It sounds reasonable to assume that a high crime rate correlates with political, economical, and social turbulence. But Nicaragua, a country lying in the center of Central America, defies this apparent logic. Despite its reputation as the second poorest country in the western hemisphere, Nicaragua has made remarkable strides in public security compared to its regional neighbors, the Northern Triangle– El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. In 2012, the homicide rate in Nicaragua was 11.3 per 100,000 persons, less than one-third of the rates seen for its three northern neighbors.
Nicaragua’s public safety profile is an even bigger surprise once you consider its economic, political, and geographical reality. As mentioned, Nicaragua’s living standard is one of the lowest among its regional neighbors with almost half the population in unemployment and homelessness. The wage rate for police officers, set at $120 a month, as well as their availability, 18 per 10,000 persons, is just as bad as the country’s poverty level. Politically, it has only been forty years since the revolutionary knock-over of the Somoza family dictatorship, and the foreign-intervened guerilla war against the subsequent authoritarian Sandinista regime. Such a short history of recovery is a fair enough excuse for Nicaragua to have security irregularities as past remains. What takes people aback the most is probably that Nicaragua has eschewed violence by drug traffickers and youth gangs like the MARAS or BARRIOS that have defined Central and South America for centuries. While Nicaragua shares a border with Honduras, a country pegged as one of the most dangerous areas in the world with the largest presence of the Maras, it has little identified indigenous terrorism and organized crimes.
It is neither stellar sociopolitical stability nor geographic prerogative that undergirds Nicaragua’s peace-mongering environment. Then, what? The most sounding answer lies in “preventive, proactive, community-oriented police model.”
Four decades of civil war the in Northern Triangle occurred at the end of the twentieth century, though they all differed in intensity, nature, and longevity. These conflicts caused these nations to develop national security policies that engagee the military in reactionary and repressive fashion. In contrast to their iron-fist policies, Nicaragua’s police system, while still retaining the pattern of military engagement in public security, proactively seeks to create a safe social environment. For example, the Nicaragua National Police (PNN) has created specialist bodies for youth violence and intra-family and sexual violence, which take up 20% of the national crime rate. These bodies carry out comprehensive three stage responses – transforming local environments, cooperating with local NGOs and health centers for victim support, and vocational training and education.
Even more telling of the country’s success, is the community-oriented aspect of the police model. A 1995 Constitutional Reform has given the PNN its own General Directorate and greater independence, which allows it freedom from political games. Under the centralized leadership, its operation is enrooted in a strong police-society partnership in a decentralized manner. There are usually broad channels of communication with local residents such as community assemblies and direct linkages with the people. In each district, there is a sector police chief, responsible for paying door-to-door visits to residents, building close ties with them, and inviting them for neighborhood watch activities. Among 100,000 volunteers nationwide assisting the PNN in both crime detection and victim support are some professionals like law and psychology students, as well as some experienced former gang members and victims of violence, and NGOs. The fact that Nicaragua has social culture of parochialism and small-township, resulting in close community ties, complements the picture.
Nicaragua is not completely spared from the threats of violence. There are still 25,000 or so youth gangs. They are small in scale and often do not have foreign connections. But it is a logical sequence that the Mara gangs, contained in the North for now, may move south and reach these youths, especially at the wake of the Central America border control agreement which allows free movement of citizens between Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Threats from a Mexican Mob, the Zetas cannot be ignored, as well. The persistence of low income, high poverty level further “legitimizes” participation in cocaine smuggling and investments. Above all, fraud in 2008 municipal elections, and the Police Directorate’s neglect of the limit on a five-year term, a writ-large departure from democratic order, pose a greatest disturbance to the philosophy of the country’s legal system.
Nicaragua has done a fair job so far, fair enough for the neighboring countries to learn from, though not replicate, its police model. Whether it will continue to be exemplary depends first on the collective effort by its regional partners to contain and ultimately eradicate organized crime groups. What remains of greater importance is to strive to live by a pillar that ensures equality of all people both politically and economically.