On July 13th, the Nicaraguan National Assembly voted to destroy an additional 651 of its large stockpile of shoulder-fired, surface-to-air missiles, bringing it one step closer to fulfilling President Enrique Bolanos’s earlier commitment to destroy Nicaragua’s entire stock of Man-portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS). The Assembly approved the plan despite opposition from the Sandinista National Liberation Front (SNLF), which led a partially successful campaign to derail the US-funded destruction initiative in early 2005.
The missiles – 2000 SA series MANPADS – are the remnants of a massive infusion of Soviet military assistance to the left-leaning Sandinista government, which was the target of a US-supported insurgency in the 1980s. The proxy wars in Central America ended shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but the huge stockpiles of Soviet weapons remained – an attractive target for arms traffickers. Diversions of Nicaragua’s missiles date back at least to 1990, when Sandinistan military officers sold 8 missile launchers and 28 missiles to rebels in El Salvador. Three years later, 19 more black market missiles were discovered in the charred remains of a Managuan auto repair shop that doubled as a storage site for a large cache of illicit rockets, mines, explosives and MANPADS. The repair shop caught fire after part of the cache exploded.
A decade later, Nicaragua was still hemorrhaging weapons. In November 2001, an Israeli arms dealer operating out of Guatemala duped the Nicaraguan military into selling him 3000 surplus assault rifles, which he claimed were destined for the Panamanian National Police. Instead, the dealer shipped them to Colombia where they were delivered to AUC, a vicious paramilitary group that is on the US State Department’s list of terrorist organizations. After thoroughly reviewing the case, an investigative team commissioned by the OAS blasted the Nicaraguan military for “display[ing] a complete lack of interest as to where the arms were ultimately going.” “One telephone call,” observed the team, “could have prevented the entire arms diversion.”
Fearing that Nicaragua’s MANPADS could go the way of the assault rifles, the US government offered to pay for their destruction, along with stockpile security upgrades for the rest of the military’s small arms. An agreement was signed in 2003 and a year later, three batches of missiles – about half of Nicaragua’s stockpile – had been destroyed. The destruction initiative came to a grinding halt in late 2004, however, when the National Assembly passed a law that prohibited the President from authorizing the disposal of the country’s weapons without its consent. The Bush administration responded by sending a State Department delegation to Managua, but to no avail. The National Assembly refused to permit the destruction of the remaining missiles without $80 million in compensation – an outrageous request considering that most of the missiles were at least 15 years old and largely obsolete. The Bush administration balked at the request and, in March 2005, upped the ante by freezing military aid to Nicaragua – a surprisingly tough response that did little to win over the opposition-dominated National Assembly. Realizing that the sanctions had backfired, the administration restored military aid in October after receiving assurances that “the existing missiles are being maintained in a secure manner.”
Little apparent progress was made on resuscitating the moribund destruction initiative until May of this year, when Congresswoman Delia Arellano revealed that the Sandinist Front bloc had signalled a willingness to permit the destruction of an additional 651 missiles – the focus of last Thursday’s vote.
The row over Nicaragua’s MANPADS is significant for several reasons. First, it illustrates the importance of the state department’s chronically under-funded SA/LW destruction program which, for about $300,000, has eliminated – permanently and completely – the potential terrorist threat posed by 1000 of Nicaragua’s missiles. The additional $200,000 that the U.S. spent on bolstering Nicaragua’s stockpile security reduces the threat posed by the remaining missiles. Secondly, this case is indicative of a sea change in US foreign policy in regards to MANPADS and, to a lesser degree, small arms/light weapons proliferation more generally. In the 1980s, the CIA let loose more than 3000 MANPADS in Afghanistan, any one of which could have been used to shoot down a US airliner. Two decades later, not only has the US stopped giving missiles to rebels, it is willing to jeopardize relations with allies to address the threat posed by these weapons – a remarkable (and laudable) change of policy and perspective.
For more on the Nicaraguan MANPADS destruction initiative, MANPADS proliferation and US counter-MANPADS policies, see The Arms Trade: A Beginners Guide, which will be available from Oneworld Publications later this year.