Nicaragua’s National Police is seizing large amounts of drug money while confiscating less cocaine compared to years past, calling into question how the struggling force is finding the money and where it is going after being recovered.
Between 2017 and the end of June 2020, Nicaragua’s police force seized $38 million in drug money, most often after capturing drivers traveling with large sums of cash, caretakers looking after farms or in cases where the money had been "abandoned," according to a July investigation from the local news organizations Artículo 66 and Expediente Público.
Through the first six months of this year, the report found that authorities had confiscated almost $10.5 million in 16 operations.
Authorities seem to be growing progressively more efficient. In 2017, the police reportedly netted a little less than $6 million in 15 operations. In 2019, the amount of money seized in 19 operations doubled, according to Artículo 66, jumping to just over $12 million, even as the country still reeled from a nationwide political crisis that took off in mid-2018.
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Despite dispatching most officers to the country’s main cities to deal with the crisis, the major drug money seizures have taken place in border regions along Nicaragua’s Pacific coast with less of a police presence, the investigation stated.
Most recently, the police have been dogged by controversy. The US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned the entire force in March for its role in “serious human rights abuses” related to the recent unrest, including “using live ammunition against peaceful protesters and participating in death squads, as well as carrying out extrajudicial killings, disappearances, and kidnappings.”
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By the end of 2018, the reputation of Nicaragua’s police force had taken a nosedive. It went from being a relatively well-trusted law enforcement unit to a political tool of repression deployed by President Daniel Ortega to squash dissent and crack down on those protesting his government.
While the unrest has calmed down, the fact that officers are finding so much alleged drug money is curious.
Firstly, cocaine seizures in the country are down considerably. The police seized around just 16 metric tons of the drug between 2017 and 2019, according to police data cited by Artículo 66. A decade earlier, between 2007 and 2009, about 36 metric tons of cocaine were seized.
Nicaragua has in the past played a crucial transshipment role for US-bound cocaine loads. This hasn’t been the case more recently. Other Central American nations like Honduras and Costa Rica have acted as the preferred launchpads for cocaine en route to US and European consumers. It’s not clear why the amount of drug money seized has shot up so much when cocaine seizures are a fraction of what they used to be.
Nonetheless, the money continues to pile up. In late June, almost $5 million was seized in San Lorenzo municipality east of the capital Managua. The following week, police detained a Honduran national with $450,000 of alleged drug proceeds that were confiscated.
Where all of this money has gone as the cash-strapped force adjusts to US sanctions also remains a mystery. Nicaragua is alleged to be home to many vast corruption and money laundering networks, some of which have implicated President Ortega himself.