Just when the tourism sector was looking for some good news to finish off a challenging year of electoral uncertainty and ghostly images from the past, it didn’t happen.
Instead, the country’s two major tourism destinations – Granada and San Juan del Sur – were rattled by startlingly bold crimes that have made residents and tourists look over their shoulders more often than usual.
In Granada, a frightening knife attack left two elderly foreign expats injured, while in San Juan del Sur, a grisly and unthinkable daytime assault on a beautiful young woman ended in rape and murder.
Though the crimes were different in scope, both sent shockwaves through their respective communities.
Many residents in Granada and San Juan del Sur have undoubtedly found themselves questioning their perceptions of safety and security in recent days.
Violent crime, especially in a small community, feels like an unexpected, pre-dawn wakeup call: it makes people nervous and confused as they wrestle the haze for clarity.
Yet the fact that these crimes were so upsetting to so many people in the community is an encouraging sign – it shows that Nicaragua is still considered a safe and peaceful country, where heinous acts are not expected nor tolerated.
This is an important point to remember in a region of the world were violent crime and gang activity is becoming increasingly more commonplace.
Statistics show that Nicaragua is the safest country in Central America, with fewer than 10 homicides per 100,000 people. And Managua is the safest capital city in Latin America, with 2.3 intentional homicides per 100,000 residents.
The recent crimes in Granada and San Juan del Sur were startling and horrific.
But they are isolated events. That is part of what has made them so scary and difficult to comprehend or to put into context.
In neighboring Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, murders and violent crimes have become so routine that the shock value has lessened, and perspectives on safety have been radically warped. Even in traditionally peaceful Costa Rica, violent crime against nationals and tourists is on the rise.
But that is not the case here, statistics show. The difference in citizen security between Nicaragua and other Central American countries is palpable.
One Honduran visitor to Granada recently marveled at how Granadinos sit in rocking chairs on the sidewalk at night with the doors to their homes open. The sight of an open door at night made him visibly nervous of a pending attack.
People here relax on their stoops at night, walk the streets after dark, say hello to people on the streets, stop to help a stranger with a flat tire, and ride the buses without fear of being robbed or stabbed.
Gangs, as they exist in other Central American countries to the north, don’t exist in Nicaragua. As a policeman in Managua said: “We don’t have gangs, we just have groups of broders,” – or “brothers,” as friends refer to each other here.
Nicaraguan police are to be credited for how they have handled crime and gang-like activity here. Instead of responding with heavy-handed policies, police have worked to engage troubled youth and reintegrate them back into society – perhaps a lessen many officers learned after being demobilized from the military in the 1980s.
Nicaragua is a safe country with a bad rap. But that beats the alternative.