Narco-Dividends: White Lobsters on the Mosquito Coast

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Inti Ocon / Reuters

A block of cocaine seized by Nicaraguan police is shown to the media in Managua.

Ever since the "white lobsters" started washing up on Nicaragua's Caribbean shore a decade ago, life for some people on this isolated and impoverished coast has become remarkably more affluent and globalized, with new mansions, speedboats and lucrative businesses dealing in international trade. Indigenous communities once neglected and marginalized by the state now have the option to self-finance their own development. It looks at first glance like a rare Central American success story — but in reality it's just another, albeit bizarre, tale of how drug trafficking is taking over the isthmus.

White lobsters — also known as bendiciones de Dios or godsends — are packages of cocaine and other drugs pitched overboard by narco-smugglers fleeing Nicaraguan Coast Guard patrols. With that valuable cargo, several tiny outposts on the country's Mosquito Coast have morphed into international logistics hubs for transnational drug shipments headed in every direction. In the fishing village of Sandy Bay, for instance, officials say cocaine from Colombia is divvied up and reloaded onto northbound vessels, while marijuana from Jamaica is hidden on go-fast boats heading south to Costa Rica, where booming tourism and immigration by Americans and Europeans have led to new consumer demand — and a reverse flow of drugs.

That unusual southbound traffic was first detected only last September, when a Nicaraguan Navy patrol noticed a cigarette boat out for a high-speed pre-dawn cruise. The patrol ordered it to stop but got machine-gun fire instead, as the cigarette boat turned north back to Sandy Bay. One trafficker was killed during the chase, but six others got away after beaching the boat and running into the jungle, aided by locals. The patrolmen found 586 kilograms (1,289 lbs) of Jamaican pot — but only because they got to it quickly. Often, says Navy Captain Wilfredo Castañeda at the nearby naval station in Bilwi, they've seized other beached boats only to find locals have already looted and hidden the drugs for resale. "The drug traffickers," he says, "will come visit the community later one, just like any other merchant, looking to buy their product back," says Castañeda.

The Navy captain adds that the number of Costa Rica-bound drug runs this year has been "increasing rapidly," but he concedes that most of them slip past Nicaragua's limited patrol capacity. "The Caribbean has become a multilane highway" for drugs, says Castañeda. "Now every boat is suspect."

What's happened to the Mosquito Coast is just the most recent example of how daunting Central America's drug war is today. When President Obama visited El Salvador last month and promised $200 million to fund a Central American plan to fight organized crime and narco-trafficking — which has also plagued the region with one of the world's highest murder rates — his proposal was met with as many sighs as cheers. Backers say it's high time Central America forged a regional security strategy, which they hope to see take form at a presidential summit in July. But critics call it a vague and dubious initiative, especially since implementing it will be difficult given the fractious relations among the isthmus' seven nations right now.

Border tensions and political differences are straining Central American integration. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has become an especially irksome obstacle, quarreling with neighboring Costa Rica over their common border, fingering the military of Honduras (whose government he refuses to recognize) for drug trafficking and accusing just about every other country in his neighborhood of aiding the cartels.

Strangely enough, Ortega feels he can get away with it because Nicaragua — which leads Central America in drug busts and seizures — is the region's interdiction showcase. Yet despite many victories in battle, some fear Nicaragua is still losing the war, as the Mosquito Coast problem underscores. A report released this month by Nicaragua's private Institute of Strategic Studies and Public Policy, for example, reveals that narco-trafficking in the southern Caribbean-coast town of Bluefields has spawned a new generation of homegrown narco-hitmen, responsible for 33 murders in 2010, as well as new drug consumers. As in much of the rest of Central America, in fact, drugs on the Mosquito Coast have become an alternative currency among youths.

Perhaps more troubling, however, is the growing narco-economy of the vulnerable indigenous communities. An indigenous separatist movement led by a council of elders is even toying with the idea of funding itself with narco-dollars, an issue they'll debate during their next "great assembly" in May. "We also have the right to use these resources," a leader of the Communitarian Nation of the Moskitia in Bilwi told me in confidence. "The laws that prohibit it are the laws of Nicaragua and not the laws of the indigenous people." The separatist leader complained that drug money captured in indigenous territories gets pilfered by corrupt officials in Managua — a charge echoed by a recently WikiLeaked U.S. diplomatic cable from 2006 that claims Ortega and his leftist Sandinista party "have regularly received money...from international drug traffickers." Ortega and the Sandinistas deny the accusation.

Still, the trafficking and violence are considered worse in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, the northern Central American triangle of nations where narco-experts say things are getting "Mexicanized" as Mexico's drug cartels expand there. Indeed, those three countries right now most violently demonstrate the so-called "balloon effect" of the drugs wars in Mexico to the north and Colombia to the south — squeeze the balloon in one place and it simply bulges in another — and they share Central America's worst gang infestation.

There's some hope for regional integration. Guatemala has expressed interest in adopting El Salvador's tough if controversial new law that criminalizes membership in gangs, and other countries are being urged to follow. "There is a clear awareness that at least on the issue of security, we all have to work together," says Salvadoran Foreign Minister Hugo Martínez, a leading booster of common regional anti-gang legislation. Martínez says he's confident Central American integration, which has looked more like disintegration since the 2009 coup in Honduras, will be "reinvigorated" under the emerging leadership of Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes. This summer's summit, in fact, is likely to endorse Funes' tacit position as Central America's interlocutor with Washington, which many believe Obama meant to signal last month. Obama's visit "ratified the new role that El Salvador will play as a regional pivot on the issue of security," says Luis Guillermo Solís, a history and political science professor at the University of Costa Rica.

But others worry that even with a $200 million infusion from the U.S., Central America's police forces will still be well behind the rest of the hemisphere in terms of training and even trustworthiness. Vanda Felbab-Brown, a counternarcotics expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., says the odds are "enormous" that specially trained anti-drug units there could "go rogue," as many have, she notes, in countries like Mexico and Peru. "There are great risks that some levels of assistance might just generate better trained drug traffickers" down the road, says Felbab-Brown.

Meanwhile, communities like the Mosquito Coast will continue adjusting to their own new "globalized" role. That is, as long as the catch of the day is still white lobster.