- The Washington Times - Friday, February 4, 2005

During a Jan. 11 sting operation, Nicaraguan police and U.S. officials discovered, a criminal network to sell SA-7 shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles on the black market to Colombian terrorists. U.S. officials believe the network involved elements of the Nicaraguan military, and potentially posed a threat to U.S. national security.

According to an administration official, terrorists could potentially smuggle SA-7s through Central America, into Mexico and then across the porous U.S. border. The missiles could be used to target commercial airliners. That report in The Washington Times last Thursday was followed Monday by a report that current and retired officials believe the Bush administration’s decision not to hire 2,000 Border Patrol agents for fiscal 2006 will seriously undermine security.

Interestingly, the problem with Nicaragua’s missile proliferation appears to be partly political. One administration official said factions in the Nicaraguan military that sympathize with the Sandinista party appear to be more inclined to sell missiles to Colombian rebels, with whom they share an ideological affinity. The Sandinistas, a Marxist group that ousted dictator Anastasio Somoza and installed another authoritarian regime, have been at odds with Nicaragua’s pro-U.S. President Enrique Bolanos.

The Sandinistas, who have lost every election since 1990, could well win Nicaragua’s 2006 elections and have played a role weakening Mr. Bolanos. Last month, the legislature almost succeeded in stripping the presidency of much of its powers in what is being called a legislative coup. After much political bargaining and mediation by the United Nations, the president was able to regain some of his authority, but his leadership has been shaken.

That weakness and the involvement of the military in the sale of missiles will make it more challenging for Mr. Bolanos to keep his 2003 pledge to eliminate Nicaragua’s existing missile supplies and thwart future sales. The Nicaraguan legislature has said only it has the authority to authorize the destruction of weapons.

These developments indicate that U.S. border security remains imperative and that the United States ignores Latin America at its own peril. The United States does have only a limited ability to affect political outcomes and developments in the region, but its influence is surely bolstered through engagement. For security and economic reasons, it is in America’s interest to help spur economic development and democratic values in the Western Hemisphere. That can be accomplished, at least in part, through diplomacy and broad trade ties.

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