MANAGUA, Nicaragua -- The biggest drug trafficking trial in Nicaragua’s history unfolds in a modest air-conditioned courtroom. The 24 defendants sit in a crowded dock, joking and waving to relatives. Behind them, police commandos wearing black hoods and toting assault weapons add unmistakable gravitas to the proceedings.
Calling witness after witness, prosecutors lay out their case that a strip club operator, a former national elections official and 22 others helped launder tens of millions of dollars in cocaine profits.
The trial has captivated Nicaraguans, and no fewer than eight television cameras capture the proceedings to air on newscasts.
The trial, which began late last month and involves 84 witnesses, offers a snapshot of one facet of the avalanche of organized crime and drug-trafficking activity washing over parts of Central America as gangsters move in from Colombia and Mexico.
Recent weeks have brought successes in intercepting narcotics and in capturing alleged cartel couriers. But unmistakable evidence mounts that the magnitude and nature of the drug contagion are growing more complex, drawing stronger U.S. interest and the deployment of hundreds of U.S. Marines.
The nations of Central America’s northern region (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Belize and Nicaragua) once were considered only transshipment points for cartels, then later storehouses. Now, drug gangs are increasingly bringing semi-processed coca paste here for final processing. The gangs’ corruptive influence also is reaching into higher levels of governments.
Honduras agents discovered a cocaine-processing laboratory in Atlantida province on the Caribbean coast Aug. 28, seizing a half-ton of coca paste. It marked the second time in 18 months that Honduras had found a clandestine production laboratory, a sign that cocaine processing is moving north from Amazonian jungles.
Recent narcotics seizures in Guatemala underscore the inventiveness of traffickers in finding routes that are more circuitous and difficult to detect.
In mid-August, Guatemala intercepted 17.6 tons of cocaine paste in a shipping container arriving from Taiwan. Weeks later, in the largest heroin seizure in Guatemala’s history, agents found 221 pounds of heroin, some of which arrived from France. The origin of the heroin is unclear.
“These are really puzzling seizures,” said Antonio Luigi Mazzitelli, regional chief for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
Mazzitelli said traffickers apparently send narcotics around the globe to throw off law enforcement, then ship them back to the West.
“They are rerouting the final product through a non-suspicious location in order to make it to the North American market,” he said.
Once cocaine powder is processed, perhaps in Central America, “you might send the same container back to Taiwan, then send it on to the U.S.,” Mazzitelli said.
Late last month, some 200 U.S. Marines and four UH-1N Huey helicopters began counter-drug operations in Guatemala, the first major U.S. military intervention there since the CIA ran a covert operation nearly 60 years ago that overthrew elected leftist President Jacobo Arbenz.
Nicaragua has surged into regional headlines for two seemingly unrelated events that both illustrate the transnational tentacles of crime groups.
One of the events appeared, well, made for television. The other has provided daily fodder for newscasts.