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 , Guest blogger

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.

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.

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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.

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 groups

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.

The big drug cartels do business in Nicaragua, and drugs have been transported in large quantities from South to North America via Nicaragua, particularly the Caribbean coastline, for at least three decades. However, the country has had its own traffickers that handle this business, generally working under orders of foreign groups. Nicaraguan authorities have reported the capture of Zetas members in the country within the last two years, but its not clear how far these were really integral members of the organization.

Up to this point, transnational groups have not had a good reason to set up shop in Nicaragua. The country is small and, as InSight Crime has noted, has tended to be a territory that drug shipments pass straight through, rather than being stockpiled or changing hands. Nicaragua’s poverty may even be a factor saving it from penetration by international drug cartels; security expert and former police chief Francisco Bautista told IPS that, "Our economy represents a mere six percent of Central America's GDP, and this is not of strategic interest for organised crime, which is used to moving money around in strong economies where they can camouflage money laundering and weapons purchases."

According to some analysts, this could be changing. For Monica Zalaquett, head of Managua-based NGO CEPREV, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama still have less violence than their northern counterparts, but they are on the same path. “What is really important is not that Nicaragua has less violence than its neigbors to the north, but that it has more than in previous years," she said in a recent interview with El Faro.

The Nicaraguan Instituto de Estudios Estrategicos y Politicas Publicas (IEEPP) warned last year that organized crime is beginning to sink its claws into the country: "organized crime is established, it already has logistical networks, support networks, that are penetrating institutions or exploring." The think tank highlighted a growing presence of Mexican cartels, which it said was encouraging the growth of local trafficking structures.

The Zetas are an expansionist group, and are present over Nicaragua's northern border in Honduras. If and when they decide to move into Nicaragua, the security situation could rapidly grow worse.

--- Hannah Stone is a writer for Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region. Find all of her research here.

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