MANAGUA, Nicaragua – Nicaragua is the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and, like its Central American neighbors, a transhipment point for cocaine headed to the United States.
But unlike El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala to the north, Nicaragua hasn’t sent a wave of children and teenagers fleeing north. Of the 62,998 unaccompanied children who’ve been detained at the U.S. border between Oct. 1 and the end of July, only 194 have been Nicaraguan, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection figures.
The reason? In part, it’s because that while Nicaragua is poor, it’s also the safest country in Central America. Nicaragua’s homicide rate is slightly lower than neighboring Costa Rica, a nation known as the Switzerland of Central America. Vicious transnational street gangs that have overwhelmed police forces elsewhere have no presence in Nicaragua.
Experts looking for why point to a national police force widely seen as more engaged with the citizenry – perhaps too much so, some might argue – than its counterparts elsewhere. They also point to a migration pattern different from that found in countries to the north. While Nicaraguans fled their homeland for the U.S. during the 1979-1990 Sandinista Revolution, they primarily settled in South Florida, where they were embraced by that region’s Cuban-Americans, who saw them as kindred refugees from communism, and where gangs such as Los Angeles’ notorious 18th Street weren’t active.
Today, Nicaraguans seeking opportunity are more likely to travel south, toward Costa Rica and Panama, than to make the dangerous and expensive journey north.
There’s virtually no extortion in Nicaragua from criminal gangs of the kind rampant in the Central American nations to the north, and crime syndicates have failed to permeate law enforcement and the military. According to the State Department’s 2014 drug enforcement report, the amount of cocaine transiting Nicaragua fell last year, from 9.7 tons seized in 2011 and 10.2 tons seized in 2012 to 3.3 tons in 2013.
Earlier this year, the United Nations Development Program reported that Nicaragua’s homicide rate had dropped to 8.7 per 100,000 inhabitants, below the 10.3 rate in Costa Rica, a nation that abolished its army in 1948 and has become a beacon of neutrality. Honduras, which tallies 92 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, has the highest murder rate in the world. El Salvador’s is 69 per 100,000 residents and Guatemala’s 39 per 100,000.
Nicaraguan officials credit a community-oriented style of policing that puts officers on beats across the country, talking constantly with the citizenry.
With their sky-blue uniforms, police are a common sight knocking on doors of private homes.
Fully 43 percent of the force is female, said Juan Pablo Gordillo, a citizen security specialist with the U.N. Development Program.
“You see it day by day. One or two police officers going door to door just to visit, asking about the situation in the neighborhood,” Gordillo said.
Monica Zalaquett, director of the Center for the Prevention of Violence, fretted that groups that work directly with at-risk youths are facing new pressures from the Sandinista government, including funding cuts from foreign donors afraid to cross President Daniel Ortega and his wife.
“They keep shutting the doors on civil society,” said Zalaquett, noting what a program officer heard at a recent neighborhood meeting.
“She said the political chiefs of the barrio said I could keep working with you but I have to tell them everything,” Zalaquett recalled.