El Faro looks at the dynamics of gang activity in one Nicaraguan neighborhood, giving a microcosm of the reasons why the country has been spared the excesses of violence and unrest that have hit other countries in Central America.

Barrio Jorge Dimitrov is known as one of the most troubled neighborhoods of Managua, Nicaragua’s capital, where outsiders normally do not set foot. El Faro’s Roberto Valencia carried out an investigation into the troubled zone, giving a small-scale look at the factors that have kept gang violence relatively low across the Central American country.

After being turned down by several taxi cab drivers, Valencia finally manages to cajole one into taking him into the neighborhood. There he meets with Jose Daniel Hernandes, a community leader who fought in the revolution, but “whose guerrilla militancy and loyalty to the FSLN [Sandinistas] and Daniel Ortega have not allowed him to prosper enough to leave.” Hernandes’ role is representative of the strong sense of community that exists in the country, a legacy of the socialist structures put in place during Sandinista rule. As Valencia writes:

Dimitrov is an offensively poor neighborhood, one in which there are families who can’t afford to pay for a coffin when a loved one dies. In such cases, the community provides for it. Jose Daniel says that over the years there has been a loss of genuine solidarity between neighbors, but something of it remains, and, without meaning to, offers an example.

"You see?" asks Jose Daniel upon arriving at the home of Angelica, where she lives with her husband and three young children. Yesterday’s wind caused a branch to fall on top of the house, practically destroying it. ‘This is a poor family, so we have ordered the material to help the lady out.’

“Who gives this help?”

"The city has given the corrugated sheets [for the roof]. We called the district, they came yesterday and they told us they would bring the material tomorrow. And bang! Here it is. And now we'll help her place them. It's up to me to see to these things."

As InSight Crime has reported, several such “neighborhood watch” type organizations are still in place today, and are often cited as one reason for the relative level of calm that exists in many of the country’s “barrios bravos,” or dangerous neighborhoods. When asked why Jorge Dimitrov doesn't suffer worse violence, Hernandes simply claims that the community “would not stand for it.” These kinds of local anti-gang structures are supported by local police, who emphasize the community aspect of law enforcement, and tend to have deep ties in the neighborhood.

Such is the case with Roger Espinales, one of the National Police officers stationed in Dimitrov. A trained psychologist, he is charged with meeting regularly with the main actors in the community (including gang members and their families) to negotiate conflicts. Partly because of such strategies, Nicaragua is far more peaceful than most of its neighbors. According to a recent UN report, nearby Honduras and El Salvador are the two most violent countries in the world in terms of their homicide rates, with 82.1 and 66 killings per 100,000 inhabitants last year, respectively. In comparison, Nicaragua saw only 13.2 per 100,000 in the same period. An important factor in this is the fact that the “maras” or gangs which have plagued other parts of the region have largely spared urban areas of Nicaragua. According to Valencia:

"In this part of Central America the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 sound just as exotic as the Camorra [of Italy] or the Russian mafia. The names of the local gangs sound like a list of amateur soccer teams: the Galanes, the Parqueños, the Pegajosos, the Gargolas, the Puenteros, those from Anden 14, the Diablitos ... Officer Espinales does think that Dimitrov is a troubled place, but he is optimistic about what he found upon his arrival there. The community, he says, still seems relatively organized, and the gangs have little to do with the monsters that operate in the countries located to the north of the northern border.

"What surprises me about El Salvador or Honduras," [Officer] Espinales exclaims at the end of an interview, "is that a whole community would let itself be dominated by 30 or 40 [expletive] members of a gang, whatever its called. It’s something unheard of."

Indeed, at least according to the portrait that Valencia paints, the kind of violence that exists elsewhere in Central America seems relatively inconceivable in Barrio Dimitrov. Valencia’s piece ends with an-in-depth description of a scene which perfectly illustrated the effects of community policing model in the area: ex-gang members, local NGO representatives, police officers, community leaders and youths all engaged in a group bonding activity:

Friday, 9:30am on a tropical gray morning.

Standing around a glass bottle of Coca-Cola, open and empty, there are 14 people on foot, making a deformed circle. Each has their hands behind their back. One of them is uniformed and armed: Deputy Inspector Pedro Diaz, the highest police authority in the Dimitrov. The rest are a young former gang member named Fidencio; representatives of NGOs like CEPREV, Fundecom and Cantera; Jose Daniel; a beautiful spokeswoman from the Sandinista Youth; a psychologist; two or three neighbors; an embedded journalist ... making a total of 14. Everyone has a piece of yarn which is tied at the waist, with the other 14 ends converging on a Bic pen tentatively hovering over the bottle. From above it looks like a giant, irregular asterisk.

The challenge is to get the Bic into the bottle without using their hands, even to pull on the strings.

Come closer a little. Pull, Pull. Allright, now you. You really want to grab it with your hand. Get closer. Now you, now you ... The pen is in the bottle, and a general sense of satisfaction spreads throughout the group. The facilitator asks everyone to evaluate the experience. Someone suggests that it shows the importance of teamwork. Another says it demonstrates that it’s good to have a leader, but he will always need support. Together we can get ahead, yet another person says.

“If we don’t work together as a team, we won’t achieve anything,” concludes Deputy Inspector Diaz, who was one of the most enthusiastic participants in the exercise.

There have been several such meetings of this kind, and more will come. Today’s will end with a feast of baho, a traditional Nicaraguan dish. The idea is to create a cross-sector committee of development and progress in Barrio Jorge Dimitrov, they say, but they want to build it with a solid foundation, such that this initial group (youth, police, NGOs, community members) is well known and respected. In the long term, the idea is far more complex than getting 14 people to work together to drop a pen into in an empty bottle of Coca-Cola. It is intended as a seed that will reduce violence in Dimitrov, an idea that sounds too ambitious, naive, [or] utopian.

And perhaps it is.

The full piece, in its original Spanish, can be read here.