Nicaragua has been spared much of the violence that has shaken its neighbors, and while the country does appear to host at least one transnational criminal organization, so far it has not seen the kind of gang wars affecting the Northern Triangle countries: Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. While Nicaragua sees plenty of drug trafficking over its borders, local traffickers are nowhere close to presenting a regional threat. Most trafficking networks are based along the coastlines, especially the Atlantic side, although the Pacific and inland routes are also used to move cocaine shipments northwards.
The government’s approach to combating the international cocaine trade has not been atypical, with a focus on seizures and security patrols. What does stand out is the country’s police force, which, while still corruptible, has emphasized community policing to a degree not yet seen in other Central American countries. This could help explain why Nicaragua appears to be the exception to the region’s crime wave, although the country still faces serious threats from criminal groups.
Nicaragua is the largest country in Central America and one of the most sparsely populated. With about 500 kilometers of coastline, as well as several islands that serve as convenient stop-off points, the country presents many of the same geographical advantages to drug traffickers as the rest of Central America. A 2012 International Court of Justice ruling granted Nicaragua martime territories previously controlled by Colombia. These territories, which lie off the coast of the island of San Andres, lie along a major trafficking route.
For much of its history Nicaragua has suffered not just from organized criminal groups, but from violent conflict between its land-owning elites and guerrilla groups. Complicating security matters is a long history of intervention from the United States. US marines occupied the country for approximately 21 years, before withdrawing in 1931. US support for brutal dictators like Anastasio Somoza Garcia (1937-1947) also helped strengthen a deep-rooted suspicion of US influence over Nicaragua’s sovereignty, and the tense relationship continues to this day.
The corrupt rule of the Somoza dynasty helped to strengthen Nicaragua’s left-wing guerrilla groups, led by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). The guerrillas had an easy time recruiting Nicaraguans, both poor and middle-class, and they eventually managed to force Somoza’s son, serving as president, out of office in 1979. In the 1980s, anti-Sandinista forces began springing up, many of them secretly funded by the United States. The war between these “Contra” groups and the Sandinistas raged throughout the decade, before the two sides agreed to negotiations and to hold elections beginning in 1990. Contra groups were active in the two regions which are now most affected by the drug trade, the North Atlantic and South Atlantic Autonomous Regions.
During the war, many Nicaraguan immigrants settled in Costa Rica and Florida, unlike Central American refugees from other civil conflicts in El Salvador and Guatemala, who congregated in Los Angeles. As Los Angeles has a much more serious street gang problem, this theory may help explain why El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras saw the establishment of Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18 cells in their respective countries. Nicaragua, by contrast, has not seen the expansion of these gangs within its borders. Another factor is the number of criminal deportations. The United States sent Nicaraguan criminals back to their country of origin in far smaller numbers than it did with their Salvadoran, Guatemalan or Honduran counterparts.
In an outcome that surprised many observers, the Sandinistas’ presidential candidate, Daniel Ortega, was defeated when the general election took place in 1990. The Sandinistas would not win the presidency again until 2006, with Ortega once more running as their candidate.
As such, Nicaragua’s security situation has largely been defined by the legacy of the Sandinista-Contra conflict. In the new millenium, splinter groups claiming the ideology of the Contras have emerged every once in a while, sometimes carrying out hit-and-run attacks against the government. But none of these groups appeared large or organized enough to qualify as anything other than an oddity. The Ortega government has argued that these so-called new Contras are no more than common criminals who spout the anti-Sandinista rhetoric associated with the Contra groups of the 1980s. Asides from these pockets of resistance, there is little evidence that any organized, political guerrilla groups have managed to survive on a large scale.
Mexico‘s Sinaloa Cartel is the largest and most powerful transnational criminal organization thought to have established a foothold in Nicaragua. There have been reports that the Zetas and Colombian groups like the Norte del Valle Cartel have used Nicaragua’s coastline as a refueling area, but there are few signs that they have established a permanent presence inside the country. More recently, Honduran criminal groups have crossed into Nicaragua, especially in the eastern Mosquito Coast region, fueling unprecented violence along the country’s Atlantic coast. Reports of homegrown armed groups have become increasingly common in recent years, but the nature of such groups is contentious. Some claim political status, and are run by former members of the Contras insurgency, but the government has dismissed all of the organizations as criminal groups linked to drug trafficking.
Nicaragua has about 14,000 active personnel in its military, which includes a navy and a small air force with just 30 aircraft. The United States has singled out the navy as particularly effective when it comes to drug seizures, calling it “one of Central America’s most effective agencies.” Nicaragua’s military expenditure has increased steeply in recent years and was nearly $72 million in 2015, roughly 0.6 percent of GDP.
The National Police have delegations in Nicaragua’s 19 departments, and sub-delegations in Managua’s eight districts. The police run drug awareness and prevention programs, as well as a gang-risk education program. The police also support community watch organizations, some of which were put into place during Sandinista rule, and which have been credited with helping to keep violence levels down in Nicaragua’s poorer urban neighborhoods. Between 2008 and 2013, Nicaragua received a total of $27.8 million in military and police aid from the United States, among the smallest security aid packages in Central America.