MANAGUA – The country’s youth-gang problem will be reduced by half in the coming weeks, as National Police “graduate” an additional 301 former gang members from its already hugely successful gang-demobilization program.
Police Commissioner Hamyn Gurdián, head of the police’s division on youth affairs, said that there are only 363 gang members left in the country, down from the 1,058 that existed when the program began in 2003. Of the 62 gangs that existed four years ago, only 20 remain, according to police statistics.
The social reinsertion program also works with youth classified by police as being at “high-risk,” street-corner groups that are stepping-stones to gangs. In four years police have reinserted 3,912 youth at high-risk, with some 2,500 remaining in 171 groups at risk of becoming gangs.
The success of the program, Gurdián says, shows that everyone deserves a chance. “We don’t need more jails or laws in Nicaragua, we need more opportunities for young people,” Gurdián said.
Gurdián, who went into the mountains to join the Sandinista rebels when he was 16, says previous guerrilla experience, which many police officers share, helps them to have empathy for gang members and identify personally with the three-step demobilization process: cease-fire, disarmament and social reintegration.
“That experience made us sensitive to their problems,” he said. “Their life, the lack of opportunities they have, that is what it was like for us, only instead of fighting with assault rifles, they throw rocks.”
Gangs and Politics
Among the “graduating class” of former gangbangers is Jalson Espinoza, whose face shows the scars of a decade of gang life. Espinoza, 26, lost his left eye to a rock fired from a slingshot in one gang fight, and has a scar under his lip from when his jaw was broken with a machete in another. He has also been shot twice and arrested 14 times.
Now he’s trying to put that life behind him.
“I haven’t been involved in any illegal activity for four and a half months,” he said.
Getting out hasn’t been easy, but it’s a decision he says he made after having a daughter and losing several friends to gang violence.
Espinoza says his mother, who had earlier written him off, started to support him again when she saw that he was trying to get out of the gang and improve his life. Without his family and the police, he said, it wouldn’t have been possible.
“Opportunities here are so few, that when they present themselves you can’t let them get away,” Espinoza said, referring to the efforts police made to help demobilize his gang and get him out of that life.
Now Espinoza works as a youth organizer for the Sandinista Front in a tough neighborhood in Ciudad Sandino, north of Managua. He says that he is hopeful that President Daniel Ortega will give more opportunities and focus more on the youth of the country, a large sector of which feels neglected by previous governments.
Ortega has managed to mobilize a large sector of youth, which he refers to as “the divine treasure,” by making direct appeals to young people with promises of jobs, culture, sports and community-service activities.
During a recent event held to commemorate the 28th anniversary of the Sandinista Youth movement, Ortega called for a renewal of the spirit of revolutionary solidarity and service to the country.
“In this, the 28th anniversary, we remember all the young men and women who have been a part of the Sandinista Youth, those who gave their lives, those who passed away, and their families,” Ortega told a crowd of several thousand youth Aug. 23. “They will always be present in our memory, in our sports, culture, education and solidarity mission; they will always be present in our minds and in the heart of the young people of Nicaragua.”
Ortega’s calls for peace and reconciliation are also resonating on the streets and making the police’s work easier, Gurdián says.
“When we go into the neighborhoods and the different communities, many of the young people are ready to peacefully resolve situations; the positive message is getting to the streets,”Gurdián said.“People are tired of violence, arms and war, and want to live in peace. They want culture and sports, and the police and other actors are giving them this.”
Perception versus Reality
Gurdián says that gang violence in Nicaragua seems a lot scarier than it really is, due to the sensationalist national media that focuses increasingly on common street crime and domestic tussles – a brand of yellow journalism known as the “nota roja.”
In Managua, several news programs compete with each other to report sensational stories of street fights and drunken disorderly conduct by listening to police scanners and responding to dispatches, oftentimes arriving at the scene of the disturbance before police do and trying to interview people who are fighting or lying facedown on the street.
“The media here distorts youth violence; by watching the news you would think we were drowning in gang violence,” Gurdián said.“But they have created a virtual realty of violence that is not reflected in the crime statistics.”
In 2006, according to police, gangs and youth at social risk accounted for a total of 316 crimes, 0.2% of the 120,509 crimes reported for the year. And despite the daily images of violence on TV, there were only six gang-related homicides the entire year, less than the average number of gang-related murders committed in a single day in neighboring El Salvador.
Mauricio Bustamante, 19, spent four years in Guatemala in the infamous Mara Salvatrucha before returning to Nicaragua to join his local gang, which he is now leaving with police help.
He says the gang culture here doesn’t even compare to that of other countries to the north.
“They are much more violent,” he said. “There it’s war, and you get killed for being a traitor.”
Bustamante says there is slim chance that the transnational gangs will make inroads into Nicaragua, because “we won’t let them come here and impose their way of doing things.”
“Despite the wars here, the Nicaraguan culture is less violent than in other countries,” Gurdián said. “And here there are still strong ties to family and the mother.”