Phyllis Powers, the U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua, declared this week she didn’t see Russian cooperation with Nicaragua in fighting the Zetas and other drug cartels as a challenge to the DEA, but rather as complementary support. That statement showcases the dramatic changes in Central American geopolitics that have taken place since the Cold War as perhaps no other statement could (or at the very least demonstrates that fighting the drug war can make very strange bedfellows). Consider, also, the March arrest of Martin Flores, a leading member of the Zetas, along with several of his associates: it hints not just at passive approval of the kind expressed by Powers, but at the possibility of an emergent troika of cooperation between Nicaragua, Russia and the U.S. to combat Central American drug trafficking.
In recent years Moscow has taken a growing interest in fighting drug trafficking in Latin America, due largely to cocaine shipments finding their way from this region to the Russian market. This development has brought about a number of initiatives such as the construction of a Russian counter-narcotics training center to offer Central American police officers the expertise of Russian instructors. Moscow has also donated weapons and financial aid (reportedly $30 million in military cooperation) to Nicaraguan security forces. In addition to the positive aspects of this aid in the war against drug trafficking, such initiatives will serve Russia to, once again, expand its influence in Latin America. Likewise, the U.S. continues to maintain a strong presence in Central America, via bases in Honduras and El Salvador used to stage military exercises and initiatives undertaken by the DEA.
Nevertheless, Central American governments — including Nicaragua — have called for a greater U.S. involvement, including financial aid, to combat drug traffickers in the region. This call from Managua for greater Washington cooperation is ironic to say the least. Nicaragua’s current president is Daniel Ortega, who previously ruled his country in the 1980s’ Sandinista government, from which position he fought a bloody war against U.S.-backed guerrillas, the Contras, who wanted to topple him from power. Much has been written about how Nicaragua’s internal war became a symbol of the proxy wars that the U.S. and the Soviet Union carried out in Central America (Ortega was backed by Moscow). Hence, it is logical that Ortega would turn to his past allies in Moscow to fight drug trafficking and for other joint-cooperation projects.
But it is also just as interesting that Ortega’s government is also asking Washington, who once meant to topple him from power, for greater involvement as well. Recent developments and declarations portray Managua as attempting to obtain greater U.S. cooperation. In 2008, Ortega met with high-level U.S. government officials (including DEA boss Michael Braun) and asked more help to fight drug trafficking. Later, in 2010, Nicaraguan Vice President Jaime Morales made similar declarations, stating that “don’t forget that the main victim of drug trafficking is the United States, so its government should help combat drug trafficking in the region.”
Nevertheless, Ortega has maintained his distrust of the U.S., as exemplified by his 2007 statements in which he said that “you have to be careful with the DEA. You can’t be blind . . . We have to wage the war against drugs, but don’t come to us with stories about involving your Cobra helicopters and troops.” More recently, after the U.S. decided to cut aid to Nicaragua in 2012, Ortega declared that “if there is no money for [government] health, if there is no money for environment, if there is no money for the war on drugs, then there won’t be any money for the agents of the empire either.” In other words, in spite of aforementioned requests for greater aid, it is clear that Ortega’s distrust for Washington remains.
So far it is unclear if direct communication between the DEA and Russian police officers in Nicaragua have taken place (such as intelligence-sharing meetings) or if the Nicaraguans are serving as some kind of intermediary between the two. If trilateral meetings have not happened, then they should. A police-oriented troika between Washington, Moscow, and Managua may not serve to drastically improve Washington-Moscow relations, but the unlikely three-way alliance could provide the high-octane institutional firepower needed to contain the expansion of the Zetas and other transnational criminal networks in the region. That Ortega should be the one to broker it attests to the transience of ideological conflicts in the face of pragmatic ones.