Caribbean Crisis: Can Nicaragua Navigate Waters It Won from Colombia?

The International Court of Justice has awarded Nicaragua massive new maritime territory in a dispute with Colombia. Bogotá is angry — and analysts are skeptical that Managua can patrol such a large sea tract

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BAS CZERWINSKI / AFP / Getty Images

Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Samuel Santos, left, and Julio Londoño Paredes, head of the Colombian delegation, arrive at the International Court of Justice before the reading of the judgment in the dispute between Nicaragua and Colombia on Nov. 19, 2012

With pen and gavel, the U.N.’s International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague last week redrew the maritime map between Colombia and Nicaragua — doubling Nicaragua’s exclusive economic zone in the Caribbean Sea by 100,000 sq km (38,600 sq. mi.). But the ICJ may have doubled Nicaragua’s trouble as well, not just because Colombia heatedly rejects the ruling — this week Colombian warships defiantly continue to ply Nicaragua’s newly acquired maritime territory — but also because the decision hands the small, impoverished Central American nation more water than it can likely swallow, creating potential new tensions in the pond of the Americas.

The government of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega is celebrating its “recovery of sovereignty.” For starters, it can now grant broader and more lucrative concessions for fishing and oil exploration. Problem is, not everyone will be seeking government permission to exploit the area. For northbound drug runners supplying the hemisphere’s $40 billion illegal-narcotics trade, the court-ordered changing of the guard from Colombia, Latin America’s largest navy, to Nicaragua, one of the region’s smallest, might look like an open invitation to literally test the waters. “The narcos will undoubtedly probe the Nicaraguan capabilities to patrol their expanded territorial waters,” says Bruce Bagley, a drug-war expert at the University of Miami. “If they prove inadequate or incapable, then the drug traffickers will certainly press their advantage.” The ICJ’s decision, Bagley predicts, “could easily and rapidly become a major boon for traffickers from Colombia, Mexico and Central America.”

Despite its size, Nicaragua has long prided itself on establishing a “firewall” in the drug war, which has soaked other Central American nations in narco bloodshed. Nicaragua’s top military brass, General Julio César Aviles, insists Nicaragua does have the “professional capacity as mariners to carry out this task” of expanding its permanent patrol. Others are less convinced. With limited resources, personnel, air support and only three go-fast patrol boats capable of remaining out at sea for more than a day, the country’s ability to protect such an expansive sea tract — which now reaches 200 nautical miles from its shoreline — is dubious at best. “Our victory in the Hague was a bitter fruit,” says Roberto Cajina, an expert on Nicaraguan security and defense, “because Nicaragua does not have the capacity to guarantee permanent security of its newly acquired maritime zone.”

Colombia is also concerned about security issues. The drug-war argument was a linchpin of Colombia’s defense during the 11-year-long ICJ litigation, which focused on Nicaragua’s claim that Colombia unlawfully grabbed Nicaraguan territory back in the 1920s. But the ICJ ruled that maritime security is not a valid argument in cases to determine sovereignty. So now Colombia is appealing its security argument to the court of public opinion and bucking international law in the process.

More than a week after the Nov. 19 ruling, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos insists the decision is “seriously wrong” and replete with “omissions, errors, excesses and inconsistencies that we cannot accept.” On Wednesday, Santos announced that his country has officially withdrawn from the treaty that recognizes the ICJ’s authority. “Borders between the states should be established by the states,” Santos tweeted, repeating his call for bilateral talks with Nicaragua on the court ruling. Colombian power brokers like conservative ex-President Alvaro Uribe, Santos’ predecessor, are also turning to Twitter to incite patriotic passions. “Court rulings that violate a country’s sovereignty are rejected,” Uribe tweeted to his 1.6 million followers on Friday.

Many Latin American analysts think Colombia will eventually calm down and accept the ICJ’s ruling rather than become a rogue nation. “Colombia is too sophisticated to continue behaving” that way, says Nicaragua’s Arturo Cruz, a political-science professor at Managua’s INCAE business school. “Colombia will eventually realize that they would lose a lot more by defying the International Court of Justice than they will by ceding part of the Caribbean Sea.” Ortega believes Colombia has no choice but to accept the ICJ’s ruling, which is definitive and unappealable. “Colombia will recognize the ruling by the International Court of Justice, because there is no other way forward,” the Sandinista strongman insisted.

Nicaragua’s disputed claim to the Caribbean waters and the archipelago anchored by the “big islands” of San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina dates back to the 1928 Esguerra-Bárcenas Treaty, which gave Colombia ownership of the islands but did not establish maritime borders. Colombia arbitrarily made the 82nd meridian the provisional limit of Colombian waters — a move that nearly halved Nicaragua’s maritime territory and largely blocked its access to the Caribbean. Ortega’s government argued that Esguerra-Bárcenas was invalid because it was signed during a period of U.S. military intervention in Nicaragua. The ICJ finally came to the Solomonesque decision to recognize Colombia’s claim to the islands but double Nicaragua’s sea zone to the north and south of them.

The new boundaries are clearly delineated in degrees, minutes and seconds. Still, Nicaragua will most likely have to honor Colombia’s request to negotiate them because it doesn’t have the means to assert its sovereignty otherwise. “This isn’t even a David-vs.-Goliath situation, because in this case David doesn’t even have a rock to put in his sling,” says Cajina, noting that Nicaragua’s military budget is less than 1% of Colombia’s annual defense expenditures, which are greater than Nicaragua’s entire GDP. What’s more, Nicaragua’s military cooperation with the U.S., which might have been useful to Ortega in this situation, has become increasingly strained in recent years, and so far no other country with the naval wherewithal has stepped up to offer help.

Other countries are, however, eager to sell military equipment, but Nicaragua is buying all the wrong supplies for the job, Cajina argues. He questions the Sandinista government spending its limited funds on a $244 million Chinese satellite and hundreds of millions more purchasing a fleet of Russian-made “Tiger” armored vehicles. The urban-assault vehicles are built to ford rivers, but “can’t patrol the ocean 200 miles off the coast,” Cajina notes. “Nicaragua lacks a national defense strategy and vision for the future.” Given the circumstances, Cajina adds, the expanded border could mean rough seas for Nicaragua’s flickering firewall.

Tim Rogers is editor of Nicaragua Dispatch. Reporting for this story was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

33 comments
protocolabc5
protocolabc5

98% of Colombians dont want the Colombian government to accept the ICJ decision.  The Colombian constitution is clear in indicating that only the Colombian voters and its congress  can alter or change Colombian territory.  Alcoholic Ortega, president of Nicaragua is a  former terrorist and a pedofile who abused his stepdaughter when  she was less than 12 years of age.  He should be arrested in the US, the minute he steps on US soil for child molestation.   The Security Council of the UN is the only one that can enforce a ICJ decision. The US, England and France have veto power.  There is nothing that Nicaragua can do.

protocolabc5
protocolabc5

When the ICJ ruled against Israel and in favor of the Palestinians on building the big wall between Israel and Palestine territories, did Israel accept? Of course not.  They went ahead and finished the wall.   Did Israel suffer any consequences from refusing to accept.  Of course not.  There was an 1928 Barcenas -Esquerra treaty which should be honored.  Nicaragua did not honor that agreement and Colombia should not accept this ridiculous iCJ decision.  Colombia,  can have its navy patrol where they have always been and there is nothing that Nicaragua can do. It is like when an elephant is on its way to drink water from the river.  All other animals will move out of the way.  Nicaragua is like a flea on an elephant.  

xicodingo
xicodingo

Russia WILL kick some NARCOLOMBIAN ASSES!

ternulfio1
ternulfio1

colombia will kick some nicaraguan asses

lopezroblesleo
lopezroblesleo

IIt is just ridiculous that Nicaragua triumph is an invitation to "baroness de la drogue" to navigate freely for our cost. No Mr., just to five miles in front of Nicaragua shore,  the United State Cost Guard, is patrolling. Don't get us wrong my friend, one thing is Daniel Ortega is a vulgar dictator, another thing is let American patrol whit their sources, the freaky Colombian narcos.

isaacgut
isaacgut

The thing is: if the ruling would have been in Colombia’s favor; Colombians and their government would be praising the court’s ruling. However, because the ruling favors Nicaragua now they want to reject it. Now they want to cry and argue all sort of things that are laughable.

NerySanchez
NerySanchez

Colombia can cry all they want, in a few years it will be part of the Latin American Socialist States (LASS) under ALBA we will bring Bolivar's dream to reality. We will no longer accept the word "American" to mean those north of the Rio Grande. We are Latinos and we are the future. The USA will be part of our great Socialist Union as soon as our people continue to populate our "taken" land. We are the Sons of Montezuma and we will show the world why we are the real United States. We will be under one flag and speaking espanol.....

NerySanchez
NerySanchez

People fail to realize that Nicaragua will no longer be a small insignificant country. Nicaragua will be a billion dollar industrial complex within the next 30 years, and will flaunt the best and most powerful military in Latin America. What people fail to understand is Nicaragua's ambitious plan on the Gran Canal Nicaraguense, which will make the Panama Canal look like a small river. Nicaragua is about to be a game changer in Latin America and Colombia may be getting itself in future trouble if war is in the air. Nicaragua will be the wealthiest country in Latin America in 30 years time. Ask the chinese and the russians who plan to build the Canal and the chinese who plan to drill the sea. Nicaragua is the Dubai of Latin America and the world will miss it if they blink hard enough. Colombia be warned. You may beat Nicaragua in a battle today, but Nicaragua is member of ALBA and Venezuela will spill your blood across South America if you attempt to invade Nicaraguan sovereign territory. Augusto Sandino said, "Sovereignty is discussed with gun in hand."

AlexandraCabreraPauwels
AlexandraCabreraPauwels

It's not really about which navy is the best... let's not forget (Colombia did) that in the archipielago of San Andres there are people who are the real owners of that sea they have been there before Colombia and Nicaragua even existed as countries, Nicaragua just wants to exploit the resources that are there. Colombia didn't allow oil explotation in the Biosphere reserve. We the people of San Andres want our territory to be respected and well preserved. 

KelJamison
KelJamison

If anybody here only knew the history behind this story, you would know why the court ruled as it did. Colombia was granted ALL the islands that they claimed and Nicaragua was granted waters that never should have been in dispute. Both countries agreed for many many years to accept the ICJ ruling that finally ended this case. Colombia, like a BIG BRAT, didnt like the ruling, so now decides to reject and ignore it. What an example for their citizens.¿Oye, Colombia, no tiene lastima? By the way, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Honduras and El Salvador all accepted the ICJ rulings on their boundary disputes. Central America is on the right course after decades of violence, that got them nowhere. Colombia, que quiere, ¿La violencia o La Paz?

MrTV
MrTV

So now comes Mr. Tim Jones promoting the Colombian Navy as Latin America's largest navy. Wow! What ignorance. As far I am concerned, the Brazilian Navy is Latin America's largest navy and second only to the US in the Americas. This also may explain why Brazilians make so many jokes about Americans' ignorance when it comes to geography... 

QvoLokos
QvoLokos

John bismarklet me begin by telling you about historical facts , first: the mosquitia( mosquito coast) was never part of colombia , I am from Honduras an a proud african caribean mosquitian , second: that treaty to wich you refer to was done under American military occupation of nicaragua so it was not done by the Nicaraguan people , the americans id that so as to keep you happy for taking the panama territory away from colombia, now back to the article, on the last paragraph it says: Cajina argues. He questions the Sandinista government spending its limited funds on a $244 million........ my question is who is CAJINA how can you publish an article that has not facts I`ve look for this info and nothig come up , is this CAJINA guy a pro-colombian made up make you belive guy or is he for reAL

JohnBismark
JohnBismark

The latino analysts are wrong.  Colombian people won't accept the ICJ judgement... around 14 countries around the world have rejected ICJ judgements and now Colombia is another one.  There is not a country in the world that would accept losing 100.000 kms.

Colombia was owner of the Nica's Caribbean coast (called Mosquito Coast) the Esguerras-Barcenas treaty gave the coast to Nicaragua and the San Andres islands to Colombia... an important fact is that the islands population don't want to be part of Nicaragua.

Colombia has been exercising sovereignity east of longitude 82 since 200 years ago.

In conclusion if the Nicas want our sea they will have to fight for it.

JanelaChester
JanelaChester

Fishing has been a very important way of commerce for The Raisales community ever since they were dumped there by the English slave traders 3 centuries ago but now their water have been stolen by some european international court. 

These people identifies themselves as Colombians and they want nothing to do with Nicaragua.Once again Europeans judges tracing borders without any knowledge just like they did with the African continent in the past century. SMH

We Colombians WILL NOT obey this rule """""PERIOD"""""".

MarcosGonzalez
MarcosGonzalez

@NerySanchez I agree in part what you are saying.  I know it is good to dream, but don't over do it.  Everyone knows that the only one who will benefit is the damn hated Sandinistas- Ortegas and the top sandinistas bosses.  I only hope the R.A.A.N. and the R.A.A.S. separate from Nicaragua and become indipendent.  Not that is my dream and wish.

rommel1971
rommel1971

@QvoLokos Here, the more concerned that the drug reaches their country is the United States. They already monitor seas in central america. Perfectly they can continue doing this. So this is not an excuse for Colombia not to accept the verdict. The Colombian sector of defense and security in 2013 will have a budget of more than U.S. $ 14,426.65 million. That's enough money for Colombia to fight drug trafficking in his country. that where the real problem is. Not to mention the billions of dollars for Plan Colombia.

cl321
cl321

@JohnBismark Colombia lost fair and square, but if war is the only way to impose the ruling than so be it. We are more than able and willing to defend our right to patrol our own waters. I know one thing for sure, I hope you'll be on the battlefield because I'd like to put your brash attitude to the test. 

gguzman102
gguzman102

@JohnBismark dates back to the 1928 Esguerra-Bárcenas Treaty, which gave Colombia ownership of the islands but did not establish maritime borders. Colombia arbitrarily made the 82nd meridian the provisional limit of Colombian waters—a move that nearly halved Nicaragua’s maritime territory and largely blocked its access to the Caribbean. Ortega’s government argued that Esguerra-Bárcenas was invalid because it was signed during a period of U.S. military intervention in Nicaragua. The ICJ finally came to the Solomonesque decision to recognize Colombia’s claim to the islands

cl321
cl321

@JanelaChester You can say you won't obey a million times, but the decision has been made. Nicarauga is going to patrol our own water and it is up to you as Colombians to have enough dignity and respect for your military serviceman not to try and engage in a war with us. Fight the sons of Sandino is something no Colombian should ever try. 

LiliL.A.Infante
LiliL.A.Infante

@JanelaChester JanelaChester YOU ARE ABSOLUTELY CORRECT! as a descendant from the Isleños: we will never accept this ruling We LIVE of the ocean and their waters. You cant just come here and say HEY, now the sidewalk in front of your door is OURS and you cant walk through it... They speak of their sovereignty, ¿what about ours? PROVIDENCIA, SAN ANDRES, SANTA CATALINA? Somos seres humanos, no un punto en el mapa que les estorba. Nicaragua: SIGAN, dentro de poco el universo les mandara un TERREMOTO para que tengan de que ocuparse en sus tierras. Ahi, veremos como piden ayuda y todos le dan a espalda por ladrones. No pueden salir adelante con lo que tienen y quiere mas...

MarcosGonzalez
MarcosGonzalez

@rommel1971 @QvoLokos So much money they spend on defense and security and yet they have the face to ask the U.S. for $$$. LOL and yet they can't stop the drugs.

QvoLokos
QvoLokos

@rommel1971 @QvoLokos that`s right , my question  for the colombian goverment would be: if you say that because you have a better  navy , more money than nicaragua to patrol those waters , and so for security reason they believe that is better for them to keep it, I would give them some advice  , why dont they use  their navy to patrol the waters  right  around colombia maybe  no more that one or two miles away from shore they`ll have more chances of stopping their drug lords , it just makes sense , trying to stop them out in the middle of the ocean in forein water is just giving the more of a chance to get away with it, or is this their intent , I am pretty sure that the drug lords are not happy with nicaragua getting back  their territory, and I`m sure they will put some money towards getting the goverment to appeal  this ICJ desicion , they are losing their drug trafficking corridor that has been so useful to them.

AlexandraCabreraPauwels
AlexandraCabreraPauwels

@cl321 @JohnBismark Guess who will block any chance of the UN security council to sanction or any military intervention... let me help you... It starts with an U and ends with an S 

MarcosGonzalez
MarcosGonzalez

@LiliL.A.Infante @JanelaChester Be careful little one what you wish.  There is a Father up above and He is looking down below, So be careful little one what you say.  Remember "KARMA".  Lets HOPE a Marremoto DON'T hit unuh funky rass first or a TERREMOTO hit the mainland.  I'll pray that doesn't happen, ok? EVIL HEARTED COLOMBICHOS.

cl321
cl321

@LiliL.A.Infante @JanelaChester You're more than welcome to keep your Colombian citizenship, we do not need nor want you to become Nicaraguan. However, we have a right to patrol our sovereign waters. If you want to fish off the cost you can do that by abiding by the law that gives you permission, but if you want to deep sea fish out in Nicaraguan territory, you do so with our permission. Again, accept it because the decision has been made. If you don't like it, try to do something about it and you'll see what happens. 

QvoLokos
QvoLokos

@AlexandraCabreraPauwels @QvoLokos @rommel1971 you might be right or wrong about that? ,  well there`s no evidence really, it was the CIA - contras  that traficked drugs to get money to get rid of Ortega in the 80`s  ,  but thats just historical facts ,with the dislike that the US goverment has for Ortega , believe you me he would be  in a maximun security  prison in the US  , and so they have not been able to prove this (your) assertion, but my point is stop the drugs at the source ( Colombia) at their borders , it might just be the contrary of what you are saying,narcos will finance Santos  or any political party in colombia to keep the status quo, for is from this  that they have benefited from all this time , again patrol the waters close to the shores , that might be  more efficient , if colombia ants to stop drug trafficking.