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The Life of Accidental Drug Traffickers on Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast

  • Written by Alejandra S. Inzunza and Pablo Ferril
  • Wednesday, 05 June 2013
A scene from Nicaragua's Miskito coast A scene from Nicaragua's Miskito coast

In Nicaragua, the "occasional narcos" have chance on their side, as any day, they may enjoy a stroke of luck and become rich. Residents of the Mosquito Coast, a hub for the international drug trade, are indigenous peoples that once lived off of lobster fishing, but have found another way of getting by -- trafficking cocaine.

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That day Reinaldo Cruz woke up before sunrise. He drank a coffee with lots of sugar, put on his military boots and lit a cigarette. He walked to the seashore, where his boat was brought ashore, and he waited for his partner to arrive. The sun rose while they went out to sea to fish for sharks. They spent over eight hours two or three miles off shore, but they returned empty handed. Reinaldo, a skinny man with tan, leathery skin and a tired look, was already walking home when he saw something in the sand that caught his attention. It was a package wrapped in plastic. He moved in for a closer look: he had just discovered several kilos of cocaine.

"We have to hide it well and wait for them to come buy it," he told his partner in a low voice. Similar to Reinaldo, many Miskitos from Sandy Bay, the largest community in the North Atlantic Region of Nicaragua (known by the acronym RAAN from the Spanish name), have made drugs their business. One in which luck is more important than anything else.

Sitting in his kitchen, this 65-year-old man talks about how his life changed in one week. "A few days after finding the package, foreigners came and paid me," he said in Spanish that was difficult to understand. The "foreigners," mostly Colombian and Honduran drug traffickers, bought the kilos that the communities find for two or three thousand dollars each.

With the money from the sale, Reinaldo built his house, a comfortable two-story wooden home. He also bought two motors and another boat. This story took place 13 years ago, but drugs continue falling in and around Sandy Bay almost every month.

Now, this retired diver makes his living from renting his boats and rooms, even though once in a while he goes out to sea. One of his tenants, Ms. Juana, smiles and looks at the "viejo" (old man) on the stairs. "We'll see if one day I find a packet. That way I can pay my kids' university tuition and stop selling mangos," she sighs as she washes plates.

[See InSight Crime's profile of Nicaragua]

At the Bilwi Navy Headquarters

"Why do you want to go to Sandy Bay?" Commander Miguel Castillo asks suspiciously. "This is the cradle of drug trafficking."

Castillo, who is part of the Nicaraguan National Police, searches through our backpacks, takes photos of both of us -- from the front and the side -- and interrogates us separately.

We are in a tatty little room in the navy headquarters in Bilwi, the capital of the RAAN. This is the poor Caribbean; there are no big hotels here and cruise ships do not pass by. There are hardly any tourists. Just getting here is an epic journey -- 25 hours in a car from Managua or two hours in a small, 15 seat airplane. That is why Commander Castillo was suspicious, why he takes photos of all of the pages of our passports and holds us for more than three hours in the headquarters. In his mind, two foreigners (one Spanish and one Mexican) who have traveled to Bilwi --  a strategic part of the maritime drug trafficking route -- who want to board a boat and continue two more hours to Sandy Bay, are suspicious in one of the most armed areas in the region. Practically nobody comes here. It is commonly said that foreigners who come here are always drug traffickers. Because of this, the traditional fishermen who bring us to Sandy Bay tell us that we should ask the permission of the police before they let us on board. After the interrogation and the extensive search, the police say solemnly: "They can go to Sandy Bay, but maybe they won't return."

[See InSight Crime's special investigation on organized crime in Nicaragua]

Sandy Bay's Economic Boom

A handful of boats rests on the shore against the little dock in the saltwater lagoon. From afar, it is possible to see large three-story mansions, all pastel colored, with cable television antennas and Baroque decorations. Sandy Bay, with 15,000 inhabitants, is the largest Miskito community north of Bilwi and one of the most affected by Hurricane Felix in 2007, which affected 180,000 people and left more than 100 dead. It was also the region to recover the fastest. In Bilwi, people complain that all the cement that arrives in the region is immediately sent here. Construction is booming. Dozens of people arrive from other communities every day, and even from Honduras, to work in construction. A postcard of Sandy Bay could depict a luxurious mansion, together with a couple of trees uprooted by the force of the hurricane, and some cows out to pasture.

The electricity goes out every day. To this day, in the majority of homes candles are the only form of illumination at night, but now those with big houses have their own generators. Telephone lines do not reach Sandy Bay, but cellular antennas do. Powerful motorcycles have taken the place of horses. No sewer system exists, but an impressive baseball stadium awaits the start of the regional series. The fresh paint shines and the bleachers gleam.

The economic boom originated from the reactivation of the drug route that goes from South America to the United States through the Nicaraguan Caribbean. Everything started at the end of the war in Nicaragua (1978-1990), which left more than 50,000 dead. Reinaldo remembers the first signs, when the counterinsurgency forced him to face the revolutionary Sandinista government. After that, he began to see packages. As a soldier they sent him to Rio Coco, on the border with Honduras, a hotspot for drug trafficking. "There I saw bundles of marijuana," he remembers, "but I didn't grab them because at that time it didn't pay well. It does now!"

"Peace between the counterinsurgency cells and the Sandinista army meant a drastic reduction in soldiers, and because of this, the Navy lost the capacity to control the Atlantic route," explained Roberto Orozco, a researcher at the Institute of Strategic Studies and Public Policy. At the end of the 1980s, Colombian drug traffickers went directly from Colombia to Miami, Florida, without stopping on the coasts. Then, peace arrived in Nicaragua, as well as an agreement that the US signed with with Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Honduras, allowing for patrols in their international waters. With this new surveillance on the high seas, drug traffickers were forced to travel along the coast in small boats, and places like Sandy Bay became attractive corridors and service stations for drug traffickers.

"They are like a gas station. First, they gather the drugs that the traffickers have thrown overboard when the American Coast Guard pursues them. Then, the traffickers return to buy back the drugs that they threw overboard. Second, they provide the services of fuel supply, food, and temporary refuge. Third, they provide security. It is still an armed zone, a product of the war," noted Orozco.

Since then, drugs have become the language of Sandy Bay. Kerlin Clark, a 25-year-old woman who works in a grocery store, points out the locals who have become richest from the cocaine trade. "There is the judge's wife; they are the owners of the huge pink house," she said smiling. "All of them have lots of money, but they don't treat us to anything more than a beer," she added.

The days here are measured by the last time packages fell. "When drugs fall, people go crazy. Everyone goes out to look for the packages. Whoever has a fishing boat goes out to sea to search; those that don't go to the beach by motorcycle. Everyone leaves their houses," notes Kerlin, another "unfortunate" who has never found one.

[See InSight Crime's profile of drug trafficking organizations in Nicaragua, the Reñazcos and the Tarzanes]

Piracy and its Legacy

In the 17th century, says Miskito anthropologist Avelino Cox, Captain Henry Morgan arrived at the port of Cabo Gracias a Dios, the present-day border with Honduras. Morgan's reputation as a bloodthirsty pirate made the Miskitos fear for the life of their king. However, after meeting, Morgan and the monarch embraced each other and sealed an alliance that resulted in these indigenous peoples becoming crew members on the English pirate ships.

During one voyage, a Miskito named Willis climbed the mountain of the San Fernando island, in Chile, to look for firewood. The Spanish ships drew dangerously near, prompting the English captain and his crew to escape, abandoning Willis. Three years later, another pirate ship, on which Willis' brother was traveling, returned to the island. The man, far from weakened, had built his own little kingdom.

Cox says that the English adapted this story. He believes that Daniel Defoe's immortal work Robinson Crusoe, published in 1719, is based on Willis' life. Although it is more myth than reality, that lone man eking out a life on an island could summarize the drama of the Mosquito Coast, an area that has always gotten along better with foreigners that pass by than with its Pacific neighbors.

The pirates' treasures are now the drug traffickers' packages. As before, the locals have taken advantage of the opportunity. Some have become fuel or food suppliers, while others have dedicated themselves to deception, stealing drugs from drug traffickers. Still others want to become traffickers and then there are those, like Reinaldo, who had the "luck" to find the packages that drug traffickers threw overboard when pursued by police. Foreign traffickers have also taken advantage of the conditions in the region -- its isolation, its population and the limited control of the authorities -- to make the business flourish.

Rear Admiral Roger Gonzales, head of the Nicaraguan Navy, is a man who speaks clearly, but oscillates between conviction in his work and the frustration of pursuing a mouse that moves too quickly. When the Navy has a boat with three motors, the cartels have one with four. Even Gonzales is certain that criminals now use submersibles, even though his men do not have airplanes with the infrared technology necessary to detect them.

The presence of the authorities on the Nicaraguan Mosquito Coast is practically nonexistent. The general army headquarters dedicated to pursuing drug traffickers and coordinating with American agencies is located in Bilwi. However, there is only a team of 10 military members in Sandy Bay. The rest of the communities lack a state presence. Once in a while, authorities search the boats that go from Bilwi to other communities, in order to verify that there are no drug shipments or contraband alcohol on board -- the consumption of alcohol is not tolerated by Miskito authorities -- but the searches are sporadic. The route is wide open.

The blows periodically inflicted by the military speak to the movement of drugs and to the intricate relationships between the international cartels and the local population. The Navy intercepted 4.7 tons of cocaine in 2011. Between 2001 and 2010, they seized 42.5 tons. According to Gonzales, a normal offshore bust is between 2.5 and three tons. Last year they dismantled one of the main trafficking networks in Wankluma, southeast of Bilwi. "There were more than 200 barrels of fuel, three go-fast boats and 16 M-16 and UCI assault rifles." The leaders consisted of one Nicaraguan, one Honduran, and one Colombian, the foreigners that most move through these waters.

Gonzales was sure that all of them worked for one of the Mexican cartels: "The Sinaloa (Cartel) operates in the Pacific. There are various [cartels] in the Caribbean. We have found five different markings on the packages: 'sampsonite,' 'pepsi,' 'el caballito'...." Each stamp is a mark that indicates to which cartel the product belongs."

[See InSight Crime's profiles of drug trafficking personalities in Nicaragua, Francisco Zeledon and Amauri Carmona Morelos]

The Changing Face of Drug Trafficking

Nicaragua is not a violent country compared to its neighbors to the north. Despite the huge volume of drugs that pass through the coast of the RAAN, organized crime rarely causes bloodshed. "There are no deaths because the traffickers do not stay there. They are not competing for territory," explained specialist Orozco, one of the people who has most worked in the region.

Until recently, peace was maintained in the zone despite the fact that, since 2006, nearly the only authorities were community police -- made up of Miskito leaders. It was not until January 1, 2012, the day a man was killed in a shootout in Sandy Bay, when the army returned to the community. The problem was caused by 1,700 kilos of cocaine. One person died, seven were arrested (including a member of the community police) and the army confiscated eight rifles. Since then, with ten soldiers present, Sandy Bay has appeared calm.

The episode in Sandy Bay was an exception, but it was not the only one. A few months earlier, in the community of Walpasika, south of Bilwi, a group of traffickers opened fire against two army and police boats; some Miskitos also fired shots. The skirmish left three dead -- one attacker, one police officer and one soldier -- and 17 arrested. According to the official version, the traffickers had gone to Walpasika in search of cocaine that was in a plane that had crashed a few days earlier in the area. The investigation that followed found an extensive network of homes in the community that traffickers used to store drugs that passed through the area.

"Violence, unemployment and the sale of drugs are the problems in our community. They are out of control. People tell you openly: I am selling drugs because I don't have anything to eat," says Cora Antonio, one of the most respected religious leaders in the region. "I know there are people behind the people in these communities. Then there are medium and small drug retail businesses. They are the poorest; they don't have a way to make a living. But the worst are the consumers. They steal and attack people; it's a social problem. There are mothers that look for you, more and more often and tell you, 'I can't put up with my child, what can I do with him?'"

In the South Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAS, for the Spanish name) the paradigm of the simple route of passage has begun to change. Drug trafficking has permeated the interior of the country and has created a domestic market.

The violence has increased, even though the figure is not yet alarming. Currently, the region registers a rate of 42.7 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, very similar to Guatemala with a rate of 45.2. In 2010 alone, the District Attorney investigated 33 violent deaths and 23 murders, 11 of those linked to organized crime and drug trafficking. It is the only part of the country that registers these levels of violence. The country maintains an average of 12 murders per 100,000 inhabitants.

"There are six different ethnicities in the area. Various groups are establishing themselves to compete for control of the internal market," explained Orozco. "There is already one known as 'the Chontale Connection' that moves drugs from the Bluefields region to the capital. Managua already produces $170,000 in earnings per week, according to the national police, more than $8 million a year. It seems small, but for our economy that represents 0.13 percent of the GDP."

The Miskito Identity

Last month, 60 kilos of cocaine washed up in Daoukura, another of the Miskito communities north of Sandy Bay. The ocean current brought all of the packages to this community, in which the nearest houses are a 30 minute walk from the beach.

"Nicaragua does not see the Atlantic coast as a part of the country. We see their identity as one linked to drug traffickers, thieves, and drug addicts," said the anthropologist Avelino Cox about the RAAN.

Daoukura is similar to Sandy Bay but without mansions. The houses are far from one another. A cement path connects this community to others like Ataswara, where turtle fishing is common and motorcycles are the means of transportation.

Marlon Flores, a baseball player and coach, takes us on a walk around the area. A women's softball team plays on a dirt field. The sun reflects off the people looking for refuge in the shade. The heat is choking at times, but some children play at the top of a tree. At first glance, it would seem that nothing happens in Daoukura.

Our guide shows us a concrete room measuring two by two meters, which at times serves as a jail. If someone steals or behaves inappropriately, they lock them in the room until the community decides on a punishment, such as cleaning a public area or paying a fine. "If a Colombian comes we also put him in there and then we call the police," he says.

Before our walk, we are introduced to the Miskito leaders. Each community has their own: a wista (judge), a teacher, an elder, and a sindigo (adviser to the community). They decide everything that happens in Daoukura. If anyone wants to buy land, they have to authorize it. If drugs arrive, they distribute them.

We start to speak about the community, about the Miskito traditions, about lobster fishing and the miserable conditions in which the divers work. They answer in Spanish, with a closed accent. When asked about drugs, however, they start to speak in Miskito, laugh hysterically, and leave.

[See InSight Crime's complete news coverage of organized crime in Nicaragua]

Waiting for Drugs

Since Wednesday, everything is about baseball in Sandy Bay. The town is the site for the regional baseball series of the RAAN and all the teams from the coast and some from the interior of the country will play until Sunday. The town is debuting the stadium. The leaders organize concession stands and the women prepare to cook turtle, despite the fact the season is over. Everyone is partaking. Beer is sold discreetly at the food tents. Children rush to find a place to see the game outside the stadium, near the cemetery. Sandy Bay wins by two runs. "Drugs haven't been dropped off here for two months; good thing we are celebrating," says one woman.

One day later, at four in the morning, the sun still has not risen. Reinaldo has just gotten up. He puts his boots on. He makes coffee, with lots of sugar, and lights a cigarette. He puts his dog in the kitchen and accompanies us to the dock. The fishing boats to Bilwi only leave first thing in the morning. We walk along the cement path that crosses Sandy Bay. In the background, "norteña" music that has been playing all night and some narco ballads about the exploits of Chapo Guzman, the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, can be heard. In one of the pastel colored mansions, the party continues. A few people wait for the boat at the dock. A cat walks by along the beach. The sun starts to rise. Suddenly, a shot rings out, then some screams and a lot of laughter. That is how Sandy Bay says goodbye.

Reprinted and translated with permission from Alejandra S. Inzunza and Pablo Ferril. Follow them on Twitter at @Dromomanos, and see more of their work at http://www.dromomanos.com. This article originally appeared in Domingo El Universal

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