Nicaragua is taking a dangerous turn toward civil war. Since protests and riots began three months ago, Nicaraguan soldiers, police and paramilitary groups have killed more than 280 people and injured 1,800 others.
The demonstrations were sparked in April by changes to the country’s Social Security system and the government’s slow and inadequate response to a large fire in the Indio Maíz biological reserve. Protesters are now demanding that President Daniel Ortega resign. Rather than negotiate, Ortega has cracked down further. Police and paramilitary forces killed 31 civilians on Sunday and violently retook the Monimbo neighborhood in the city of Masaya this week.
As grim as the situation is, it could be much worse. Nicaragua is not a heavily armed society. It has one of the lowest rates of guns per capita in the world and one of the lowest homicide rates in the Americas. In fact, compared to its Central American neighbors, Nicaragua has been a relatively safe haven for decades.
It’s partly because Nicaragua enjoyed peaceful conditions that its citizens are suddenly up in arms. Although there were signs of corruption within the Ortega government as it sought to weaken democratic institutions, Nicaraguans were mostly willing to look away — until they weren’t.
Protesters are now demanding that President Daniel Ortega resign. Rather than negotiate, Ortega has cracked down further.
There are at least three reasons why Nicaragua has remained relatively peaceful compared with most of its Central American neighbors. First, it does not have the kind of gang culture you find in the so-called Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The gangs that do exist in Nicaragua — there are at least 100, spread across the country’s urban areas — are not nearly as violent as the maras and pandillas next door. Most of those more violent gangs originated in Los Angeles. Many members of MS-13 and Barrio 18, for instance, are children of refugees who had fled civil wars in the 1970s and 1980s and were deported back to Guatemala City, San Salvador or Tegucigalpa. By contrast, Nicaragua’s street gangs tend to be homegrown.
Perhaps more important, the Nicaraguan government largely avoided the mano dura anticrime policies so common in the Northern Triangle countries. It placed a much greater emphasis on crime prevention, police reform, community policing, alternative sentencing and social welfare programs. The results were startlingly effective.
Nicaragua also invested heavily in a wide range of economic development programs to address the underlying causes of criminal violence, with a particular focus on reducing poverty, inequality and social exclusion. Nicaragua’s approach was fundamentally different from the strategies applied in the Northern Triangle.
Many of these progressive policies began to change in 2007, the year after Ortega was reelected. (His previous term ended in 1990.) Ortega’s government slowed reform, and pretty soon there were signs of political corruption and of politicization among military and police forces.
By 2017, Nicaraguans’ unusually high trust in their state security forces had started to deteriorate. Police and parapolice detained demonstrators during protests over local elections last November in which Ortega’s Sandinista party won 135 of 153 seats. Armed forces killed six protesters, a prelude to the bloodletting to come.
That smaller outbreak of violence fueled a suspicion that Ortega’s government may have ties to drug trafficking groups. Although he has accused his opponents of having such connections, there are long-standing allegations that Ortega’s campaigns were financed partly by the drug trade. The claims go back to the 1980s, when Ortega was accused of colluding with the kingpin Pablo Escobar. Still, more than 70% of Nicaraguans said they approved of their government in 2017, and nearly 75% said they believed conditions were improving.
This has changed dramatically since April. Ortega’s latest crackdown laid bare his determination to hold onto power at any cost and shocked many citizens into resistance. As Nicaragua’s relative prosperity and stability collapses, fewer Nicaraguans will be willing to look the other way.
Robert Muggah is a co-founder of the Igarapé Institute, headquartered in Rio de Janeiro, and the executive director of the SecDev Group in Ottawa.