The United States had huge concerns about black-market surface-to-air missiles long before this week's attack on an Army Chinook helicopter in Iraq, an assault that killed 16 soldiers. So it came as little surprise that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, in a brief visit to Managua, rightly asked the Nicaraguan government to destroy nearly 2,000 surface-to-air missiles in its military arsenal.
Nicaraguan President Enrique Bolanos agrees that the weapons -- an ugly part of the legacy of combat from an earlier Sandinista administration -- should be destroyed. Unfortunately for Bolanos, though, some Nicaraguans want to tie the missile destructions to negotiations over the balance of military forces in the region. And some Nicaraguan generals, it seems, argue that the missiles might come in handy in any conflict over old territorial disputes with Honduras or Colombia.
Ridiculous. As Powell pointed out during his visit, "The risk of having these weapons far outweighs any military value they may have." In fact, as he and others note, there's a flourishing global black market for these and other incredibly destructive arms, and many legitimate governments struggle to maintain control over them. It goes without saying that the would-be buyers are among the planet's most disreputable and dangerous. Two years ago, 3,000 AK-74 assault rifles that had been stored in Nicaragua mysteriously appeared in the hands of an irregular paramilitary band, the self-described United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia. Imagine the havoc that could occur if thousands of missiles -- each of which is small enough to fit in a car's trunk and lethal enough to down an airplane flying 15,000 feet overhead -- disappeared in similar fashion, jeopardizing not just U.S. but hemispheric and global air traffic.
Though Bolanos, who became president in 2002, may be sympathetic to Powell's plea, his own political standing, on this issue and in general, is precarious. The Sandinistas, who control almost half of the National Assembly and still loathe the U.S., won't back him. Bolanos' own party remains upset with him for prosecuting his predecessor, Arnoldo Aleman, on charges he embezzled $100 million. And the clamor the president confronts, as the respected La Prensa newspaper put it in an editorial, is that "no one exchanges nothing for nothing."
The U.S. should help Bolanos get rid of these dangerous arms. In exchange for sending the missiles, valued at perhaps $25,000 each, to the scrap heap, Powell should offer Nicaragua commensurate anti-drug trafficking aid: Better that some dazzling U.S. speedboats and well-equipped American helicopters become the scourge of narcotics dealers down south than that loose Nicaraguan missiles terrorize air travelers worldwide.