Nicaragua's isolated, ignored east coast becomes transit point for cocaine to U.S. Colombian cartels seeking new routes

January 11, 1992|By Michael Molinksi | Michael Molinksi,Special to The Sun

BLUEFIELDS, Nicaragua -- Nicaragua's Mosquito Coast, seemingly forgotten by both the government of President Violeta Chamorro and the Sandinista-led armed forces, has quietly become a point of trade for cocaine en route from Colombia to the United States, local authorities say.

In the 20 months since Mrs. Chamorro took office, because of liberalized trade and a decline in coastal law enforcement, Bluefields has become an easy port of entry for Colombian cocaine, the officials say.

Its importance as a drug route, though still relatively small, has expanded since the Colombian government stepped up action against the cocaine cartels and arrested drug kingpins such as Pablo Escobar.

The cartels, Nicaraguan sources say, are looking for new trade routes that are unknown to international drug authorities. The Mosquito Coast -- isolated from the rest of Nicaragua by mountains, swamps and a rain forest -- could hardly be more obscure.

"They are increasingly using our region as a drug route, and we have no way of knowing how big the problem is," said Julio Cesar Fletes Pena, the first vice president of the regional council that governs the southern half of the semiautonomous Mosquito Coast.

No one doubts that policing on the coast is down, but why it has decreased is a subject of debate.

Mr. Fletes Pena accused the Sandinista army and police of intentionally turning a blind eye to drug trafficking, perhaps to undermine the authority of the Chamorro government.

"I am totally sure they are not applying any strength," he said. "No authority in this country has control over the military apparatus."

But former Sandinista President Daniel Ortega Saavedra said in an interview that the drop in police protection on the Mosquito Coast reflects a lack of concern and budget cuts by the Chamorro government.

"The conditions do not exist for control of the police and the army," Mr. Ortega said. "The basic apparatus that is necessary to combat drug trafficking has been seriously affected by the political shake-ups. . . . There is no budget. There are no parts or gasoline for the [coast guard] boats.

"In order to control drug trafficking on the coast, they need equipment that functions," he said.

Since Mrs. Chamorro took office, the number of police officers in the Bluefields area has decreased from 32 to 15, police officials said. In recent months, crime has increased by two-thirds, they say.

During the nine-year contra war, the Sandinistas' huge military buildup kept South American drug traffickers from using Nicaragua as a transit route, but Mrs. Chamorro has cut the army by more than two-thirds since she became president and ended the war in April 1990.

Luis Fernando Guardas, the Colombian consul in Bluefields, denied that Colombian drugs are entering Nicaragua through Bluefields.

"The Colombian government is applying as much strength as possible to combat this," Mr. Guardas said.

But Mr. Fletes Pena and other local officials say a lack of proper law enforcement is the only reason no major drug seizures have been made on the Mosquito Coast.

Mr. Fletes Pena said officials have asked the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to send agents to Bluefields. In Managua, a U.S. Embassy spokesman said DEA agents were unavailable for comment.

Local officials say Colombian drug dealers, often saying they are in the area to visit relatives, sometimes distribute cocaine to contacts directly on the streets of Bluefields. Colombia's coastal residents are linked culturally to those of the Mosquito Coast, and contact between them is frequent.

However, the drug traffickers generally meet on the high seas. The illegal purchase of fish from Nicaraguan fishermen by Colombian ships has evolved into the cocaine trade, officials said. Sometimes, fish is paid for with cocaine.

Once the cocaine enters Bluefields, it usually crosses the Rio Escondido to the Pacific coast of Nicaragua, then makes its way by land, sea or air to the United States. The drugs are also entering through the Caribbean coastal towns of San Juan del Norte and Monkey Point and making their way inland.

Mr. Ortega said the drug problem is a national one. "It's not just on the Atlantic coast, but here on the Pacific as well," he said.

He said that "people in Miami are facilitating" the shipment of drugs through Nicaragua.

The dire state of the Nicaraguan economy and the 70 percent unemployment rate in Bluefields have also facilitated the drug trade.

"An unemployed person is disposed to find other things to do, like crime and drugs," Mr. Fletes Pena said.

Rene Sing, director of the Cultural Programs for Autonomy in Bluefields, said the increased drug trade is having an adverse social effect on the people of Bluefields, especially the children, and is increasing crime and drug use. He added, however, that local cocaine consumption is still low.

"No one has money to buy it. This is not the type of foreign investment we want," Mr. Sing said.

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