Nicaragua has long been one of the least violent countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. Although some local gangs and at least one transnational criminal organization have a foothold there, so far the country has not experienced the high homicide rates common in its Central American neighbors.
Nevertheless, traffickers have taken advantage of Nicaragua’s extensive Caribbean and Pacific coastlines and islands to move drugs through the country, at times with help from corrupt officials. And instability related to discontent with current President Daniel Ortega — in power since 2006 — may impact future underworld dynamics.
Nicaragua is the largest country in Central America, but it is the second-most sparsely populated after Belize. With about 500 kilometers of coastline on both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, and 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 maritime territories previously controlled by Colombia. These territories lie off the coast of the Colombian island of San Andres, a major trafficking hub.
The country’s large forest reserves have been targets for illegal logging.
Nicaragua became an independent country in 1838. Its first half-century of existence was characterized by internal conflicts between factions of elites and intervention by foreign powers. Starting in the early 1900s, the United States intervened repeatedly in Nicaragua, including with military force.
During much of the Cold War, the United States supported the often brutal political dynasty started by Anastasio Somoza Garcia, which helped cement a suspicion of US influence and strengthened 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 the “Contras” and the Sandinistas raged throughout the decade.
Nicaragua’s current security situation has largely been defined by the legacy of the Sandinista-Contra conflict. For instance, Contra groups were active in the two regions now most affected by the drug trade, the North Atlantic and South Atlantic Autonomous Regions.
Additionally, during the fighting, many Nicaraguan migrants settled in neighboring Costa Rica and in the US state of Florida, unlike Central American refugees from other Cold War-era conflicts in El Salvador and Guatemala, who tended to migrate to Los Angeles. Los Angeles served as an incubator for many street gangs, and 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. This may help explain why El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras saw the establishment of MS13 and Barrio 18 cells in their respective countries while Nicaragua, by contrast, has not seen the expansion of these gangs to the same extent.
The Contra-Sandinista conflict ended in negotiations that led to an agreement to hold elections in 1990. In an outcome that surprised many observers, the Sandinistas’ presidential candidate, FSLN party stalwart and incumbent head of state Daniel Ortega, was defeated.
A succession of governments in the 1990s and early 2000s struggled with the legacy of the conflict, including resurgent guerrilla groups, but nevertheless took some steps to strengthen institutions and integrate the country into the post-Cold War world order.
After a string of failed bids, Ortega finally won the presidency in the 2006 election, despite allegations of links to drug traffickers including Pablo Escobar. In the early years of his administration, Ortega opted for traditional strategies to combat the drug trade, like interdicting drug shipments, and even cooperated closely with the United States on such efforts. However, due to institutional weaknesses and the politicization of the justice system, Nicaragua continued to serve as a transshipment point for drugs.
Ortega was re-elected in 2011, and continued to bend Nicaragua’s institutions to his personal whim. The country continued to aggressively pursue drug traffickers, but sometimes did so in questionable ways. For instance, officials were allowed to use funds and properties seized from criminal suspects for their own ends, and the appointment of a military general to head an anti-money laundering unit created in 2012 raised concerns that the agency would be used to target political opponents. In 2014, Congress gave Ortega significantly greater authority over the police.
Levels of violence remained relatively stable, with the national homicide rate climbing slightly from 13 per 100,000 citizens at the start of Ortega’s term to 14 per 100,000 in 2009, before dropping to less than 9 per 100,000 in 2013. However, as the Caribbean coast took on greater importance for international drug trafficking, violence there remained elevated compared to the rest of the country.
The criminal dynamics on the coast as well as indications of corruption led some observers to question whether the government was as successful at combating the drug trade as it claimed. Reports also suggested that Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel had established a presence there.
Other security concerns included splinter groups claiming the ideology of the Contras that continued to emerge every once in a while, sometimes carrying out attacks against the Ortega government. But none of these groups have appeared large or organized enough to qualify as anything more than an oddity.
Ortega was re-elected again in 2016, tightening his grip on Nicaragua’s institutions. A lack of transparency makes it difficult to assess true levels of criminality, but there has been no solid evidence of major changes in the underworld landscape since that time. Still, authorities’ claims about the success of their anti-crime efforts have been met with some skepticism.
In 2018, major protests against Ortega’s government shook the country, and authorities responded to the demonstrations with deadly force. Groups described as “parapolice” played a significant role in repressing the protests, raising concerns that they could criminalize. However, the situation remains fluid, and its ultimate impact on the underworld remains to be seen.
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 some Colombian groups have used Nicaragua as a transshipment point, but there are few signs that they have established a permanent presence inside the country.
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 these organizations as criminal groups linked to drug trafficking.
Groups known as “tumbadores” have taken advantage of the flow of drugs through Nicaragua by stealing shipments, sometimes with help from corrupt officials.
Crime groups in Nicaragua also engage in eco trafficking, including illegal logging, animal smuggling and cattle rustling. Corruption has helped fuel land trafficking tied to some of these criminal activities.
Crime groups have also smuggled pharmaceuticals from Nicaragua to other countries in Central America for resale.
Nicaragua has about 13,000 active personnel in its military, which includes a navy and a small air force. 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 2016, roughly 0.5 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. However, allegations of torture and extrajudicial killings have tarnished the force’s reputation in recent years, and there have also been indications that corruption runs deeper in the police than the government has acknowledged.
Nicaragua’s highest judicial body is the Supreme Court. Below this are local and district courts, and an appeals court. The country also has military courts, which prosecute crimes committed by or against the police or armed forces. Nicaragua has both a Attorney General’s Office (Ministerio Público), which handles criminal cases, and a Solicitor General (Procuraduría General de la República), which provides legal representation for the government.
Ortega’s government has severely politicized the justice system. The World Justice Project’s 2017-2018 Rule of Law Index ranked Nicaragua as one of the countries with the most corruption and least effective criminal justice systems in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Nicaragua’s prisons are chronically overcrowded and ripe for abuse. The prison system only has the capacity to hold around 5,000 inmates, and until 2010 the population remained steady at between 6,000 and 7,000. However, since then, the population has grown to more than 10,000 inmates, leading to poor conditions. In 2016, the Nicaraguan government experimented with releasing thousands of inmates serving time for minor crimes, a move critics said was not transparent and may have involved political meddling, but nonetheless helped reduce overcrowding.