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.