The pattern of releases and penalty reductions for prisoners convicted of drug trafficking in Nicaragua give an insight into the deep penetration of the drug trade into the judicial system, which has helped make the country a legal paradise for traffickers.
Nicaraguan Interior Minister Ana Isabel Morales, one of President Daniel Ortega's closest and most trusted officials, first sounded off on this issue in 2010, telling weekly Confidencial that she had a list of judges and magistrates who had granted releases or sentence reductions to 1,000 drug traffickers. The list included members of the Sinaloa Cartel. Some time after, in January of this year, the issue was brought to the public eye again when a human rights organization called on Morales to comply with the judicial decisions and release various prisoners who had been granted sentence reductions.
The minister's refusal to release the prisoners was based on the fact that when the judges' decision were analyzed, there was a persistent pattern in which the prisoners who benefited from sentence reductions were mostly those convicted of international drug trafficking. "We have found release orders for people sentenced to 15 years," Morales said, "In less than a year their sentences are reduced to five years, and in two years they say the sentence is done and the prisoners walk free ... and they had brought in and trafficked tons of drugs across our border, the Nicaraguan border, is that right? No, it's not right!"
Further explaining her objections on La Primerisima radio station's "La Gente," Morales also said that there were cases of other prisoners serving sentences for common crimes who deserved to be released, but that the judges weren't concerned about them. When the prisoners had committed crimes related to drug trafficking, however, there was apparently a lot of concern about their cases.
The fact that her comments were published by that media outlet, which is apparently pro-ruling party -- and, like all those inside the circle of government power, rarely publishes evidence of state corruption -- makes it clear that the penetration of the judicial system by drug trafficking and organized crime is far from being a series of "isolated incidents."
Minister Morales' repeated statements, which show a bravery and unusual belligerence with respect to what has been called "narco releases" ("narco liberaciones"), echo other examples that clearly show that Nicaragua is transforming into something of a legal paradise for transnational drug traffickers. But it also brings to mind other indications that the penetration of organized crime may have spread to other Nicaraguan institutions.
One recent emblematic example is the Fariñas case. This case took on international significance when the murder of Argentine folk singer Facundo Cabral by a trafficking group brought to light a drug trafficking and money laundering network stretching from Panama to Guatemala. In his testimony, Henry Fariñas implicated high-level officials from the Nicaraguan National Police and at least one magistrate from the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE). This case brought to public attention the impact that drug trafficking organizations are having on government institutions in Nicaragua.
Through the efforts of the National Police and the security forces, Nicaragua has managed to project an image of being one of the most effective countries in the region in the fight against drug trafficking, particularly given that three other countries in the region have some of the highest homicide rates in the world. However, Nicaragua may have to face an extremely complicated situation, and could lose its privileged position of having such different security conditions from the "Northern Triangle" countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, if it does not recognize and confront drug trafficking, and its penetration of government institutions and society.
Minister Ana Isabel Morales' statements have highlighted one concrete aspect of drug trafficking: the impunity caused by the failure to effectively administer justice to transnational criminal actors. However, it is also crucial to bring attention to the almost complete lack of knowledge about the alliances that international drug trafficking networks and their local operatives are forming with all kinds of social, political, and state elites. This is a delicate matter, calling attention to the Caribbean and other areas that have become natural routes for international drug trafficking.
An ongoing initiative of InSight Crime, with support from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), is looking at the issue. It will suggest how, beyond tackling the specific manifestations of organized crime within state institutions, public policies should also take into account the complex networks of interests and alliances that connects the activities of economic, social, and political elites with criminal groups. To ignore these complex relationships will only reinforce the feeling that Nicaragua has generated an friendly environment for organized crime, in which it can acquire new and previously unsuspected dimensions.
The research presented in this publication is, in part, the result of a project funded by Canada's International Development Research Centre. This article was also done in collaboration with the Nicaraguan media organization, Confidencial. See version of this article in Confidencial.