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U.S. to Aid Nicaragua's Anti-Drug Efforts

Central America: DEA will open office in capital to help fight Colombian trafficking. Cooperation marks shift in relations.

March 05, 1997|JUANITA DARLING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN SALVADOR — The United States has promised to help Nicaragua fight the growing transshipment of South American drugs in that country by opening an anti-narcotics office in Managua, the capital.

A Drug Enforcement Administration office, which usually is accompanied by substantial anti-drug money and equipment, will open this year at the request of the Nicaraguan government, the U.S. Embassy in Managua has announced.

"Drug traffickers increased their use of Nicaraguan territory as a transit point between North and South America during the year," according to a State Department report the embassy released. "The extremely limited police presence on the Atlantic Coast has made the region a refuge for drug traffickers."

Colombian traffickers use high-powered speedboats to run drugs from the Colombian coast and the traditional smugglers island of San Andres to the Nicaraguan Caribbean, which is known locally as the Atlantic Coast region, and from there northward. Colombia is the major supplier of cocaine and a growing source of heroin for the United States.

The State Department report did not give figures on the increase in narcotics trafficking. But Nicaraguan police said they have confiscated more than a ton of cocaine each year for the past three years. Heroin confiscations, which had been sporadic, reached a kilogram--2.2 pounds--last year for the first time.

"A permanent [DEA] office will permit better cooperation, more effective joint strikes against drug traffickers and more open communication," Police Commissioner Eduardo Cuadra, Nicaragua's top anti-drug officer, said of the announcement late Monday of the planned new office.

The cooperative attitude marks a sharp departure from just five years ago, when the Nicaraguan police and the DEA not only did not share information but infiltrated agents to inform on each other, according to a former anti-drug officer.

That distrust was a legacy of the anti-U.S., Marxist Sandinista government that left office in 1990. In the years since, cooperation between law enforcement agencies has improved along with U.S.-Nicaragua relations in general. Recently, Nicaragua has participated in three successful regional anti-drug operations, the State Department report noted.

Anti-narcotics efforts in Nicaragua, the hemisphere's second-poorest nation, have been hampered by poor financing, a faulty judicial system and lack of police training, the State Department report said.

Because of those problems, the report stated, "the sparsely populated and partially mapped Atlantic Coast region, with its porous coastline, keys and island, has become a haven for Colombia drug traffickers."

Nicaraguan police estimate that almost a ton of cocaine entered their country last year through the Atlantic Coast region and that five times as much made its way north through Nicaragua to Mexico and the United States.

Police in the region say the only equipment they possess was either confiscated from convicted drug traffickers or borrowed from legitimate sources.

"The consumption and trafficking of drugs will increase in Nicaragua unless greater resources are brought in to confront the efforts of traffickers who take advantage of the country's vulnerabilities," the State Department report predicted. "We plan to aggressively investigate the prospects for assistance from a variety of U.S. government agencies."

Nicaraguan police and armed forces do not otherwise receive direct U.S. aid because their human rights records do not meet congressional standards. But "an investment from the DEA [in equipment and training for the Nicaraguan police] is a way to make sure that drugs do not get to the United States," Cuadra said.

The decision to open a permanent office was made after a three-month trial run, he said.

That trial culminated in an operation on an island that is the Nicaraguan territory closest to Colombia that yielded nearly 900 pounds of confiscated cocaine.

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