Authorities in Nicaragua are trumpeting their counternarcotics efforts, which they say have kept "cartels" out of the country. But a series of prosecutions of alleged crime bosses shows that sophisticated, large-scale drug trafficking groups do indeed operate in the Central American nation.
Nicaragua's top military official, Gen. Julio César Avilés, cited the armed forces' latest drug interdiction statistics as evidence of security forces' success in keeping trafficking at bay, local media reported on September 2.
Avilés said that the military had seized more than 2.5 metric tons of drugs, most of it cocaine, between September 2016 and August 2017. That amount is slightly less than what the Nicaraguan military reported seizing in its 2016 annual operational summary report, which was published earlier this year, and it is consistent with a general trend of declining in seizures in recent years. (See graphic below)
Over the past several years, Nicaragua has generally reported lower amounts of annual cocaine seizures than its Central American neighbors, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
Avilés attributed Nicaragua's relatively low levels of violence to its success in combating organized crime and drug trafficking.
"In Nicaragua, we don't have cartels, we aren't a drug dealing country, and we don't have gangs that are affecting neighboring nations with their violence," the top military official stated.
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As Avilés pointed out, Nicaragua has not experienced levels of drug trafficking-related violence comparable to those of some of its neighbors in recent years and seems to have far fewer large criminal operations inside its borders. But his contention that "cartels" do not operate in the country is undermined by the Nicaraguan government's own judicial actions against major drug trafficking figures who run large transport services for transnational criminal organizations.
This is perhaps best illustrated by the case of Amauri Carmona Morelos, a long-time suspected drug trafficker who allegedly imported large shipments of Colombian cocaine into Nicaragua through points along Nicaragua's Caribbean coast for years. Carmona was arrested earlier this year and is currently facing a secretive trial in Nicaragua on drug trafficking, homicide, weapons and money laundering charges.
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Other cases, such as the investigation of Francisco Zeledón and prosecution of Ted Hayman -- suspected drug traffickers accused of moving drugs through the Caribbean coast with the complicity of local officials -- have also illustrated how Nicaraguan criminal networks have used violence and corruption to protect and expand their operations, much like the cartels and gangs to which Avilés referred.