Why is Nicaragua so Much Safer than the Northern Triangle Countries of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala?

By John Kotula

To a large extent, the United States’ policy toward Central America attempts to address the intertwined problems of immigration, drug trafficking, organized criminal gangs, political corruption, and societal violence. Given these priorities, you would think that Nicaragua would be the US’s best friend, since relatively few Nicaraguans emigrate north, Nicaragua’s role in the international movement of drugs is minor, there is little gang activity, political corruption is no worse in Nicaragua than anywhere else in Central America, and, perhaps most important to Nicaraguans, it is a safe country in sharp contrast to its neighbors to the north. Our government’s knee jerk, anti-leftist orientation keeps us from appreciating Nicaragua’s achievements and keeps us locked into failed policies. The war on drugs, militarization of civil society, and a rampant anti-immigrant stance are examples of approaches we have poured billions into with no success. If there was any openness to rethinking things that don’t work, the contrast between Nicaragua and the Northern Triangle countries would be a good place to start looking.

Much top down journalism and study have been devoted to these issues. However, in hopes of getting a different perspective, I’ve been talking to people living in Nicaragua and asking the question, “Why is Nicaragua so much safer than the Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala?” These conversations were not recorded, so I am reporting the content, but not in direct quotes. Some people asked me not to use their real names. I’m also offering other sources of information that relate to what was shared in the conversations.

Maria is a bright, energetic Nicaraguan woman who manages grants for a development agency. When I ask her this question she tells me it is all about immigration. People from those countries go North. It is very dangerous and many never come back. They leave the children with the grandparents and the grandparents don’t have the energy to supervise them. There are many children growing up without guidance. Their parents invest so much in getting to the US they can’t take the risk of coming home. They can call and send money, but their children won’t see them for years, sometimes never again. And so in those countries the children grow up without discipline, without knowing right from wrong. But people from Nicaragua go South. We go to Costa Rica or Panama. You just go to the Costa Rican embassy. Maybe you have to spend hours or days in a line, but it is easy. And you can come home, too. You can be a part of the family, send some money, but also be with your children for Christmas. They grow up as part of a family and know right from wrong.

(A recent article in the Los Angeles Times reinforces and expands Maria’s thinking about patterns of immigration as an important explanation for the safety found in Nicaragua. The piece points out that even within the US the area of settlement can hold consequences, “Nicaraguans tended to settle in Miami and New Orleans, while Salvadorans went to Los Angeles and were sucked into a booming and bloody gang culture. They would be the first people the U.S. started deporting back to Central America in the early 1990s.”)

Sarah is an American woman married to a Honduran man. Her husband comes from Tocoa, Honduras, an area saturated with drugs and violence. The couple have lived in Honduras and Nicaragua. They are moving to the US for a job for Sarah, but hope to return permanently to Nicaragua. Sarah says she only knows Honduras, but thinks it is the presence of the US military. There is a huge US base and the military is the face of the US in Honduras. The aid that Honduras receives from the US is military aid. At the municipal level the police are OK. They try to help you. But at the national level, the police are more and more militarized. You can’t tell the police from the army, and everyone says all of them, the police, the army, and the government are involved in the drug trade. The big drug kingpin from Tocoa is in jail in the United States, but the people say that only happened because someone more powerful was consolidating their territory.

(Much of what Sarah says is confirmed by news reports about Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga and his brother Javier, heads of the violent drug cartel called Los Cachiros from Tocoa. Also the justice department has confirmed the direct involvement of the US Drug Enforcement Administration in the murder of civilians during a training operation with the Honduran military.)

Miguel is a friendly, outgoing guy who runs a tour company. He learned much of his English hanging out with surfers on Nicaragua’s various Pacific beaches. He speaks in a distinctive, slangy manner that wouldn’t be out of place on Mission Beach in San Diego. Because he is boyish and fun loving, it would be possible to mistake Miguel for a lightweight. That would be a mistake. He is actually a thoughtful, knowledgeable man, whose opinions are worth listening to. Miguel’s first thoughts on the question are, man, we are such a poor country. Everyone is poor here. There is nothing here for criminals. In Nicaragua maybe you could make money off of agriculture, or workers who will work for nothing, or maybe tourism, but that’s not stuff criminals are interested in. He thinks for a while then adds that there is more to it, too. We had the revolution and the war and everybody was military, then later the military became the cops. These were people who had fought for the country and whose brothers died in the war. After the sacrifice of the martyrs, they didn’t want to see anything bad happen to Nicaragua. All those gangs in the other countries came out of the US; guys who were in prison in the US, got into the gangs, and then got sent back. In Honduras and El Salvador they started up M-18, MS-13 all that. In Nicaragua everybody knows everybody. If somebody like that showed up, they wouldn’t last long.

(Miguel’s ideas are very similar to media reports and academic research.)

Luis works as a security guard and handyman in a small apartment complex in an upscale neighborhood in Managua. His small shack on the corner, outfitted with a hammock and a TV, is an informal social club for guys working in the neighborhood. There is often someone repairing a car or motorcycle or refinishing a piece of furniture in the shade of the trees. Luis takes a break from trimming trees to answer my question. “Look,” he says, “this government that we have now is very organized and integrated.” The police, the army, the courts, everyone is on the same team and the people are part of that. Have you heard of CPC? (Consejos de Poder Ciudadano/ Citizen Power Committees) Every neighborhood is organized and connected to the police and the government. In this neighborhood you don’t need it because people can afford private security, but in poor neighborhoods it is very important.

There are a few people who are the eyes and ears of the police. They know what is going on and if there is something not right they will inform the police and the police will take care of it. (He makes the hand gesture for someone going away, leaving the situation.) Also they get the community together to solve problems. In some neighborhoods, at night, a man is walking around keeping an eye on things. He blows a whistle and that lets people know he is there and if somebody is thinking about committing a crime they will see it is not a good idea. Sure there is crime in Nicaragua, but it is little stuff. Some kid on a motorcycle might snatch your backpack or your cell phone, but they are not going to kill you. It is a safe place. Be calm. Don’t worry.

(In my conversations, several people mentioned Consejos de Poder Ciudadano. Opponents of the government, including the opposition newspaper, La Prensa, are very critical of this form of community policing.  They describe it as repressive, “big brother is watching,” government control that is ripe for abuse and favoritism. However, the people I talked to, certainly a small sample, were not concerned. Rather they spoke with pride about the role of CPC in the safety and security their country has achieved.)

Given the long history and the entrenchment of the problems, it may be too late to have much optimism about Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. However, the situation in Nicaragua is very hopeful. Of course there are no easy solutions, but the example of Nicaragua suggests that the way forward is an integrated, cohesive society in which the people are partners with the police and other government entities in keeping their communities safe. This echoes the success of community policing projects in the US and elsewhere.


  • The Nicaragua Central Bank announced that formal employment as of July this year, grew 7% over the same period in 2016. The report also noted that a total of 919,469 workers are part of the Nicaragua Social Security Institute (INSS) which means they have formal jobs that pay into social security. Sectors such as commerce (14.5%); mining (12.3%); agriculture (9.4%); and construction (8.1%) are among the main drivers of this growth in formal employment. (Nicaragua News, Sept. 14)
  • US President Donald Trump sent a congratulatory message to President Daniel Ortega on the occasion of Nicaragua’s Independence Day celebration. In his message the US President said, “As you celebrate your Independence, the people of the United States join me in sending our best wishes to the Nicaraguan people. The United States looks forward to deepening our relationship with Nicaragua to achieve a more democratic, prosperous and secure future.”  This does not sound like a message from a president who is ready to support the NICA Act which would cut Nicaragua off from international loans. (Nicaragua News, Sept. 13)
  • UThe Ministry of Energy and Mines (MEM) announced that the government has approved the signing of two loans totaling US$172 million to finance electricity projects in rural areas. The first is a US$161.5 million loan approved by the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI) and the second, a US$10.5 million loan from the OPEC Fund for International Development (OFID). (Nicaragua News, Sept. 13)
  • UNational Police Chief Aminta Granera stated that this year the homicide rate in Nicaragua was reduced from 7 to 6 per 100,000 inhabitants. The Police Chief added that 62% of the country did not report any homicides, which represents a very significant achievement in the strengthening of public safety. “This result confirms that Nicaragua is the safest country in Central America and one of the safest in Latin America,” Granera said. (Nicaragua News, Sept. 12)
  • Ricardo Melendez, vice president of the Nicaragua Chamber of Housing  (CADUR), said the construction sector is investing more than US$100 million in the construction of multi-story buildings this year. He added that the strong dynamism in the construction sector is driven by greater economic growth, strengthening of legal certainty and new public – private investments. (Nicaragua News, Sept. 12)
  • UWorld Bank Country Representative Luis Constantino said Nicaragua is the third fastest growing economy in Latin America and is one of the countries that has made significant progress in the fight against poverty. “This economic growth is remarkable because it includes a significant reduction of poverty and inequality gaps. The Bank wants to continue to support the efforts of the Nicaragua government,” Constantino said. (Nicaragua News, Sept. 11)