Nicaragua remains a primary transit route for drug trafficking. The United States estimated that approximately 90 percent of the cocaine trafficked to the United States during the first six months of 2015 first transited through the Mexico/Central America corridor. In Nicaragua’s North and South Caribbean Autonomous Regions – the scarcely populated territory comprising almost 50 percent of the country – crime statistics are worse than national averages, as is the long-term unemployment rate. These factors provide a favorable environment for international criminal groups to traffic contraband including drugs, weapons, currency, and people. Domestic production of marijuana and growing consumption of illegal drugs also remain impediments to a safer and more secure Nicaragua.
The Government of Nicaragua’s updated Citizen Security plan for 2015 includes several lines of effort to combat drug use and trafficking. Its “Retaining Wall” (Muro de Contención) strategy promotes a coordinated effort to stop narcotics traffickers from entering the country. In 2015, the volume of cocaine seized by Nicaragua’s civilian and military law enforcement agencies remained below historical norms. Nicaragua’s capacity to conduct successful interdiction operations is challenged by limited law enforcement and targeted intelligence gathering capabilities, compounded by sparsely populated regions that are difficult to police.
B. Drug Control Accomplishments, Policies, and Trends
1. Institutional Development
While no new specific drug control legislation was introduced in 2015, a bill was proposed in the National Assembly to reform the criminal code, Law 641, which would increase prison terms for drug trafficking offenses, especially for drug-related crimes committed by military units, prison officials, or police units.
The Cooperative Situational and Information Integration System, which enables greater international law enforcement intelligence sharing, remains in effect, as does the maritime counterdrug bilateral agreement signed in November 2001.
The Inter-American Convention on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters, to which Nicaragua and the United States are both parties, facilitates the sharing of legal information between countries and facilitates cooperation with U.S. requests for evidence sharing. The Government of Nicaragua satisfies U.S. requests for legal assistance as they are written, but rarely within requested timeframes.
The United States and Nicaragua are parties to an extradition treaty signed in 1905 and ratified in 1907, but the Nicaraguan constitution bars the extradition of Nicaraguan citizens. An International Criminal Police Organization Red Notice is usually required for wanted individuals in order for the Government of Nicaragua to cooperate with the United States in expelling non-Nicaraguan citizen fugitives.
The Nicaraguan National Police underwent training to increase professional development in 2015. In June, 90 police officers from the Commission of Chiefs and Directors of Police from Central America, Mexico, the Caribbean and Colombia met in Nicaragua to evaluate and plan regional operations against organized crime. Funded by the Central American Integration System, the Nicaraguan Attorney General’s Office also trained 60 prosecutors on investigation of drug trafficking offenses and related topics.
The President of Honduras met with the President of Nicaragua in May 2015 to strengthen their partnership and develop strategies to improve the security of both countries, among other topics. As part of a 2015 cooperation agreement with Russia, 28 Special Agents from Nicaragua and other countries in the region received counternarcotics training by the Russian Federation.
2. Supply Reduction
There were no discernible changes in the volume of drugs transiting through Nicaragua in 2015. Nicaragua’s civilian and military law enforcement seized 4.25 metric tons (MT) of cocaine, less than the 5.11 MT seized in 2014. This continued a trend of declining drug seizures since 2013. Nicaraguan authorities also arrested 81 people and seized $1.7 million, along with approximately $1 million in assets and 15 “go-fast” boats. Authorities seized approximately 358 kilograms of marijuana and the Nicaraguan National Police destroyed 2,160 illicit narcotic plants (mainly cannabis growing in the Jinotega Department and Caribbean Coast regions), an increase from the 1,000 plants destroyed the previous year.
The Nicaraguan Navy conducted successful counternarcotics operations, and there was a slight increase in the overall quantity of drugs seized during maritime interdictions from the previous two years. In 2015, during nine seizures, the Nicaraguan Navy seized approximately 2.88 MT of cocaine. This was more than the 1.9 MT seized in 2014 and the 2.5 MT seized in 2013, but far below the average of six MT seized annually over the previous decade. The decreasing trend in maritime seizures may be attributed in part to a reduction in U.S. counternarcotics assets operating near the Nicaraguan littorals, and diversion of Nicaraguan Navy assets to patrol the additional 30,000 square miles of Exclusive Economic Zone in the Caribbean awarded to Nicaragua by the International Court of Justice in 2012. Lack of dedicated air assets and insufficient coordination between the Nicaraguan Navy and the Nicaraguan Air Force continued to affect interdiction efforts.
3. Public Information, Prevention, and Treatment
The Government of Nicaragua’s updated National Citizen Security Strategy for 2015 includes an objective to raise drug awareness. The Nicaraguan National Police are in the process of inaugurating a youth center in Bluefields in the South Caribbean Autonomous Region, provided by the European Union and the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation. The police will offer drug rehabilitation at the youth center and vocational training at the National Technical Institute of Bluefields. Through their partnership with the private sector, the police have been able to employ most of the 367 youth graduated since 2012, and 12 alumni have even opened their own small businesses.
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) continue efforts to prevent drug use and provide treatment to drug addicts, including in partnership with the United States. The United States provided $2.5 million to fund programs focused on citizen security and drug prevention in 2015, including a grant to the NGO Foundation for the Autonomy and Development of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua for a multi-media drug and violence prevention campaign that will reach more than 500,000 people.
The United States also supports the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission in its technical support to the government’s drug treatment and prevention systems, including training and support to treatment facilities.
Private treatment centers in Nicaragua offer two models of patient service: out-patient and residential. Free treatment centers are becoming less common in Nicaragua, and some treatment centers charge a high monthly fee between $2,000 and $3,000 per patient.
As a matter of policy, the Government of Nicaragua does not encourage or facilitate illicit drug production or distribution, nor is it involved in laundering the proceeds of the sale of illicit drugs. However, a lack of checks and balances within the judicial system creates problems in meaningful prosecution of serious crimes in the country. For example, though specific legislation (Laws 735 and 745) prohibits early release and sentence reductions for drug trafficking cases, these practices have occurred. Public distrust in the judicial system remains a major impediment to effective law enforcement in Nicaragua.
C. National Goals, Bilateral Cooperation, and U.S. Policy Initiatives
The Nicaraguan government has demonstrated a willingness to investigate and interdict drug-related activities. In 2015, the United States assisted Nicaragua by supporting a wide range of drug control efforts including equipping, training, and building infrastructure of Nicaraguan security forces, as well as funding prevention programs with NGOs.
The United States worked in bilateral cooperation with the Nicaraguan Navy to enhance maritime interdiction capacity by providing intelligence information for interdiction operations, supporting training opportunities, and implementing capacity-building projects. In 2015, the United States focused primarily on support to the Nicaraguan Navy headquarters in Managua, the Pacific naval base in Corinto, and the Caribbean naval base in Bluefields. Secondary efforts included building capacity of the naval bases located at El Bluff, Puerto Cabezas, Cayos Miskitos, Puerto Sandino, and San Carlos. The United States also provided technical and mobile training on radio equipment and patrol boats, provided training opportunities from the Naval Small Craft Instruction and Technical Training School, and supported the Cooperative Situational and Information Integration System.
In 2015, the Nicaraguan National Police’s Mobile Inspection Units received funding support from the United States for 21 land interdiction operations that focused on drug smuggling along the Pan-American Highway. The United States also coordinated with the National Police on its participation in five regional interdiction enforcement actions.
The United States continued to provide resources to non-governmental drug demand reduction programs in the North and South Caribbean Autonomous Regions and the Managua area, where populations are more vulnerable to drugs and violence. These grant projects have served to increase citizen security through drug prevention awareness campaigns, community development, youth leadership training, and alternative education intervention programs for at-risk youth in Nicaragua.
In 2015, Nicaragua in cooperation with the United States and others worked to combat drug trafficking through joint interdiction operations, capacity building of law enforcement and the military, and drug demand reduction programs.
The Government of Nicaragua must increase efforts to combat organized crime within the vulnerable Caribbean coast regions of Nicaragua, which remain the primary routes for international drug trafficking. In addition, an increased focus on drug prevention programs and rehabilitation facilities, institutional corruption, and judicial independence is recommended to complement interdiction efforts.