A U.S. diplomatic cable released by whistleblower site WikiLeaks reportedly says there is reason to “re-evaluate” how far Nicaragua’s remote indigenous communities are collaborating with drug traffickers. But the evidence isn’t all there.
In December 2009, Nicaraguan security forces reported a dramatic clash with Colombian drug traffickers off the Caribbean coast. But officials’ version of the story is markedly different from the version given by a contemporary U.S. diplomatic cable, according to recent reports.
As Nicaraguan media reported at the time, an aircraft loaded with cocaine crashed in an indigenous reserve in the country’s North Atlantic Autonomous Region on December 4. This is one of country’s two autonomous departments, home to the densest concentration of Nicaragua’s indigenous groups.
After seeing that the pilots had not survived the crash, the Walpa Siksa community allegedly unloaded the plane’s cargo of cocaine, as well as packages full of cash. According to interviews that national newspaper El Nuevo Diario conducted with witnesses, the community then began to argue about what to do with the drugs and the money. So as to not attract attention from the police or the coast guard, they burned and buried the aircraft, then began arming themselves with old weapons left over from Nicaragua’s civil war in the 1980s.
On December 7, a boatload of 40 drug traffickers — most of them reportedly Colombian — arrived and began arguing with the Walpa Siksa over where their cargo was hidden. The security forces arrived the next day.
What happened next is disputed by a U.S. diplomatic cable, reportedly released by WikiLeaks (although it is not yet publicly available) and seen by Nicaraguan media. The official version is that the Colombian traffickers ambushed the anti-drug unit, leaving two navy troops dead and another five wounded. According to the Nicaraguan media, however, the recently released U.S. cable says that security forces first held a “friendly” meeting with Walpa Siksa community leaders. It is not clear in the section quoted whether the anti-drug unit also met the Colombian drug traffickers on civil terms. According to the reports, a drunk Colombian opened fire during the meeting with the indigenous group, killing and wounding members of the anti-drug unit. The “ambush” story was fabricated in order to explain the casualties, the U.S. cable reportedly says.
On one level, this is no more than an embarrassing counterpoint to the version of the story told by Nicaraguan authorities. But there are reportedly more key details in the U.S. diplomatic cable which were absent from earlier reports. According to media who have seen the cable, it says that the Walpa Siksa refused to sell the cocaine back to the Colombians at their asking price of $3,000 a kilo, knowing that a kilo would fetch double that amount just across the border in Honduras. If true, this would indicate that the Walpa Siksas were familiar with the drug trade along the coast.
This is a major concern reportedly cited in the cable. The case is an indication of how much drug trafficking has increased along Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast, and is also a sign of how the “xenophobic” Walpa Siksa may be “actively” aiding foreigners in the transport of drugs.
But it is not clear how either version of events — that of the U.S. Embassy and that of the Nicaraguans — proves that there is significant collaboration between the Walpa Siksa and drug traffickers. There have likely been some incidents of contact and perhaps collaboration, due to the nature of the North Atlantic Autonomous Region. This is one of Nicaragua’s poorest and most sparsely populated departments, and is a natural transit zone for drug traffickers looking to move their cargo northwards.
But the December 2009 drama that took place between the Colombians and the Walpa Siksa does not appear to indicate there is a cooperative relationship between the two groups. The Walpa Siksa did not immediately report the cocaine cargo to police, but this says more about the distrust between Nicaragua’s indigenous groups and the state than it does about any “collaboration” between the Walpa Siksa and drug trafficking organizations. If details in the U.S. Embassy Cable are true — the Walpa Siksa refused to sell the cocaine back to the Colombians, except at “Honduran” pricing — this does signal that the Walpa Siksa were willing to do business with the Colombians, but on their own terms. No details of the drama appear to indicate there is an established, trusting and sophisticated relationship between the Walpa Siksa and the drug traffickers who inevitably pass through their territory.
The Walpa Siksa’s accounts of the incident signal that locals appeared far more concerned about the arrival of military and police to the scene than about the Colombians. In the incident’s aftermath, it is telling that rather than denouncing abuses by the drug traffickers, the Walpa Siksa accused the security forces of committing human rights violations in the area, another sign of how deeply citizen confidence in the state has been ruptured here (the Nicaraguan military denied accusations of human rights abuse, and the U.S. Embassy found “no credible evidence“).
The Walpa Siksa case is certainly an indication that Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast is a key transit area for cocaine. The case also illustrates how the lack of state presence in rural, economically depressed areas does much to feed the drug trade, no matter which ethnic group is involved. The U.S. Embassy’s reported interpretation of the event — that it points to a significant degree of collaboration between Nicaragua’s remote Caribbean communities and foreign drug traffickers — appears to be a misreading.