Nicaraguan security forces should continue their strong efforts to combat local gangs, which are collaborating with increasing frequency with transnational criminal organizations, said Roberto Petray, director of the Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights.
Collaboration between Nicaraguan gangs and transnational criminal organizations, like the Sinaloa Cartel and Los Zetas, is particularly strong in the Autonomous North Atlantic Region (RAAN), Petray said.
“Gangs in Nicaragua are starting to work as hit men and also in human trafficking. These activities must be controlled by the National Police because they are starting to happen within the country,” Petray said.
The presence of operatives from transnational criminal organizations and an increase in drug smuggling and weapons trafficking are responsible for an increase in violence in RAAN in recent years, according to Mónica Zalaquett, director of the Center for the Prevention of Violence (CEPREV)
“All of Central America is being affected by organized crime and Nicaragua is not the exception. In recent years, there has been no only a considerable increase in drug trafficking but also an increase in weapons trafficking,” said Mónica Zalaquett, Director of the Center for the Prevention of Violence (CEPREV, for its acronym in Spanish).
The rate of killings in RAAN was 18 per 100,000 residents in 2011. That is higher than the overall rate of killing in the country, which is 11 per 100,000 people.
Maritime drug smuggling
In RAAN, local gangs help drug cartels smuggle drugs along the Atlantic coast. Local gang members operate go-fast boats which smuggle drugs to and from Sandy Bay, located in RAAN.
Local gangs, including the Reñazcos and the Tarzanes, collaborate with Los Zetas and the forces of El Chapo to smuggle drugs into and out of Nicaragua, Petray said. These collaborations have led to increased drug sales in RAAN and other parts of Nicaragua, authorities said.
“Central America has stopped being just a transit point for drugs to become an operation and activities center,” Félix Maradiaga, the former secretary general of Nicaragua’s Ministry of Defense, told El Pais.
Large cash seizure
In addition to collaborating with local gangs, Mexican drug cartels are sending their own operatives into Nicaragua to coordinate drug purchases, authorities said.
In August, 2012, Nicaraguan National Police arrested 18 people who were posing as Mexican journalists. Police found $9.2 million in cash inside a van some of the suspects were using.
The suspects were probably doing to use the money to pay for a large amount of drugs in Costa Rica, according to Fernando Borge, a spokesman for the Nicaraguan National Police “They were planning to take all the money to Costa Rica to pay for a load,” Borge said.
The suspects had press credentials which said they worked for Televisa, a large Mexican television network. Nicaraguan National Police investigators checked with the television network, and confirmed the 18 suspects did not work for Televisa. The press credentials were forgeries, authorities said.
One of the 18 suspects, Manuel de Jesus Herrera Pineda, had ties to Los Charros, a gang which smuggles drugs and other illicit items north from Costa Rica into Nicaragua and Mexico. Los Charros has ties to the Sinaloa Cartel and La Familia Michoacana, another Mexican transnational criminal organization.
The suspects claimed they planned on covering a criminal trial in Managua.
Nicaraguan authorities are working hard to combat drug smuggling.
In 2012, Nicaraguan security forces seized 4.5 tons of cocaine, $14 million in cash, 141 vehicles connected to drug traffickers, and 153 properties allegedly purchased with drug money.
Gangs rob from drug cartels
Some Nicaraguan gangs are robbing transnational drug cartels of drugs, which they then sell to domestic drug dealers. These robberies are commonly known as “drug jolts.”
Nicaraguan gangs have been committing such robberies for almost 20 years, according to Nicaraguan security analyst Roberto Orozco.
“In 2012, there were at least 27 local groups dedicated to ‘drug jolt’ operations, a phenomenon that originated in the 1990s,” Orozco said.
Such crimes do not always involve drugs. Gang members also steal firearms and cash from drug cartel operatives, security analysts said.
Gang members who steal drugs from transnational criminal organizations are commonly known as “tumbadores.”
Once they steal a shipment of drugs, tumbadores will try to transport the drugs as far north as possible, one tumbador said in an interview with insightcrime.org.
The farther north the drugs are smuggled, the more that organized crime groups will be willing to pay, the tumbador said. For example, a kilo of cocaine would be worth $11,000 in El Salvador, $15,000 in Chiapas, in southern Mexico, and $20,000 in Matamoros, in northern Mexico, the tumbador explained.
The prices are higher further north because drug smugglers have higher risks and greater expenses the farther north they go, the tumbador said.
Expelled gang members
In recent years, U.S. authorities have expelled about 100,000 gang members from the country. These gang members have settled in Guatemala, El Savador, Honduras, and souther Mexico. But very few gang members have started living and operating in Nicaragua, according to security analysts.
The number of gang members expelled from the United States to Mexico is relatively low, said Mario Zamora, the former Costa Rican director for migration.
This pattern has helped Costa Rica, according to Zamora. Since relatively few gang members have been expelled to Nicargaua, very few have made their way south to Costa Rica, he said.