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NICARAGUA: Boosting ties with Russia

A new Russian-built training centre for anti-drugs officials, recent joint drug seizures and the prospect of a bilateral free trade agreement (FTA). These are the latest signs of strengthening ties between Russia and Nicaragua in the key areas of security and trade. This cooperation, which has gathered pace since the ruling Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) government of President Daniel Ortega took office for a second time in 2007, was reaffirmed during a series of inter-governmental meetings held in Moscow in late January between high level representatives from both countries.

On 6 April Colonel Orlando Palacios, Nicaragua’s army director of public relations, announced the seizure of 100 packages of cocaine following a joint operation with the Russian federal drugs control service (FSKN). The operation was carried out in the Caribbean waters assigned to Nicaragua by the 19 November 2012 ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague on the 122-year old maritime and territorial dispute with Colombia [RC-12-12]. The cocaine was found in a ‘go-fast’ boat abandoned by presumed Colombian drug traffickers, 30 nautical miles north-west of the keys, of Roncador and Quitasueño, and 136 nautical miles north east of the Miskito keys.

The seizure, which served as a boost for the Ortega government given concerns expressed by its Colombian counterpart that drug trafficking could increase in the area once Colombia ceded control of the territory to Nicaragua, was in line with a bilateral security accord inked in February 2012. There have been other signs of this joint security cooperation which has prompted a response from the US (see box). On 22 March the FSKN began work on a new centre to train up Central America and Caribbean anti-drugs officials, which Nicaragua’s police chief, Aminta Granera, said would be ready within a year. Ten days earlier, FSKN director, Víctor Ivanov, announced that a joint Nicaragua-Russia operation had dismantled a Nicaragua-based drug trafficking ring believed to be moving cocaine to Europe and Russia, which triggered new concerns about Nicaragua’s role as a drugs transit country (see sidebar). Reporting on the operation, Nicaragua’s state mouthpiece, El 19 Digital, said that earlier that month, 63 raids had been carried out in Managua, Rivas, Masaya, Matagalpa and Chinandega departments. Headed up by a Mexican national, Martín Flores, believed to be a member of Los Zetas criminal organisation, the gang comprised Nicaraguans, Panamanians, Salvadoreans, Guatemalans and Hondurans. A total of 26 people were arrested and some firearms and vehicles seized, but no drugs were found.

Other cooperation

As well as security, trade also features high on the bilateral agenda. Following the 21-26 January visit to Moscow by a Nicaraguan delegation led by deputy foreign minister, Valdrack Jaentschke, and Ortega’s son, Laureano, in representation of ProNicaragua, the official investment and export promotion agency; the head of Nicaragua’s trade & industry ministry (Mific), Orlando Solórzano, announced various accords. These include the continuation of Russian shipments of wheat to Nicaragua, which first arrived in November 2011, aimed at improving nutrition and boosting the bread industry. Solórzano said that a further four Russian shipments of wheat, each of 25,000 tonnes (t), would arrive this year. He also said that the Russians had pledged 1,000 tractors and 1,000 mowers. Meanwhile, on 21 March Ortega announced that Russia had donated 130 public buses, bringing the total number to 485 since 2009.

The most recent report on foreign cooperation by Nicaragua’s central bank, published in March 2013, revealed that Russia remained the biggest single foreign donor for Nicaragua’s public sector in 2012, accounting for US$37.4m (28.8%) of the US$130.1m in bilateral donations for the public sector. Yet there is room for improvement. Last October the two countries announced they were negotiating a trade agreement. Bilateral trade reached US$94.5m in the first ten months of 2012 on the latest figures from the Central American economic integration system (Sieca) – just over 1% of Nicaragua’s total US$8.7bn. This follows US$87.8m in 2011, up on the US$46.4m registered in 2010. Russia has also yet to feature as a significant source of foreign direct investment (FDI). The top five sources of FDI in the first half of 2012, on the latest figures from ProNicaragua were the US, Panama, Mexico, Switzerland and Venezuela, accounting for 73% of the total US$584m over the period.

  • US response

At a graduation ceremony for English-language students in Managua on 24 March, the US ambassador to Nicaragua, Phyllis Powers expressed US hopes that the new security cooperation deal between Nicaragua and Russia would “complement” but not “replace” the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in its efforts to combat drug trafficking and organised crime in the country. While Washington has long raised concerns about the state of Nicaragua’s institutions, announcing in June that it would not renew its fiscal transparency waiver for Nicaragua amid democratic concerns about the controversial November 2011 general election [RC-12-09] security cooperation – particularly with Nicaragua’s navy, has remained strong.

According to the latest (1 March 2013) US State Department’s International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR), Nicaraguan authorities seized 9.3 tonnes (t) of cocaine in 2012 (up from 8.8t in 2011), 986 kilograms (kg) of marijuana, 4 kg of crack, and 13 kg of heroin and reportedly neutralized 14 drug trafficking cells. The INCSR also noted Nicaraguan authorities seized US$13m in bulk currency and other assets in 2012 - up from US$5m the previous year.

  • Changing patterns?

The latest (March 2013) US State Department’s International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR), notes that Nicaragua is a major transit route for cocaine flowing from South America to the US, as more than 80% of cocaine trafficked to the US in 2012 first transited through the Central American corridor. However, Nicaragua is not currently considered a major transit point for Europe. The recent dismantling of the Nicaragua-based drug trafficking ring by Russian and Nicaraguan authorities suggests that this could be changing.

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