Why Is Nicaragua’s Homicide Rate So Far Below That of Its Central American Neighbors?\
“He’s right about the cops,” chimed in Alvaro (who declined to give his last name), a 45-year-old veterano who lived nearby. “They see those of us of the Manjol like garbage.”
“Manjol?” I ask.
“Manjol. That,” he said, pointing at the round, 12-inch-thick block of steel encrusted in the dirt like the dusty remnant of some ancient Mayan, Otomi, or other Mesoamerican civilization in the pre-Colombian era. Alvaro said that the young people’s tradition of hanging around the sewage manhole dates back to the ’90s, when hard-core gangs like the Comemuertos (eaters of the dead) engaged in killing sprees resembling those still devastating Nicaragua’s neighbors, Honduras and El Salvador.
“Just being here,” said Alvaro, “makes us criminals.”
The manhole scene smells familiar, but also different. The last time I noticed the manholes of Managua barrios like Augusto César Sandino was in the late ’80s, when most of them were open, their covers stolen by those who sold the steel to survive during the bloody Contra war and economic blockade with which the United States punished the revolutionary Sandinista government.
“This is a zona roja [a red zone, prohibited place], being in the Manjol. Our families don’t support us, the community sees us like [we’re] nothing, like we’re the sewage draining with water beneath the Manjol.”
Alvaro’s language of the underdog also had a familiar ring, as did the cadences of rebellious marginality I’d heard in tin shacks and crowded apartments from San Salvador to LA’s Pico Union neighborhood.
“The police can come and arrest us any minute, like in Somoza years,” Alvaro said, referring to the brutal dictator overthrown by the Sandinistas in 1979. “They [the ruling Sandinistas] forget that it was the youth who overthrew Somoza. They forget that they themselves were persecuted by police. Chavalos [kids] took on revolution.”
Alvaro and the other men had legitimate fears about the police harassing them, concerns articulated in the somewhat familiar language of California and Central American rebels of my younger days. But the comparison to the bloody era when Somoza’s Guardia Civil killed thousands didn’t feel accurate. Something about it smelled off to my US-Salvadoran olfato.
Yes, the popping of firecrackers still startled for a moment, just as it has through decades of visits to ultra-violent El Salvador. The sewer beneath the covered manhole smells as vile as any in El Salvador, and the youthful anger toward abusive cops feels as familiar as the rage found in Salvadoran towns like Soyapango, but there is a colossal difference: As bad as it is here in Managua, the smell of the morgues and mass graves I visited a couple of years ago in El Salvador assault one’s psyche and gut far more powerfully than the smell of the worst sewer in Nicaragua, or just about anywhere else. Absent here are the relentless firing of the omnipresent guns still triggering trauma in the barrios and rural towns throughout my parents’ homeland, one of the most violent places on earth, a place where postwar peace never really came, as it did to Nicaragua, which is one of the hemisphere’s least homicidal places. While police and military in El Salvador and Honduras have been implicated and prosecuted for death-squad killings of hundreds of men between the ages of Herrera and Alvaro, Nicaragua’s death squads disappeared decades ago.
Nicaragua’s unusual peace juts out of the chronically violent Central American landscape like one of the many massive volcanoes whose ash and minerals feed the flora and fauna of this lush land.
Costa Rica, the “Switzerland of Central America,” has a homicide rate of 12 per 100,000. Guatemala, the safest of the countries of what’s known as the “Northern Triangle,” has a homicide rate of 26 per 100,000. Honduras’s rate is 43 per 100,000, while El Salvador’s is a staggering 60 per 100,000, which ranks alongside those of Syria and other war-ravaged countries. Nicaragua’s? An astonishingly low 6 per 100,000, half that of peaceful and richer Costa Rica.
Standing around the manhole with the young homies, hearing Alvaro’s nostalgia about the revolutionary era in Central America, my gut twisted, reminding me of how, in terms of trauma and violence, my parents’ homeland has not felt or known anything like the peace of Nicaragua—for more than 40 years.
The reasons Nicaragua defies the near-universal correlation between poverty, inequality, and violence are complex. As the second-poorest country in the hemisphere after Haiti, Nicaragua has hardly escaped the economic hardship that ravages much of the region. Some 39 percent of Nicaraguans live in poverty, according to the International Foundation for Global Economic Challenges.
And Nicaragua’s government has hardly been immune to the problems of other governments in the region: Nicaragua ranks higher than either El Salvador or Honduras on the 2016 corruption indexes of Transparency International. The concentration of power by President Daniel Ortega and his vice president and wife has alienated many of the original Sandinista leaders and regularly drawn criticism from the domestic and international community. The early unity and idealism of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) has long since been tattered by internal divisions and scandals.
Yet despite all that, and despite the bloody counterrevolutionary war sustained by Washington in the 1980s, the revolution did, in fact, manage to push through reforms that have benefited Nicaraguan society, a fact underscored by even the most pro-US global institutions. A 2017 report by the World Bank declared that even though “armed conflict, natural disasters and economic mismanagement characterized the 1970s and 1980s,” Nicaragua has “undergone a solid economic recovery from a very low base.” Nicaragua is the country that made the greatest gains in the overall happiness of its population.
Of all the reforms initiated during the revolution, two stand out: One is Nicaragua’s rejection of US exports—specifically, the US-bred criminal gangs such as the Maras, along with the zero-tolerance US-style policing models that exacerbated their violence. A 2016 report by the Brookings Institution concluded that years of mano dura (heavy-handed) policing in El Salvador and Honduras had only served to exponentially enhance the prison gangs’ “projection of power”—their ability to consistently stage economic stoppages, control entire neighborhoods, and murder at will. Nicaragua has over 100 youth gangs, according to a study by Casa Esperanza, a Managua-based social-service agency. But these gangs have a fundamentally different culture from those of the more violent and homicidal Mara culture of similar groups in the United States, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Also, mass migration to and from Nicaragua is now centered in Florida, not California, the birthplace of the Maras.
The second reason is the Sandinista revolution itself. Nicaragua is less homicidal than its neighbors in no small part because of the ways in which the revolution enabled the then youthful revolutionary leaders and subsequent non-Sandinista governments to experiment with and then institutionalize things like gun control, alternative policing models, and other policies and social programs, especially ones focused on altering Nicaraguan masculinity in ways first pushed by revolutionary Sandinista women.
“The revolution didn’t just radically alter policing structures,” said Argentina Martínez, country director of the Nicaragua office of Save the Children. “It also altered consciousness. That consciousness and the reforms to the police remain one of the most important and lasting legacies of the revolution, something we’re very proud of.” Something else—something she “can’t find the word for” she said—had disappeared. “But it will come to me,” she added, as we drank coffee in her office located in the posh but heavily walled and heavily guarded El Carmen neighborhood STC shares with several members of the Ortega family.
“Success in fostering a culture of nonviolence, regardless of ideology or government in power,” she said, “can’t be brought about by the police or any institution or political party alone. It has to bring in many different actors.” In the case of Nicaragua, Martínez said, that integrated work included “family, organized community, acting in coordination with police, the ministry of family, and other state institutions.”
Community and religious organizations, working hand-in-hand with government agencies, provide a battery of innovative, integrated services that include things like community committees for the prevention of crime, volunteer police, regular police training to respect human rights, programs for parents and other caregivers that provide alternatives for at-risk youth, and employment training, among others. Also included are classes that have introduced Nicaraguan men to newer, less-violent ways to be a man.
As important as the close collaboration between communities and the state, said Martínez, was envisioning and then creating alternatives to the repressive policing model of the Somoza dictatorship.
“Just being young in the 1970s was a crime,” said Martínez, who joined the revolution in 1979, the year it came to power, and later became a member of the FSLN (she is not currently a member).
“The Guardia [Civil] considered all young people suspect. So, we went to poetry and to revolution. Because of this, we knew all too well the effects of institutional violence toward young people—and we were determined not to repeat it.”
Some of her worst memories of the war include scenes involving her young comrades—and family. “The Guardia would come to barrio sectors and conduct house-to-house searches with full military force. They would come to people’s houses, put you against the wall, and look to see if your hands had signs of “subversive activity”—paint or markers from doing graffiti or scratches or other signs you’d been involved in something. They also punished you if they found you had poetry and other ‘subversive’ literature. The Guardia came to my parent’s house in search of my brother. Telling him ‘I won’t let them come in,’ mom locked him in the bathroom. They didn’t find him, but our house was searched and they interrogated us. It was….” She paused for a second. “Ah!” she exclaimed, “I remember the word I wanted to use earlier, the word that described what is missing in the current climate of Nicaragua: terror. That’s the word—terror. The difference today is not just the lessening of fear, but the absence of terror, like what many of us grew up with.”
I listened to Martínez describe the terror of the Nicaraguan past and my neck and jaw muscles tightened: reminders of the Salvadoran present, its foreseeable future, as well as its bloody past.
After the end of the Central American wars, in the early 1990s, the governments of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador implemented zero-tolerance police reform. With pressure on these countries from the US government, consultants got million-dollar contracts to implement the programs (former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani would eventually get one). For its part, Nicaragua found alternatives to what many consider the Frankenstein’s monster of violence and policing in Central America: mano dura policies in sentencing and imprisonment, which gave police enormous discretion in persecuting, jailing, and abusing suspected members.
“Instead of mano dura,” said Skarlleth Martínez (no relation to Argentina Martínez), a researcher in the democratic security program of the Institute for Strategic Studies and Public Policy (IEEPP), a think tank based in Managua, “Nicaragua chose a policing model that emphasized prevention, one that used the social fabric to involve the population in matters of security.”
Aiding the process, said Martínez, were nongovernmental organizations that rose out of the revolution like the Center for Prevention of Violence (CEPREV), which “played a historic role that supplemented community-based policing with several programs.” Many of these organizations were led by revolutionary women like CEPREV’s Monica Zalaquett, who understood the need to fundamentally alter Nicaraguan masculinity.
Today’s anti-violence forces find themselves navigating from an oppositional perspective, acknowledging the anti-violence gains while also being vigilant about ominous recent trends. Mary Ellsberg, founding director of the Global Women’s Institute of George Washington University, lived in Nicaragua from 1980 to 1998 and was a member of the Nicaraguan Network of Women against Violence in the 1990s. She is now finalizing a study about sexual and domestic violence in Nicaragua, a continuation of work she did 20 years ago. According to Ellsberg, “Women activists are very concerned by the closure of government programs to prevent violence against women and a general distancing of government from the women’s organizations that have done so much to help reduce crime, especially violence against women. These changes could lead to reversals of the great gains made over the last two decades.”
Such concerns, said, Skarlleth Martínez, make coordinated, continuing efforts ever more urgent. “More than anything,” said Martínez, “the collaboration between the police and the NGOs was the key to success in preventing the growth of Maras in Nicaragua. This worked well—until recently.”
Martínez and others remain on alert about the effects of the Sandinista government’s decision, around 2007, to slow and, in many cases, completely end the police collaborations with many NGOs; she believes this threatens Nicaragua’s ability to keep the country’s homicide rates low. When asked, “How much do you think conflicts and violence in the country have increased in the country in the last six months?” in a 2017 IEEPP study of Nicaraguan perceptions of political violence and citizen security, almost half of those polled responded “much.”
Martínez also expressed “concern” about trends—especially with respect to corruption of and repression by the police and military—that, she fears, may “return Nicaragua to a time when the line between police and political party are blurred.” To support her claim, Martínez cited reports that Sandinista party flags were being “incorporated into trainings of officials.” (Police and other government officials contacted for this article declined to comment.)
Martínez and others are also alarmed by recent incidents of police and military violence, including at marches last November and December, in which police shock units appear to have repressed and detained marchers. Even more disturbing, critics say, was a massacre in rural Nicaragua last November. Six people, including two adolescents, were killed by the military, which, according to domestic and international critics, has yet to sufficiently clarify the circumstances. The children’s mother has also called for an investigation of the killing and then burial in a mass grave of the children, their father, and three colleagues. Witnesses said the father and his colleagues, whom authorities suspected of being involved in illicit activities, got into a shootout with the military.
Back in Barrio Sandino, several homies had gathered in front of the rock-strewn front lawn of Bayardo Farga, a local OG, to talk about 20-something Julio Orozco’s recent run-in with police.
“What happened?” asked a tattooed Farga, while watching his son and daughter play with their puppy. Orozco and several homies had gathered around on the lawn.
“I was standing in front of a friend’s house,” said Orozco, pointing toward an area near the statue of Augusto César Sandino. “We were talking and chilling out with some friends. Somebody had a joint, but that was it. Suddenly these cops swoop down on us.”
“So what did you do?” asked Farga, who since leaving gang life has turned his colorful green-and-pink kiddie-poster plastered lamina home into a place for current and former gang youth to gather and talk—“a place where we try to change minds,” Farga calls it.
His kids stopped their playing when they noted the worried look on their father’s face. Farga had advised Orozco to leave his gang.
Orozco paused. Tears of anger filled his eyes. “This small police woman comes over and starts grabbing me. I said, ‘Hey, I’m not doing anything, What are you doing?’ She just said ‘Shut up!’ and started kicking me. Three times! The she started hitting me more!”
Farga put his hand on Orozco’s shoulder, clearly hoping that the incident with the cop hadn’t triggered Orozco’s macho button to the point of ruining months of counseling, training, and other services he and other had given him. Farga, a popular person who neighbors still call by his gang name, “Pacha,” felt Orozco’s plight deeply, knowing himself the enormous willpower it takes to leave a life in which one gains power by robbing, shooting, stabbing, and harassing people. He also knew that bad policing, like bad fathering, can plunge young men into deep pools of anger that can have fatal consequences.
“My body reacted. I wanted to hit her back. I wanted to hurt her real bad,” said Orozco. “But you know what?”
“No, what?” asked a nervous Farga.
“Even though the bruises still hurt, even though all the police have the problem of being violent, I didn’t do anything—and I won’t.”
”Good for you,” Farga said, the tightness on his face dissipating like morning fog.
“At least the cops also have a good focus on young people, helping parents, helping young people,” said Orozco. “They should keep doing that instead of treating us like animals. That other shit only gets you pissed off and doesn’t work.”
Looking northward, toward the still-bloodstained landscape of El Salvador, I silently agreed, holding back the tears.