundering and gold mining,” Zalaquett added.
Zalaquett: Police must work with local communities
Police Chief Granera told local community groups in Siuna last month that authorities know the whereabouts and sizes of the five key criminal groups operating on the northern coast, and are building intelligence to capture them. Gilberto Fernández, known as “El Gallo Rojo” and Estanislao Jarquín Montoya, known as “El Coral,” are leaders of two of the five criminal groups identified by the National Police, but none of them have as yet been arrested.
“This eastern coastline area is a free-for-all atmosphere where the state has little presence,” said Steven Dudley, director of Insight Crime, an independent research outfit in Medellín, Colombia. “They’ve started police prevention programs in these areas, but these are long-term projects.”
Zalaquett added: “It’s vital that the police work closer with local community groups developing both counter-intelligence strategies and using prevention strategies that were so successful in the late 1990s.”
Ex-Commissioner Lara isn’t convinced this is the solution. “Sending in more police and more soldiers won’t solve the problem. We must address the underlying problems breaking up local communities and making them easy targets for organized crime groups,” he said.
Zalaquett warned that the informal black market in these coastal areas gives unemployed youth “undesirable but viable options, like a young man from Puerto Cabezas who recently asked me whether or not he should take up an offer as a hitman for a gang in Guatemala.”
Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador agree to share intelligence
Adm. Marvin Corrales, commander of the Nicaraguan Naval Forces, warned local media in July 2012 that Colombian crime groups were sending “specialized military equipment” to bolster their partners on the Caribbean coast of Honduras.
The regional reach of these gangs and organized crime groups is partly why Nicaraguan police have begun cooperating with their partners across Central and North America.
Presidents Porfirio Lobo of Honduras, Mauricio Funes of El Salvador and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua signed an agreement in March 2012 to increase intelligence-sharing networks among their police and naval forces to combat kidnappings and trafficking along their shared borders.
Nicaragua also participates in the U.S.-led Operation Martillo, launched in early 2012, to disrupt drugtrafficking operations and limit their ability to use Central America as a transit zone. Nearly 90 percent of the cocaine reaching the United States comes through Mexico and Central America, according to the United Nations International Narcotics Control Board.
Boanerge Fornos, a state prosecutor in the Southern Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAS), told Diálogo that while the Caribbean coastal city of Bluefields remains a regional hub for the cocaine trade and organized crime operations, for the moment Nicaraguan “transporters” appear to be scaling down their involvement, managing shorter routes and smaller quantities of drugs.
‘Subcontractors’ keep cocaine moving north
“At the local level, these groups appear to be diversifying their operations and a number of cases we investigated late last year started to involve high-caliber weapons such as Kalashnikovs, M-16s and AK-47s coupled with rising numbers of human trafficking and money laundering activities,” Fornos said.
James Bosworth, an analyst at the Latin American risk analysis firm Southern Pulse, described the phenomenon as a chain that moves cocaine north through a variety of subcontracted groups.
“The Urabeños [a Colombian organized crime group] and the Mexican cartels have their networks, pass it along, pay each other or kill each other when payments aren't made,” Bosworth said. “If there is a gap, it’s local Central American transport groups that are handling the stuff. While there are certainly links between the Sinaloa cartel and some criminal organizations in Nicaragua, it would be a stretch to say the Mexicans control them. It’s more of a contracting relationship.”
Bosworth added: “For the moment, Mexican and Colombian groups haven't fought each other over Nicaraguan territory and routes and they seem happy to share, as long as product moves and profits flow. However, if any group were to make a strategic determination that they wanted to fight for control of the plaza [drug trade routes], it could turn ugly.”