When Nicaragua’s tourism wave first started as a ripple at the turn of the millennium, the country had success billing itself as “The safest country in Central America.” Even Managua, a rundown, sprawling city with few selling points, could still boast of being “The safest capital city in Latin America.”
For most people in the world, who haven’t thought much about Nicaragua since the 1980s, those claims to safety didn’t seem plausible. “Isn’t it really dangerous there? Isn’t there a war going on there?” otherwise intelligent people would ask. Unfortunately, those questions, once met with a scoff, have become cause for momentary pause.
Just as Costa Rica’s pura vida image now seems more quaint than accurate, Nicaragua’s image as Central America’s safe harbor is also losing relevance. True, it’s still a safer country than other gang-plagued nations in Central America, but that’s becoming a less meaningful distinction as crime spikes across the country, and the region as a whole.
From San Juandel Sur, to Granada, to Managua – and all points in between – Nicaragua is unmistakably experiencing a crime wave, regardless of what the police’s spotty statics show. Not only are instances of crime growing, but they’re becoming more brazen – a symptom of a failing institutional response to delinquency.
Even more worrisome, however, is Nicaragua’s deep-rooted culture of impunity, which starts at the top. In a country where the president was accused but never tried for repeated sexual abuse of his stepdaughter, and where a recent former president was essentially absolved of all wrongdoing after allegedly bilking the country out of more than $80 million, it’s kind of hard to talk about law and order.
Until recently, however, Nicaraguans fatalistically accepted the fact that their politicians are corrupt, and that the impunity extended to the political class does not exist for the majority.
There was a general understanding in Nicaragua that if you steal your neighbor’s chicken, you go to jail. But if you steal $1 million through embezzlement, you’d get away with it.
But when President Daniel Ortega came back to power in 2007, he brought with him a culture of impunity that extends to all his followers, regardless of socio-economic status. While that may seem like an egalitarian move by a man who claims to be an advocate of the poor, in practice it’s been a disastrous policy that’s likely feeding the country’s crime wave right now.
Ortega has given explicit orders to the National Police to not intervene in the repeated political clashes on the street. As a result, the police have stood by stupidly, watching Ortega’s goons physically attack political opponents on more than 20 occasions over the past year, and not a single instigator has been arrested, charged or sentenced for any violence, property destruction or disturbance of the peace.
Such contempt for justice doubtless contributes to the breakdown of social order and rule of law that Nicaragua is experiencing. While the poor economy is also no doubt a factor driving more people toward crime, Nicaragua has always been impoverished, so that factor alone is unconvincing.
Though Ortega is unlikely to do anything to combat Nicaragua’s cancerous culture of impunity – mostly because he’s a beneficiary – the National Police would be smart to uphold their constitutional duty of protecting the peace, regardless of the arbitrary orders of the president.
If police act decisively during the next Sandinista goon-squad attack and arrest
those responsible for the violence, it will send a loud and clear message to the rest of
the country that there will be order in Nicaragua.
Otherwise, if the cops continue to fold their arms and put political considerations ahead of their constitutional mandate, they’re ultimately going to make their own jobs much more difficult and dangerous in the long run.