Thu, Oct 11, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Washed-up drugs bring millions to poor Nicaraguan communities

Smugglers' misfortunes are fueling an economic boom along the Mosquito Coast, where mansions are replacing huts

By Rory Carroll  /  THE GUARDIAN , TASBAPAUNI, NICARAGUA

Centuries of troubles have bobbed on the waves off the Mosquito Coast: Christopher Columbus, the Spanish conquest, pirates, slave ships. For the fishing villages scattered across these remote Central American shores there was seldom reason to welcome visits from the outside world.

But that was before the "white lobster," and before everything changed. Now the villagers rise at first light to scan the horizon in hope of glimpsing a very different type of intruder riding in on the surf.

What they are looking for, and what they have coyly euphemized, are big, bulging bags of Colombian cocaine. A combination of law enforcement, geography and ocean currents has washed tonnes of the drug, and millions of dollars, into what was one of the Caribbean's most desolate and isolated regions. Villages that once eked a borderline existence on shrimp and the more traditional red-tinged lobster have been transformed. In place of thatched wooden huts there are brick houses, mansions and satellite dishes.

"They consider it a blessing from God. You see people all day just walking up and down the beaches keeping a lookout to sea," said Louis Perez, the police chief in Bluefields, the main port on Nicaragua's Caribbean coast.

Speedboats from Colombia hug the coastline so closely that this narco-route to the US is known as the "country road." With 800-horsepower outboard motors, the so-called "go fasts" can usually outrun US and Nicaraguan patrols. But on occasion they are intercepted, not least when US snipers hit their engines.

"Then they throw the coke overboard to get rid of the evidence," a European drug enforcement official based in the region said. "Other times it's because they run out of fuel or have an accident."

Currents carry the bales towards the shore. A decade ago many of the indigenous Miskito people had not even heard of cocaine. Some 15 people in the village of Karpwala are said to have died after mistaking the contents of a bale for baking powder.

That innocence is long gone. Colombian traffickers and Nicaraguan middlemen trawl villages offering finders US$4,000 a kilo, said Major Perez -- seven times less than the US street value but a sum a fisherman might spend a lifetime earning.

Tasbapauni, a sleepy hamlet a three-hour motorboat ride from Bluefields, is a cocaine version of Whisky Galore!, the 1940s tale of a Hebridean island which salvages a shipwrecked cargo of booze and plays cat-and-mouse with the authorities to keep it.

Some fishermen and beachcombers who used to be in rags live it up at posh hotels in Bluefields and Managua, while others stock up on wide-screen televisions and expensive beer. This high-rolling reputation has earned Tasbapauni the nickname Little Miami. That's an exaggeration. There is still plenty of poverty and barefoot children and there are no roads or vehicles. But things are different.

"Today the toiling is easier. Life is plenty better than before," said Percival Hebbert, 84, a Moravian Church pastor and village leader.

"The community is like this: you find drugs, this one find drugs, the next one find drugs -- that money is stirring right here in the community, going round and round," he said.

The white lobster was a blessing, he said, as long as the bonanza was spent wisely.

"Almost all you see with a good home, a good cement home, those are the ones who find them things," he said.

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