(IPS) – The so-called “Northern Triangle” of Central America, plagued by poverty, violence and the legacy of civil war, is considered one of the most violent areas in the world. But neighbouring Nicaragua has largely escaped the spiralling violence, and many wonder how it has managed to do so.
There are undoubtedly a number of reasons that crime rates are so much lower in Nicaragua than in its three neighbours to the north – El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – but analysts and experts point to two fundamental aspects: community policing and greater social cohesion.
In the view of Helen Mack, the head of the Myrna Mack Foundation, a Guatemala City-based human rights organisation, the focus taken by Nicaragua’s police force “makes a huge difference.”
“The three countries of the Northern Triangle are influenced by the United States, and the police have played a supporting role to the army, protecting the state by means of repression. Meanwhile, the Nicaraguans, after the (1979) revolution, based their police forces on the Cuban model, which is focused on the community,” said the activist, whose group is pushing for police reforms in Guatemala.
On Jul. 19, 1979, the left-wing Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) overthrew the regime of General Anastasio Somoza, putting an end to the nearly half-century Somoza family dictatorship.
One of the main achievements of the revolution was increased citizen participation, aimed at strengthening economic, social, political and cultural rights.
During the years of fighting the Somoza dynasty, the Sandinistas created the Civil Defence Committees. Once the FSLN seized power, these gave way to the Sandinista Defence Committees – neighbourhood watch structures – which evolved in 1988 into the Nicaraguan Communal Movement.
In addition, the “proactive community police” were created in 1979, based on strategic relations with the community and a crime prevention approach.
The Sandinistas were defeated at the polls in 1990, voted out of office by a population exhausted by economic hardship and by the war against the “Contras”, a counter-revolutionary force led by former Somocistas that was largely financed, armed, trained and organised by the United States.
But Mack said the police in Nicaragua maintained their crime prevention role and close ties to the community, by contrast with the Northern Triangle countries, where repressive policies have prevailed.
El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are now overrun with youth gangs and organised crime, and human rights groups warn that death squads made up of off-duty members of the police and military are active.
According to the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Central American Human Development Report 2009-2010, the Northern Triangle countries have some of the highest murder rates in the world: 52 homicides per 100,000 population in El Salvador, 48 per 100,000 in Guatemala, and 58 per 100,000 in Honduras.
This is in comparison to 13 per 100,000 in Nicaragua, a Latin America average of 25 per 100,000, and a global average of nine per 100,000.
One key factor in the social conflicts is the high levels of poverty, which stand at 60 percent in Honduras, 50 percent in Guatemala, 37 percent in El Salvador, and 45 percent in Nicaragua, according to official figures.
But in Nicaragua, “the structures of social cohesion left by the revolution, and the training received by the Nicaraguan police, based on the principle of service to society, have played a key role,” Arturo Chub with the Guatemala-based non-governmental Association for the Study and Promotion of Security in Democracy (SEDEM) told IPS.
In the Northern Triangle countries, on the other hand, the police and the justice systems have been politicised, the expert said.
There are holdovers in the three countries from the Cold War-era armed conflicts, which broke down the social fabric and deepened poverty.
The conflicts between government forces and left-wing guerrillas left 250,000 people dead or “disappeared” between 1960 and 1996 in Guatemala and 75,000 dead and 8,000 “disappeared” between 1980 and 1992 in El Salvador.
Honduras did not suffer a civil war of its own as it remained directly aligned with and subordinate to the interests of the United States, and no armed opposition movements managed to organise in its territory. But at least 184 Hondurans were forcibly disappeared in the 1980s. In addition, southern Honduras became a staging area for the “Contra” troops.
Jeannette Aguilar, director of the University Public Opinion Institute (IUDOP) at the José Simeón Cañas Central American University in El Salvador, told IPS that a crime prevention rather than repressive approach on the part of the police, along with a stronger social fabric and sense of community, were essential to Nicaragua’s much lower crimes rates.
In addition, there are lower levels of inequality and marginalisation in Nicaragua, and fewer firearms, the expert said.
“There have been youth gangs in Nicaragua for 30 years, but they have not evolved or mutated in the same manner into criminal structures as the gangs in the countries of the Northern Triangle,” she said.
Roberto Orozco, at the Institute for Strategic Studies and Public Policies (IEEPP) in Nicaragua, told IPS that the community policing approach and the peace process, in which the two sides engaged in talks and agreed to respect the agreement that put an end to the “Contra” war, were vital to achieving security in the country.
“Since the early 1980s, Nicaragua has implemented a policing model which recruits new police from the communities themselves. The police are from the neighbourhood and know all of the families, and the communities know them. This model, which forges links of trust, has been maintained and strengthened, and is now bringing results,” he said.
Nicaragua also has a model of political participation in which all of the political actors resolve conflicts with a sort of “open door policy,” Orozco said.
Francisco Bautista, a former Managua assistant police chief who is a consultant on security issues, believes the economy has also had an influence in keeping crime levels relatively low.
“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,” he told IPS.
He added, however, that violence in Nicaragua has grown “alarmingly” in recent years, with the homicide rate jumping from nine per 100,000 population in 2002 to 13 per 100,000 in 2008.
*With reporting by José Adán Silva in Managua.