There are no roads into Bluefields, the main city on Nicaragua's remote Caribbean coast, but the city and the surrounding region have nonetheless become a logistics and transportation hub for the international drug trade.
Go-fast boats loaded with tons of north-bound cocaine move along the Caribbean shoreline from Colombia, finding logistical support and refuge in different spots on Nicaragua's eastern coast. Catering to those needs are a series of mostly home-grown criminal networks that have sprung up in the jungle-covered North Atlantic and South Atlantic Autonomous Regions (known as the RAAN and RAAS respectively).
Disputes among rival groups over the theft of merchandise have turned the once bucolic region into one of the country's deadliest. In 2010, the latest year for which statistics are available, the murder rate in the RAAS was 40 per 100,000, compared to 17 per 100,000 for Managua.
The violence has hit the security forces as well as civilians. In 2004, four policemen were assassinated in Bluefields by members of the so-called Reñazco gang.
These days, in this city of some 90,000 inhabitants, there are few secrets, and there's no question for locals about who's in charge.
"Frank Zeledon runs things in this town," said one taxi driver. After the driver had ascertained he was not being recorded and that his name would not be used, he agreed to point out Zeledon's palatial fortress, which is notorious for its wild parties.
Zeledon has a long police record, but he's never been charged with drug trafficking. Still, authorities have their eye on him. (See video, below, of Nicaraguan police chief Aminta Granera talking about Zeledon.)
Zeledon's luxury mansion, and a handful of others like it in town, provide stark contrast to the wooden or cinder block structures that house most of the locals. Late model Cherokee Jeeps and gleaming white Land Rovers weave through the jalopies and beaten-up taxis.
Nicaraguan and international anti-narcotics investigators say Zeledon (pictured above) provides logistical support in and around Bluefields to a drug trafficking network run by Archibald Clayburn, known by locals as "Mr. Boney." Clayburn, a resident of Nicaragua's nearby Corn Island, owns a hotel, the investigators say.
Neither has been charged for drug trafficking, but international intelligence agencies said that Clayburn handles cocaine shipments coming via the Colombian island of San Andres. He then runs them through Zeledon's Bluefields-based network, which includes a shipyard that builds secret compartments into boats to hide drugs, as well as performing general boat maintenance.
Zeledon protects himself from prosecution in variou
s ways. Norman Howard of the United Nations Development Program in Bluefields said that Zeledon was very active during local elections and that the candidates he supported invariably won, thanks in no small part to a healthy campaign budget.
Such is the power of Zeledon that when local police chief Manuel Zambrana arrested him in Bluefields in May last year for assaulting a pastor, brandishing a .38 to threaten the church leader, he spent just 12 hours in jail. Zambrana was transferred two weeks later to a Managua-based post.
Zambrana's removal reinforced the local perception that no honest policeman can survive here long, and that drug traffickers like Zeledon are protected from above. Zambrana had seemed to be trying to change that notion and earn the trust of the local population, challenging the power of the traffickers by engineering a series of raids on nightclubs known to be local drug distribution points.
"Zambrana did something we had never seen before here in Bluefields," said one local resident named Marjorie, who preferred her last name be omitted. "He raided local discos, where they sell drugs to kids. He defied the big shots here. Of course he did not last long."
InSight Crime contacted Zambrana, but he refused to comment on the case. Police chief Granera told InSight Crime that Zambrana's removal from Bluefields "coincided with a restructuring that we were doing ... It had nothing to do with imprisoning Frank Zeledon."
Zeledon is just one of a number of operators who have staging and logistics posts along Nicaragua's Caribbean coast, most of them well known to the locals. These provide an array of services to the international trafficking chain.
The first is fuel resupply to the go-fast launches that move northwards up the Caribbean coast, principally feeding the Mexican transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) which move drug shipments to the US mainland. These boats, which can have up to five outboard engines, are faster than almost anything the interdiction forces have in their navies. What's more, they normally travel at night and are difficult to find on radar.
Secondly, international traffickers rely on the Nicaraguan networks to hide the boats, repair or maintain them when necessary, and entertain the crew during the daylight hours. Captain Blas Hernandez Mendoza of the Atlantic Naval District (DNA) told InSight Crime that drug shipments will often be transferred in Nicaragua from go-fast boats to fishing vessels or vice versa; others are offloaded and broken down into smaller consignments -- anything to keep the security forces guessing. Loads will also often be held in secret deposits along the coast, waiting out naval operations.
Thirdly, the Nicaraguan gangs provide intelligence, using networks of fishermen and spies to track the movement of naval vessels and security forces, and clearing the path for the drug loads. So-called "watchmen" live on the edges of the bases, reporting the movement of ships and other official seafaring vessels.
There are also whispers of people on the take within the naval base, with enough access to report on the movements of US ships that patrol the waters of the Caribbean in joint operations. Up to $4 million in cash seized from drug traffickers by the navy "disappeared" in 2009, according to Gerardo Suarez, who until February 2012 was the chief prosecutor in the RAAS, and remains one of the few willing to go on the record about trafficking activities in the area.
Suarez spent much of his time in the RAAS pursuing a gang that operated in the southern part of the autonomous region, known as the "Tarzanes." There, far to the south of Bluefields, near San Juan del Norte, the Tarzanes operate in the remote jungles and tributaries along the border with Costa Rica. The gang is built around the Reyes Aragon family, and there are arrest warrants pending for seven members of the clan. Suarez said that as well as drug trafficking, the gang has been involved in arms smuggling and a series of homicides, including the infamous killing of four policemen in Bluefields in 2004.
To the north of Bluefields, around Sandy Bay, the border that separates the RAAS and the RAAN, a powerful drug trafficking network is run by Donly Mendoza (pictured below, right). Police sources stated that Mendoza moves with a group of up to 40 bodyguards and works with both Honduran and Mexican TCOs. In January this year, security forces launched an operation to capture Mendoza in Sandy Bay, after a shootout between rival traffickers left four wounded. While seven arrests were made and arms seized, Mendoza was not to be found.
Still further north, toward the Honduras border, there is a criminal network led by a Colombian, who has a Nicaraguan identity card in the name of Alberto Ruiz Cano. His real name is Amauri Carmona Morelos, from San Andres (pictured below) and his father is believed to have once worked for Colombia's Cali Cartel, schooling his son in the world of international drug trafficking.
Carmona Morelos formerly owned the notorious Mr. Sponge nightclub in Managua, which he used to launder drug money and as a meeting point to negotiate the movement and purchase of drug shipments. His base of operations is Walpa Siksa in the RAAN, but he is believed to move continually in and out of Honduras and back to his native San Andres, Colombia, international intelligence sources told InSight Crime.
Many of the Nicaraguan traffickers started as fishermen of "white lobsters," the bales of cocaine shipments that wash up on the shores after traffickers are forced to offload them while being pursued by security forces. They established contact with traffickers when the latter come to buy back the loads. Locals insist they have been paid up to $500 a kilo for cocaine they found, a small fortune in these remote communities, whose only local employment opportunities, apart from drugs, come from fishing and logging.
"You need to understand that most of the local population in the RAAS, particularly in the more remote coastal communities, support the drug traffickers," said government prosecutor Suarez. "They provide employment, and when there are storms and hurricanes, it is the drug traffickers that help people rebuild, not the government, which has little to no presence."
This was echoed by Captain Jose Castillo of the DNA, who said that, due to extreme poverty, "It is easy for drug traffickers to buy these communities."
While some pick up the loads, others cut their criminal teeth as "tumbadores," groups of heavily armed pirates, who steal drug loads from transporters and sell them, usually in Honduras.
Throughout the chain, many of these transporters are paid for their services in cocaine to sell on the domestic market. Nicaraguan authorities believe this is the case with Zeledon, who sells his merchandise in small dosages locally. This would have given him ample reason to push for Zambrana's ouster as police chief.
"He [Zambrana] didn't let them work," one businessman was quoted in La Prensa as saying about the nightclubs where Zeledon conducts much of his business.
"He was a goody-two-shoes," another added.
Of course, "goody-two-shoes" is a relative term in these parts. What's more, Zambrana seems to realize something many local "businessmen" do not: today's small-time movers may be tomorrow's national security problem. To be sure, as pressure grows in other parts of Central America, as well as Mexico and Colombia, the importance of Nicaragua as a transshipment point is likely to increase, and this will have one of two results: either TCOs will set up shop here, or they will increase the participation of local criminal syndicates in the drug world, helping them make the leap to become transnational gangs themselves.
*Additional reporting by Steven Dudley. Graphics by Andres Ortiz Sedano.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story carried a photograph (right) of Felipe Michell Nicho that InSight Crime mistakenly identified as the alleged drug trafficker Donly Mendoza. InSight Crime laments this error and has removed the photograph from its stories and graphics.
Also in InSight Crime's Nicaragua Special:
Folk Singer's Death Shines Light on Nicaragua Police Corruption
Video: An Interview with Nicaragua's Police Chief