Guest Columns

SMITH: COMBATTING THE CARTELS REMAINS CRUCIAL

Our drug habit is killing Central America

Contributing Columnist

“He’s a born again revolutionary,” Carlos, a prominent Nicaraguan businessman says of his country’s President, Daniel Ortega.

We’re in Managua, the capital, with a group of six potential donors. The goal is to raise money for several non-profits, especially Empowerment International, an educational program started by Kathy Adams from Lyons, Colorado that has changed the lives of many young Nicaraguans. This is the second poorest country in the region after Haiti, has a per capita GDP of just over $1,000 per year and the needs are enormous. Although the goal is to help programs like Kathy’s, what we see is quite different.

This is my tenth trip since their 2006 presidential elections. That election was actually competitive and Ortega won with about 38 percent of the vote. Since then he and his wife, Rosario (they say that she is the “one who wears the pants”) have muzzled much of the press, demoralized the political opposition and rigged the law in their favor. When it came to the 2011 Nicaraguan presidential elections, for example, the State Department said that it would be a waste of time to come observe because Ortega had, in effect, “stolen” the elections months in advance by getting the Supreme Court to allow him to run for a third term, despite two sections of the Constitution that clearly limit candidates to two terms. He then won by over 60 percent of the vote as compared to his 38 percent in the 2006 elections.

By way of contrast, neighboring Honduras stood up against then-President Mel Zelaya in 2009, had him removed from office on orders of the Congress, Attorney General and Supreme Court, then held what I observed to be extraordinarily open and fair elections. These were positive signs but the fact is that Nicaragua, despite its increasing disrespect for democracy, is doing much better today than Honduras or the two other countries to its north, El Salvador and Guatemala.

Why? Because the drug war that was pushed from Colombia to Mexico is now being pushed to Central America. It confirms what a Drug Enforcement Agency agent said to us in Colombia several years ago. Drugs are like a balloon. You suppress them in Colombia, for example, and they shift to Mexico. Then pressure in Mexico pushes them to Central America. Not only is this war unwinnable, but these shifts are to countries with weaker governments and less ability to combat the cartels.

A mural in support of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s election.
Photo by Morgan Smith/The Colorado Statesman

Despite the staggering poverty and the lack of jobs, the dominant issue in most of Central America as well as Mexico is security. Recently the Consul General for Guatemala in Colorado told me that the Zetas, a notoriously violent Mexican drug cartel made up of ex-soldiers, had essentially taken over northern Guatemala. Honduras has become so violent that the Peace Corps has pulled out and San Pedro Sula, its second largest city has passed Ciudad Juárez in Mexico to become the world’s most dangerous city. The prison fire at the Comayagua prison in Honduras that killed over 300 inmates on February 15 indicates a lack of control and a disregard for human life that is astonishing.

Che Guevara in Esteli, Nicaragua. His image is everywhere — just like Ortega’s.
Photo by Morgan Smith/The Colorado Statesman

In contrast, Nicaragua is safe. No one can really explain why but the crime rates are lower than anywhere else in Central America, including Costa Rica, which we always consider to be a tourism paradise.

Daniel Ortega on a campaign poster together with his wife, Rosario, who they say is the real boss, and an uncomfortable looking Bishop. The Ortegas have worked hard to co-opt the Catholic Church.
Photo by Morgan Smith/The Colorado Statesman

Even if the Ortegas are undermining the concept of democracy, Nicaragua’s security has led to some progress — slow but steady economic growth, improved roads, and new construction in cities like Estelí, mostly due to the cigar industry. Another boon has been the “zonas francas” or free trade zones that have moved there from Honduras and Guatemala for security reasons.

A Daniel Ortega soccer shirt. His image is on everything.
Photo by Morgan Smith/The Colorado Statesman

In essence, it has become a “safe haven” in a region that is being swallowed up by drug-related violence. It doesn’t seem fair that Honduras, having held fair elections, is now doing so badly while Nicaragua seems, at least in a relative sense, to be prospering, but we have to recognize how violence and personal security can dominate every aspect of life. We want the drugs; the citizens of countries like Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, Colombia, Bolivia, Salvador and Peru are paying with their lives.

I came away from this trip believing that, despite our feelings about the Ortegas and their disregard for democracy, we should try to help Nicaragua remain an island of security in this increasingly unstable region. Unfortunately, the US Agency for International Development aid budget for Nicaragua has been cut from $45 million in 2010 to $32 million in 2011 and $11 million for this year; what positive influence we might have will increasingly be via people like Kathy Adams from Colorado.

The much larger issue is the failure of this “war on drugs” and the question of legalization. On Monday, March 2, 2012, however, Vice President Joe Biden made it clear in Mexico City that this simply isn’t going to happen. Barbra Roach, the new head of the Denver office of the Drug Enforcement Administration obviously shares those views. This is tragic because our habits are causing enormous harm in defenseless countries in Latin America.

Morgan Smith is a former member of the Colorado House of Representatives and Commissioner of Agriculture who travels frequently to Latin America as a freelance writer and photographer. He can be reached at Morgan-smith@comcast.net.