• A version of this post ran on the author's site, Insightcrime.com. The views expressed are the author's own.
Nicaragua’s popular police chief has warned that gangs from its crime-ridden neighbors in the “Northern Triangle” (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) could move south, but it could be Nicaragua’s successful anti-gang policies that are exported northwards.
Police director Aminta Granera said recently (link in Spanish) that “mara” gangs from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras could move south, bringing the violence of the Northern Triangle to Nicarauga. She added that the Central America border control agreement, which established free movement of citizens between these four countries without visas, could pose a risk to security.
Granera’s fears about the northern frontier make sense -- Nicaragua shares a border with the most dangerous country in the world, Honduras, where at least some of the violence is driven by violent youth gangs like the Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13) and Barrio 18. The fact that these groups have not made serious inroads into Nicaragua is often cited as the reason for its far lower rates of violence. In 2010, the Northern Triangle countries all saw rates of more than 40 murders per 100,000. Last year, while Guatemala dropped below the 40 per 100,000 mark, Honduras and El Salvador saw rates climb to 86 and 70, respectively. In 2010, Nicaragua had a murder rate of 14 per 100,000, putting it some six times lower than neighboring Honduras' rate today.
Despite Granera’s concerns about border control, the Northern Triangle gangs have not been kept out by passport checks, but by social and institutional structures within Nicaragua. It is possible that, rather than the Northern Triangle exporting its gangs south, Nicaragua could export its successful anti-gang programs north.
For the Central American Security Conference held in Guatemala in June last year, Granera was asked to give a presentation on Nicaragua’s policing model to the delegates. "Nicaragua could be a citizen security model for the other countries of Central America to imitate" newspaper El Nuevo Diaro reported proudly that month (in Spanish).
Granera recommends that the northern countries bring in crime prevention schemes, rather than focusing on repressive policies. She is closely associated with her country's security strategy, having been chief of police since 2006, and a member of the force since 1990. For Granera, programs to combat youth violence, rehabilitate criminals and build institutions are urgently needed in the Northern Triangle countries. She has said that because of the situation in these countries the authorities are not thinking about these kind of crime prevention policies, which have an impact in the medium and long term, due to the pressing need to confront crime in the short term.
“Our policing model is a model that is preventative, proactive, communitarian, deeply rooted in the heart of the community, and I think that that is its greatest strength, and that is what makes the difference,” she told the press last year (in Spanish). The force was created after the Sandinistas took power in 1979, replacing the National Guard of the Somoza regime, and police officials like to say that it arose from the people, and has maintained a close connection with them (in Spanish).
Some voices have highlighted structural advantages in the Nicaraguan security forces. Francisco Javier Bautista Lara, former deputy director of the force, has pointed to institutional factors as one of the reasons for its security successes, saying that both the army and the police have a high degree of stability compared to other countries in the region (link in Spanish). He cited Guatemala as a country with a particularly high rate of turnover in police leadership, which means that there is less continuity in policies, and prevents office-holders from building up experience.
He also said that a factor in the success of the Nicaraguan model is that decisions on leadership and promotions were not influenced by political considerations, making the police force more professional and free from outside influences. This statement is extremely dubious, given the highly-charged atmosphere of Nicaraguan politics. Indeed, Bautista’s own promotion to deputy director in 2001, by then-President Arnoldo Aleman, was described by some as a product of his loyalty to the authorities rather than his professional achievements.
Granera’s position has also been closely linked to the country's turbulent politics, with US cables released by WikiLeaks revealing deep divisions between her and the president. In a 2009 cable embassy staff posited that Ortega keeping Granera in the post might be a way to “keep his friends close and his enemies closed away,” to prevent her from emerging as a political rival. Her re-appointment as police chief in 2011 was surrounded by questions over the political motives, with speculation that Granera, who herself fought with the Sandinista guerrillas in the 1970s, had made some sort of deal with Ortega.
It seems safe to say, then, that insulation from politics is not a factor behind the success of Nicaragua’s security policies.
Granera also highlights the police's strong intelligence networks around the Gulf of Fonseca, which it shares with Honduras and El Salvador, and their close tracking of individuals deported from the US. The US policy of deporting suspected criminals to their countries of origin was one of the things that caused the Los Angeles-based MS-13 and Barrio 18 to expand in the Northern Triangle countries in the 1990s. Many Nicaraguan immigrants, by contrast, went to Costa Rica or to Miami, which did not have LA’s pervasive gang problem, and so there were fewer criminals deported.
Whatever the reasons for Nicaragua's success, the world is starting to pay attention. Panama, Venezuela and Peru have sought security advice, while Granera has been invited to explain Nicaragua’s security model to the European Union. Honduran President Porfirio Lobo recently paid a visit to Managua to discuss issues of organized crime and violence, and said that he was especially interested in Nicaragua’s social policies; "It’s very important for us to know their experiences.” Granera, who attended another security conference in Panama this week, said that Nicaragua had been described as a "new security paradigm."
However, there are many factors in bringing about Nicaragua’s security situation that cannot be exported. One factor highlighted by InSight Crime is the role of community ties in preventing the transnational maras from taking root, with one being the “neighborhood watch” style organizations left over from the socialist revolution. And the countries of the Northern Triangle are not all looking to Nicaragua for ideas. Both El Salvador and Guatemala have recently moved to institute more hardline policies against gangs, centering on repressive measures rather than the prevention and rehabilitation that Granera calls for.
– 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.