Youth and gangs in Nicaragua

by Karla Jacobs, June 3rd 2011

According to recent National Police stastistics approximately 3,000 children, adolescents and young adults belong to gangs in Nicaragua. The police classify these groups in two categories: a) Groups of Young People at Risk and b) Youth Gangs or Pandillas, the former being less well organized and less likely to be involved in criminal activity than the latter.

Despite the relatively small number of gang members at a national level, it would not be unfair to suggest that the phenomenon of the “pandillas” or groups of young people involved in violent and criminal acts actually impacts the lives of a significant proportion of Nicaraguan society in one way or another, especially the lives of residents in marginalized city neighboorhoods “barrios.” 

In fact it is possible to argue that issues surrounding the presence of “pandillas” in the country have actually become one of the main sources of discordance within Nicaraguan society given the tendency among citizens to blame their perception of high levels of insecurity in towns and cities acorss the country on “pandillas,” something which, in many areas, has lead to the adoption of discriminatory attitudes towards young people in general.

The spiralling levels of extreme violence which other Central American nations have suffered as a result of the inadequate management of gangs is widely documented. Nicaragua, on the other hand, despite presenting similar adverse social and economic conditions to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, has been able to contain the levels of crime and violence associated with the “pandillas” and, happily, maintains its status as the safest country in Central America.   

To a large extent this can be put down to the success of the National Police's approach to the groups of young people involved to a greater or lesser extent in criminal and violent activity. In 2003 the National Police set up a special department within the instiution called the Department of Youth Affairs (DAJUV) to coordinate the transformation of police management of youth gangs based on preventive measures. The work of DAJUV has been widely praised and acknowledged by different international organizations and agencies as a model to be imitated in the rest of the region. 

One of the most successful experiences registered by DAJUV in terms of preventing gang crime and violence has been the experience reported in the northern city of Matagalpa where a strong alliance has been forged between DAJUV and a grassroots youth movement called “Recreación Sana” (Wholesome Recreation) which works with hundreds of at risk young people in marginalized areas of the city.  

While in 2000 there were around 19 youth gangs with roughly 500 active members who were regularly involved in violent crime in the city of Matagalpa, today according to the local police authorities, there are no gangs in the province.

Captain Liduvina Morales, founder of DAJUV in the department of Matagalpa, and Jairo Rivas Blanchard, a former gang leader and founder of “Recreación Sana,” spoke to about their work in Matagalpa, which serves as an example, not just for Nicaragua, but for the whole of Latin America.

The Integrated Approach of the Department of Youth Affairs

Testimony by Captain Liduvina Morales:
The work of the Department of Youth Affairs is based on the philosophy that preventive measures including the provision of training, support and counselling for young people involved in gangs is more effective that the implementation of repressive measures.
It is important to emphasize that the vast majority of gang members are themselves victims of violence in the home. They provoke violence in the streets, but they also receive violence at home. In other words violence has become part of their identity. It feels natural to them to use and propagate violence as a defense mechanism. They form gangs in order to feel stronger, more powerful, and to protect themselves from the adversities of our society. 

Another factor which plays an important role in the tendency for young people to form or join gangs is the economic migration of their parents. Very often you will find that gang members were not brought up by their own parents but by their grandparents, an aunt or uncle, or even by a neighbour. And even if a grandmother, or an aunt, or a neighbour tries hard to do their best bringing up someone else's children, rarely are they able to provide all the care and attention the children need.

Taking into account these social factors, DAJUV has developed a working plan in which we meet with gang members out in the “barrios” and talk to them about their lives. In coordination with other State institutions and with a number of NGOs we provide access to counseling, we support them so they can continue their education and, when appropriate, we facilitate technical training in things like automotive mechanics, electrics and computing.

According to our records 100% of the 450 gang members we registered in 2005 have been attended in this way.

As a result of this work today we very rarely register criminal incidents provoked by what could be described as youth gangs in the province of Matagalpa. It is true that there are a number of adolescents and young people involved in petty crime and theft, but these are young people acting on their own account, not as part of a gang. The majority are glue sniffers and street children who live chaotic lives. Unfortunately in Matagalpa there is no appropriate rehabilitation center for these kids. 

The National Police in Matagalpa consider Jairo Blanchard (founder and coordinator of “Recreación Sana”) an exemplary young man. In years past he was the leader of what was probably the most violent gang here in Matagalpa. But today, and for many years now, he has worked tirelessly, and without any form of payment or formal support, to provide at risk young people in the province with an alternative formation based on non violence.   

The “pandillas” : young people in rebellion against a system that excludes them

Testimony by Jairo Rivas Blanchard, “El Pandi”

I was born into a very, very poor family. We never had a house. A lot of the time we had no food. I was born during times of war and I was brought up during times of war. I grew up without my dad who died around the time of the triumph of the Sandinista Revolution. My mum has always suffered from bad health which has made it impossible for her to work.

So, when I was little, I had to go out onto the street looking for the means by which to survive, the means by which to continue existing. But what I found on the streets were drugs, violence, alcoholism, crime and other things that young people involved with the “pandillas” get caught up in.

There are lots of ways to become involved in a gangs. Mine was my state of extreme poverty and absolute social risk.

The situation of the young people involved in what society refers to and condemns as the “pandillas” is very complicated and diffifult to understand. It is also a situation which has proved difficult to resolve because, a lot of the time, the people with the funding to resolve it don't understand the reality of these kids, they haven't been through what the kids themselves have been through. 

Belonging to a gang is a form of rebellion against a conservative society and a capitalist system that excludes us and limits us in many different ways.

When you belong to a gang you have the right to participate – something which is denied to you in other forums. This gives you a sense of control over your own life. When you are a gang member you are the one who decides what you are going to eat, what you are going to do, what you are going to steal. You decide who you are going to beat up. It's a way of venting negative emotions.

On top of this you benefit from the tradition of solidarity between gang members – you share the food you have, you share all the things you get hold of, you look out for each other and you protect each other.

But in truth, this form of rebellion doesn't really help you in any way. What it ends up doing is destroying you emotionally, physically and financially.

Searching for an alternative to so much violence

For six years I was involved in “maras” (extremely violent criminal gangs) in El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico, during which time I didn't visit Nicaragua or see my family. During those six years, when I was involved in all sorts of serious crimes, I was in a state of emotional break down.

And when I returned to Matagalpa in 2000 I was in a wreck, I felt very near the edge. I didn't know what on earth to do with my life. I was searching for some sort of solution or alternative to so much violence. It was under those circumstances that I founded the Youth Movement “Recreation Sana.”

In 2000 there were 19 violent gangs (“pandillas”) in the city of Matagalpa. These gangs had no qualms about attacking each other or members of the public at any time of day or night. They had no qualms about wounding people or damaging private property. Ordinary people had to pay them a sort of unofficial tax to enter certain neighbourhoods and if someone refused pay then they would get beaten up. 

The police had no control over the situation. They were unable to control it with repressive measures like the imprisonment of gang members. Actually police repression was making the situation worse – the gangs reacted with greater violence, and more young people decided to join the gangs dueing this time because they saw it as a necessary step towards self protection from the police and from other gangs.

When I returned to Nicaragua the gangs knew about the sort of life I had been living and so they respected me. It was because of this that I was readily able to involve myself so intimately with the gang leaders. They thought my plan was to increase the level of violence in the city, so they accepted me – they wanted greater security. But really I had other plans. 

So, you see, it was from inside the gang structure and without the support of any institution or organization that the Youth Movement “Recreation Sana” was founded. At first, when we had zero funds, we would improvise different activities – we would organize outings on foot to other parts of the department, or we would get hold of a ball and play football in some field or on the street. 

We were able to get members from six or seven different gangs together at those sort of activities. It was proof that we could all get together without violence. Sometimes we would take over the Central Park or some other space and we would do dance contests or singing contests.

It was during these sorts of activities and we were able to develop different strategies and methods with which to urge the kids the change their outlook, to refrain from their violent behaviour so that society would stop condemning us and so that we wouldn't have to suffer permanent police persecution.

That was how “Recreación Sana” started. Later on we were able to develop what today are our fully fledged sports leagues and cultural groups in the “barrios.” All this has helped enormously in reducing gang violence in the city.

It has been more of a challenge to reduce drug and alcohol consumption among the kids we work with. From the very start, though, the level of violence was drastically reduced.

“Recreación Sana” is not an institution. It is not an NGO. It is not a Christian or political organization. It is simply a forum which we ourselves have created so we can have permament participation.

If you look at our calender of activities you will see that there is not a single day of the year when “Recreación Sana” is not involved in some activity or other. At present we have 84 groups of children, adolescents and young adults in 60 different “barrios” in Matagalpa for a total of over 780 kids directly involved in our cultural and sporting actitivies, and around 1,700 who take part in our  events without actually being formal members of the groups.

At first the National Police didn't support “Recreación Sana.” They didn't understand that we genuinely wanted to reform our violent behaviour. It was with the foundation of the Department of Youth Affairs in 2004 that we started to build a different relationship with the police.

Today we have very good relations with the police. The police trust us, they believe in what we do and we are able to coordinate activities together. I think the work carried out by DAJUV is excellent. And in practical terms the existence of DAJUV has facilitated many different aspects of the work we do at “Recreación Sana.”

Additionally over the last few years “Recreación Sana” has recieved the support of different organizations which have facilitated training workshops on different issues like leadership skills, conflict resolution, non violent communication, self esteem, citizen participation, sexual and reproductive health and the prevention of HIV. All this has helped a lot because it has provided us with more tools to reach out to at risk young people and help them not to damage themselves or damage others.

There is no need to kill us or lock us up

Our work is hard. It requires a lot of effort and sacrifice. But it is clear for all to see that our work has had an important impact. What we aim to demonstrate with our work is that there is no need to kill us or lock us up because we can change, and we can bring about change in others.

I talk in these terms in reference to the barbaric policies implemented in other parts of Central America which are refered to as the “mano dura” and the “mano super dura” as part of which they apply the death penalty to gang members – as if they think that is the key to bringing about change and resolving different problems associated with the gangs. What these policies actually do is lengthen and expand the chain of violence thus provoking further grief and pain for society as a whole.
“Recreación Sana” is proof that we can change. Today Matagalpa's “barrios” are tranquil and safe places. Today the city's at risk youth can go to school and, like the rest of the population, can mobilize freely without fear of bumping into rival gang members. According to Matagalpa Police statistics, for the last three years there have been no organized gangs involved in violent and criminal activity in the department.