Brooklyn-born rapper George “Rithm” Martínez and Jelani Yeboah, or “DJ Smash,” toured some of the more depressed barrios of Nicaragua last week in an attempt to inspire at-risk youth to channel their creative talents through hip-hop.
The visit, in which the hip-hop duo held events in the departments of León, Rivas and Managua, was part of a joint effort between the U.S. Embassy’s Cultural Ambassador program and the National Police Juvenile Affairs department to expose ex-gang members and high school students to hip-hop.
For Martínez, the program isn’t just about bustin’ rhymes and spinnin’ wax, but also introducing kids to the art form’s message of social justice while offering an inventive alternative to drug abuse and gangs.
Martínez said the group’s events attracted crowds of up to 400 students in León.
He said that the U.S.-born art form is wellreceived among young Nicaraguans, who he said approached him with “a different type of feel” than other Central American youth.
“There’s a sense of optimism, hopefulness here that’s not in other places. Most people have some sort of connection to this culture of hip-hop.-It’s hip-hop al estilo Nicaraguense,” Martínez told The Nica Times this week.
A cultural movement that began developing in New York City among minorities in the 1970s and has since gone global, hip-hop is said to have four main elements: rapping, DJing, graffiti and break dancing.
Martínez, a rapper, lauded Nicaraguan police efforts to work with at-risk youth to offer them alternatives, instead of just enforcing laws. He said Nicaragua’s antigang efforts have been more successful than other Central American countries’ for that reason.
Nicaraguan police claim their preventive anti-gang efforts are the main reason that the country’s gang population has been reduced by more than half of the 1,000 gang members police knew of when their social reintegration program began in 2003.
The program also works with youth at risk of falling into gang activity or drug abuse.- Police claim to have kept some 4,000 at-risk youth from falling into gang activity, though there is still plenty of work to be done with some 2,500 remaining (NT, Oct. 19, 2007).
“We have youngsters who commit some crimes, some assaults – there are some crazies, some drunks who rob people. But we don’t have those kind of levels of violence like in the north (of Central America),” said Commissioner Juan Ramon Gamaz, the officer in charge of the National Police’s Juvenile Affairs Commission.
Gamaz said police this year will reinsert another 500 at-risk youth and ex-gang members into society. But José Luis Rocha, a researcher at the Central American University (UCA), questioned those statistics and the significance of the police gang-prevention program. He said Nicaragua’s gang problem is a more complicated than the police make it seem.
“Most Managua barrios have no such police programs. NGOs that work on these issues find no police in the barrios. I think they’re inflated statistics. (Police) play soccer with some gang members then sign an agreement and they’re considered ‘rehabilitated’,” Rocha said.
Deportees and Guns
For Rocha, the most important factors in Nicaragua’s relatively low level of gang activity are immigration patterns and a lack of available small arms.
First of all, he said, more Nicaraguan immigrants head to neighboring Costa Rica than to the United States. Gang activity and deportation rates in Costa Rica are negligible compared to those of the United States.
Secondly, for geographical and historical reasons, Nicaraguan immigrants tend to flow towards Miami, whereas immigrants from countries like El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala tend towards Los Angeles, where gang violence is particularly rampant in minority neighborhoods. That’s why there weren’t as many Nicaraguan immigrants in the first wave of deportees that sent masses of convicted L.A. gang members back home to Central America in the 1990s, Rocha says.
Those deported U.S. gang members brought the L.A. gang problem back to the region with them, creating large gangs with U.S. ties known as Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, or the18th street
gang (M-18). Deported gang members began using Central America as a base for smuggling drugs, arms and people to the United States.
“Which is why gangs (in Nicaragua) are much less violent,” Rocha said. “They don’t pertain to enormous global gang conglomerates.”
Another major factor is that after a decade of war in Nicaragua, the government of Violeta Chamorro (1990-1996) launched an ambitious campaign to get demobilized fighters to hand in their weapons. At the end of her administration, some 14,000 small arms had been destroyed, compared to less than 1,000 in neighboring Honduras, according to a 1997 United Nations study.
Rocha said that in Nicaragua’s impoverished post-war economy, soldiers sold their arms for much-needed cash. Many of those arms ended up in other Central American countries where armed conflicts persisted.
In Nicaragua, there are about one-third as many small arms as in Guatemala, El Salvador or Honduras today. Correspondingly, Nicaragua’s murder rate is about one-third of the rate in those countries, according to Rocha. But Rocha acknowledged that Nicaragua’s police culture is crucially different than other Central American countries. After winning the 1979 revolution, the Sandinista government made important efforts to create a police model different from the repression they had suffered under the National Guard of the Somoza dictatorship. The Nicaraguan police force has since stayed away from the iron-fisted anti-gang policies employed by other countries in the region.
Rocha said a more light-handed approach may be the biggest factor in Nicaragua’s success against gangs.
“That has much more impact than playing soccer games with ex-gang members,” Rocha said. “In El Salvador and Guatemala they have the same repressive police forces of the ’70s and ’80s. Here, the police have assumed an entirely different attitude towards the population.”
Rappin’ for Change
Rapper Martínez sai d he witnessed that distinct police culture first-hand during his hip-hop tour.
“For the most part police were open and took seriously the idea that they-can make a difference with young people working in these communities. That’s a different police culture than I’ve seen in other Latin American countries,” said Martínez, a New York native whose mother is Honduran and whose father is Puerto Rican.
Martínez was the first U.S. hip-hop artist to be elected to public office, as ombudsman of his district in New York City. During his campaign for office, Martínez laid down a track to the tune of Atlanta rapper Ludacris’ hit “Saturday,” encouraging people to vote for him: “Don’t it feel so good/ to make decisions that affect the hood?/ Pull the lever, stand up to no good/ Come through forcin’ like I wish y’all would…Come to the polls and vote for me.”
Now a political science professor at Pace University, Martínez plans to come back to Nicaragua within the next year to head out to the rural Caribbean coast. His visit to Nicaragua is part of his larger effort to promote hip-hop among youth in Central America, a region he called “so critically important to stability in this hemisphere.”
“Our grand message was that by using the power of hip-hop and creativity, young people can actually improve their future with some of the things they already have,” he said.