While Central America is regarded as one of the most dangerous regions in the world for murder and violent crime, Nicaragua for a number of years has proven an exception in the region. While Nicaragua had a murder rate of just over 11 people per 100,000, according to UNODC’s latest homicide report from 2013, in comparison to the so-called northern triangle countries, Honduras had a much higher rate of 90.4 people per 100,000, with El Salvador 41.2 and Guatemala 39.9.
Panama, traditionally considered one of the safest countries in the region had a rate of 17.2 and Costa Rica had a rate of 8.5. Recent estimates from this year have put Nicaragua’s murder rate at around eight per 100,000 people.
But Nicaragua is Poor, That Should Mean High Crime and Insecurity Right?
Nicaragua has the lowest per capita GDP in central America, according to 2015 data from the World Bank. Nevertheless, the country’s economy has been steadily growing and inequality has been improving. National GDP is expected to grow by over four percent in 2017, according to FocusEconomics. The growth rate in the income or consumption of the bottom 40 percent of the population was 4.71 percent from 2009-2014, according to World Bank inequality data.
Inequality and social exclusion, as opposed to total wealth, are viewed as one of the key factors that drive violence and crime. Sandinista reform has had a clear goal of reducing inequality through investment in education, social services, local infrastructure, and healthcare.
Greater social cohesion can help reduce some of the breeding grounds of marginalization and crime. Nicaragua has been able to do so while having one of the lowest police budgets and lowest police per population within Latin America.
Nicaragua's small economy may also be useful in disincentivizing criminal networks operating within the country compared to others in the region.
What About Gangs?
Fortunately, Nicaragua has been spared much of the gang violence synonymous with its northern triangle neighbors. Gangs such as Barrio 18 and the Mara Salvatrucha MS13, who with their tracing back to Los Angeles, have been notorious throughout the region have had a limited presence in Nicaragua.
The U.S. deported large numbers of gang members back to Central America, particularly to the northern triangle countries. But many Nicaraguan migrants chose to flee to other parts and therefore have had less contact with these gangs. Many Nicaraguans were legally welcomed by the Reagan administration, who was waging a war on the Sandinistas in the country.
Speaking to teleSUR, Susan Lagos, who lives on a farm with her husband Walter in Ciudad Darío around 50 miles from the capital Managua, spoke of the history of conflict in the country, where there is a desire for peace without “the ambiance of these young men making trouble like there once was.”
“When those young men (gang members) try to come across the border, people immediately say something to police and they scoop them up and they either try to reform them or send them back or do whatever they can with them.”
Again, a community-based approach in relation to gangs has been operating, where police sponsor meetings with the help of social workers, the community and family meetings with rival gangs. The idea being that current and potential gang members can reconcile differences, move toward peace and be helped to move away from a life of crime.
“The key word and the antidote for for gangs is inclusion and we're are going to treat them with inclusion, rather than repression,” said Police Chief Aminta Granera speaking to Insightcrime in 2012.
Under Granera's reign, police have also taken a direct approach to gangs through surveillance and the targeting of gang operations, particularly foreign-based organizations operating in Nicaragua who have been tracked by authorities, particularly around the Gulf of Fonseca. She claimed that the Mexican-based Sinaloa Cartel, who were operating along Nicaragua's Pacific coast, were “one we hit the hardest.”
Changing the Focus of Police Work
Nicaragua's police force has gone through a number of important changes since the 1990’s. After Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas were defeated in the 1990 election, then president Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, helped to bring peace to the country and end the “contra wars.”
She also initiated a modernization program of the police as well as the purging of a number of key figures that were viewed by her administration as corrupt.
When Daniel Ortega regained power with the Sandinistas in 2007, more community-based policing programs were adopted—in stark contrast to the kind of "Mano Dura" (Strong Hand) policies common throughout the rest of Latin America.
Notable police-sponsored community programs include organizing employment and education for youth deemed at risk, coming from disadvantaged backgrounds and violent neighborhoods. With the backing of local leaders police have run social and community events to bring people together such as football tournaments. Police have also been active in supporting drug rehabilitation programs for many that are at risk, or have already had trouble with the law.
Reforming Overcrowded Prisons
Between Oct. 2014 and the start of 2016, Nicaragua is estimated to have released a staggering 80 percent of its prison population. Thousands who were locked up for minor offenses were given conditional release sentences, in a bid to not only address chronic overcrowding but as a humanitarian policy to help reunite Nicaraguan families.
While jailing low-level offenders, particularly for drug offenses, can offer a level of protection to society by taking criminals off the street, it can prove very counterproductive as a whole. Prisons are regarded as an archetype of what criminologists refer to as “criminogenic environments.”
That is, through the close association of disadvantaged people in the same space, prisons can breed further crime and violence inside and outside prison walls. Young and impressionable youth can enter prison on a low-level offense and be released into society as hardened and learned criminals.
Many countries in Latin America, and indeed the U.S. have been plagued by overcrowded prisons, which can also have a devastating effect on the rest of society. Those on the outside, particularly children, struggle to cope with the loss of friends and family members.
Land Reform Providing Peace and Stability
During the Somoza dictatorship land ownership across the country was concentrated mainly within the Somoza family and the upper class. Working class people had very little protection from having their land being taken away during the Somoza years.
As part of the peace process initiated by Chamorro, Sandinista and Contra fighters were initially offered plots of land in exchange for laying down their arms. When Ortega won back power in 2007, more were given titles to their land.
“Veterans of the Contra War as far as we can see have now all been given a plot to live on, both excontras and excompas,” said Walter Lagos, who was a former soldier in the Sandinista army.
Despite a number of difficulties over changing titles to properties, often with multiple owners, land reform has generally been seen to have brought a level of post-conflict stability.