5:00AM Saturday February 09, 2008
By Jonathan Franklin
A Nicaraguan town owes its existence to cocaine tossed overboard by traffickers fleeing US Coast Guard patrols. Photo / Richard Robinson
At first glance, Bluefields in Nicaragua looks like any other rum-soaked, Rastafarian-packed, hammock-infested Caribbean paradise. But Bluefields has a secret.
People here don't have to work. Every week, sometimes every day, 35kg sacks of cocaine drift in from the sea. The economy of this entire town of 50,000 tranquil souls is addicted to cocaine.
Bluefields is a creation of the gods of geography. Located halfway between the cocaine labs of Colombia and the 300 million noses of the United States, Bluefields is ground zero for cocaine transportation. Nicaraguan waters are near Colombian territorial limits, making the area extremely popular with cocaine smugglers using very small, very fast fishing boats.
The US military calls them "go fast boats", which is a bureaucratic way of describing these mini-water-rockets. Typically these 12m boats have 800 horsepower of outboard motors bolted to the stern. A Porsche 911 Turbo, by comparison, has 485 horsepower.
While they are very fast, they are also very visible to the array of radars set up by roaming US spy planes, Coastguard cutters and helicopters which regularly monitor the speeding cocaine traffickers.
"With night vision equipment, I have seen a lit cigarette from two miles," a US Navy pilot said. "Or the back light from their GPS screen? It looks like a billboard."
When the Americans get close, the traffickers toss the cocaine overboard, both to eliminate evidence and lighten their load in an escape attempt.
"They throw most of it off," says a Lt Commander in the US Coastguard. "I have been on four interdictions and we have confiscated about 6000 pounds [2720kg] of cocaine, and I'd say equal that much was dumped into the ocean."
Those bales of cocaine float, and the currents bring them west right into the chain of islands, beaches and cays which make up the huge lagoons that surround Bluefields on Nicaragua's Atlantic coast.
"There are no jobs here, unemployment is 85 per cent," says Moises Arana, who was mayor of Bluefields from 2001 to 2005.
"It is sad to say, but the drugs have made contributions. Look at the beautiful houses, those mansions come from drugs. We had a women come into the local electronics store with a milk bucket stuffed full of cash. She was this little Miskito [native] woman and she had $80,000."
Hujo Sugo, a historian of Bluefields, says the floating coke has created a new local hobby.
"People here now go beachcombing for miles, they walk until the find packets. Even the lobster fisherman now go out with the pretence of fishing but really they are looking for la langosta blanca - the white lobster."
Given the remote setting and lack of infrastructure, there are few roads, few cars and the biggest shop in Bluefields sells nothing more sophisticated than a washing machine or TV set.
So what do the locals do with all this cocaine? They sell it to travelling buyers who cruise the coast, disguised as used clothes vendors.
"We know there are small shop owners who do this," says Yorlene Orozco, the local judge. "We are talking about people without a profession, no home, no job. One day later they have a new car, go to the casino and are building a home that costs I don't know how many thousands of dollars."
Law enforcement in Bluefields is practically invisible "I just had a Swiss tourist tell me that when she went to the supermarket they tried to sell her cocaine," says Orozco.
The police and Navy have few resources and less trust from the local public. Bluefields is effectively an anarchist nation - no Government, no organised institutions and the rules are made by community groups.
Given the massive amount of cocaine in town, violence is surprisingly rare. Gunfights are nearly unheard of and most of the town seems to lounge around or play baseball all day and then erupt into a frenzy of energy by late afternoon, fuelled by Flor de Cana, a Nicaraguan rum, fresh fish, an endless supply of native oysters, and "the white lobster".
"Down by Monkey Point, a family found an entire boat ... they stashed it and bought up houses all over town. It was 57 sacks [about 1995kg]," says Jah Boon, a local Rasta man. "Those people have money and still have coke buried in them hills. It is another way of having money in the bank."
At a local price of $3500 per kg, the typical 35kg sack nets a cash sale price of $122,500, which by all accounts is spent immediately.
"Last time bags and bags washed up, everyone [felt like] a millionaire, but that money does not last." explains Helen, who runs a university research institute in Bluefields. Asked how the locals unload their cash, she said: "Beer, beer, beer. You should see the amount they drink here. Go to the pier and see how much alcohol goes out to the islands."
"When the drugs come in, everyone is happy, the banks, the stores, everyone has cash."
Arana, the former mayor, recalled one month when the village bought 28,000 cases of beer.
With literally tonnes of cocaine buried in the hills, stashed in yards and piled up around town, why doesn't the Colombian mafia storm into these remote communities and repossess their coke bales by coercion or brute force?
"Hell no," says Peter, a local businessman. "The Miskito [local Indians] are guerrillas. They have been through war. They have AK-47s and up."
The US Drug Enforcement Agency, in a report to Congress, noted: "A unique historical situation and civil conflicts have left Nicaragua with a tradition of armed rural groups and institutionalised violence that greatly complicates counter-drug enforcement."
For hundreds of years, the local Miskito Indians have fished this stretch of the Caribbean. They are master sailors, capable and brave. They endured hurricanes and storms back when GPS still meant "God Please Save me".
Many of their 4000 small fishing boats are still wooden canoes with sails made of coloured plastic, hand-sewn and fragile. But the pros have gone Japanese and switched to the 200-horsepower Yamaha outboard motor, a six-cylinder beast that is the region's connection to the world.
Because the Miskito often live in isolated communities, they maintain their own rules, independence and traditions, including the belief that whatever treasures arrive in a river or from the sea are gifts, blessed by God and to be enjoyed and shared. That includes the Caribbean lobster and the white Colombian variety.
The cocaine business is reshaping the face of these Indian communities. Tasbapauni Beach is now nicknamed "Little Miami", because so much cocaine washes up on its long shoreline that it has fuelled a construction boom. Luxurious oceanfront condos protected by security guards now sit side by side with wooden fishing shacks.
"If shit washes up on your shore it belongs to that family. Every family owns their turf," said a Miskito fisherman.
But when a fisherman finds white lobster the entire village shares the treasure, with a percentage going to the community, a smaller percentage to the church and the majority split among the crew of the small boat that found the loot.
"It is like a municipal tax," says Sergio Leon, a local reporter who has been writing about the drug situation in Bluefields for many years. "The schools and churches are not built by the Government, that money comes from the fishermen and their finds."
Drug money has been used to build a school and replace the church roof. "The pastors here get mad when they don't get their cut from the find," says Francisco a court official. "If a member of the congregation has found 15kg, the church calculates 15 times $3500, that's $52,500, and at 10 per cent they are saying: where's the $5250?"
At night, Bluefields wakes up. The locals wander down to Midnight Dream, a reggae bar that locals have nicknamed Baghdad Ranch because of the surreal nature of its party scene. Young black men wear baseball hats, NBA sleeveless shirts and Nike Air sneakers. They are bedecked in gold chains.
My new drinking buddy says: "I got protection," and lifts his Houston Rockets NBA shirt to show off the butt of a pistol. "You won't get thieved here."
Tribal music echoes from across the bay while darkened skiffs navigate the shallow waters. Half-sunken boats dot the horizon. Blown in by Hurricane Joan in 1988, these rusty wrecks are now used as guide buoys for captains entering the pier and as mini-apartments by locals.
The waiter offers carne de tortuga - a grilled slice of endangered Hawksbill Sea Turtle. While locals insist they only slaughter the older specimens, that did little to ease my sensation that here in Bluefields pleasure trumps morality.
When the lyrics scream out "I feel so high, I can touch the sky", practically on cue the three girls at the next table pile coke on the back of their ebony hands and snort openly, laughing. Then they start the maypole dance the traditional fertility festival for this month, May, which has evolved into a wickedly sexy dirty-dancing routine. A stunning line of 1.8m black women swirl on the dance floor. A Rasta man stumbles by, his nose white, clumps of coke stuck in his beard.
This party is all paid for by the white lobster, which sells for $5 a gram. "Those guys over at that table, they are Miskito, they found seven bags," explains the waiter with the hint of jealousy usually reserved for lottery winners. "He will buy a couple of ranches, two boats and have someone else fish for him."
As the night progresses, the winners slowly disappear behind a wall of Tona beer bottles. No one ever seems to get tired.
* For the well-being of individuals, some names and locations have been changed in this report.
Humble town living in the slow lane
Bluefields is a humble town. Electricity is sporadic: the main generator has been under repair for nine months.
Residents remain so isolated from Central America they speak English and feel closer to Kingston than the Nicaraguan capital of Managua. To get here the traveller must fly a 25-year-old plane that looks like a fat pigeon and doesn't fly much faster. The outside of the fuselage is tagged with instructions on how to rescue victims after a crash "Cut Here for Easy Entry".
Even today, the Nicaraguan central government classifies Bluefields as an "Autonomous Area", meaning the government pretty much ignores the region.
At the local casino the payoffs are far less if the bet is placed in Nicaraguan currency, the cordoba. A roulette win, for example, pays 30-1 if the bet is in cordoba and 36-1 if the original bet was made in dollars.
"We don't even use the Nicaraguan currency here, to the South we use the colon (from Costa Rica), in the North we use the lempira (Honduran) and everywhere else it is the dollar," said Eugenio, a local fisherman.
"We only see politicians when there is an election - or a hurricane."
The daily schedule rarely changes in Bluefields. The light comes up at 5am though there aren't a whole lot of people who notice the town is in slow motion. Streams of children in pressed blue and white uniforms amble off to the Moravian school, their mothers and grandmothers spreading the scent of fresh coconut bread through the village.
The shops sell rum, bananas, sneakers and baseball hats. A man sits by his store, cuts the calluses off his feet with a small knife, then immediately slices into a fresh coconut. The loudest noise is the shriek of a magpie or the yap of a dog.
Snagging shrimp and trapping lobster are the principal - maybe the only form - of legitimate work in Bluefields. But by all reasonable observations, work itself is barely considered legitimate.
Why not just enjoy nature's bounty? With so much fresh fish, coconut, bananas and mangoes, the idea of sweating or long-term planning seems foreign. Especially when the daily heat shoots into the upper 90s, and a two-block walk leaves you drenched in sweat. About the only work tool needed in Bluefields is a Yamaha outboard motor. Everyone who wants to search for white lobster has a V6 Yamaha 200 horsepower engine. Often these machines are racked up side by side on the back of a 25-foot fishing canoe so the lightweight wooden or fibreglass craft can practically fly.
By noon, the streets are filled with men playing cards, laying their bets on a card table, and sitting on stools made out of used Yamaha or Johnson outboard motors. On the streets, one man walks around with a bag of white powder the size of a golf ball, dipping his fingers in like he was snacking on popcorn or chips. Casual to an extreme, he strolls up to his friends who dip in for a snack.
Outside the Bluefields prison, two maximum security prisoners have been brought out to the street - no handcuffs - and told to cut the grass with huge machetes. These prisoners are each serving a 30-year term for murder, but they hardly work and instead idly chat with pedestrians, occasionally whack the grass but usually just watch the girls and life go by.
Most of the guards are inside a classroom studying Nicaraguan history with their classmates, the inmates. For the more hands-on prisoners, a workshop churns out jewellery, crafted chairs and green and yellow Rasta-style beanies.