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Annual Reports

2011 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report

Note: This is the Nicaragua related portion of the report. To see the whole report click here

Volume I: Drug and Chemical Control

A. Introduction

In 2010, Nicaragua was added to the List of Major Drug Producing and Transshipment Countries because it is a major transshipment route for cocaine flowing from South America to the United States. Nicaragua’s poor economy, limited law enforcement capabilities, and sparsely populated regions provide an opportune environment for drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) to transit drugs, weapons, cash, and to establish clandestine labs and warehouse facilities. Despite these conditions, Nicaragua’s civilian and military law enforcement units have successfully disrupted some DTO operations throughout the country in the past year, notably in the important autonomous regions of the Caribbean coast. This included dismantling DTO logistic structures; seizing drugs, currency, and small arms; destroying clandestine airstrips; and confiscating vehicles and aircraft.

Nicaragua also is a producer of methamphetamine and marijuana. No reliable data exists to indicate the destination of this growing sector of the drug trade in Nicaragua, though open source and official sources suggest a dramatic increase in the production of the two drugs in 2010. Nicaragua also is experiencing increased domestic consumption of methamphetamine, crack, and marijuana.

U.S. anti-narcotic efforts in Nicaragua face a number of competing challenges. While anti-U.S. rhetoric and controversial decisions by President Ortega often run counter to U.S interests, Nicaraguan military and civilian law enforcement capabilities are almost wholly dependent upon foreign assistance, much of it contributed by the U.S. to provide necessities including food, fuel, equipment, and training. U.S. cooperation and support for the Nicaraguan Navy helped it overcome many challenges and become one of Central America’s most effective agencies in narcotics interdictions.

Nicaragua is a party to the 1988 UN Drug Convention.

B. Drug Control Accomplishments, Policies, and Trends

1. Institutional Development

A particularly troubling development occurred on March 25, 2010, when the Nicaraguan National Police (NNP) Vetted Unit was disbanded, ostensibly due to the cost of maintaining that unit. The United States Government (USG) was not notified of the decision until it was publicly announced. The disbanding of the unit was a blow to U.S.-supported counternarcotics efforts, as the Vetted Unit officers, who had all been polygraph tested, were dispersed among various non-vetted drug units. The decision to dissolve the Vetted Unit, combined with President Ortega’s frequent public criticism of U.S. bilateral counternarcotics assistance, placed considerable strain on USG efforts to support counternarcotics programs with the NNP.

Nicaragua’s strict penal code, implemented in 2008, sharpened the Government of Nicaragua’s (GON) efforts against money laundering and terrorism financing in the past year, though greater government attention to this issue is necessary. That law made money laundering a crime with significantly harsher penalties separate from drug trafficking. In 2010 there were eight money laundering cases investigated, resulting in seven criminal convictions. However, for the sixth consecutive year, Nicaragua failed to approve an independent Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU); the only Central American country without one. Nicaragua is a member of the Caribbean Financial Action Task Force (CFATF), though compliance has been minimal. In 2009 Nicaragua completed the CFATF Mutual Evaluation Report, which outlines the country’s progress in its Anti-Money Laundering and Counter-Terrorism Financing (AML/CFT) efforts.

In 2010 the Nicaraguan National Assembly approved an anti-organized crime law, which included seized asset guidelines, a witness protection program, and telecommunications intercept guidelines.

Despite an extradition treaty with the United States dating from 1907, there have been no extraditions from Nicaragua to the United States in the recent past. Nicaragua does domestically prosecute its nationals for crimes committed outside Nicaragua, but the outcomes are inconsistent. The GON routinely remands foreign nationals to U.S. custody during high-seas interdiction cases, but has been less cooperative in the extradition of Nicaraguan citizens in similar cases.

The United States and Nicaragua signed a Maritime Counterdrug Bilateral agreement in November 2001. Nicaragua is a party to the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and its three protocols and is a member of the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD) of the Organization of American States (OAS). Nicaragua is a party to the UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC), the UN International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism, the Inter-American Convention on Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters, and the Inter-American Convention against Corruption. Nicaragua also ratified the Inter-American Mutual Legal Assistance Convention in 2002, an agreement that facilitates sharing of legal information between countries, and improved cooperation with U.S. requests for evidence sharing or evidence transfer in 2010. Nicaragua ratified the 2002 Inter-American Convention against Terrorism, and signed, but not ratified, the Caribbean Regional Maritime Counternarcotics Agreement in 2003. In 2004, the United States and Nicaragua signed the Cooperating Nation Information Exchange System (CNIES), which allows greater law enforcement intelligence sharing among nations. Nicaragua is a party to the 1961 UN Single Convention as amended by the 1972 Protocol, the 1971 UN Convention on Psychotropic Substances, and the 1988 UN Drug Convention.

2. Supply Reduction

In 2010, DTO transshipment methods varied between countless land, sea, and air routes. Maritime smuggling via go-fast boats on the littorals of both coasts, the San Juan River, and Lake Nicaragua remained prevalent, though exact routes routinely change. The predominant maritime routes included the littoral waters of the Caribbean and Pacific, as well as inland waterways in and around Lake Nicaragua. Both fixed and rotary wing aircraft were used to smuggle contraband.

Traffickers increased the construction and use of clandestine airstrips in the Caribbean coastal areas--Regional Autonomous Area North (RAAN) and South (RAAS) -- though seizures of helicopters on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts indicate the continued use of rotary wing aircraft throughout the country. Highlighting an uptick in illicit air traffic, three aircraft crashed near the Río Coco, in the RAAN and Walpasiksa, in the RAAS. In the area bordering Honduras, near Rio Coco, a helicopter was found abandoned in close proximity to a clandestine airstrip. Heavy moving equipment and fuel also were recovered on-site.

Border security is a concern in Nicaragua. DTOs use the Pan-American Highway as a primary route for northbound cocaine, heroin, and marijuana and a southbound route for weapons and currency. DTOs increased the use of couriers, as well as hidden compartments in cars and trucks to smuggle drugs and currency across the five Nicaraguan border crossings at Guasaule, El Espino, Las Manos, Penas Blancas, and Los Chiles in 2010. The port of entry in Penas Blancas, Department of Rivas, on the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border, is the most successful and aggressive of the Nicaraguan border checkpoints. It is also the last overland chokepoint for northbound contraband and southbound currency, entering or leaving the Central America customs area.

In 2010, Nicaraguan law enforcement authorities nearly doubled the previous year’s cocaine seizures to 17.5 metric tons (MT) from 9.8 MT and dismantled a large clandestine methamphetamine laboratory. In the first half of 2010 alone, Nicaraguan security forces confiscated 199 vehicles, nine airplanes, one helicopter, 48 boats, and 209 weapons.

Despite reductions in the Navy’s budget during 2010 as part of across-the-board cuts, the lion’s share of counternarcotics success in Nicaragua is due to the excellent cooperation and interoperability of the Nicaraguan Navy, its regional partners, and the United States. Successful joint operations included an operation that netted 2.5 MT of cocaine in a shipping container at the Nicaraguan port of Corinto. Maritime cocaine seizures during 2010 accounted for 13.6 MT of the 17.5 MTs confiscated. The Nicaraguan Navy and the Nicaraguan National Police (NNP) also seized $2 million in cash, and assets worth over $8.4 million during 2010. The NNP eradicated 8,500 marijuana plants in five growing regions in the Northern provinces of the country, with an approximate local value of $1.4 million.

3. Drug Awareness, Demand Reduction, and Treatment

Drug consumption in Nicaragua is a growing problem, particularly on the Atlantic coast where transshipment has increased. Domestic use of crack cocaine, methamphetamine, and marijuana are on the rise, particularly among 16 to 35 year olds, according to Nicaraguan community leaders and law enforcement. What little education and law enforcement resources are dedicated to this issue are largely focused on the Hispanic Pacific coast regions of Nicaragua, rather than the Creole and Indigenous Atlantic coast.

Using United States Government (USG) resources, the NNP’s Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program is the premier youth demand reduction program in Nicaragua. In July 2010, six NNP Juvenile Affairs officials attended advanced DARE training in the United States. In 2010, DARE reached 12,000 students in Nicaragua, a slight reduction from 2009. In August, 20 NNP officers received DARE “Train the Trainer” training from 12 Costa Rican National Police officer/trainers in Managua. The NNP’s Second Step program (Segundo Paso) which prepares teachers and police officers for drug awareness and prevention at the preschool level, continued in Managua, the RAAS, and the RAAN. The NNP Juvenile Affairs division’s anti-drug message reached 530 students in 2010. Also in 2010, 38 police officers and preschool teachers were trained for the Second Step program, “Monitoring and Project Evaluation.”

The Gang Resistance Education and Training (GREAT) pilot program initiated in 2010 met with enthusiastic support from the Juvenile Affairs Division of the NNP and shows great promise as a demand reduction program going forward. To date the program has graduated 500 students in Nicaragua. More than 300 of these students are from Bluefields, the strategically important capital of the RAAS.

Using GON funds, the Ministry of Education (MINED), the Ministry of Health (MINSA), and the Nicaraguan Fund for Children and the Family (FONIF) have all undertaken limited drug abuse awareness and demand reduction campaigns in schools. The Nicaraguan Narcotic and Psychotropic Drugs and Other Controlled Substances, “Law 285,” sets aside one fifth of all seized assets for GON demand reduction campaigns, though, to date, no survey, estimates of treated/rehabilitated patients, or budget figures for these GON demand reduction programs is available. No private sector initiative exists to promote national drug abuse awareness, prevention, and drug use treatment programs. Nicaragua does not have a dedicated drug treatment center.

4. Corruption

Despite attempts to address it, corruption is a pervasive and continuing problem in Nicaragua. As a matter of policy, the GON neither encourages nor facilitates illicit production and distribution of narcotic or psychotropic drugs or other controlled substances, or the laundering of proceeds from illegal drug transactions. No senior government officials are reported to be engaged in such activity. However, many factors make it difficult to combat corruption, including low salaries for police and judges and a poor law enforcement infrastructure. Cash rich criminals have acquired a cloak of impunity through bribery and extortion of judicial and law enforcement officials. Detained drug suspects are regularly freed after a short detention, a practice that undercuts law enforcement effectiveness. The continued politicization of the Nicaraguan judiciary and the Nicaraguan Supreme Court in particular, is a worrisome impediment to serious law enforcement efforts in the country. For instance, money and other assets seized from drug trafficking activities are to be distributed at the discretion of the Supreme Court. These funds are largely unaccounted for and reports of justices keeping expensive vehicles and luxury items for themselves are common. Because of these irregularities and other reports of judicial corruption, the United States no longer provides foreign assistance to the Nicaraguan Supreme Court.

C. National Goals, Bilateral Cooperation, and U.S. Policy Initiatives

The USG goals in Nicaragua are to enhance the abilities of GON law enforcement agencies to detect and intercept shipments, detain traffickers, and stop the laundering of illegal profits from the drug industry, as well as support preventative programs to protect youth from drugs and recruitment into gangs.

The law enforcement bureaus of the GON are heavily dependent on USG assistance. The Nicaraguan Navy, U.S. Coast Guard, and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) enjoy an excellent operational relationship to include information sharing. USG funds support the NNP Mobile Inspection Unit, border security units, and military border patrol units. The USG also buttressed NNP border security efforts by improving office and living quarters at the Penas Blancas border crossing. The USG supported the NNP’s Mobile Inspection Unit (MIU), which establishes random checkpoints at strategic points on the national highway system and accounts for the bulk of all police seizures. The existing Maritime Counterdrug Bilateral agreement was used by the GON and the USG six times in FY 2010, which resulted in the removal of over 7 MT of cocaine from the transit zone.

In 2010, the USG provided the Nicaraguan Navy with training in maritime law enforcement, small boat operations, maintenance and logistics, engineering, and leadership. The Nicaraguan Navy, with assistance from the USG, is developing a long-range patrol capability centered on three 65-foot Dabur patrol boats, which will extend its blue water operations, and has plans to refit and return to service 40 confiscated go-fast type vessels, to work predominantly along the littorals and rivers.

Also in 2010, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) conducted assessments at all but one of the Nicaraguan border crossings. A Central American Fingerprint Exchange System (CAFÉ) team also conducted a project needs assessment for Nicaragua and reported pervasive lack of resources and low levels of infrastructural and operational capacity.

D. Conclusion

Nicaragua did not sign bilateral counternarcotics assistance agreements with the United States in either FY 2009 or FY 2010, thus losing related foreign assistance funding. The United States continues to support Nicaragua’s interdiction efforts, but U.S.- Nicaraguan anti-corruption and money laundering cooperation has deteriorated severely since the GON disbanded the NNP Vetted Unit. We encourage the GON to re-establish this important law enforcement asset. Nicaragua also needs stronger statutes to combat corruption and money laundering and needs to professionalize and remove political influences on the judiciary and the Prosecutor General's office.

Although many sectors of the GON remain uncooperative, the interdiction successes of the Nicaraguan Navy are a bright spot and demonstrate the willingness of some branches of the GON to confront DTOs and live up to their international commitments. The Nicaraguan Navy regularly confronted DTOs using information provided by the USG. We encourage the GON to continue effective targeting and patrolling that has served as a deterrent for DTO shipments moving northbound. By selectively rewarding and supporting cooperative elements of the GON, real progress is clearly attainable.