A bishop in Nicaragua has claimed newly emergent armed groups in the semi-autonomous north of the country are drug traffickers and kidnappers without political ends, as the church continues to weigh in on the politically sensitive debate over such organizations.
Over 80 people operating in groups of eight to 12 members have been terrorizing the area around the towns of Siuna, in the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN) and El Cua, in the northern interior, said Bishop Pablo Schmitz. The groups are often heavily armed and use military uniforms, Schmitz said.
According to Schmitz, these groups are not rebels with political intentions, but groups guarding drugs for traffickers and extorting money from locals, including through kidnapping, reported La Prensa.
The bishop differentiated these groups from others operating around the northern towns of Jinotega and Esteli -- which other bishops have said do have political ends -- and said Honduran drug traffickers were a possible source of arms for the RAAN groups.
InSight Crime Analysis
While the Nicaraguan government claims armed groups springing up across the country are no more than common criminals, at least one currently active leader has alleged connections to the "Contras" -- a US-backed fighting force that fought the ruling Sandinista regime in the 1980s. Previously, representatives within the Catholic Church have said armed groups operating in the mountainous interior have legitimate political motives.
While the department of Jinotega -- home to the towns of Jinotega and El Cua -- has a heavy ex-Contra presence, the RAAN has notably become a landing point for Honduras-bound drug flights and the region has seen rising organized-crime related violence. The South Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAS) is also an important stop-off for northern bound cocaine shipments and home to much of Nicaragua's violent crime.
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Nicaragua is now gaining prominence on the regional drug route, and its proximity to Honduras, where criminal groups are thought to be increasingly operating independent trafficking operations, makes it particularly vulnerable to the rise of local organized crime.
In this context, it is quite possible that, while armed groups in certain areas may have political aims, others could be cashing in on the drug trade. But as the Contras proved in the 1980s -- and guerrillas active in South America today continue to demonstrate -- political rebellion and drug trafficking are not mutually exclusive activities.