"Tumbadores" are paid by cartels to steal drug loads from their competitors. El Faro interviews a Nicaraguan trafficker who got his start in the business this way.
Rivas is the only province of Nicaragua that has a formal border crossing with Costa Rica, the Peñas Blancas crossing. However, there are more than 80 "blind spots" where traffickers cross. Rivas is the entry point for Colombian drugs into Nicaragua along the Pacific coast. Rivas is, according to the National Police, the route of the Mexicans, where the cartels of Sinaloa, Gulf, Juarez and the Familia Michoacana transport their cocaine. This is in contrast to the Atlantic coast, where the Colombians still dominate the trade, handing the product over to the Mexicans further north, in Honduras or Guatemala, in order to keep a bigger share of the revenue.
The difference between the Pacific and the Atlantic coast is that the latter is a marine highway, where motorboats with 800 horsepower engines speed past, and, at the most, stop only to refuel. By contrast, on Rivas’ side, a large percentage of the drugs pass overland, to take advantage of the amount of traffic on [Lake Nicaragua], and thus arrive easily to Granada or the capital, Managua.
In Rivas there are at least four capos. [The interview subject] is one of them. The Central American capos are less secretive than the Mexicans, less ostentatious, less wealthy, and easier to locate. They normally get started in one of two ways: taking advantage of a network of contacts that they built up for some other reason -- because they were money changers at a border, because they belonged to a gang of criminal youths that trafficked cheese or stole vans, because they held a local public post -- as the base for an international trafficker who wants to move his drugs north; or using this same network of contacts to steal drugs in the region. The Rivas narco started out as a “tumbador,” a trafficker who steals from other traffickers.
The Central American narcos, with the exception of some former congressmen, or the famous and ancestral Guatemalan and Honduran patriarchs, are free agents. They are not from the Mexican Sinaloa Cartel, nor do they have exclusive arrangements with the Colombian Norte del Valle Cartel; they work with whoever pays, with whoever calls. The Rivas narco is a free agent.
The Rivas narco starts to talk the same way as the other three Central American traffickers I have interviewed. He has left the business, he says. This statement is is normally something like a lottery ticket -- when you scratch it a little, the truth appears. And normally, the truth is that they still are what they say they are not. The narco from Rivas says that he has stopped stealing drugs.
“They say I am a tumbador. A shipment arrives, and I do the operation. But if we were at war, you know, you’d see a bit of the real narco from Rivas."
Nicaragua is the Central American country par excellence for stealing drug shipments. On the Atlantic, local speedboats set out from isolated communities, close to the border with Honduras, and intercept entire shipments in order to resell them. On the Pacific, armed groups intercept vans, and some police are even responsible for stealing seized shipments.
I ask the narco from Rivas about the network a tumbador needs.
"When you’ve been in the game long enough, people get to know you. Even members of the cartels. I lived in Mexico for five years. They call you! Because Colombians are the most miserly about paying, that’s why you get hired to rob Colombians, [the Mexicans] call you, or the locals who didn’t get paid for their last job call you. It’s because of resentment! [The Colombians] are misers. These screwed up guys, that’s why they are lost in every country... And the police have their tricks too. A Colombian isn’t going to send you 472 kilos. He’s going to send you 500, round numbers, you know. Here the police report seizures of 87, 83, 940."
When I was in Bilwi in April 2011, the capital of the Northern Autonomous Region, I asked various sources, from police to members of the cocaine trafficking networks, how the tumbadores stay alive when, normally, the victim ends up finding out who robbed him. At the end of the day, few have the magic powers to hide, in the same market, a boat or a van filled with cocaine. In the Caribbean they answered that it was because there were no foreign [drug trafficking cells] installed, just local groups with whom it was better not to clash with. The best solution was to buy drugs from the tumbadores. However, when the trafficking is done by land, as happened in Rivas, it seems that caution should be higher.
"When you steal, you call people in Guatemala, Honduras. You say, listen up, we stole this much from this brand ... So repack it! The world is for the bold. Here the tumbador knows that he’s touching the balls of the bull. Say you steal 500 kilos. The owner of that has competition. The competition buys what was stolen and re-sells it. You know one day it’ll be your turn to lose," explains the Rivas narco.
In Central America, unlike in Mexico, where a drug trafficker must show that he has more bullets than the others, the rule of discretion still has weight, as in Mexico in the 1980s and 1990s. It is better to negotiate than draw attention, unless the situation is just too insulting.
From her office in one of the upper floors of the central police station, [chief of Nicaragua's police] Aminta Granera says that the Mexican cartels don’t have a fixed presence in Nicaragua. What urgently needs to be faced are the “structures of national cooperation” of these big Mexican cartels. In fact, since more than four years ago, the police strategy has changed. According to commissioner Juan Roman Gradiz, Granera’s right hand man, this is due to the fact that they were “storehousing, capturing those who were transporting the drugs, but the network would remain.” Since then, a series of operations has tried one of two things: to arrest members of the logistics networks red-handed, or to take everything they could from them; houses, businesses, weapons, vehicles. To leave them uncovered.
After saying that each day there are more clients who need these free agents from Rivas, the Rivas narco starts thinking out loud about who they are. For him, the Guatemalans and Hondurans often come down this way, “heavy people,” he says, but he believes that the most daring are the Salvadorans, often from gangs like the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), who are sent to contract the services of a local to move vehicles filled with cocaine. Rivas, it could be said, has two kinds of visitors: the backpackers who come for the beaches of San Juan del Sur and the traffickers who come to stock up. The police have already arrested Hondurans and Mexicans with shipments of drugs and arms. Three of the Mexicans arrested in 2007, for example, were from the celebrated Sinlaoa state, in north Mexico, the cradle of the most famous capos in the country.
I ask the Rivas narco the recipe for a successful operation, and he begins to list the ingredients.
"The police, of course, you can always get a transit official on the road who sets his loyal dog on you. The other option is to get a group together when you leave the department. You have guys who work for you, who know this border like the palm of their hand. They go ahead in a car or motorbike, you have people with cells in La Coyota, in La Virgen, or at the Cardenas crossing. The taxi drivers, the guys from the petrol station, see everybody pass by. When the police go on an operation they’re going to fill up at the petrol station.
"But of course, to see a lot, to know a lot, has its price.
"It’s a horrible network. There on the border, a full trailer can cross for $10,000. The police are the ones that do the check. The biggest shipments go over the border crossing. If you’re going to cross three trailers, that’s $30,000. Those who can't cross here are the locals who sell baggies and are trying to bring their kilo into Costa Rica, which is cheaper. For the smaller guys, the 82 blind points are the option, but even there you have to pay the group of guys who go ahead [to watch out for police]. If your load is big enough, say 200 or 300 kilos, it will cost $5,000 for the group. What a drink of guaro that is!"
All this is under the logic of progress, of understanding that the business of a Central American drug trafficker is to carry the drugs as far as possible, because kilometers are dollars. The narco from Rivas knows that, for a kilo of cocaine that in his province is worth $6,000, they will pay $11,000 in El Salvador and $12,000 in Guatemala. In Mexico, it depends; if it’s in Chiapas, $15,000, and if it’s in Matamoros, $20,000.