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Cocaine is king on Nicaragua's Caribbean coast

By Bernd Debusmann, Special Correspondent
Reuters
Monday, January 29, 2007; 2:13 AM

BLUEFIELDS, Nicaragua (Reuters) - From the drug runners' point of view, the working environment along Nicaragua's Caribbean coast is as good as it gets.

Deep poverty, high unemployment and widespread resentment over decades of government neglect has made it easy for cocaine traffickers to set up support networks in the towns along the Miskito coast and the islands off it. The area is so remote and so different from the rest of Nicaragua, it could be another country.

Named after a 17th century Dutch pirate, Bluefields is the largest town in the area. The coast is populated largely by Miskito Indians and descendants of African slaves. English and Miskito are the dominant languages, corrugated iron and wood the dominant building materials.

To hear authorities tell it, many of the locals work for cocaine trafficking organizations as lookouts, intelligence agents, and suppliers of gasoline for speedboats refueling on the run from Colombia's northern coast to Mexico -- the penultimate stop on the long cocaine trail to the United States.

"On the islands, entire communities provide logistics support for the narcos," said Captain Manuel Mora, chief of Nicaragua's Atlantic Naval Command. "Everybody is involved, one way or the other. Everybody."

That gives an edge to the traffickers, according to authorities, and so does the fact that the smugglers are better equipped than those trying to intercept them. "They have night vision equipment," said Mora. "We don't. They have satellite communications. We don't. They have vast resources. We don't."

The Atlantic Naval Command has four patrol boats, all bought second-hand, more than 30 years old and in need of refurbishment. For three of the vessels, bought from Israel, spare parts are virtually impossible to get. The United States is providing funds to replace their engines with American-made motors.

In the past four years, Mora said, his force had seized 11 tons (tonnes) of cocaine and 40 northbound speedboats. There are no estimates of how many managed to complete the trip but as a rule of thumb, narcotics experts say that for every vessel intercepted, at least four get through.

CRAFT OF CHOICE

According to the U.S. government's latest International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, most of the cocaine that ends up in the United States is shipped by speedboats, each capable of carrying 1.5 to 2 tons of cocaine, through the Western Caribbean, a route described as a "natural conduit for illicit drug trafficking organizations."

The report estimated that several hundred "go-fast vessels" leave the northern Colombian coast each year and added: "A go-fast boat is by far the hardest target to find and collectively they represent our greatest maritime threat."

The smugglers' craft of choice is a fiberglass vessel powered by three 250 horsepower motors for a top speed of 70 miles per hour (110 kmh) -- faster than the obsolescent patrol boats of Nicaragua's Atlantic Command.

What the U.S. sees as a threat, many of the impoverished inhabitants of the area see as an opportunity. Apart from steady incomes for those providing logistics support, many harbor hopes of winning the cocaine equivalent of the lottery -- finding 25-kilogram (55-pound) waterproof parcels of cocaine floating in the sea after being dumped by smugglers pursued by the navy or spilled in accidents.

One parcel would be worth around $75,000 here, a huge sum in the poorest region of the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere (after Haiti). Half of Nicaragua's 5.5 million people live on less than a dollar a day.

Rags-to-riches tales involving seaborne cocaine have become part of the local lore on the coast, and the islet of Sandy Bay is spoken of frequently. A Miskito-speaking community of a few hundred people, it has changed from wooden shacks and transistor radios to solid homes built of stone and sprouting satellite dishes.

"Somebody who fishes out a cocaine parcel would see it as a blessing from God, not a reason to alert the authorities," said Capt. Jose Echeverria, head of the port authority in Bluefields. "Take poverty and joblessness, add easy money and you get a bad mix."

The mix gets even worse, Bluefielders say, when cocaine replaces cash as payment for services rendered, a trend that has accelerated over the past few years. As a result, drug addiction has become a growing problem in Nicaragua, particularly on the Atlantic Coast.

Crack is sold openly in several neighborhoods of Bluefields, where groups of young men waiting for customers stand in front of ramshackle houses. Prices have gone up, the local people say, because of a series of offshore cocaine busts last year. But at around $1.50 a "rock," it still finds clients. There are at least 65 know crack houses in the town.

"It's a sad thing to say," remarked Luis, a retired fishing boat captain who did not want his last name used. "But it is hard to find a Bluefields family which has not been affected by drugs." That includes his own family. "I have 11 children and one of my sons has gone to work for the narcos. I told him that was a bad idea. He didn't listen."

© 2007 Reuters