US welcomes Russian support for Nicaragua’s drug war

A senior US official says Russia’s role is welcome and that market forces will help Central America win the war on drugs

A top U.S. anti-narcotics official says Russia’s recent involvement in Nicaragua’s drug war is “welcome” by the United States.

The U.S. government, which has spearheaded drug war efforts in Central America for more than a decade, is not jealous of Russia’s sudden and curious interest in helping Nicaragua fight drug trafficking in this region, says William Brownfield, U.S. Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement.

“I welcome any contribution, any donation and any support that the Russian government wants to give in this hemisphere, exactly as I expect the Russian government to welcome our anti-drug programs in  Asia—based in Afghanistan or in the republics of Central Asia,” Brownfield told The Nicaragua Dispatch during a webcast press conference last week from Washington, D.C.

William Brownfield (official photo)

“The truth is that we want collaboration, and if the collaboration comes from Russia in our hemisphere or if it’s the United States in Russia’s hemisphere, then I think that is positive,” Brownfield added.

Russian drug czar Victor Ivanov was in Nicaragua last month to participate in a regional anti-drug summit of police chiefs from Central America, the Caribbean and Mexico. During the meeting, Ivanov and Nicaraguan Police Chief Aminta Granera explained how Russia’s Federal Drug Control Service (FSKN) is collaborating with Nicaraguan police to combat drug trafficking in Central America. The first joint operation launched here last month busted a Nicaraguan-based cartel of 40 suspected drug traffickers and netted 1.2 tons of cocaine that was allegedly en route to Russia.

 “We can’t just talk about the trafficking of drugs from South to North; now we have to talk about the globalization of the crime, the globalization of drug trafficking, which obliges us to get involved with all (anti-narcotics) agencies around the world to confront it in a better manner,” said Police Chief Granera.

Two weeks after the bust, on March 23, Ivanov and Granera laid the cornerstone to a new Russian-funded anti-narcotics training center that is being built on the south side of Managua. The Nicaraguan-Russian drug war center, which is scheduled to open next year, will be used to train police officers from throughout Central America, according to government authorities.

The Russians have also promised to supply Nicaraguan police with firearms, helicopters and Tiger urban assault vehicles to employ in the war on drugs. Russia’s plan is to convert Nicaragua into a regional stronghold for Central America’s drug war, Ivanov explained during a recent meeting with President Daniel Ortega.

Russia has already increased its military aid for Nicaragua. In 2011, Russia provided Nicaragua with some $26.5 million in military aid—almost nine times more than the U.S. military gave.

The U.S., which focuses most of its $85 million Central American drug-war package on the “northern triangle” countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, says Russia’s assistance for Nicaragua is “complimentary.” Brownfield says the U.S. considers Ivanov and Russia a close ally in the drug war.

 “I consider Mr. Ivanov a friend and I hope he considers me a friend, too,” Brownfield told The Nicaragua Dispatch. The U.S. official said he meets with his Russian counterpart “four or five times a year” at various international drug summits.

“Ivanov and his agency are absolutely and firmly dedicated to the elimination of illicit drugs in Russia. And the truth is they collaborate with us in various parts of the world, such as in Central Asia and in some areas of Asia,” Brownfield said.

“At the end of the day, for us it’s not a question of who or what government manages the program or the construction or new centers or international support for an organization or institutions; the important thing is that it is done in a way that is effective and constructive and that there is good communication between the governments, which is what we are doing,” Brownfield says.

Can capitalism help win the drug war?

Despite calls from Guatemala and Costa Rica for new strategies in Central America’s drug war, Brownfield says the region must maintain the course.

Drugs confiscated during a bust in Managua last year (Graphos Producciones)

“I would say at this moment in our efforts in Central America, we are in the second or third inning,” Brownfield said. “The game has started and the pitcher is throwing well, even though unfortunately he gave up five runs in the first inning and at the moment the other team is winning 5 to 3, or something like that.”

Brownfield added, “I use this metaphor to indicate that we still need years to resolve this problem.”

Critics of the drug war, however, might use that same metaphor as argument for a pitching change. Winning managers don’t usually leave the same guy on the mound after getting shelled for five runs in the first inning.

But Brownfield remains optimistic that market forces will eventually help turn the tide in Central America’s losing drug war.

“I maintain a lot of optimism for one very simple reason,” Brownfield said; “we don’t have to establish a paradise in Central America to have success in the efforts against drug trafficking. All we have to do is increase the operating costs for drug traffickers by perhaps 10% or 15% in the coming years. And when we achieve that, the drug traffickers will apply the law of the market that applies across the entire planet and they will look for new routes to traffic their products. And that is totally viable and possible in the coming two or three years.”

Pushing the drug traffickers back into the Caribbean might not be good news for island nations— and it certainly doesn’t sound like a winning strategy in the U.S.’ long-term drug war—but the possibility of shifting drug routes to different longitudes “is the reason for my optimism in Central America right now,” Brownfield said.