How Nicaragua Mostly Beat the Drug Cartels and the Street Gangs
If you want to understand how drug cartels work in Latin America, you want to read Deborah Yashar’s 2018 Homicidal Ecologies: Illicit Economies and Complicit States in Latin America (Cambridge University Press). This rates along with the scholarship of Desmond Arias as being some of the most important work ever written about Global South Crime.
Most of her book is about the countries with horrifically high homicide rates and deep, deep cartel penetration. Guatemala and El Salvador get particularly in-depth treatment. However, her discussion applies with equal force to Colombia, Honduras, Jamaica, Brazil and Venezuela. Contrary to American stereotypes, Mexico is only middle-of-the-pack when one is discussing Latin American homicide and cartel penetration issues. Given that Mexico’s crime rates are high and its cartel problems are serious, this tells you how bad the situation is in the extreme cases of Guatemala and El Salvador.
However, not all Latin American countries are violent places. Peru, Chile, Cuba and Argentina all have low homicide rates. Generally, Central America has more severe crime problems than do nations in South America’s Southern Cone. Spoiler Alert: The Southern Cone countries are not on the transshipment routes between cocaine producers and the American market. Central America is on the main drug thoroughfare. But being in the middle between the coca fields and the United States is not 100% of the story. Some Central American nations somehow avoided drug cartels and gang wars. Costa Rica, a well-known economic and governance super-performer, has largely avoided being sucked into the drug trade. More surprisingly, Nicaragua has been able to maintain low homicide rates and cartel involvement. The case of Nicaragua is particularly surprising because the country has high rates of poverty, high rates of youth unemployment, low rates of economic growth along with a poor track record of providing public services. Nicaragua has the highest rate of primary and secondary school dropout of any nation in Latin America.
We tend to think you can’t do anything about high crime.
The Nicaraguan case shows that you can do a lot about high crime.
You can lower crime even if your government stinks at doing everything else.
How did Nicaragua beat the drug cartels and the street gangs?
* * *
What Causes High Crime – According to Yashar
1. Crime goes up when rival gangs are fighting for territory. Normal everyday crime doesn’t involve that much killing. Criminals sell their drugs. Criminals sell other forbidden things. Criminals shake down businessmen. The businessmen pay because they don’t want to get hurt. Life is peaceful.
Turf wars change all of this. If two gangs are trying to control the same territory, they will have to fight it out. A lot of criminals will get shot. A lot of innocent bystanders will get shot as well.
2. Drug smuggling is particularly associated with turf wars. Drug smuggling is extremely lucrative.
Drugs are in some ways no different than any other form of agriculture. The farmers and cultivators who grow the stuff don’t get paid that much. They face powerful buyers who insist on paying low markups for raw commodities. Legitimate farmers have to sell to global conglomerates such as Cargill or Archer Daniels Midland. Coca farmers sell to international drug cartels. Both kinds of trading organizations use their size and international clout to drive hard bargains with individual farmers.
Individual sellers don’t get paid very much. Supermarkets live on very thin margins. Customers have choices about where they buy their groceries. They insist on buying at the lowest prices. Drugs are sold by individual dealers. Users – including addicts – have a lot of choices as to from whom they score their drugs. Individual street sellers have to keep their prices low.
The big money is in processing and transshipment. The price of soybeans goes up dramatically after Archer Daniels Midland turns soybeans into tofu or animal feed. The price also goes up dramatically between Archer Daniels Midland making animal feed in Argentina and selling that animal feed in China. Similarly, there is a huge price difference between raw coca and processed cocaine. The price of shipped coca product is far higher in the United States than it is in Colombia where it was produced. The substantial revenue associated with turning coca into cocaine and transporting it to its final market all accrues to the cartels, rather than to farmers or dealers.
Drug wars are about fighting for territory in which processed drugs can be transported. The drug runners need storage points, transfer points and guarantees that neither police nor rival gangs will interfere with the transshipment. Drug wars are about getting safe space for a high mark-up business.
3. Actual battles over territories produce short-term spikes in violent activity. They do not produce high day-to-day levels of crime. Years in which a drug war occurs generate homicide rates that are absolutely astronomical. However, these are explosive “one-off” events. Once there is a winner in the battle over turf, life returns to “normal” conditions.
4. The “normal” high crime of cartel-infested areas does not come from the cartels themselves. The cartels are running their business, making a lot of money and do not particularly want to be disturbed. The everyday crime in drug-running areas comes from the collapse of law and order associated with the collapse of the police and the collapse of the system of legal social control. The police are corrupt. The courts are corrupt. The jails are corrupt. There is no law and order because there is no enforcement of the criminal code. Small-time criminals can do what they like, so long as they stay out of the way of the drug cartels. Kidnapping abounds. Petty thievery abounds. Extortion abounds. Street crime abounds. Often the criminals are organized gangs. The criminals can just as well be individual miscreants. The collapse of the police and the court system leads to a collapse of security of all kinds.
5. There is a giant “which came first – the chicken or the egg” question associated with the presence of cartels and the collapse of legal order. The gangs look for and prey on territories where institutions of social control are weak. They look for police departments they can bribe. They look for district attorneys they can buy out. They look for army officers who are willing to go on their payroll. The gangs absolutely buy off every corrupt law enforcement official they can as part of their system of obtaining control.
BUT countries and regions vary in the extent to which the police and courts can be bought in the first place. Countries with weak underpaid incompetent police forces are easy pickings for gangsters. Countries with large, well-financed professional and intact law enforcement systems are too hard a nut for the cartels to crack. Since the cartels have a wide choice in which areas they use for their operation, international drug lords CHOOSE drug routes that pass through countries where the police can easily be corrupted or bought off. They AVOID countries and regions where the police have too much integrity and where there would be too many legal obstacles to setting up an enduring drug-running operation.
So what matters is how professional, well-financed and well-organized the criminal justice system is in the first place when the drug lords are considering which routes they will use for the transshipment of cocaine.
* * *
This last point explains why Nicaragua has low homicide rates while Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador have high homicide rates.
The Nicaraguan police force and criminal justice system are
d) well-integrated with local communities
e) skilled at the use of diplomacy and social integration to promote crime prevention
f) free from interference from cartels and gangs, and
g) generally effective at enforcing the law.
In contrast, most Central American police forces and criminal justice systems are
b) poorly funded
d) prone to harassment and extortion of local communities
e) overly dependent on the use of heavy-handed, brute force
f) extensively penetrated by cartels and gangs, and
g) ineffective at enforcing the law.
The superior performance of Nicaraguan police, courts and prisons motivates drug cartels to take their drug running business elsewhere. The absence of cartels actively working to undermine law enforcement increases the capacity of the police to limit the violence of urban gangs.
Why Does Nicaragua Have a Better Criminal Justice System Than Its Central American Neighbors?
The different trajectories of Nicaraguan and Central American police forces were heavily shaped by the Communist/anti-Communist civil wars of the 1980’s. Costa Rica and Panama, low-crime nations with relatively good police, had no major civil wars in the Reagan years. Their police were just everyday police, rather than combat units in a war against civilians. Law enforcement systems continued to function normally throughout the 1980’s and they continue to function well in the present day.
El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua all had either major civil wars or regional uprisings during the 1980s. Some of these conflicts were local in origin; others were either caused or exacerbated by American military attempts to undercut the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua. In El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, with the encouragement of the United States, police personnel either supported or actively participated in death squads and other paramilitary units designed to uproot leftist political activity in the civilian population as a whole.
Cohn Side-Note: Yashar does not discuss why levels of paramilitary activity were so high during this period. My own take follows that of Jasmin Hristov. The rise of paramilitaries was not entirely the result of U.S. intervention. Local economic elites, high-level civilian political figures and members of the local militaries all favored the use of violent means to control their local populations. Some of their concern was fear of being overthrown by communist revolutionaries. However, in many cases, there was a larger agenda of personal enrichment, in which military and paramilitary forces were used to clear out land that could then be used for economic projects benefitting the businessmen or generals themselves.
Back to Yashar: Regardless of why paramilitary activity was high among security forces in Central America, the effects of the use of police for general shakedowns of the population were devastating. People are generally afraid and suspicious of the police anyway; this is particularly the case of poverty populations. The use of police for the kidnapping, torturing and murder of innocent civilians undercut the trust relationship between civil society and the police. In the postwar era, it became very difficult for the police to do investigations or detective work even in benign situations. During the war years, paramilitary work gravitated into all-purpose extortion. Shaking down vulnerable populations for money became entrenched police behavior. With extortion came bribery. With bribery came a collapse of normal civil service procedures to ensure minimum performance on the part of public servants. The police in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador became notoriously ineffective. Yashar documents this with statistics showing appallingly low arrest rates and conviction rates for major crimes. Low arrest rates and conviction rates mean criminals can act with impunity. In Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, they did just that.
Why was Nicaragua different? In Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, the governments that used police as paramilitaries won their civil wars. While the peace agreements signed in each country promised demilitarization of the police and significant police reform, in fact no such reforms actually happened. So, the kidnappers, torturers and extorters who were active during the war remained in uniform and with police power after the war.
In Nicaragua, the revolutionaries won. The Sandinista revolutionaries loathed, execrated, despised and abhorred the violent police force of the Somoza government they had overthrown. The population that had supported the Sandinistas in their campaign also despised Somoza’s police. One of the earliest moves of the Sandinista government was to completely dismantle the police force and the paramilitaries. The new police organizations were staffed with civilians who were completely opposed to the police abuses of the previous decades. The Sandinista government, the new police officers and the general population all wanted an alternative to the violent policing associated with the former dictatorship.
The new police organizations favored minimal use of arrests, minimal use of imprisonment, absolute bans on the use of torture or gratuitous police violence, and active engagement with local communities to prevent problems before they escalated to the point of creating crime. Such policies seem idealistic and naïve to American readers. However, this is standard police procedure in Japan. Japan is characterized by one of the lowest crime rates in the world. In both Japan and Sandinista Nicaragua, the police were not stupid or patsies. They would work to defuse neighborhood conflicts. They would work to connect needy people with social services. They would work with alienated or unattached youth to find appealing non-criminal uses for their energies. However, if particular individuals continued to be stubborn or predatory, both Japanese and Sandinista police forces would intervene with a strong hand. Dangerous or persistent offenders would be arrested, neutralized and jailed, following all of the procedures of sound policework and respect for the defendant’s legal rights. Because police were now viewed favorably, communities would assist in providing useful information to investigators. Because both police budgets and police esprit de corps were high, corruption was rare; investigations led to arrests and convictions.
The new police system was so popular that it persisted even after the Sandinistas lost elections and were driven from political power. (Daniel Ortega, the longstanding Sandinista leader, regained power in 2016; he is still President in 2023 as this essay is being written.) While transitions from left to right and back to left again have changed many aspects of Nicaraguan policy, the post-revolutionary reform of the police has remained in place. Nicaragua continues to have low crime rates today.
* * *
Nothing in history is permanent. Yashar is fully aware of the pressures being faced by low crime Central American nations where both drug trafficking and gang activity are starting to increase. Every country in Central America has a poverty problem. Every country in Central America has budgetary issues that impede the adequate funding of police. New generations of politicians can turn to criminals to gain support in winning elections. If those alliances succeed, the criminals have chits that they can cash with the new incumbents. When Homicidal Ecologies was going to press in 2018, Yashar added text noting increasing crime rates in Nicaragua, although these were far below those of Nicaragua’s more violent neighbors.
Things improve. Things fall apart. Jamaica had much lower crime rates in 1990 than they did in 2005, or than they do today. Singapore was a violent gang-ridden city up through World War II. It is one of the safest places in the world today.
Yashar shows that insuring the integrity of the police is fundamental to creating low crime rates. Furthermore, police that treat civilians nicely are far more effective than police that harass or extort the local population. It is not always possible to get rid of poverty, get rid of youth unemployment, or avoid foreign geopolitical meddling in one’s country. But one can work on insuring that the police do their job, and that the police treat people fairly and well.
Nice cops means nice criminals. Seems like a reasonable deal.
For More Information
Most of the material on statistical differences between nations comes from Yashar’s book. The educational statistic for Nicaragua can be found at:
Readers who want to read more Desmond Arias – and you can’t read too much Desmond Arias – might want to look at his 2006 Drugs and Democracy in Rio de Janeiro (University of North Carolina Press) or his 2017 Criminal Enterprise and Governance in Latin America and the Caribbean. (Cambridge)
Readers who want to know more about the bloody history of paramilitaries in Central America and other locations may want to look at Jasmin Hristov, Jeb Sprague and Aaron Tauss’s 2021 edited collection Paramilitary Groups and the State Under Globalization. (Routledge). Two chapters concern Central America. The rest of the book has fascinating links to parallel processes elsewhere in the world.
On Jamaican crime rates, see https://www.macrotrends.net/countries/JAM/jamaica/crime-rate-statistics