A Nicaraguan Model for the Drug War?

Daniel Ortega | Photo by: Presidencia de la República del Ecuador | Flickr | Creative Commons

Bilateral tensions going back to the Cold War have obscured the value of counternarcotics cooperation between the United States and one of its least-favorite governments in Latin America – that of former Sandinista guerrilla and three-term Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega.  The man who battled U.S.-funded proxies, the Contras, in the 1980s is now the most effective soldier against the drug trade in Central America, although Washington appears loathe to admit it and to imbue the cooperation with political good will.  However, while closer U.S. allies such as Honduras and El Salvador have seen levels of violence climb, Nicaragua remains relatively safe.  According to U.S. government estimates, Honduras (with vastly greater assistance) interdicted more cocaine than did Nicaragua in 2011 (22 v. 9 metric tons), seized one-tenth as much heroin (8 v. 86 kilograms) and arrested only half as many drug-related criminals (84 v. 168) – but had a homicide rate six times greater than Nicaragua.

Managua has achieved its relative success with an approach quite different from its neighbors’ –less costly in both dollars and bloodshed.  Compared to the flow of allegations about human rights violations committed by the Mexican security forces, Nicaragua’s record appears clean and citizens feel relatively confident providing information to the police.  Its armed forces have been involved in drug interdiction, focusing on coastal seizures, often in cooperation with the U.S. Navy.  But the backbone of Nicaragua’s strategy has been a series of local initiatives such as community policing.  These programs focus on “juvenile delinquency, education, and reintegration into society by gang members and other young offenders,” scholars noted in a recent special issue of the journal Policing and Society.  Nicaragua’s geography may be a factor as well.  The cartels’ main routes to Mexico are through the northern tier of the isthmus, and Nicaragua does not have the same sort of migration patterns that shaped Salvadoran gangs, as Insight Crime noted last year.

Scaling up Nicaragua’s local solutions to fit Mexico would be an immense challenge because of the disparity between the countries’ size and history.  But elements of Managua’s approach could be tried and adapted in neighboring countries, particularly its emphasis on community policing and anticorruption efforts that help gain citizens’ confidence.  Within Nicaragua itself, some observers argue that the government should do more to integrate its Afro-descendant Creole population into these supportive measures.  Currently, these Creole coastal communities bear much of the effect of military-oriented U.S.-Nicaraguan counternarcotics cooperation, without the social assistance to deal with the underlying problems in the region.  As the costs – and limits on effectiveness – of the full-frontal assault on cartels become ever clearer, Nicaragua’s relative success stands as an important reminder that other paths are possible.

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