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.
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These social factors go a long way towards explaining why Nicaragua has less violence than the Northern Triangle. However, youth gangs do exist in Nicaragua, particularly in urban areas, with some estimating that there are up to 25,000 gang members in the country. A more crucial difference may be in their type – they tend to be smaller scale and locally based, without links to groups in other parts of the country, and much less to foreign groups. They generallly lack close links with the Central American “maras,” like MS-13 and M-18, but more importantly they do not have ties to international drug trafficking organizations. As USAID puts it “For the most part, gangs in Nicaragua are small youth gangs that are territorial in nature, concerned with wealth accumulation, and involved in petty crime.” Besides the social factors, one reason for this is the work of the Nicaraguan police to keep out foreign groupsSkip to next paragraph
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James Bosworth, of Bloggings by Boz, highlights the absence of the Zetas as a major contributor to Nicaragua’s relative peace. The Zetas, who first sprung up as the armed wing of Mexico’s Gulf Cartel, have since become independent and moved much of their operations into Guatemala, especially since 2008. (See InSight Crime’s special on the Zetas in Guatemala). Going south brings the group a step closer to South America – the source of drugs – giving them greater control over the supply chain, and a bigger share of the profits. Meanwhile, Guatemala’s weaker government and more permissive environment allows them to operate with greater impunity.
The Zetas have also begun to establish links in El Salvador, prompting President Mauricio Funes to warn last year that the group had sent exploratory missions into the country to seek links with local trafficking groups. The group’s presence is stronger in Honduras, where they have been ramping up operations since 2006, and now control an increasing amount of the cocaine trade through that country, managing the local traffickers, according to a report from the Wilson Center. The Honduran government has said that the Zetas are working with the Honduran branches of Barrio 18.
Nicaragua would be the logical next stop on the Zetas’ journey south. The group pose a great danger to the countries they occupy because they tend to employ a “take no prisoners” mode of operating, preferring violence and territorial domination to forming links and alliances with existing groups.