MANAGUA, Nicaragua — The Nicaraguan Navy, responding to a dramatic increase in drug smuggling through its territorial waters, has established a new battalion tasked with fighting narcotrafficking off its Caribbean and Pacific coastlines.
The battalion, which is so new it hasn’t even been made public yet, is the first of its kind in Nicaragua’s naval history. It consists of three companies totaling 300 sailors, representing a troop increase of 74 percent in the navy’s war on drugs.
“The intensification of drug traffickers demanded that we increase our efforts,” Nicaragua’s top naval commander, Contralmirante Róger Antonio González Díaz, said in an exclusive interview June 22.
The new battalion has already been operational for several months, but won’t be unveiled officially until Sept. 2, during celebrations marking the 32nd anniversary of Nicaragua’s armed forces, he said.
“This will allow us to have more effectiveness and better results in the war on drugs,” said González, interviewed at his Managua office.
As the Navy’s new battalion joins the fight, González predicts drug traffickers will feel the pinch more than ever. “The goal is to penetrate the most difficult areas of the coast where there can be little [drug-trafficking] cells operating,” he explained. “We are going to further reduce their space for operation and force [the traffickers] to find other routes.”
Last year, the United States named Nicaragua, Honduras and Costa Rica as major drug-trafficking nations; Nicaragua in particular is a key transit point for cocaine shipments bound for Mexico. Drug runners, known in Spanish as transportistas, utilize Corn Island off the Atlantic coast as a refueling stop. Other areas of concern are the San Juan River and the waterways surrounding Lake Nicaragua, in the southwestern part of the country.
Nicaragua has already enjoyed impressive success in the war on drugs, despite having the lowest defense and security budget in Central America. In 2010, according to the State Department, its police and military confiscated 17.5 tons of cocaine, nearly double that of 2009. In addition, it destroyed thousands of marijuana plants and arrested more than 1,800 suspected drug traffickers.
In mid-May, police burned 861 kilograms of cocaine seized by the Nicaraguan Navy from a fishing boat in the Caribbean — marking the country’s largest drug haul since the Navy confiscated 1,643 kilograms of cocaine in January.
“These statistics are recognized internationally, making us leaders in the region [in the war on drugs],” said Nicaraguan Army Gen. Julio César Avilés.
The battle against drug traffickers has also brought spoils to Nicaragua’s armed forces. Last year, Nicaraguan soldiers confiscated 24 vehicles, seven airplanes, 34 boats, 96 weapons and nearly $5 million in cash. The police, meanwhile, captured 175 vehicles, 113 weapons, 14 boats, two planes, one helicopter and nearly $2 million in cash.
The Nicaraguan Navy now has a new fleet of patrol boats thanks to its success in the war on drugs.
“We have 40 go-fasts, all of which were captured from drug trafficking,” González said, noting that the boats have been reconditioned and are now employed in the Navy’s permanent patrols of the ocean, where mariners spend four to six consecutive days at sea.
González says the navy’s “constant attack” against traffickers has given Nicaragua the reputation of being Central America’s most difficult country for cartels to evade. He likens Nicaragua’s role in regional war on drugs to that of a “solid retaining wall.”
But Nicaragua doesn’t take all the credit for itself. González says the results are due to international coordination, information-sharing and joint efforts with other countries including the United States, which has given Nicaragua’s military and police $37.1 million in aid since 2007. The State Department, citing the country’s cooperation with the U.S. Coast Guard and the Drug Enforcement Agency, has called Nicaragua “one of Central America’s most effective agencies in narcotics interdictions.”
“Drug trafficking and organized crime are common problems that have no politics,” said González, noting that teamwork and constant vigilance has allowed Nicaragua’s security forces to identify shifting trends and new drug routes — and adjust their strategy accordingly.
Still, he suggested, more needs to be done as more drugs slip through the region’s zone defense. Drugs are also infiltrating local communities in Nicaragua and the rest of Central America, which once viewed the narcotics issue as an outside problem, but increasingly recognizes it as one of its own.
Fighting the drug war in Central America, therefore, has evolved from efforts to halt the flow of drugs to more complex internal operations aimed at disrupting local logistical networks and busting homegrown criminal operations.
And it’s work that needs to be done as a region – a point that was stressed by the various president of Central America during the June 22 summit in Guatemala to unveil the regions joint strategy for security.
The rest of the world is applauding Central America’s attempt at defining a regionally coordinate strategy. The United States, Mexico, Canada, the European Union, and eight other countries released a joint statement this week recognizing that confronting the threat of organized crime is “a shared responsibility” and commended the “leadership and responsibility shown by the Central American governments in formulating and implementing policies to promote security.”
Back in Nicaragua, González says it’s that sense of leadership and duty that has his naval force determined to defend its territory from drug traffickers’ advances.
“Our success is due to the leadership of our military command,” he said, “and the training and character of our soldiers.”