In his political rhetoric, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega makes no secret of his often hostile views towards U.S. foreign policy. The irony is that Nicaragua may be among the U.S.’s most effective Central American partners in the so-called “war on drugs.”
Last year the U.S. named Nicaragua a major drug-trafficking nation, alongside Costa Rica and Honduras. Nicaragua is a stopover point for cocaine shipments, where small-time contraband runners, known in the region as “transportistas,” move drugs up to Mexico. Most frequently used are maritime routes. Off the Atlantic Coast, traffickers use Corn Island as an important rendezvous and refueling stop, while go-fast boats also frequent the San Juan River and the waterways surrounding Lake Nicaragua.
Nicaragua’s certification as a major transhipment point for cocaine comes alongside an improved rate of drug seizures inside the country. On May 15, the police burned 861 kilos of cocaine, seized by the Nicaraguan Navy from a fishing boat in the Caribbean. This is the largest drug haul since the Navy’s seizure of 1,643 kilos of cocaine in January. According to the U.S. State Department, Nicaraguan law enforcement confiscated 17.5 tons of cocaine in 2010, nearly double that of 2009.
Supporting the Nicaraguan Navy, which the U.S. has called “one of Central America’s most effective agencies in narcotics interdictions,” is $36.1 million in U.S. military and police aid, granted to Nicaragua since 2007. Even as Nicaragua has stalled in reforming its judiciary or cracking down on money laundering, the Nicaraguan Navy has remained one of the U.S.’s most cooperative partners in the region. That partnership may gain more importance as neighboring countries like Guatemala and El Salvador face worsening security situations.
The Nicaraguan Navy is not a high-tech force, described by security intelligence publication Jane’s as “outdated and “small,” with “limited capabilities.” The Navy numbers some 800 personnel, and relies on three Israeli Dabur fast boats for patrols, as well as two Sin-Hung boats. But much of the flotilla has little ability to properly patrol Nicaragua’s waters: at least 54 of the Navy’s boats were once drug vessels captured by the government, as well as another 12 patrol launches built in Nicaragua·to replace wooden craft previously used in the 1990s.
The U.S. has done its part to bulk up the Nicaraguan Navy, donating over $400,000 worth of equipment — including 12 patrol boats and three electrical generators — in early 2009. But perhaps more important than technical support has been the Navy’s willingness to cooperate frequently with U.S. agencies like the Coast Guard and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), a relationship that the State Department has described as “excellent.” Joint operations have included the most recent seizure of 861 kilos of cocaine, as well as the seizure of 2.5 tons of cocaine off the Pacific port city Corinto in May 2010.
Cooperation between the Nicaraguan Navy and U.S. anti-drug agencies has gained importance as Nicaragua’s other attempted reforms have stumbled. As noted by the State Department, Nicaragua is the only country in Central America that has not approved the creation of a U.S.-supported Financial Intelligence Unit, meant to monitor money laundering activity. In March 2010, the government’s decision to disband a U.S.-trained anti-corruption police unit was also met with disapproval in the U.S. The action also provoked criticism that the elite unit was disbanded not because of the official “lack of funds,” but because, while working closely with the DEA, they were close to implicating high-ranking officials in the drug trade.
In some ways, the Nicaraguan Navy are an apparent “bright spot” for the U.S. in a region where other key partners — Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador — are seeing little success in the security front. And with Nicaragua set to receive $5.6 million in military and police aid under the U.S. 2012 fiscal budget, Ortega’s government may be reluctant to risk another controversial move that could threaten the “excellent” relationship.