One story that doesn’t get enough attention has been the collapse of public order in Central America. Why has that happened? Well, there are several possible hypotheses, including the U.S. decision to begin deporting violent felons at the end of their sentences ... but the clear problem is drug trafficking.
Why would drug trafficking suddenly become much worse? The above maps present a suggestion. In 2003, “suspect air activity” was a jumble, mostly over Colombia. As of three years later, in 2006, a lot of “suspect maritime activity” still went directly to Mexico. Over time, that changed. By 2010, Honduras had captured most of the air traffic, while sea traffic migrated to Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Panama. In essence, interdiction efforts by the Mexican government worked, sort of: fully-loaded 727s no longer landed in Sinaloa, and for all the hype over long-distance submarines, boats also stopped coming. Instead, planes diverted to Honduras, and maritime traffic to Panama and Costa Rica (mostly to supply local markets) or Guatemala (where the stuff was then moved overland to Mexico).
Activity in 2011 (see left) shows the pattern even more clearly, but with an interesting gap. Planes fly over Venezuela and land in Honduras, with a few stragglers heading on to Hispaniola or the USVI. Ships head into violence-torn Guatemala and Honduras, where whole tracts are outside the remit of the state.
But where doesn’t it go? Nicaragua. For all his faults, and there are many, Danny Ortega seems to have kept his country from being overrun by drug traffickers. The maps are revealing. (Click on the maps to enlarge.)
Flip the question. Why are ships headed into Costa Rica and Panama? The two countries don’t seem to be a source of transshipments elsewhere. There is nothing flying out, and there is little reason to go to either country if you want to move drugs overland into Mexico, given how easy it is to get to Guatemala and Honduras. But there is a lot of sea traffic into both countries directly from Colombia. If drugs from Guatemala and Honduras could easily pass through Nicaragua, then there wouldn’t be much traffic into the Costa Rica-Panama pair. Back in 2006 neither place showed much direct traffic; the implication being either that a Nicaraguan supply source was cut off, for which there is no evidence, or that as the cocaine markets in those countries grew over the last five years the suppliers were unable to send much through Nicaragua.
The question is why Nicaragua is aloof. Is Danny Ortega less corrupt than Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica? That seems unlikely in the extreme. His fellow Bolivarians (and patrons) in Venezuela have no problem with overflights from cocaine-producing regions. Is the Nicaraguan state stronger than the ones in Guatemala and Honduras? That seems possible, but anybody who’s been to Nicaragua will report that generalized public order is little greater than in the countries to its north (in fact, at first glance, it seems rather worse) and quite a bit less than in Costa Rica or Panama. Nonetheless, Nicaragua not only is bypassed by the drug traffic, it seems exempt from the inexorable rise in violent crime that’s plagued the rest of the Isthmus. The homicide rate in Nicaragua has been bouncing around 13 per 100,000 for several years, up from the early part of the decade, but little different from the 1990s. It is, in short, a mystery.
Is it just luck, or is Managua doing someting right? Here is a suggestion that it is the country’s socialist legacy what’s to credit. The idea is that community policing and greater community-police connections (established by the Sandinistas during the 1980s) have kept crime low. Here is a suggestion that it might be because Nicaragua sent immigrants to Florida instead of California, where they putatively became less exposed to organized crime. As someone with a lot of family (and time spent) in South Florida, I doubt this. The same article also suggests that it may simply be that the Zetas haven’t gotten to Nicaragua yet. That is possible: some in Nicaragua have the same fear. But it seems unsatisfying, what with trafficking and violence increasing to both the north and the south.
Nicaragua’s non-participation in the drug trade is striking, as is its (relative!) non-violence. But in order to predict whether it will last, we need to know more Any ideas?