Sitting in a plastic chair behind the fence of his tin house along a nameless dirt road, a scar-faced Leónidas Cruz López does the math of his former life.
“When we first started gang-banging,” López laughs, “we used a cheap, homemade shotgun that would sometimes get stuck during shootouts.” Then it was pistols. Then semiautomatic weapons. “We robbed an average of nine people per day.”
Most of the money was spent on marijuana and crack. He also used the money to travel to neighboring Honduras and El Salvador, where he hung out with a relative who was in the gang MS-13.
Three years ago, after a close friend was murdered, López quit the gang life. It took therapy, job training, and assistance from a non-governmental organization. It took willpower, above all else. He’s now a chauffeur in Managua. Life is peaceful.
Nicaragua is an odd oasis in Latin America. The volcanic ground is still saturated with the blood from the wars of the 1980s, the barrio sewers smell foul as any. Yet the smell of death is far less common in the country with one of the lowest homicide rates in the hemisphere. This despite the fact that two of Nicaragua’s three closest neighbors are among the most dangerous nations on the planet.
Decades of experimental policies have kept the murder rate low, a mixture of leftist social policies, women’s empowerment, and community-minded policing. But now, some of the programs that originally helped knit together communities to keep the killing down have been cut. That’s raised a tricky question: Was the societal change that curbed crime permanent or temporary?
When New York City abandoned the hardline police tactic of stop-and-frisk, conservatives warned crime would skyrocket. Instead it fell further. Nicaragua, for its part, may soon find out what happens when community-based anti-crime measures are downsized or done away with altogether.
The question of which policies best tamp down gang warfare remains an urgent one in Central America — and all the more so as Washington takes steps to deport immigrants who have fled natural disasters and extreme violence that still plague much of the region. The Trump administration’s recent decision to cancel the temporary protected status program for 2,500 Nicaraguans and 200,000 El Salvadorans and delay a decision on 86,000 Hondurans threatens to intensify the poverty and violence that have historically increased with waves of deportations from the United States.
As this migration back to Central America proceeds, reducing gang violence becomes an even more critical challenge for the region.
Looking back on his run as a gangster, López says he was “never scared.” But asked about his time in Honduras and El Salvador, he leans back in his plastic chair and rolls his eyes. “We’ll rob you here, but over there they’ll rob and then shoot you, even if you give up the money. Those . . . places scare me.”
The disparity between Nicaragua and its two troubled neighbors to the northwest is odd, especially when measured against quality-of-life indicators — gross national income, education, and life expectancy — all of which are fairly equal between the three Central American countries. Honduras has a homicide rate of 59 per 100,000 residents; and El Salvador, 81.2. Even Costa Rica, the richer, whiter “Switzerland of Central America,” has a homicide rate of 11.8 per 100,000. That’s nearly double poorer, more diverse Nicaragua at 6 per 100,000. The US rate is 5.3 per 100,000.
The government eagerly touts the low murder rate, and some 86 percent of Nicaraguans recently told pollsters that they felt secure in their neighborhoods. And that was in a study conducted by the Institute for Strategic Studies and Public Policy — a fierce critic of the current government.
No one political party, government, or sector of society can claim sole credit for this security exceptionalism. Rather, it is the result of a confluence of social forces and government policies — a unity of effort that critics worry may be coming unspun.
Explanations vary, but the roots of the country’s low homicide rate seem to lie in Nicaraguan history. Florida International University researcher José Miguel Cruz, one of the world’s leading experts on gangs and violence in Central America, says the difference lies more specifically in how “the Sandinista revolution in the late 1970s did away with the Somoza regime’s police, the violent Guardia Nacional [who] used to repress the population. The revolution wiped out that policing establishment. That process did not occur in the rest of Central America.”
In addition to introducing an alternative policing model that differed markedly from the “zero tolerance” US-style models adopted across the region, the Sandinistas also introduced a focus on fostering a culture of nonviolence. In both areas, a generation of women were — and remain — instrumental to making Nicaragua far less deadly than its neighbors.
While these efforts are credited with keeping homicides down, Nicaragua’s fight for gender equity has a very long way to go indeed — the country ranks fourth in the world for most reported incidents of rape. Amnesty International found that half of all rape victims in the country were under the age of 14, a major factor in why the teen pregnancy rate is one of the highest in the world. Studies estimate that half of women in Nicaragua have experienced domestic violence during their lifetimes.
Monica Zalaquett has spent a lifetime fighting violence in all its forms and still considers herself a revolutionary. She’s the director of the Center for the Prevention of Violence, an award-winning organization that provides service programs and training throughout Central America.
From its crowded office in the hills just above Barrio Sandino, Zalaquett says one of the ideas critical to leading López and thousands of others out of a life of violence is fundamentally altering notions of masculinity.
She opens a comic book, titled “How does machismo affect men?” The center has used it in thousands of classes since its founding in 1997. The book contains pictures of males from childhood to adulthood, many of which include violence — a father beating a mother, a man beating a child, a young man dressed in a gang outfit stabbing another man. The drawings are accompanied by text explaining things like “unmet emotional needs,” “compulsive sexuality,” and other issues.
“We walk people through lessons like these in which we explore what it means to be a woman and a man,” Zalaquett says.
It sounds idealistic, like a Jedi mind trick. But it works on gangsters and does so in ways that resemble the evangelical conversion that has also turned many away from violence. Organizations like hers have helped dismantle more than 120 gangs through classes reaching more than 80,000 men. “We just returned from a prison in El Salvador,” she says. “Even the guards and the warden participated. Some of them even cried alongside hardened gang members.”
The programs work with what she calls a “psycho-social approach emphasizing the transformation of authoritarian familial relations into more democratic familial relations.” This approach recognizes the dramatic changes wrought by globalization — the destruction of rural economies, rural to urban migration, migration north, high male unemployment, increased female employment — to traditional family structures. “The crisis pushed women to public life but has not adjusted men to private life of the home,” she says. As a result, she adds, men are undergoing a “crisis of masculinity that leads young men into violent gangs following the wars.”
In the early 1990s, many young men with gang affiliations were deported from the United States back to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Gang activity skyrocketed. In response, those countries doubled down on “mano dura” policing — the phrase means “hard hand” — that swept generations of people into prisons.
Nicaragua’s decision to create alternative policing models did much to avoid a similarly violent surge. Between 2014 and 2016, Nicaragua even released 80 percent of its prison population and the murder rate declined further still.
The government’s early openness to an innovative approach to violence prevention stemmed from the youth of Sandinista leaders themselves, all of whom were designated “delinquents” by the Somoza regime. Their community-based policing includes sector chiefs who consult regularly with the community, extensive and regular training, sponsoring sports and other programs, and the creation of a police agency that provides job training and other services to at-risk youth.
Traditionally, the police under Sandinista and non-Sandinista governments have also worked closely with social service organizations to provide the training and services. But that’s a practice that activists say the Sandinista government has now curtailed. Since 2007, the government began placing limits on philanthropic international aid to Nicaraguan service organizations. Meanwhile, numerous international aid agencies have ceased or drastically reduced operations, resulting in a sharp drop in donations to religious and nongovernmental organizations from $266 million in 2007 to $74 million in 2014, according to data collected by the Central Bank of Nicaragua. Numerous government officials contacted to discuss this story declined to respond.
Faced with cuts, organizations are downsizing. Zalaquett cut her staff of 32 to four.
The cuts risk more than just an end to the anti-gang effort. “The least fortunate of Nicaraguan society appreciate the secure environment in Nicaragua. So does the private sector, which feels that their investments are safe here,” says Arturo Cruz, a historian at the Central American Institute of Business Administration and former anti-Sandinista who went on to become Daniel Ortega’s ambassador to Washington.
Zalaquett and others are also worried by two events this fall, including clashes with the police at a women’s march and the deaths of six people at the hands of the military under questionable circumstances.
For the time being, however, Nicaragua continues to enjoy a low homicide rate, a fact that men like former gang member Bayardo Farga speak about in nearly religious terms.
“I thought love was something they were using to trick me to get out of gang life. But I was still curious,” says Farga, a former gang member and drug dealer who, before leaving his gang, stabbed his stepfather on two different occasions.
“Pretty soon I started believing them,” says Farga, who is raising two kids in Barrio Sandino. Farga asked his stepfather for forgiveness and has, he says, “made peace with Nicaragua.”Roberto Lovato is a writer and journalist working out of the San Francisco Writers Grotto.