The recent narco-scandal that has rattled Nicaragua’s quaint self-image and cast an even darker shadow of doubt across the already lightless Supreme Electoral Council (CSE), presents both an enormous challenge and a unique opportunity for the Sandinista administration.
The challenge for the government is to put aside politics, suspend silly triumphalism and get to the serious business of uprooting institutional narco-corruption before it flourishes like in neighboring countries. Police and state prosecutors must investigate the matter thoroughly and transparently and apply the full weight of the law against all those involved with organized crime, regardless of political profile, rank or office.
To do so, the administration needs to admit the human fallibility of its demiurges (something the rest of the country is already aware of) and not try to hide behind its clap-happy propaganda of being an irreproachable Christian, Socialist and Solidarity wonderland that is immune to such criminal temptation. So far, the Ortega administration’s slowness to recognize or respond to other corruption cases—with few notable exceptions during its first five years—does not augur well for an in-depth probe of narco-infiltrations.
But the opportunity is there. If Nicaragua handles the scandal in a professional, serious and thorough manner, the country—and the government—will come of it stronger than ever. Nicaragua shouldn’t look at the narco-scandal as a risk to its claim as “the safest country in Central America,” rather an opportunity to prove it.
The scandal of Nicaragua’s alleged narco-magistrate is still in the early phases of its development. Indeed, just in the past week, daily reports have surfaced suggesting that the tentacles of drug corruption are much more wide-reaching than the country wants to realize.
“It was just a question of time before this happened,” says Roberto Orozco, a Nicaraguan security expert at the Managua-based Institute for Strategic Studies and Public Policy (IEEPP). “We had already identified narco-penetration in lower levels of government, where municipal and local officials have been bought by organized crime. This is especially true along the principal drug-trafficking routes, where we’ve seen the worst corruption among police and local judges. Nicaragua is not an island — it’s the bellybutton of Central America.”
The bellybutton is starting to collect some lint. Orozco says the May 27 detention of de facto substitute Magistrate Julio César Osuna, who is being held under preventive arrest on charges of organized crime, drug trafficking, money laundering and falsification of state documents, represents a watershed moment for the country. How the government proceeds in the coming days and weeks could be enormously important for the future of the country.
“I hope the government gets to the bottom of this regardless of who is involved and regardless of the collateral damage it causes,” Orozco told The Nicaragua Dispatch. “I think the State of Nicaragua will be better off revealing all the institutional corruption that exists, because in the long run it will strengthen the image of the country. The message will be: In Nicaragua, there is a policy and decision to not allow this type of thing to happen here.”
On the other hand, Orozco warns, if the government tries to cover up the extent of the corruption by pinning everything on a few scapegoats and protecting others, “I will be worried because that will mean the government is covering up problems that have already become apparent.”
The risk of a cover-up is that the problem will only “fester and develop” in impunity, he warns.
“That would be a mortal error because it would start a territorial war here and the violence will start to grow,” the security expert warns.
‘This is bigger than we know’
Rosa Marina Zelaya, former president of the CSE, says the narco-infiltration and cédula-trafficking scandal is not only a “very serious situation for Nicaragua’s institutional democracy,” but for all Nicaraguan citizens.
“The dimension of this is much more serious than we realize yet,” Zelaya says. “This creates a crisis of credibility in the cédulas of all Nicaraguans.”
The former magistrate says when doubt is cast on the authenticity of Nicaraguans’ cédulas, it becomes a security issue for all of Central America, especially the countries of the CA-4 (Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador) that allow travel between borders with only a cédula for identification.
“Average Nicaraguan citizens are now going to be subject to more scrutiny and suspicion when they use their cédulas to travel in Central America, or to open a bank account,” Zelaya says. “This has created a crisis of credibility that will affect all of us. This issue is more transcendental that we realize yet.”
Zelaya says given the amount of drug money involved, it’s very unlikely that one person was working alone inside the CSE to traffic cédulas.
“This scandal has uncovered a serious problem,” she says.
Investigation shows evolved levels of crime
Regional security expert Roberto Cajina, a former advisor to retired Gen. Humberto Ortega, says the preliminary investigation of the narco-infiltration shows a “division of labor” indicating that a sophisticated level of transnational organized crime was already operating here. In other words, he says, the alleged criminal syndicate was apparently operating here long enough to have evolved into a “complex network with a division of labor and sub-structures of power.”
Police Chief Aminta Granera says the case is an “open investigation” and that police have orders from above to “get to the bottom of this.” The top cop says Nicaraguan police are also working with their counterparts in Central America and Colombia and have developed “an excellent and fluid coordination with other police.”
Cajina, however, says the case is another example of drug dealers staying a step ahead of the law when it comes to regional integration.
“In Central America, organized crime works better than the structures of regional security,” Cajina told The Nicaragua Dispatch. “Transnational crime is globalized and works extremely well, and the governments of Central America are not responding with the same capacity.”
While police continue to investigate the extent of the narco-corruption in Nicaragua, the apparent infiltration of the CSE reveals that it’s no longer accurate to measure citizen security and safety only in terms of statics on criminal violence, Cajina says.
“Security is not just limited to the number of homicides,” he says. “It’s infinitely more complex than that.”
If Nicaragua hopes to maintain its reputation as the safest country in the region, it’s going to have do something its neighbors have been unable to do: stop narco-infiltrations in their infancy. The police have been very successful at busting drug gangs in the street, now they might have to do the same in government.
Next, Part III: why the Comptroller General’s Office is so ineffective: An interview with Controller General Guillermo Argüello Poessy.
Read Part I here.
Reporting for this story was supported by a grant from The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.