Drug trafficking in Central America affected by Covid-19: implications for local development issues

By Martin Mowforth

In May 2020, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) issued a ‘living’ research brief – ‘living’ suggesting that it is subject to daily change – entitled ‘COVID-19 and the drug supply chain: from production and trafficking to use’.

Among other things the report suggests that the restrictions on and reductions of legitimate economic activities are also causing restrictions on and changes in drug trafficking routes and practices. This is particularly the case of drug trafficking by air which “is likely to be completely disrupted by the restrictions imposed on air travel.”

Before the UNODC report was made public, the Financial Times (7 May 2020) had already reported that traffickers were switching to parallel routes, loading their drugs on “submarines or speedboats or offloading [them] on beaches in Central America.” Land routes, however, have also been hit by the virus, particularly because legitimate land transport has also been drastically reduced. This leaves maritime routes as increasing in importance for the traffickers.

One worrying implication of these changes is that drug production in Central America may be stimulated because of the difficulties being experienced by the major producing countries. As Ricardo Flores points out in the Salvadoran daily paper La Prensa Gráfica (11 May 2020), in the last decade Honduras has become a narco-state with a proliferation of drug-producing laboratories transforming the coca leaf into cocaine. The danger here is that the stimulation of more local production will transform Central America from purely a transit route for drugs into a major producer area too. The Salvadoran paper, however, adds that this is unlikely to affect El Salvador as it is a small, densely populated country leaving little room for the production of a coca crop.

An even more worrying aspect of the pandemic is that the loss of employment by so many people could potentially push some or many of them, especially the poor, into involving themselves in the distribution of drugs. In El Salvador, for instance, numerous transport workers, especially boatmen, have been prosecuted for drug trafficking. Authorities have warned that the most likely people to be diverted from their usual economic activity into drug trafficking are artisanal fisherfolk.

The UNODC is also concerned that drug traffickers are trying to improve their image among the general population by providing services, especially to vulnerable groups, who might then be expected to, and possibly willing to, comply with traffickers’ requests or demands.


United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (May 2020) ‘COVID-19 and the drug supply chain: from production and trafficking to use’ UNODC Research Brief.

Schipani, Long and Webber (7 May 2020) ‘Cocaine trade caught in disrupted global supply chains’ Financial Times.

Ricardo Flores (11 May 2020) ‘Covid-19 motiva a narcotraficantes a utilizar más la vía marítima: ONU’ La Prensa Gráfica.

You couldn’t make it up – II – defending the ‘white lobster’

The following text box appears in the book as Box 9.5 (page 193).

In July 2010, the Nicaraguan Navy gave chase to a speed boat that turned out to be carrying 2,756 kilos of cocaine with a street value of US$125 million in the United States.[1] They eventually ran it to ground in Tasbapauni in the Southern Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAS, by its Spanish initials). The occupants of the boat made off inland with the help of local people who, armed with machetes, clubs and in the case of one woman, a broom, threatened to attack the army if they removed the boat and its valuable cargo. This is a situation similar to one that occurred in Walpaisiksa in the Northern Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN) in December 2009 where two soldiers lost their lives.[2]

On the Caribbean coast, historically neglected by central government and with the highest indices of poverty in the country, for some time people have been living off the profits of the ‘white lobster’, as they call the bales of cocaine washed ashore. They are increasingly turning to drug traffickers for employment and social benefits.

The national press considered it worrying that a woman with a broom was prepared to face the army to protect a consignment of drugs and speculated about what the same woman might do if given a machine gun by the drug smugglers. After a tense stand-off, the army managed to persuade local people to hand over the boat with no bloodshed.

Reproduced with the permission of CODA International and of Gill Holmes from her three monthly Nicaragua Current Affairs Report to CODA International, May – July 2010.

[1] Figures taken from Envío magazine, No. 341, August 2010, p.4.
[2] Gill Holmes, Nicaragua Current Affairs Report for CODA International, November 2009 – January 2010.

Letter from Bismuna – a cracked paradise

This is a shortened version of an article entitled ‘All is not well in Paradise’ which appeared in ENCA Newsletter 34 (August 2003).

By Annette Zacharias and Dieter Dubbert*

Bismuna is an indigenous Miskito village on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua with a population of about 1,500 people. … The village is on the shore of a lagoon which opens to the sea. In this sea float many kilos of cocaine, packets of 60, 80, 90 kilos of pure cocaine. Why did they come floating our way? Off the Atlantic coast is a group of islands known as the Miskito Cays, hundreds of islands of mangroves which form the ideal hiding place for drugs in transit from Colombia. They are also a good location to re-fuel; but the traffickers have to get rid of their cargo the moment they see a patrol boat.

We have scenes that you would normally associate only with low-grade B-movies: people with dark glasses, bracelets and Rolex watches sitting in boats with two 150 horsepower outboard motors, silent and waiting for their contact with a Kalashnikov by their side. …

In 1993 the first packets were found. Nobody knew anything of drugs, their effects, their potential harm, nor of their value. But almost immediately people heard of astronomical values for them and began to look for more. … we found it difficult to explain how dangerous drugs were. How could they have experience of drug addiction if they’d never suffered it before? And fast money talked more powerfully.

In 1994 we wrote to the governor of our department, Stedman Fagoth, and asked him to address this problem. We suggested that all the cocaine found by the people should be bought officially by the state at market prices and channelled into the pharmaceutical industry. The reply from the governor was … silence. Worse than that, Dieter received a death threat (from an unknown origin). Later we realised that the governor had indeed concerned himself in the business. …

One consequence of the fast money was that people stopped working on their fincas. Nobody wanted to sweat by sowing rice, yucca or plantains. And who’s going to criticise them for preferring to buy everything rather than sweat on their fincas? … Whole families, including even grandmas, lived on the beach looking for the ‘blessing’ of a packet. They sold the drugs, and today there is a well-established system of trafficking. But the worst problem for the community is that many people have taken to using the drugs. We could say that the generation of youths aged 14 – 23 are lost in the drug. But also adult males with their family responsibilities have fallen into addiction.

There is open trafficking, almost risk-free, that transfers many kilos beyond the community and brings back a derivative of cocaine known as ‘crack’ – or ‘stone’ as it is commonly called – a mix of cocaine with ash and soda. According to those already addicted, you only need one stone to become addicted. As a consequence, robberies and violence have arrived in the community. Women fear for their safety. Properties are no longer secure. At night we listen to the rantings of drunks who have left their women. Many people, mainly women, arrive at our house asking for money to buy food or medicines for their children. These children grow up with disastrous, drug-addicted role models, their fathers, brothers, cousins.

Throughout the whole Atlantic coast there isn’t one rehabilitation centre, and the word ‘therapy’ is unknown. The police struggle against the tide with ridiculous budgets incapable of meeting their needs. It’s a public secret that many of the police are involved in this lucrative business, and so its control never progresses. Above all, there is no political interest in protecting the coast and its population.

This situation is dramatic and desperate. But there are a few individuals who are fighting against this appalling form of development.

* Annette Zacharias and Dieter Dubbert lived in Bismuna from 1990 to 2003. They founded a NGO called ‘From Coast to Coast – Solidarity with the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua’ with bases in Kiel, Germany, and Bismuna, Nicaragua. Using donations from Germany, Italy and Nicaragua, it aimed to support the indigenous community through a range of social projects including the construction of a clinic, a sewing workshop, a cultural centre, a baseball stadium and houses for those in need. They also established a rehabilitation centre for youths with drug and/or family abandonment problems. In 2003 they changed location to Waspam in order to increase their work with street children.

The US Accuses Nicaragua of ‘Institutional Corruption’ But its Own Report Doesn’t Support its Claim

Taken from NicaNotes 3 May 2017 | Reproduced here by kind permission of Chuck Kaufman

This week’s guest blog is by a correspondent who prefers to remain anonymous due to their job in Nicaragua.

On March 27, 2017, the headline in La Prensa, one of the major newspapers in Nicaragua, read, “The United States urges Nicaragua to address ‘institutional corruption’.  A report on drug trafficking released this month by the US State Department claims that there is institutional corruption in Nicaragua.”  The report on drug trafficking referred to is the 2016 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, a kind of report card issued by the US State Department rating the degree to which it says countries around the world comply with US expectations concerning the ‘war on drugs’.

The report’s first line claims: “Nicaragua remains a primary transit route for drug trafficking.”  For people with an interest in Nicaragua, there are at least three important issues raised by the report and the coverage in La Prensa. The first is the ‘war on drugs’, the second is what is actually happening in Nicaragua to fight narcotrafficking, and the third is the US’s ongoing, inappropriate interference in the internal affairs of Nicaragua.

For several consecutive administrations, the US has defined ‘the war on drugs’ as a war on supply to be fought outside of our borders. Despite spending billions of dollars with nothing to show for it , the US has clung stubbornly to this approach. We have ignored the consensus in much of the rest of the world that the problem is one of appetite. As long as people in the US are willing to spend billions of dollars on illegal drugs to get high, someone somewhere will supply the product. Many sovereign countries in Latin America and elsewhere have taken the very reasonable position that the US’s consumption of illegal drugs is not their problem and it is not a priority for them to help solve it, especially not on their soil.

Nicaragua has only to look to its neighbours to the north, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, countries allied with and heavily financed by the US’s war on drugs to see how bad things can go. The northern triangle countries are among the most violent and corrupt in the world. They are near failed states where many aspects of government barely function. In comparison, Nicaragua is safe, stable, and peaceful.

None-the-less, Nicaragua is quite active in working to prevent the damage that could be caused by the transportation of drugs through the country, particularly preventing the violence and corruption associated with gangs and drug cartels. This is acknowledged by the Nicaragua country report within the 2016 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report: Nicaragua’s “‘Retaining Wall’ (Muro de Contención) strategy promotes a coordinated effort to stop narcotics traffickers from entering the country.” (For a good description of this strategy see this article) The Strategy Report goes on to detail many anti-trafficking activities, including drug seizures carried out in cooperation with the US and other international partners.  The concluding statement about “institutional corruption” feels tacked on and not supported by what has come before.

The tone of the conclusion of the International Narcotics Control Strategy Report is paternal and condescending. It assumes that, of course, the US can grade and prescribe what other countries do: “The Government of Nicaragua must increase efforts to combat organised crime within the vulnerable Caribbean coast regions of Nicaragua, which remain the primary routes for international drug trafficking. In addition, an increased focus on drug prevention programmes and rehabilitation facilities, institutional corruption, and judicial independence is recommended to complement interdiction efforts.” (US dept of state resource) This is a continuation of a long, despicable history in which the US has tried to control and dictate to Nicaraguans how their country should be run. Nicaraguans are completely capable of analysing their own situation and deciding what, if anything, they want to do about it. The US has no standing to tell them what they “must” do.

The government of Nicaragua is not perfect. We know this because no government in the world is, including our own. However, sovereign nations, which like Nicaragua, are not a threat to anyone, have a right to struggle with their own imperfections and to work them out in their own way.

The article in La Prensa, includes commentary by sociologist and political analyst Oscar René Vargas. He says the report means that the United States “is following the political, economic and social events of Nicaragua… that Nicaragua is already on the radar of the United States. This does not mean that the United States will take immediate action against the government, but it does mean that the promoters of the ‘Nica Act’ will take into account… the State Department report.” (The NICA Act would cut Nicaragua off from the system of international loans that Global South countries need to run themselves in the global neoliberal economic system. See: this  for the ridiculous details. Those of us who work to keep the US’s relationship with Nicaragua friendly and non-imperialistic need to stay alert to this situation.


  • During a meeting in Managua with Directors of Police Academies from Central America, Colombia and the Caribbean, the Inspector General of the Mexican Police Academy, Rubén Rodríguez, said Nicaragua is one of the most successful countries in the fight against drug trafficking and organised crime. “We believe this is a very important meeting to learn about the Nicaragua experience in public safety, fight against drug trafficking and organised crime,” the Director of the Mexican Police Academy said. (Nicaragua News, May 1)

NicaNotes is a blog for Nicaragua activists and those interested in Nicaragua, published by the Nicaragua Network, a project of the Alliance for Global Justice, http://afgj.org/

You couldn’t make it up – III – Top brass gangsterism

The following are extracts from an article by Annie Bird which appeared in a Rights Action communiqué 15 August 2010 and was entitled ‘Cracks in the wall of impunity and corruption’ (www.rightsaction.org).

This week arrest warrants were issued against at least 19 members of an organised crime network that operated at the highest levels of Guatemalan justice administration from 2004 to 2007, though some have been active in organised crime and death squads since the 1980s.

One figure apparently involved in this network worked for President Reagan aid Lt Col Oliver North and former CIA agent Luis Posada Carriles. Amongst other political crimes, the network appears to have been involved in the 2007 murders of PARLACEN congressmen.

The investigation by CICIG, the United Nations sponsored Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, focused on extrajudicial executions within the prison system. Jails in Central America have played a key role in coordinating organised crime activities. Control of the prisons is critical in the struggle for dominance between organised crime networks.

Two of those wanted for arrest are Carlos Vielmann, named Minister of Governance in 2004, and Edwin Sperinsen, named Director of the National Civil Police in 2004. The two resigned together in 2007 amid accusations of running a death squad and they left Guatemala later that year. Vielmann currently lives in Spain and Sperinsen currently lives in Switzerland. A third, Alejandro Giammettei, was Director of the Penitentiary System, and sought asylum in 2010 in the Honduran embassy in Guatemala City.

The 2007 accusations and the arrests in August 2010 were related to ‘social cleansing’, extrajudicial executions within the prison system. The CICIG investigations demonstrate that this network killed gang members and criminals with the logic of protecting the higher levels of organised crime.

Sperinsen and Vielmann worked closely together and were also implicated in a strategy of criminalising protests and killing protestors. … In August at least nine were arrested and at least ten other arrest warrants were issued. Those arrested include former heads of special police units to fight kidnapping, extortion and an elite unit within the penitentiary system.

All of the arrests were related to two ‘operations’ undertaken by the network, Operation Gavilán (Hawk) and Operation Pavo Real (Peacock). Operation Hawk tracked three prisoners who had escaped from El Infiernito prison in October 2005 and weeks later extra-judicially executed them.

In Operation Peacock, prison authorities supposedly re-took control of El Pavón prison, in the course of which seven prisoners were killed. Press reports claimed that a mafia had controlled the prison for ten years and that prison facilities served as the headquarters for criminal activities, that kidnap victims were held in the prison and that drugs were processed there. Though the press also reported that the prisoners were killed in the confrontation, it was demonstrated they were executed and that the death squad had compiled a list of targets to be executed during the operation.

Many of those now with arrest warrants participated directly in the operation, including then Minister of Governance Carlos Vielmann, then Director of Police Edwin Sperinsen, Chief and Assistant Chief of Special Investigations Javier Figueroa and Victor Soto, and Director of the Penitentiary System Alejandro Giamattei.

Wealthy Land-owner Miguel Facussé, Bio-fuels, Repression: Wikileaks Reveals links to Narco-trafficking

By Suzanna.Reiss | Via Rights Action | September 19, 2011

It is not surprising to hear that representatives of the U.S. State Department stationed in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, believed since at least March 2004 [1] that the wealthiest man in Honduras, biofuel magnate and political powerhouse Miguel Facussé, was involved in the cocaine trade.

It is not surprising, but it is disturbing.

Facussé was a solid U.S. government ally [2] in the 2009 overthrow of President Manuel Zelaya, and he has also been accused of documented human rights abuses [3] against communities living on lands he sought to monopolize for an extractive biofuel export-oriented palm oil industry.

This is all detailed in the final cache of documents recently released by WikiLeaks.

Beyond the immediate scandalous implications of the revelations (a major player in the U.S.-backed overthrow of a democratically elected government had known ties to drug trafficking even while he helped negotiate the post-coup transition government [4] with U.S. representatives) are a number of other sobering phenomena.

The recently appointed U.S. ambassador to Honduras, Lisa Kubiske, also an established advocate for the biofuel industry [5], recently demonized drug traffickers as terrorists [6] apparently unaware, or unmoved by these revelations implicating contacts at her diplomatic post. “Narco-traffickers and the gangs that support them are hardly different from terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda. They launch savage attacks on people to intimidate entire communities and instill fear in the public at large,” she said.

Biofuel, unlike bananas, is not destined for human consumption. But the mono-crop export economy was never geared toward sustaining the population. Today, in a world where food should be in abundance but is unnecessarily and selectively rare, the transition from bananas to fuel represents only the intensification of a capitalist logic that has increasingly valued fuel (whether destined to sustain the labour of humans or machines) at the expense of agricultural practices geared toward the sustenance of human life.

In fact, cultivating land for fuel rather than food has contributed to global food shortages [7] and has fostered widespread instability as profit motive trumps considerations of human or ecological justice.

What is happening in Honduras is a prime example.

Annie Bird for rightsaction.org [8] has documented [9] the massacres of people challenging the exploitative economic program advanced by biofuel magnates like Facussé and representatives of the U.S. government.

As Jesse Freeston of theRealNews.com [10] reports in “Battle for Land in Post-Coup Honduras” , the real terrorists in the countryside where biofuel power reigns are capitalism’s security forces. Private security, military, police, and paramilitary forces have all been responsible for the violent displacement of people [9] and communities, including dozens of political assassinations of indigenous organizers, labour leaders and reporters.

(The Real News: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C1s29zCqVQE, & http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oe9pdsZM2MM)

It is commonplace for governments in the Americas to label their political opponents “drug traffickers.” It is more rare when their own blatant trafficking – and criminal impunity – is out there for everyone to see.

Read more of Suzanna Reiss’ blog, Traffick Jam [11], or check out the Jan/Feb issue of the NACLA Report on the Americas, “¡Golpistas! Coups and Democracy in the 21st Century [12].”

[1] www.cablegatesearch.net/cable.php?id=04TEGUCIGALPA672&q=facusse%20miguel
[2] www.cablegatesearch.net/cable.php?id=09TEGUCIGALPA901&q=facusse%20miguel
[3] www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&cd=1&ved=0CCIQFjAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.kua.fi%2Ffilebank%2F3870-Honduras_FFM_Report_Bajo_Aguan.pdf&rct=j&q=HONDURAS%3A%20Human%20Rights%20Violations%20in%20Bajo%20Agu%C3%A1n&ei=XcVxTvWKEMTYiAKTxbyhCQ&usg=AFQjCNF9ovBLQh09f7SNU07_oKg2GWdIcg&cad=rja
[4] www.cablegatesearch.net/cable.php?id=09TEGUCIGALPA900&q=facusse%20miguel
[5] http://quotha.net/node/1725
[6] http://honduras.usembassy.gov/sp-091111-eng.html
[7] http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/poverty-matters/2011/jun/01/biofuels-driving-food-prices-higher
[8] http://www.rightsaction.org/
[9] http://upsidedownworld.org/main/news-briefs-archives-68/3198-honduras-aguan-massacres-continue-to-support-production-of-biodiesel
[10] www.therealnews.com/t2/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=272
[11] https://nacla.org/blog/traffick-jam
[12] https://nacla.org/edition/6883


Annie Bird, annie@rightsaction.org
Grahame Russell, info@rightsaction.org