Nicaraguan fisherman Ted Hayman Forbes and his drug trafficking network operated from Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and the Colombian island of San Andres in the Caribbean. His capture and sentencing put an end to a criminal career that local and Nicaraguan elites had aided and abetted for years.
On June 19, 2012, police officers stopped a truck at a checkpoint on the outskirts of San Carlos, the capital of the department of Río San Juan. The city, which has about 50,000 people, sits some 300 kilometers from Managua, where Nicaragua Lake ends and the San Juan River begins. This geographic position makes it an important drug trafficking route along the Caribbean Coast for those moving illicit goods via land, river or sea. The dense jungle canopy surrounding it makes it an ideal storage area as well, as drugs await shipment along the Pacific towards the border with Honduras.
The truck had three passengers and seven large plastic containers, each with a 12-gallon capacity. The passengers said the containers were full of animal feed. Authorities had placed the police checkpoint at that spot that very night after receiving a tip that some illegal drugs might be moving through the area. And the containers raised suspicions, so they ordered the police to bring the truck to the station and check it more thoroughly.
*This report was a collaboration between InSight Crime and Expediente Abierto, and included the participation of numerous Nicaraguan journalists and investigators who, for security reasons, prefer anonymity. Javier Meléndez coordinated the investigation, writing and editing of the story. Additional editing and reporting by Steven Dudley and Hannah Stone.
The next day, inside the area where prisoners receive visitors, authorities inspected the car and its cargo. They emptied every container and, in addition to animal feed, they found 140 rectangular packets with 161 kilograms of cocaine. Following this discovery, the police gathered their forces and mounted a series of raids in various cities, which netted 19 suspects of one of the most powerful criminal groups in Nicaragua - that of Ted Hayman Forbes, who was just three months shy of his 42nd birthday. They called the raids "Operation Dike."
Operation Dike dismantled a network that operated from Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and the Colombian island of San Andres in the Caribbean. According to sources in the national police, Hayman and his network provided all the necessary services to move drugs: small and large boats, fuel, food and salaries to all their workers. The group stored the gasoline in the ocean, which the drug traffickers used on their trips between San Andres and mainland Nicaragua, where they had access to safe houses and smaller boats.
Hayman was arrested on June 22, 2012, while he attended a softball game in the Glorias Costeñas stadium in the city of Bluefields, the capital of the South Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region (Región Autónoma de la Costa Caribe Sur - RACCS). Hayman was considered the most powerful man in that part of the country, and his arrest caused a huge stir from the municipality of Laguna de Perlas to his home island of Tasbapauni. In Bluefields, where he was being held, people protested.
But the real heart of discontent could be found in Tasbapauni, an island paradise along the Caribbean about two hours by boat from Bluefields. That is where Hayman lived as a "fisherman" and where he concentrated his philanthropic efforts. In Tasbapauni, marchers clamored for his release and threatened not to vote in the municipal elections, which were scheduled for November of that year. It was not an idle threat since Hayman could move thousands of votes and allegedly financed campaigns up and down the coast. However, the protests had little impact. Their echo did not reach the halls of power in Managua or make many waves in the local press in spite of the fact that Hayman was the biggest trafficker in that part of the country.
A few months later, Hayman and several members of his network were found guilty of drug trafficking, money laundering and leading a criminal conspiracy to move illegal goods. He was sentenced to 32 years in prison. He also had to pay some significant fines. Although a lot of property was seized, numerous sources told InSight Crime that much of his property remains in the hands of third parties, while other items confiscated were stolen by the police and judicial authorities. Among the properties that were confiscated was a mansion in Bluefields, which authorities said was what originally led them to arrest and prosecute Hayman, a man whose network had all the hallmarks of being tolerated and supported by the regional and national political elites.
Indeed, the Hayman case unearthed the tight bonds between his network and the coastal political elites, who served as the go-between for Hayman’s network and the national political elites in Managua. It also illustrated how an organized crime figure like Hayman could use the vast amounts of political and social capital he’d constructed to operate with relative impunity for years.
Background - Power on Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast
To put into perspective the dimensions and sustainability of Hayman’s criminal network, we need to understand how power works along the Caribbean Coast, especially as it relates to the various ethnicities and their political manifestations.
Ethnically, the region is characterized by its heterogeneity. There are six different ethnicities: three Indigenous communities made up of the Rama, Mayangna and Miskito; and three mixed-ethnic and race communities with combinations of Creole, Mestizo and Afro-Caribbean populations. Puerto Cabezas and Waspam are the two largest urban populations in the North Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region (Región Autónoma de la Costa Caribe Norte - RACCN) where the Miskito are the dominant community. Mestizos and Creoles are the predominant communities in Bluefields, the largest urban center in the RACCS; the Creole community is also dominant in the Laguna de Perlas and Corn Island, two other important population centers in the RACCS.
Whereas in the RACCN, more than 57 percent of the population identified themselves as indigenous or of mixed-ethnicity and race in the 2005 census, in the RACCS, that number was only 24 percent. This was the result of massive migration from other parts of Nicaragua and the region.
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The ethnic and Indigenous hierarchies along the Caribbean Coast in Nicaragua are inherited from the remnants of colonial coastal society. There is a small Miskito elite that was connected to the English during the British rule (1687-1894). The Creole elite, meanwhile, were connected more to the North American business interests that were established in the Caribbean enclave. Due to their English language skills and education, the Creole were trusted and found jobs in administrative positions. Most of the Miskito and Mayangna, however, were subjugated and used as manual labor.
These three ethnic groups had a division of labor depending upon where they were from. The Creole in the south centered their activities mostly in the city. The Miskito and Mayangna were in the north where they combined their work in the enclave economy with their subsistence farming. This ethnic division was also evident in the extractive industries. The Miskito and Mayangna did the manual labor, while the Creole and mestizos (who began appearing in large numbers after 1894) were the administrators and managers.
The Somoza family dictatorship (which governed off and on between 1936 and 1979) solidified these hierarchies. After the Miskito region was incorporated into Nicaragua during the Somoza regime, the focus towards the Caribbean Coast became more intense, especially regarding extractive industries. United States businesses, in particular, entered the enclave economy in great numbers and offered high risk and low reward work to these subjugated populations. This dynamic helped reaffirm the ethnic hierarchy along the Caribbean Coast. The Miskito, Mayangna and Rama provided manual labor to the mining, banana and lumber industries, while the Creole and mestizos were mid-level managers in the companies, bureaucrats in the government and administrators of the distribution services in the urban centers of Puerto Cabezas and Bluefields.
The Sandinista revolution, which culminated in that movement’s violent takeover of the government in 1979, did not greatly alter these relationships, but the war that ensued during the next decade did. While little changed as it related to ethnic and racial hierarchies – even while the Sandinista government pushed for "affirmative action" – much changed in the context of the armed conflict, which engulfed Nicaragua in the 1980s following the Sandinista takeover of the government. The Miskito population took up arms in great numbers to push for their rights; the Creole, in their own, more intellectual way, pushed for the creation of the autonomous region that eventually became a reality with the establishment of the RAACN and the RAACS in 1987.
After 1990, the most important shift was the massive migration of mestizos to the region and their steady rise and presence in local governments. It was after 1990 that the region began to feel more of a connection to and pressure from the national political parties. With the surprising victory of the National Opposition Union’s (Unión Nacional Opositora - UNO) presidential candidate Violeta Barrios de Chamorro over Sandinista candidate Daniel Ortega, the country went through a deep political shift. This impacted the Caribbean Coast, where the increase in the mestizo population came with the arrival of the Liberal Party and Ortega's Sandinista Front for National Liberation (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional - FSLN). Ironically, the constitutional reforms granting autonomy, as well as a series of political pacts between the Liberal Constitutionalist Party (Partido Liberal Constitucionalista - PLC) and the FSLN, had the effect of repressing political activism in the region.
The party representatives also reinforced ethnic divisions in the region. The PLC’s leadership through 2010, for example, was made up almost entirely of mestizos. For its part, the FSLN was primarily Creole. In addition, they decided to alternate power, a process that they ran through local civil society groups. These included the Center for Citizen and Autonomous Rights (Centro de Derechos Ciudadanos y Autonómicos - CEDEHCA) and the Foundation for Autonomy and Development on the Atlantic Coast (Fundación para la Autonomía y el Desarrollo de la Costa Atlántica de Nicaragua - FADCANIC) in the RACCS, and the Center for Autonomy and the Rights of Indigenous Communities (Centro para la Autonomía y los Derechos de los Pueblos Indígenas - CADPI) in the RACCN.
In the RACCN, the ethnic and political divisions are less complicated. The Miskito population is the majority, which is divided between the Indigenous party Yapti Tasba Masraka Nanih Aslatakanka (YATAMA), the FSLN and the PLC. The Mayangna, Rama and Afro-Caribbean elites' participation in politics has always been small and rarely connected to the decision-making apparatus of the parties in that part of the country.
This is how relations among the central government, the local government and the ethnic groups are determined. This is also how the central government articulates its power while diminishing that of the local social and political actors along the Caribbean Coast. In this way, the political hierarchies in the region have gone from being reflections of the socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds of the people in the region to being reflections of the national political parties. It’s easy to see this when we consider the elimination of small movements and regional political parties, which are now subordinate or whose interests have been usurped by the national political elites, mostly by the FSLN as it consolidates its hegemony.
This political power has been reinforced by the near-complete control the FSLN has over government resources. Still, the local political elites from Indigenous and Afro-Caribbean backgrounds are also obliged to give the impression they are doing what they can for the locals. This has opened the door for them to establish regular relationships with the FSLN, even though some of them had taken up arms against the Sandinistas in the 1980s. Many of these same ex-combatants are now the chief intermediaries between the local communities and the national political elite. This alliance between the YATAMA and the FSLN, for instance, was formalized in 2006, under the leadership of YATAMA’s long-time leader Brooklyn Rivera. More recently, the two have split, but Rivera has remained a congressman, although he was briefly removed from congress and later reinstated.
It's within this logic that we can better understand the push for autonomy and the establishment of what are called Regional Councils. Both the RACCN and the RACCS have 45-member councils. The councils serve as a kind of legislative body; they coordinate with the national government to provide health and educational services; and they work with the government to control natural resources and economic policy. National interests such as the justice system, elections, national security and border protection, however, are under the federal government's jurisdiction. The federal government administers these services via institutions such as the Supreme Court, the National Electoral Board, the national police and the army. The duality of the RACCN and the RACCS helps us understand why local elites have these complex, interdependent relationships with national political elites and how relationships between these various actors develop when it comes to illicit business such as drug and wood trafficking.
The dependence local elites have on the national elites also helps explain why there are so many conflicts between the locals and so few independent economic power bases in the region. In fact, the local elites' economic and political power in this region is expressed in two key ways: 1) the possibility of obtaining quotas of power on the political-institutional and economic levels in the region; 2) the opportunities these local elites give to the national elites, via legal and illegal means, to exploit natural resources in the area for the benefit of the tightly knit oligarchies connected to current President Daniel Ortega of the FSLN and to international business interests seeking to work in the region.
In practical terms, the power of the Creole, Miskito and mestizos on the Caribbean Coast is dependent on the FSLN on the one side and the regional party YATAMA on the other, whose power is concentrated in the RACCN. The YATAMA's power is visible in public institutions, the national delegations that are sent to the region and the designation of certain Indigenous leaders to national positions of power. These postings, in addition to being an expression of power, are the means by which local elites obtain recognition and reinforce their local and national power. They also give them access to the state resources so coveted and needed in the region.
This is why we need to understand the configuration of elites and the power dynamics on the Caribbean Coast through the lens of the parties connected to the national power structures (YATAMA being the prime example). At the same time, these power relations between local and national elites are dynamic and have different configurations, depending on the licit or illicit interests of actors such as Hayman.
The Hayman Case: From ‘Fisherman’ to International Drug Trafficker
As it is in many other stories about small farmers and businessmen from the coasts and mountains, Hayman was known as a semi-literate fisherman who became one of the most active drug smugglers on Nicaragua's Caribbean Coast. In addition, he was rumored to be one of the thousands of Indigenous from the Caribbean who fought against the Sandinista regime in the 1980s. His humble origins would eventually be part of his defense: during the trial against him, he was described as a humble fisherman, businessman and farmer who thrived because of his hard work. However, beginning around 2007, his name began circulating among the locals and law enforcement circles as a large and potent Nicaraguan trafficker, philanthropist and owner of large mansions.
The Caribbean Coast has long been known for stories involving drugs, local communities, drug traffickers and the favorable tides that worked with them. The Nicaraguan Caribbean Coast and its northern and southern autonomous regions have 500 kilometers of coastline, as well as hundreds of islands and hidden inlets. This area, which abuts Colombian, Costa Rican and Honduran waters, has long been identified as one of the most important drug trafficking routes in Central America, in part because of its proximity to the Colombian island of San Andres. Its geographic location, extreme poverty and the scarce presence of the state make it fertile ground for the establishment and expansion of criminal networks connected to illegal drugs.
In addition, the tides favor the drugs, since they push any shipments dropped from the sky towards the coast. There the "blessed" locals can pick them up, store them and sell them back to the traffickers, so they can continue their trip north or go to Managua. A naval officer from Nicaragua, who agreed to speak to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity, said that places like Hayman's home island of Tasbapauni, with its natural inlet, make it so anything dropped from the air lands in its vicinity. He said that many locals have become involved in collecting and reselling the drugs because every "taco" (or kilogram) could be sold for between $1,000 and $5,000. That is why they would never report these drugs to the authorities. To be sure, these authorities were also part of the business, either ignoring the drugs or receiving a fee for their passage through the area.
These tides and the subsequent storage by locals made for the development of a logistical support hub for the movement of illegal drugs. The lucrative business is a win-win since the traffickers get locals to move the substances along the coast when the conditions are ripe, and the locals make far more money than if they were simple fishermen. Remnants of these drugs are deposited and sold in urban hubs and other cities in the country, but the majority is sent to Honduras. In recent years, police checkpoints and a series of counterdrug operations have pushed the traffickers to seek other routes. That is how local buyers began establishing contact with international cartels, especially Colombian criminal groups.
With time, some groups set up sophisticated storage and transport infrastructures for the movement of drugs along the Caribbean Coast. Sources said that over the years these groups could not only guarantee the movement of large volumes of narcotics from south to north but that the locals created their own "companies" that would provide security services, refueling points and the transport of Colombian, Mexican and Costa Rican traffickers that operated in the area. This pattern repeated itself in the whole region, including in Tasbapauni under the leadership of Hayman.
"Hayman started to become a person of interest around 2008 or 2009 because we had information that he was storing fuel for drug traffickers," the naval officer said. "Our information came from people who were working with him and who gave us the information. We started following the lead and that is what opened the formal investigation. We looked for proof, ways to capture him, but he is smart, intelligent. He worked with Colombians, and then later with Hondurans. ... We also had information that the local police were working with him."
According to the formal accusation presented by the Attorney General's Office in June 2012, which InSight Crime and Expediente Público had partial access to, the Hayman group gave logistical support to Colombian, Costa Rican and Honduran traffickers who moved cocaine by sea, using the coast from Costa Rica to the Miskito Coast in Honduras. For their operations in Limón, Costa Rica, they used Eduardoño boats fitted with 200 horsepower outboard motors. They would depart at nightfall and arrive in Tasbapauni by dawn. There, in that island community, specifically on one of Hayman’s farms, they unloaded the drugs, as men with AK-47 assault rifles gave cover. While the boat operators rested, the support team refueled the vessels, which would leave again that evening and head towards the Miskito Coast in Honduras where they would hand over the cocaine.
According to the indictment, the last shipment – right before the criminal group was dismantled – came through the area on May 15, 2012, when Hayman and his group moved 1,500 packets of cocaine from Puerto Limón, Costa Rica, to the Miskito Coast in Honduras. The payment for this operation was 140 packets of cocaine, the same 140 packets that were seized June 19, 2012, at the checkpoint in San Carlos, Río San Juan, and led to Hayman’s arrest.
The Hayman Network: A Small Circle
Hayman’s criminal structure was mostly made up of relatives and friends from the southern part of the Caribbean Coast. The fairly sophisticated organization he developed had three cells, which were responsible for moving drugs along the Caribbean Coast, the central region of the country and the Pacific Coast of Nicaragua.
At the top of the pyramid of the cell operating along the coast was Marty Oscar Downs Carlson, a lieutenant for Hayman in drug trafficking matters. According to police testimony, he recruited people to assist with the transport of the drugs. He was also in charge of organizing the security and lookouts for the transportation of the drugs. According to sources in Bluefields, his brother, Marty Downs Carlson, was also part of the network. That Carlson was allegedly killed in Honduras by drug traffickers who worked with Hayman. Another of the Downs Carlson brothers, Roger Samuel Downs Carlson, was in charge of storing fuel for go-fast boats that were traveling on the high seas and were coming from Colombia via Panama. After Nicaragua, they would make their way to Honduras and then to Guatemala. Finally, Kurt Downs Carlson, another brother, played the role of a third-party owner for the criminal organization, acquiring properties in his name.
The Río San Juan cell was also under Hayman's orders. It was an alternative route that moved drugs from Costa Rica through Nicaragua’s central and Pacific corridors to the Honduran border. This included moving drugs along the 200-kilometer-long San Juan River, which starts at the freshwater Lake Nicaragua, also known as Cocibolca, and ends at the Caribbean Sea. The drugs were moved in small consignments in taxis and small and large cargo trucks. Part of the drugs was sold to the local market, but the majority were sold to criminal groups in Guatemala and Honduras. The head of this cell was César Felipe Aragón Campos. His two sisters, Cirilia Consuelo Aragón Campos and Mónica Antonia Aragón Campos, were in charge of receiving the drugs, which were transported from Puerto Limón, Costa Rica. Others transported the drugs in pangas and small cargo trucks that usually moved drugs via public transport (buses and taxis) towards the Pacific Coast of Nicaragua. This cell got help from other collaborators, usually relatives, to keep watch over the route and notify them if any authorities were present, such as the army or police, as well as to provide security for transportation of the merchandise via motorcycles or taxis.
A third cell operated in Managua. It was dedicated to laundering proceeds from drug trafficking activities and investing in properties in Managua, Bluefields and Tasbapauni. The key operators were Diana Susana Beer Hayman and Damaris Iveth Lackwood Hodgson, both relatives of Hayman. According to police investigations, Diana Hayman had a series of properties under her name, among them a prominent hotel in the middle-class neighborhood of Bello Horizonte, one of the historic places for the Caribbean elite to reside. Damaris Lackwood, the wife of Marty Downs Carlson, administered the property that was a safe house for members of the organization. It was also used to store cash. In addition, she served as an intermediary between members of the organization and drug traffickers in Panama and San Andres. During the trial, Bernardo González, a mid-level police official who had participated in the search and seizures of Hayman’s mansion in Bluefields, said they had seized several bank deposit registries from Bancentro in the name of Marelie Chavarría, Hayman’s wife.
Sources close to the police and judicial investigation who requested anonymity said that many of the properties seized were in the names of third parties; other goods and money were hidden because Hayman did not completely trust his family. They also said that many of the seized items, if not all of them, were stolen by police.
Local sources said it will be difficult to determine how many legal businesses Hayman was using to launder illicit proceeds. Bluefields in particular has become a place where a good portion of drug money is laundered, and authorities have done little to reveal who is behind the laundering and how much laundering is happening.
An ex-official of Nicaragua's judicial sector remarked that "yhe financial wings of the criminal groups working in drug trafficking have their base in Bluefields, a place where they can use this Nicaraguan corridor. There they have their businesses, the capital investments. What I mean is they buy the legal businesses that they use to legalize the capital they accumulate in drug trafficking, in illegal activities. It’s not an exaggeration to say that close to 50 percent of Bluefields' economy is derived from drug trafficking proceeds."
Hayman's Social Capital
Hayman's network was a small circle of family and friends whose ethnicity and geography connected them. In this way, Hayman was not only a benefactor and a job-generator but also a social godfather of sorts, someone who had deep connections to the community and the territory, which allowed him to operate in relative tranquility for years.
What's more, it's important to remember that drug trafficking along the coast is part of the social fabric and has at least an important base of social acceptance, if not outright legitimacy. This is in part because it helps reinforce the ethnic and territorial independence of the area – vis-à-vis the federal government's intentions to co-opt the region for its own ends – even while it has little real interest in helping the local community. It's in this context that criminal groups can easily present themselves as substitutes for an absent and disinterested federal government.
In some instances, the money from drug trafficking has inverted the social pyramid. One activist along the Atlantic Coast who gave InSight Crime information on the condition of anonymity put this into perspective: "They have an amount of money the people have never seen before. In some cases, they do what the government can't even do and for that, people appreciate them and protect them."
This was the case for Hayman. In one of the documents from the case file that InSight Crime accessed, an official describes the connection between Hayman, his collaborators and the community.
"Ted [Hayman] has been very intelligent. He has known how to traffic, and only now could we capture him. But he has recruited the majority of people in his community," the official said. "He gave them work so they wouldn’t talk to authorities. The same in Bluefields. He gave $500, $100 to anyone. For example, he had a project to do a series of row houses for his workers, for those that were working the refueling posts, those that were holding the drugs, the ones that were transporting them [and] the lookouts, so they were all comfortable. All this was done with the façade that this was part of a local fishing business, which had a storage area for fish and shellfish, and a product distribution center in Tasbapauni."
Leaders, as well as officials in the judicial and security sectors who were familiar with or in some way connected to the case, concur with this analysis. They described Hayman as a humble man, who did not live an ostentatious or extravagant lifestyle like other drug traffickers who go from having nothing to having an abundance of wealth. They said he was respectful of the locals. He was introverted, and he did not bother people. It was not uncommon to find him in the local stadium watching a baseball game, one of his favorite pastimes. A journalist from the region familiar with the criminal history of the area told InSight Crime that Hayman "would enter [the stadium], sit down alone, or sometimes with a friend or with his wife, and people who had no idea wouldn’t know who he was. ... They never would have thought that that man, sitting there with a Coca-Cola in his hand was a powerful drug trafficker. It wasn't like the other narcos in the area who, when they arrived in Bluefields, would have a big show."
As Hayman's business grew, so did his social capital. In addition to his fishing business, he also had important farming and cattle projects. He had properties in Tasbapauni, Bluefields and Managua. According to the case file, his companies had monthly earnings of $35,000. People familiar with the case who requested anonymity said that from jail Hayman said his earnings were the result of his hard work, and that he was in jail because "they wanted to screw" him.
His reputation of being friendly and accommodating endeared him to people, who would often celebrate when his drug loads would pass through the area without a hitch. "He was Pablo for Tasba [Tasbapauni]. Nothing more, nothing less," said one local resident in Laguna de Perlas, referring to Pablo Escobar, the infamous Colombian trafficker whose philanthropic side was legendary. "Anyone who had a problem, he would resolve it. ... And although it's logical to think that he did it to reinforce his social base so that he was protected and his operations were safe, it was closer to reality to think he did it because he wanted to help his community."
One human rights activist from Bluefields, who also asked for anonymity, emphasized the narco-philanthropy that Hayman practiced. "He gave money to whoever needed it. If someone was sick, he would help them. If someone was dying, he had [money] to help bury them. If someone needed something, if there was someone who was sick who needed to go to another hospital, he would take care of that. He was loved by the community."
But this affection from the community was also mixed with fear, the fear that leads people to be quiet. No one went against the criminal groups, the drug trafficking organizations, especially since they were also connected to the police, the journalist source told InSight Crime. In and around Tasbapauni, the journalist said, people were afraid of him and his network, despite his reputation for being philanthropic and helping those in need.
"They never investigated Hayman for the various homicides that were connected to drugs in his area of influence, and in Bluefields, you knew it wasn’t good to talk about him and the things that he had done," the journalist said.
Those interviewed for this report were categorical in saying that the people reacted to Hayman’s arrest by supporting him, in particular on the local level. They said that after the June 2012 arrest, Bluefields, Laguna de Perlas and Tasbapauni mobilized in support of him. In Bluefields, hundreds of people protested in front of the police station to demand his release. In Tasbapauni, the locals marched with signs demanding his release as well. They threatened to take up arms if necessary, suspend classes during the second semester of 2012 and not vote in the municipal elections that were scheduled for November of that year. This electoral threat was particularly troubling for local and national elites: Hayman provided votes for parties that protected him. In long speeches, local supporters of Hayman said that his arrest was part of a plan organized by Nicaraguan President Ortega to control the election of local officials so that he could control the natural resources in the region. In one newscast, a leader who was not identified by the news station, said, "The central government has a lot to do with what is happening since it has its hands deep in this situation."
Hayman and Local Elites
The alliance between YATAMA and the FSLN in 2006 had an immediate impact on the political landscape in the region. In the 2001 presidential race, for example, the Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC) won Laguna de Perlas with 68.1 percent of the vote; in 2011, the FSLN won it with 61 percent of the vote. Other areas had similar electoral shifts.
While these results illustrate the important changes that came with the FSLN and YATAMA alliance, some say the leadership of people like Hayman – who for years played a role in placing people in important political posts on the local level and helped finance the party – also played a role in the shift. This capacity to influence, design and control the local level government functionaries guaranteed what the coastal population called social protection.
In many ways, the arrest and subsequent trial of Hayman made clear what was already known about his political, economic and social connections in the region, namely his connections to YATAMA. The day authorities raided Hayman's mansion in Bluefields, for example, Socorro Marely Galagarza Gómez, who was an alternate congresswoman of the party, went to Hayman's house and forced her way past police. She then defended Hayman.
"He is Indigenous, he is YATAMA, and we are here to defend him," she said, according to La Prensa's account. "They need to say what they are accusing him of; what they say he did."
The congresswoman's declarations would get more attention when one member of the Council for the South Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region (Región Autónoma de la Costa Caribe Sur - RACCS) said that his party and the council would analyze Galagarza's actions and would ask that she be expelled from the party. The expulsion was never discussed publicly again, and the alternate congresswoman maintained her position.
The question of Hayman's personal connections to YATAMA is difficult to decipher. As a militant political and Indigenous organization, it had up to 5,000 armed rebels that resisted the Sandinista army's incursions. But it is not clear that Hayman was a combatant. "As the alternate congresswoman stated, Hayman is labeled as a YATAMA guerrilla. [But] as a person who fought in the 1980s with YATAMA, I can't say if that is true," said one former guerrilla source who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The more prevalent sentiment is that Hayman played a financial role in YATAMA's political fortunes and by extension those of the FSLN. In return, he got political top-cover for his criminal operations. Indeed, an ex-judicial official said that in Bluefields, many said Galagarza's defense of Hayman was the result of this political relationship he had developed with the party and its ally, the FSLN. "It is said that Ted financed YATAMA in the elections, but it was also vox populi that he financed the [Sandinista] Front," the source told InSight Crime.
During the Hayman investigation, the ex-official added, authorities found a ledger that included a description of $500,000 in a bank account in the name of Mercedes Lorenzo Alanís, an FSLN politician who was elected mayor of El Rama in November 2012. Witnesses in the case against Hayman also said Hayman had business dealings with Lorenzo Alanís. But nothing ever came of the investigation. "About the rest, you can come to your own conclusions because what we do know is that there was an alliance between the FSLN and YATAMA, and that authorities never asked Alanís about this [account]," the ex-judicial official said.
Hayman's connection to politics may have also extended to the top of the YATAMA party, specifically to Brooklyn Rivera via one his lieutenants Marty Downs Carlson. Rivera, like Hayman, is Miskito, and he was a leader in the rebellion against the Sandinistas in the 1980s. Rivera, via his YATAMA post and his role as the designated interlocutor with the FSLN, later became one of the most powerful regional elites.
But his and other Indigenous leaders' potential connections with drug traffickers were never far from the surface. In 2009, Brooklyn Rivera and Steadman Fagoth – who was then director of the Nicaraguan Fishing and Water Preservation Institute (Instituto Nicaragüense de la Pesca y Acuicultura - Inpesca), an ally of the FSLN and a Miskito leader who like Rivera had been part of the leadership of the armed resistance in the 1980s – accused one another of protecting drug traffickers in the RACCN.
Specifically, Rivera said Fagoth protected communities where traffickers had organized important logistical and security bases for transporting drugs. Fagoth's services, according to Rivera, included keeping the security forces from the areas where the trafficking was allegedly taking place. Fagoth fired back, saying it was Rivera who was supporting the drug trafficking groups in the RACCN. La Prensa reported that Fagoth said, "YATAMA is protecting the drug traffickers because it is asking for the army to withdraw from the coast, which is a clear sign of their intention to protect the drug traffickers."
Things got worse for Rivera with the arrest of Hayman in 2012, when police decommissioned a truck that had a license plate registered to Rivera and Marty Downs Carlson, Hayman's lieutenant. Downs already had a history with the law and Rivera. In August 2008, Downs had been captured with another person transporting a ton of cocaine, along with two M16 assault rifles. Afterward, he was tried and sentenced to five years, the minimum sentence for drug trafficking. In October 2008, the Supreme Court ordered him to serve his sentence under house arrest because Downs suffered from: "Hypertension, [and] an illness that obstructed his lungs from functioning, both of which were difficult to manage inside jail." El Nuevo Diario, citing judicial sources, said the court's decision came after YATAMA politicians used their connections with the FSLN to pressure the judicial system. The newspaper added that Rivera had met with Downs and the judge in the case.
The relationship between Rivera and Hayman, however, soured at some point. Community leaders in the region, whom InSight Crime consulted for this investigation, said Hayman's top-cover ended when Hayman started supporting interests that were contrary to the FSLN in the RACCS, specifically those that were resisting the Sandinistas' effort to exploit the wood trade and other natural resources in the area.
The timber industry began its big push into the region after Ortega won the presidency in 2008. Companies such as HEMCO Mining and ALBA Forestal – a Nicaraguan-Venezuelan state consortium that worked under the auspices of the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (Ministerio del Ambiente y los Recursos Naturales - MARENA) – began harvesting wood from the area and pushing people from their lands in the process. Other colonists, in particular cattle ranchers, followed by entering the autonomous region by force, if necessary. The government supported them as well, and tensions rose.
Leaders like Rivera were caught between these interests. Jimmy Martínez, the president of the Tasbapauni communal government, told la Prensa in July 2012 that the arrest of Hayman should be understood as a way to stop Hayman from impeding the FSLN, specifically Rivera and a prominent FSLN leader known as Lumberto Campbell, from profiting from the sale of precious wood from the region.
But Rivera's alliance with the FSLN was also fragile. In May 2014, the Sandinistas took control of the regional councils in both the RACCN and the RACCS in what Rivera denounced as a fraudulent process. It did not matter; the councils, which had been under YATAMA control, passed to Sandinista hands. A year later, Rivera was removed from congress and accused of stealing Indigenous lands.
The Bureaucratic Elite and Drug Trafficking
Trying to find out more about the connections between security forces and drug trafficking is difficult, especially in a place where the security situation is relatively stable, and the police enjoy high approval ratings. This positive perception of the police has made them – along with the army – a bureaucratic elite. The two institutions also retain a significant degree of independence. Relative to the rest of Central America, police in Nicaragua are very professional. Additionally, the police have effectively employed a communications strategy that has highlighted how they have successfully reformed themselves and modernized their operations, as well as fought against drug trafficking. The campaign has largely worked. The Nicaraguan police are the most revered in the region.
In recent years, however, the image of the police has become more partisan and less transparent, especially since Ortega became president again in 2007. The police have also suffered because of the perception that specific interest groups within the institution and the state have benefitted from drug trafficking. Indeed, beginning in 2000, fissures emerged within the police related to drug trafficking and corruption. In 2003, La Prensa published a series of articles that showed how high levels of the police negotiated with drug traffickers in Bluefields.
Along the Caribbean Coast, the police are still under scrutiny. In numerous interviews for this study, residents of the southern Caribbean Coast said that there is a general feeling that the lack of punishment or the application of just administrative sanctions on police and judicial officials for their connections to drug traffickers illustrates that they have a certain level of impunity. Those interviewed said that drug trafficking and the sale of drugs on the southern Caribbean Coast would not have reached the levels it has without the involvement of the police, judicial system and many local business elites.
Several people interviewed also emphasized how cases of powerful individuals being untouchable show just how important drug trafficking is to the region. This is evident not just through the drug traffickers' regional and national political alliances, but also through their connections within the police hierarchy. That is why, according to those on the coast interviewed for this report, the arrest of Hayman provoked so much confusion in the region: because it showed that the so-called "war against drugs" was a sham and that those who really manage the trafficking are the regional and national political elites in collaboration with police and judicial officials.
For those from the southern Caribbean Coast, the way that drug trafficking has evolved has put them in a difficult spot. Officially, the central government takes a hard line towards drug trafficking, but in practice, there are no sanctions against the officials who are breathing life into it and protecting it. And any sanctions that have been applied have been against the weakest links in the chain: youth who are consuming drugs and women who traffic it in small quantities. For these residents, there is a feeling of uncertainty and frustration since the security and justice systems do not seem to respond to the communal good.
"We'll have to see what will happen when the relative calm that Ted [Hayman] brought [disappears], but we're not very hopeful because since they captured him ... no one knows anything about what the central government is doing about corruption and connections between police and narcos. And as we have seen, it services them way beyond what Ted was doing," a civil society leader from the southern Caribbean Coast told InSight Crime.
Meanwhile, the judicial sector has also been compromised. Operators working in the sector, who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity, said that the judicial system on the northern Caribbean Coast has been deeply penetrated by drug trafficking. They said it is common for case files and evidence to go missing, which was, for them, a clear illustration of institutional attempts to protect drug traffickers. They added that locals never want to testify because everything is fixed in the judicial system. To drive this point home, a 2013 report from the Due Process of Law Foundation, a non-governmental organization based in Washington, DC, emphasized how these connections between criminals and judicial system officials are normally manifest when judges release or give drug traffickers benefits that are not warranted, as well as when drug money or other seized assets later go missing.
Sources in the judicial sector also noted that judges' decisions regarding the release of drug traffickers come from the highest levels. "Before 2007, this was chaos. You could easily spot the drug traffickers' lawyers who knew exactly which judge to buy. That is when this practice of paying judges proliferated and seeing a drug trafficker go free was common. It depended on how much you paid and how much they were willing to do it for," one judicial official told InSight Crime. "Now it's not like that. That has been eliminated and you can be sure not one drug trafficker is freed unless it comes from the highest levels. And when I say high, I mean high, people who are very close to power."
In Nicaragua, there seems to exist a pax narco, which some have likened to the unspoken understanding between the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional - PRI) in Mexico and criminal interests in that country. As described by César Morales, Mexican traffickers paid a quota; the politicians, police and security officials made sure the traffickers could do their business in relative peace.
In Nicaragua, security and judicial officials said decisions around drug trafficking were being taken at the highest levels by those very close to the political powers or that are part of the security or judicial bureaucracy. They said quotas are exchanged at all levels of the system. Defense lawyers, for instance, told InSight Crime that they have two things they can negotiate with judges, neither of which have anything to do with the innocence or guilt of their clients: the first one is related to property seizures and how those will be divided between a small circle of judicial and security force operatives; the second is the possible payment to judicial authorities to lower or eliminate sentences.
Hayman's case still resonates on the coast because it shows how these drug trafficking groups proliferate, and it shows how these groups maneuver between local and national conflicts. In Hayman's case, his ability to operate was related to his deep roots in the Indigenous and Afro-Caribbean communities, and the belief along the coast that drug trafficking is really a problem that emanates from and is controlled by Managua, i.e., the central government.
What's more, Hayman's network needs to be seen in context. We are talking about communities that have historically been outside of the state’s development plans, which has allowed groups like Hayman's to develop their own sophisticated networks. This has also made the creation of storage and transport networks on the Miskito Coast easier.
Hayman's success was also contingent on his support from Indigenous and ethnic communities connected to YATAMA. Through YATAMA, Hayman was able to consolidate his influence and institutional control well beyond Tasbapauni. This generated a system of protection and collaboration at the political level as well as within the security and justice systems. The autonomous zones were part of this plan since they could lobby for less police and army presence.
This should all be seen in the larger historical and cultural context of the autonomous zones. Cases like Hayman's show how ethnic identity can affect local political and territorial dynamics, facilitating a kind of social capital for these illicit groups. In fact, the social capital that Hayman put to use revolved around this historical and cultural fight with Managua. In this context, drug trafficking is seen as part of the resistance and something that contributes to these traditionally marginalized communities. In the autonomous zones, this distortion was worse in the Indigenous communities that were further from the urban areas, and where, not coincidentally, the illicit networks' influence appeared to be the strongest.
Still, networks like Hayman's also limit the growth of positive social capital, as they overtake the population's resources and create a regime based on narco-philanthropy and fear. All of this ends up fracturing the social fabric and fomenting negative social capital in these areas, creating opportunities for criminal interests to seize yet more space.
In the end, the community is coopted by a system that values criminal earnings over everything else. This is especially true in areas with little state presence and high levels of poverty, and where there is a lack of any prolonged, systemic effort to deal with these fracturing societies and the disintegrating positive social capital. It's within this context that criminal actors mix with local and national political elites to ensure they can conduct their business with impunity.
The interactions between the national and local elites, as well as their interactions within the communities, have also contributed to the fragmentation of the social capital within Indigenous and Afro-Caribbean communities. In this way, the traditional communal, territorial and labor organizations have been manipulated and co-opted by the regional leaders who have governed with their eyes principally on the national political elites. The manipulation and cooptation of these spaces help us understand why trafficking groups can emerge and consolidate in these areas so easily.
These criminal-political interests, in addition to fragmenting the local community and territorial interest groups, opened the door for new leaders. These new leaders created their own groups of power inside these local communities. These new groups of power were more responsive to the national interests and could trade compliance for changes in the configurations of the security and judicial operations in the region, which allowed for groups like Hayman's to prosper over a prolonged period of time.
At the end of the day, the thing that characterized Hayman the most was his capacity to generate this protective bubble and establish a network of collaborators. This could only have happened as a result of the corruption and cooptation of the judicial and security systems, the existence of a solid support base like Tasbapauni from where he could operate, and the connections he forged with local political elites who were able to guarantee him some measure of impunity.
*This report was a collaboration between InSight Crime and Expediente Abierto, and included the participation of numerous Nicaraguan journalists and investigators who, for security reasons, prefer anonymity. Javier Meléndez coordinated the investigation, writing and editing of the story. Additional editing and reporting by Steven Dudley and Hannah Stone.