Nicaragua’s Gangs: A Debate

July 12, 2012


Dennis Rodgers picked the wrong topic for his scurrilous attack on the current Sandinista government [“Nicaragua’s Gangs: Historical Legacy or Contemporary Symptom?,” spring 2012]. If there are any policy areas for which the government of President Daniel Ortega deserves praise—and there are many—its handling of gangs and its preventing of drug cartels from gaining a foothold rank near the top of the list. Police departments, not only from Central America but from around the world, have traveled to Nicaragua to study its successful programs to educate gang members for productive jobs in society.

Most of Rodgers’s examples, from the 17-year interregnum between the Sandinista governments of the 1980s and the election of Ortega in 2007, are out-of-date or are generalizations about gangs in Central America. He mentions, but dismisses without evidence, the national police programs to integrate gang members into the mainstream. Again, without a shred of supporting documentation, he claims that whatever progress the police are making against gangs is the result of force. There is a qualitative difference between Nicaragua’s National Police and army and those of the other Central American countries. Born from the guerrilla movement that overthrew the Somoza dictatorship, neither the police nor the army has turned into a force of repression. Aminta Granera, chief of the National Police, is a former nun! What other country can make that claim?

Rodgers admits that the number of gangs in Nicaragua is decreasing under the Ortega government, but in order to support his thesis, he then creates a new kind of gang, cartelitos, which he claims are supplanting them. He provides no evidence. Indeed, he admits, “there exist no reliable figures on the number of cartelitos in present-day Nicaragua.” NACLA readers are too sophisticated to fall for such a transparent propaganda ploy.

“Nicaragua’s Gangs” would simply be a poorly researched article were it not for the libelous polemics in the final two paragraphs, in which Rodgers calls the Ortega government a “venal oligarchy run by a small elite satisfied to promote a form of what might be termed ‘hacienda feudalism.’ ” He continues: “This system generates only enough economic surplus to maintain the group’s exclusive lifestyle—in the sense of being both luxurious in nature and very much restricted to this elite, which has abdicated its responsibilities to the rest of society.” The 100,000 women who have been raised out of extreme poverty thanks to the Zero Hunger program would beg to differ. The families of 800,000 children who couldn’t attend school but now can because it is free, and the millions who have benefited from free health care, newly won literacy, and legal titles to their land might wonder if Rodgers has even visited their country since 2007.

In the final paragraph, Rodgers accuses the Sandinista government of running the country along the lines of a “drug cartel” and likens it to “the iniquitous socio-economic regime that led to the original Sandinista revolution in 1979.” Of course, that doesn’t explain why the people of Nicaragua returned Ortega to office with 63% of the free and fair vote in November 2011! The results were confirmed by the report of the electoral observation mission of the Organization of American States, released January 23. While noting irregularities, the report said that the samples taken by the mission were “similar to those released by the Supreme Electoral Council,” adding: “We also had knowledge of similar proceedings [exit polls or quick counts] with the same conclusions.”

We read the types of lies Rodgers is peddling many times in the corporate press during the 1980s. Under the resurgent Sandinista government, Nicaragua has again become what the U.K. chapter of Oxfam once called “the threat of a good example.” Those who hate the idea of a sovereign, dignified, just, and prosperous Nicaragua cannot abide that.

We would welcome a scholarly article in NACLA about Nicaragua’s gang programs. There are many cities in the United States that could benefit from adopting some of their successful policies. Rodgers’s political tract is not that article.


Chuck Kaufman and Katherine Hoyt

National Co-Coordinators

Nicaragua Network

Washington, D.C.





Dennis Rodgers Replies

As Chuck Kaufman and Katherine Hoyt point out, there is something terribly irritating about “scurrilous” attacks. I find their criticism of my article rather irksome in this regard, since it seems principally based on uninformed, knee-jerk reaction and crude emotional manipulation. I find it particularly exasperating that they portray my article as an anti-Sandinista “political tract,” associating it with “the types of lies . . . peddl[ed] many times in the corporate press during the 1980s.” It’s especially exasperating since we are definitely on the same side of the barricades concerning the incredible achievements of the Sandinista revolution. While it is clear that we do not agree about the nature of the current Sandinista government, this kind of “either you’re with us or against us” fundamentalism is not helpful to promoting constructive exchange and debate.

I would like nothing more than for Nicaragua to be “sovereign, dignified, just, and prosperous,” as Kaufman and Hoyt put it. But the current Sandinista government is not promoting such an outcome. It bears little resemblance to its predecessor Sandinista governments of the 1980s, whether from an ideological perspective or in terms of its achievements. Many commentators, both pro- and anti-Sandinista, have pointed out that the figures concerning the number of beneficiaries from the Zero Hunger program or the new literacy campaign should be treated with skepticism—as Mark Twain famously put it, quoting Disraeli: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics”—and the free access to schooling, as I’ve observed it, is often rather theoretical in practice. Moreover, if one looks at Nicaragua’s tax regime, which actually increases rather than decreases inequality, as well as the distribution of asset ownership among the country’s political elite (including the Sandinista leadership), a very different picture of the country’s contemporary political economy emerges.

The same also applies to the Nicaraguan National Police’s handling of gangs and its putative prevention of drug cartels from gaining a foothold in the country. To invoke the fact that Aminta Granera, chief of the National Police, is a former nun is neither here nor there in this regard. As the Nicaraguan researcher José Luis Rocha has demonstrated in an article based on meticulous participatory research that I cite in my piece, the Nicaraguan police’s rhetoric about its “alternative” and preventative anti-gang programs is in the main just that: rhetoric. Although the police have not implemented anything like a mano dura initiative, their actions on the ground in poor urban neighborhoods are by no means nonviolent, even if they are not as brutal as police action in other Central American countries. In Managua, this is largely because the city has been securitized for the elite through a series of particular infrastructural transformations, with the result that violence remains contained to poor neighborhoods and very rarely spills out to areas such as the Zona Rosa or the city’s more affluent neighborhoods.

To this extent, the dystopian evolution of gangs over the past two decades that I trace in my article arguably reveals much about the broader societal dynamics in post-revolutionary Nicaragua. Most of my information about gangs and cartelitos derives from the 16 years of repeated longitudinal ethnographic research I have been carrying out in a poor Managua neighbourhood (which I compare and contextualize with the work of other researchers carrying out similar investigations both in Managua and other Nicaraguan cities). Dismissing such qualitative ethnographic research as not constituting proper “evidence” is a subjective epistemological choice, but I dare say it would be surprising if I offered precise statistics on the number of gangs or cartelitos in present-day Nicaragua, since they are, after all, illegal organizations that are unlikely to stand up to be counted by government agencies.

What I can say with certainty, however, is that I have observed a clear degradation of everyday life for a majority in poor urban neighborhoods such as the one where I have been carrying out research since 1996. This is a tragedy, not a “good example”—and all the more so considering Nicaragua’s powerful and long-standing association with inspiring utopian politics.


Dennis Rodgers

Senior Research Fellow

Brooks World Poverty Institute University of Manchester


Read the rest of NACLA’s Summer 2012 issue: “Latin America and the Global Economy.”



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