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How Nicaragua has been spared Central America's crime wave – so far

Nicaragua has one of the region's lowest murder rates, in part because its gangs are small-time and transnational cartels haven't moved in. But that may be changing as the Zetas are expand south.

By Hannah StoneGuest blogger / September 16, 2011



Nicaragua, along with its neighbors Panama and Costa Rica, is often described as a country that dodged the wave of organized crime violence swamping Central America, but that could be about to change.

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The numbers are clear; Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, the three nations in the “Northern Triangle,” all had murder rates of more than 40 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2010, with Honduras on course for a staggeringly high rate of 86 per 100,000 this year. Meanwhile the three countries to the south all kept their rates below 25. Nicaragua, despite being the poorest nation in the isthmus, has one of the lowest murder rates, at 14.

Many theories put forward to explain this revolve around the work of the authorities to stop youth gangs forming and becoming violent. This is attributed to the legacy of socialist structures put in place during the Sandinista revolution, with “neighborhood watch” organizations that still persist today, and community-based police forces focused on crime prevention.

Nicaragua does not have a significant presence of the biggest, and most notorious, Central American gangs – the Mara Salvatrucha 13, or MS-13, and Barrio 18, or M-18. These both have many members in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, as well as in the US. Part of the reason for their presence in these countries, and not in Nicaragua (or its neighbors in the southern part of the isthmus), is migration patterns. Large numbers of people emigrated from the Northern Triangle countries to the US in the 1980s and 1990s, often settling in Los Angeles. Here, some young people formed self-protection gangs, which morphed over time into large-scale criminal organizations like MS-13 and M-18. These structures were exported to the northern half of Central America in the 1990s, via the US policy of deporting convicted gang members after they had served terms in prison.

With Nicaragua, on the other hand, large numbers of emigrants opted for Costa Rica, while those who moved to the US tended to settle in Miami, which did not have L.A.’s pervasive gang culture.

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