Nicaragua’s Gangs: Historical Legacy or Contemporary Symptom?

March 22, 2012

On the morning of October 9, 2010, the corpses of three men, Wilfredo Barraza Larios, José Ángel Varela, and José Varela Jr., were found riddled with bullets in a field in the southern Nicaraguan municipality of Cárdenas. They had been tied up, and there was clear evidence that they had been tortured.1 These were the first drug cartel execution-style killings to take place in Nicaragua and were followed less than three weeks later with another, when the body of José Higinio Ruiz Escoto was found in his incinerated car, having been shot three times, twice in the face, and once in the back of his neck.2 Exactly who was responsible for these killings was never established, but it was widely speculated that the perpetrators were youth gang members hired by international drug traffickers.3

Contemporary Central American gangs are often considered a legacy of the wars and conflicts that notoriously afflicted the region during the 1970s and 1980s. They are frequently portrayed as the principal reason for the region’s continuing high levels of violence, which according to some estimates are actually higher than during the years of war and revolutionary conflict. Although there is no doubt that gangs are major actors in the contemporary political economy of violence in Central America, they are arguably less a legacy of past wars and revolutions and more a consequence of there having been no resolution to the many social, political, and economic issues that led to war and revolution in the first place.

The emergence of gangs as a persistent social phenomenon in Central America societies can be traced back to the 1940s, when the region underwent large-scale urbanization. Gangs emerged principally in squatter settlements as informal vigilante and self-protection groups in uncontrolled areas of rapidly growing cities. As such, they were an epiphenomenon of the first major regional push toward capitalist modernization. Gangs remained a relatively minor social concern through to the 1970s, when they became caught up in the wider conflicts and civil strife that affected much of the isthmus at the time. During the 1980s, gangs disappeared from view, partly due to the proliferation of more powerful violent actors—such as armies, guerrillas, and paramilitary groups—as well as, in some countries, military conscription.

The beginning of the 1990s saw gangs reemerge with a vengeance, however. Although numerous myths and stereotypes surround this return, the standard story generally invokes the legacies of prolonged conflict in the region, as well as the large-scale post-war deportation of Central American refugees from the United States, especially those who had been involved in Los Angeles gangs.4 These two factors are only part of the story, however, and do not apply uniformly to all the countries in the region, which display significant variation in their gang violence. In order to understand this, though, it is first and foremost important not to treat contemporary Central American gangs in a generic manner.

In particular, it is critical to distinguish between maras and pandillas. The former are a phenomenon with transnational roots, while the latter are more localized, home-grown gangs that are the direct inheritors of the gangs that have been a historic feature of Central American urban society. Pandillas were initially present throughout the region in the post-conflict period of the 1990s but are now only significantly visible in Nicaragua, having been almost completely supplanted by maras in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. (Although in Guatemala the terms pandilla and mara are sometimes used interchangeably.)

The contemporary pandilla manifestation has its immediate origins in the aftermath of peace during the 1990s, when demobilized combatant youth in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala returned to their home communities and found themselves facing heightened uncertainty, insecurity, and socio-economic flux. Drawing on what was effectively a traditional institutional vehicle for youth collective action, they formed pandillas as local vigilante-style self-defense groups. From such organic beginnings, these groups rapidly developed particular behavior patterns, including semi-ritualized forms of gang warfare regulated by strict codes and expectations. At the same time, pandillas in the 1990s were more numerous and also much more violent than their predecessors in the 1940s and 1950s, undoubtedly a result of the years of war and insurrection, insofar as these provided youth with unprecedented martial skills and led to a proliferation of weapons in the region. The new pandillas were also much more institutionalized than their predecessors, which more often than not had ephemeral, generational concerns. Post-conflict pandillas developed hierarchies and rules and adopted names that persisted over time, despite member turnover as successive generations naturally “matured out.”

Maras, on the other hand, are very different. On the one hand, they are unquestionably something of a transnational transposition, insofar as they are directly linked to the deportation of Central American refugees from the United States in the mid-1990s—almost a quarter of the 200,000 deported between 1998 and 2005 were convicts, although not all were gang members.5 On the other hand, maras come from more than just a transplanted U.S. gang culture; rather, they are a consequence of its amalgamation with local pandilla culture. Certainly, the maras of Central America are culturally quite different from U.S. gangs, and the number of deportee gang members—which was never as high as generally reported—has also been declining steadily since the mid-1990s, to the extent that they very much constitute a minority of contemporary Central American mareros.6 In other words, maras represent a particular kind of hybrid gang culture that combines certain U.S. gang practices with local dynamics but, most critically, is less embedded in local social norms than pandillas. Because of this, maras are generally both more violent and less territorially localized than pandillas, and they also very early became more “professional” than pandillas, in particular becoming involved much more extensively in hardcore criminal activities like extortion, racketeering, and drug dealing.

A common point between pandillas and maras, however, is that their evolutionary trajectories over time can be directly related to the changing nature of broader social structures and processes. As such, they cannot be conceived solely as legacies of war but have to be seen as contemporary social epiphenomena. This is perhaps most obvious in Nicaragua, where contrary to the northern Central American countries there are no maras, but pandillas are extensively present. The reason for this particular trend is that Nicaragua has a very low deportation rate from the United Stated—less than 3% of all Central American deportees from the United States are Nicaraguan. Also, Nicaraguans emigrating to the United States mainly settle in Miami. According to 2004 U.S. Census data, only 12% of the Nicaraguan population in the United States is located in Los Angeles, where they account for just 4% of Central Americans in the city, while in Miami they represent 47%. The Miami gang scene is dominated by African American and Cuban American gangs that do not let Nicaraguans join, in contrast to the more ecumenical L.A. gangs.7 Having said this, the particular political economy of Nicaraguan pandillas arguably makes them a globally more representative instance of youth gangsterism than the maras, which represent a rather unique transnational development.


Pandillas in Nicaragua came to the fore during the early 1990s, as demobilized Sandinista Popular Army conscripts and Contra fighters formed local neighborhood-level vigilante groups to protect their families and friends in the face of post-conflict circumstances of high crime and insecurity. For many of these youth, becoming gang members seemed a natural continuation of their previous roles as conscripts or guerrilleros, since joining a gang was widely seen as a means of “serving” and “protecting” friends, families, and local communities in a post-war context marked by heightened political polarization and spiraling insecurity.8 Although pandilla violence undoubtedly often had deleterious consequences for local populations, these were generally indirect, with the threat stemming principally from other pandillas, that the local pandilla engaged with in a prescribed, semi-ritualized manner that offered local communities a certain sense of predictability, and therefore a system of functional order. As a result, community members often strongly identified with local pandillas, to the extent that these arguably constituted the principal anchor for notions of local community in a wider context of social fragmentation, political disillusion, and collective breakdown.

In the early 2000s, these vigilante pandillas moved from displaying solidarity with their local neighborhood communities and offering localized forms of protection, social order, and communal belonging to being more exclusive and parochial organizations. Rather than protecting and federating local neighborhood inhabitants, as they had previously, pandillas acted principally in order to ensure the proper functioning of emergent local drug economies—which they integrated as street dealers—by imposing localized regimes of terror directed against the communities within which they were embedded. Creating a climate of fear through frequently repeated threats and arbitrary acts of violence, pandilleros made certain that nothing impeded their illegal dealings. This trajectory can be directly related to the broader transformation of post-conflict Nicaragua. In particular, the adoption of a transnationalized and neoliberal economic model meant that large swathes of the Nicaraguan labor force—generally uneducated, unskilled, and youthful—have been able to access fewer and fewer licit economic opportunities, as traditionally labor-intensive economic sectors like agriculture and fishing are squeezed in favor of financial services or free trade zone assembly work. Many youth have been consequently forced to turn to illegal economic activities.9

As a pandillero named Kalia from the poor Managua barrio Luis Fanor Hernández explained forcefully during an interview in 2002:

“What the fuck do you do when you don’t have any food and there’s no work? You have to find some other way to look out for yourself, that’s what! That’s where the drugs come in. It’s the only thing that’s worthwhile doing here in the barrio. It’s good money, but there isn’t enough for everybody, so it doesn’t make sense to try to help everybody, because that way nobody gets enough. You can’t eat people’s love and gratitude, you know, so you have to first make sure that you have something, and then maybe give a bit to your family and friends, if there’s anything left, but nobody else. That’s why the gang doesn’t try to do things for the neighborhood anymore, because it doesn’t work.”

Such a survival strategy obviously raises questions concerning social sustainability, a critical issue that the further evolution of pandillas also highlights. By the end of the 2000s, Nicaraguan pandillas generally began to decline as a new type of group began to emerge, involving both youth and adults, moreover generally no longer from a single neighborhood. These organizations tend to display a far greater degree of professionalism in their drug-related activities, to the extent that they can actually be considered closer to being organized criminal groups than gangs, as is well reflected in the widespread use of the term cartelito (“little cartel”) to describe them locally. In particular, cartelitos have significantly reduced their involvement in local drug-dealing activities and refocused on drug-trafficking instead, partly due to the much higher profits to be made. At the same time, they clearly occupy the same sociological space as pandillas, as is well reflected in their tendency to violently prevent local youth from congregating on street corners and coalescing into a pandilla that might challenge them. More broadly, however, they are something of a shadowy presence in poor neighborhoods and a heightened source of significant fear and insecurity among the general population, partly because local inhabitants have no clear idea whom the cartelitos involve nor of their specific activities.

There exist no reliable figures on the number of cartelitos in present-day Nicaragua, but official Nicaraguan National Police statistics do suggest that the number of pandillas in Nicaragua is declining.10 Rather than pointing to the rise of cartelitos, the Nicaraguan police claim that this trend is related to Nicaragua’s “preventative” violence-reduction policies, which they view as more enlightened than the repressive mano dura policies notoriously put in place in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.11 Recent research, however, has found that this stance is more rhetorical than substantive and that repression is very much the guiding principle of anti-pandilla police action on the ground.12 At the same time, however, there is no doubt that police action in Nicaragua is less brutal than in the country’s northern neighbors. This is partly because urban violence has been more successfully contained in the slums of the country’s major cities—while security has been concurrently increased in the more affluent urban areas—through a range of infrastructural developments that have led to a significant socio-spatial segregation.13 In other Central American countries, urban violence is much more evenly distributed and affects both rich and poor.

At the same time, however, Nicaragua’s lack of maras also explains why the country is less violent than the northern Central American countries, insofar as pandillas are more deeply embedded in local institutional structures than maras and therefore respond to local norms and limitations. This also explains why Nicaraguan police action is less brutal, insofar as violence generally begets violence. The more embedded nature of Nicaragua pandillas is also a reason that their professionalization has occurred at a slower pace than that of the maras (indeed, the rapid transformation of the latter can also be related to the more repressive anti-gang policies implemented by the northern Central American countries).14 This trend is clearly changing, however. As mentioned previously, 2010 saw the first drug cartel execution-style killings in Nicaragua, and the government of Daniel Ortega recently deployed over 1,000 soldiers into the Nicaraguan countryside, ostensibly to deal with gangs—which are very much an urban phenomenon.15 The more plausible reason for the rural military deployment is the increasing importance of drug-trafficking groups, which according to some reports have taken over large swathes of the Nicaraguan countryside, especially in the northern Caribbean region.16

The ominous evolution of Nicaraguan pandillas can in many ways be seen as a reflection of the broader political economy of Nicaraguan society, which has transformed in the post-conflict period from having been an inspiring, albeit imperfect revolutionary endeavor in the 1980s into a venal oligarchy run by a small elite satisfied to promote a form of what might be termed “hacienda feudalism.” 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.17 The recent WikiLeaks revelations provide strong evidence suggesting that the current government of Nicaragua—the second coming of the Sandinistas, who are now fully enrolled members of the oligarchy—“has regularly received money to finance . . . electoral campaigns from international drug traffickers, usually in return for ordering Sandinista judges to allow traffickers caught by the police and military to go free.”18


Contemporary Nicaragua is, in other words, effectively being run very much along the lines of a drug cartel, and the evolution of the country’s gangs over the past 20 years simply reflects at the micro level what has been going on at the macro level. In many ways, however, this particular trajectory also represents a return to the type of iniquitous socio-economic regime that led to the original Sandinista revolution in 1979. The key question, then, is whether the gangs’ violent and dystopian evolution is a tragic harbinger of a continuing and persistent crisis in contemporary Central America, or whether new forms of progressive mass social mobilization are possible in the region.



Dennis Rodgers is Senior Research Fellow in the Brooks World Poverty Institute, University of Manchester, United Kingdom.




1. See Lésber Quintero, “Tres ejecutados,” El Nuevo Diario (Managua), October 10, 2010.

2. See Lésber Quintero, “Una nueva ejecución,” El Nuevo Diario, October 31, 2010.

3. See Carlos Larios, “Expertos no creen en maras y sicarios,” El Nuevo Diario, January 6, 2011. (Note that the title of this article is misleading.)

4. See Anika Oettler, “The Central American Fear of Youth,” International Journal of Conflict and Violence 5, no. 2 (2011): 261–76.

5. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Crime and Development in Central America: Caught in the Crossfire (United Nations, 2007), 40–42.

6. Demoscopía, Maras y pandillas: Comunidad y policía en Centroamérica (San José, Demoscopía, 2007), 49.

7. See José Luis Rocha, “Mareros y pandilleros: ¿Nuevos insurgentes, criminales?” Envío, no. 293 (2006).

8. See Dennis Rodgers, “Living in the Shadow of Death: Gangs, Violence, and Social Order in Urban Nicaragua, 1996–2002,” Journal of Latin American Studies 38, no. 2 (2006): 267–92.

9. See William I. Robinson, Transnational Conflicts: Central America, Social Change, and Globalization (Verso, 2003).

10. See Policía Nacional de Nicaragua, Atención y Tratamiento a las Pandillas: Un Modelo Preventivo en Desarrollo (report), October 15, 2007, available at

11. See Policía Nacional de Nicaragua, Sistematización del Modelo Policial Comunitario Proactivo de Nicaragua (Policía Nacional de Nicaragua, 2011).

12. See José Luis Rocha, “Mapping the Labyrinth From Within: The Political Economy of Nicaraguan Youth Policy Concerning Violence,” Bulletin of Latin American Research 26, no. 4 (2007): 533–49.

13. See Dennis Rodgers, “Haussmannization in the Tropics: Abject Urbanism and Infrastructural Violence in Urban Nicaragua,” Ethnography 13, no. 4 (forthcoming, 2012).

14. See Oliver Jütersonke, Robert Muggah, and Dennis Rodgers, “Gangs, Urban Violence, and Security Interventions in Central America,” Security Dialogue 40, nos. 4–5 (2009): 373–97.

15. See Hannah Stone, “Nicaragua Deploys 1,000 Soldiers to Tackle Rural Crime,” InSight Crime, December 19, 2011.

16. See Elízabeth Romero, “General Avilés dice que controlan territorio,” La Prensa (Managua), March 20, 2010.

17. See Dennis Rodgers, “A Symptom Called Managua,” New Left Review, no. 49 (January/February 2008): 1–17.

18. Paul A. Trivelli, “Cable en el que jueces sandinistas ponen en libertad a ‘narcos’ a cambio de dinero,” U.S. Embassy in Managua cable, 06MANAGUA1003, released by WikiLeaks via




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