Washed-up bales of drugs bring millions of dollars to poor fishing communities
Cocaine galore! Villagers live it up on profits from 'white lobster'
Rory Carroll in Tasbapauni
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 seeing a very different type of intruder.
What they are looking for, and what they have coyly euphemised, 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 an existence on shrimp and 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.
Colombian speedboats 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," said a European drug enforcement official based in the region. "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 $4,000 (£1,960) a kilo, said Major Perez - seven times less than the US street value but a fortune to a fisherman.
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.
Posh hotelsSome locals who used to be in rags live it up at posh hotels in Bluefields and Managua, others stock up on wide-screen TVs and expensive beer. With its creole English and African slave descendants, the community feels more Jamaican than Nicaraguan. Its 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 and little to break the silence except lapping surf, clucking chickens and the occasional thud of a falling coconut. 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."
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."
The church had just installed a shiny white floor thanks to a donation from a fisherman, Ted Hayman, who reputedly hauled in 220kg (485lb). Mr Hayman chose the colours and tiles himself. "He's a kind man," said Mr Hebbert.
He was grateful but lamented the church's cut was not greater. "God says that 10% of whatever you earn is his. But no one do that here." Villages further north oblige finders to give a tenth of the proceeds to the church and at least another tenth to neighbours.
Mr Hayman, 37, Tasbapauni's most "blessed" fisherman, has converted his shack into a three-storey mansion with iron gates, a satellite dish and architecture best described as narc-deco. A sign identifies the residence as Hayman Hi.
GarrisonMr Hayman's sister, Maria, 40, said cocaine was the source of the wealth - and philanthropy. "Him always try to help the people. Him help the sick, the widows, the church, anybody."
A short stroll from Hayman Hi is a 30-strong army garrison tasked with combating drug trafficking. It is as laid back as the rest of Tasbapauni. You could not prosecute someone for becoming rich, said the commander, Edwin Salmeron. "If we don't capture them with the drugs there's nothing we can do."
Given the poverty and decades of government neglect it was "understandable but not justified" that the cocaine was sold on, said Moises Arana, a former Bluefields mayor. "There is no shame. It's almost an innocence - they don't understand the consequences."
Increasingly, however, a dark side is emerging. Not all the cocaine is shipped north. Some is turned into crack and sold locally, producing the skinny, ragged youths who haunt Bluefields' slums. The town jail is crammed with alleged addicts and pushers awaiting trial.
"With crack you lose your pride, you lose your money, everything," said Randolph Carter, 50, a former addict. In 2004 traffickers shot off his arm while looking for another addict who had reneged on a promise to fuel their boat. "Cocaine is not a blessing. It can destroy you," said Mr Carter.
Corruption allows traffickers to buy their way out of trouble. In 2004 a gang took over Bluefields' police station and cut the throats of four officers. No one has been charged for what is assumed to be a drug-related atrocity.
To many, however, cocaine promises deliverance from poverty. Marvin Hoxton, 37, a lobster diver, once discovered a 72kg bale. Thieves forced him to hand over 70kg at gunpoint but he sold the remainder for $5,000. It lasted two months. "Drinking, dancing, women, the dollars fly," he rued.
Now broke and back living with his mother, Mr Hoxton had a plan: to fill his wooden skiff with supplies and camp out on a remote beach for six months. He will string a hammock between two coconut trees, listen to his transistor radio and keep his eyes on the ocean.
"You can't know when you might get it," he said, staring at his beer, as if mini-bales were floating inside the bottle. "You have to wait. Wait for it to come."
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Sniffer dogs with nice-smelling noses
$2M worth of cocaine found in banana boxes
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