TODAY NICARAGUA NEWS — Groups of youths in northern Nicaragua are starting to copy the style and tactics of the violent street gangs known as Mara Salvatrucha, which is also known as MS-13, and Barrio 18.
But the National Police have mobilized to fight this alarming trend. Nicaragua has been largely free of street gang violence, and police are working hard to keep it that way.
Reporting on the trend, appearing in La Prensa and elsewhere, has largely focused on the town of Somoto, an area of about 40,000 people near the border with Honduras. Since 2008 the area has seen the rise of ten well-organized criminal youth gangs whose more than 500 members commit armed robberies and extort money from taxi drivers, truck drivers and passersby on the streets.
The gangs have adopted the extensive tattoos and gang graffiti associated with MS-13 and Barrio 18. And Nicaraguan police have documented contacts between gangs in their country, specifically from the Somoto region, and Salvadoran factions of MS-13.
For example, in June 2013, police arrested an alleged Salvadoran MS-13 gang member named Erick Maldonado Alexander Orozco, who is also known as “Suvajo.” Before police arrested him, Suvajo was developing contacts with Nicaraguan gangs in the Somoto area, according to a report on the website Hoy.
Helping ‘at-risk’ youths
To help prevent gangs like MS-13 and Barrio 18 from taking root in Nicaragua, the country’s security officials are taking a holistic approach, combining police patrols and investigations with efforts to help “at risk” youths.
The Juvenile Affairs Division (JAD) of the Nicaragua National Police operates a Gang Resistance Education and Training program, which in 2013 graduated approximately 2,500 students. From their 42 after-school home intervention programs to over 14,000 drug prevention social activities, the JAD has maintained a number of initiatives designed to keep youths out of gangs. As many as 70 percent of Nicaraguan youths who are considered “at risk” for gang activity are enrolled in gang prevention programs involving sports or music or vocational training.
Consequently, Nicaragua has succeeded in lowering the country’s rate of violence in recent years. The country’s homicide rate dropped from more than 12 killings per 100,000 residents in 2012 to 8.7 per 100,000 inhabitants, according to a 2014 United Nations Development Program report.
“The authorities have a clear idea that the gang phenomenon has a social complexity that requires a comprehensive approach,” said Francisco Javier Bautista Lara, an independent security analyst in Nicaragua.
Source: Today Nicaragua, Dialogo Americas; La Prensa; Julieta Pelcastre contributed to this article.