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Help for Nicaragua's violent slums

by Marko Kokic
In a barrio of Tipitapa, a town on the outskirts of Managua, Nicaragua, a Red Cross health post set up in the home of a volunteer stands on an unpaved road separating the territory of two rival street gangs.

A group of young men, members of a gang called Los Charcones, approach the street carrying pickaxes and shovels. They come from burying 19-year-old Norvin Sanchez, stabbed to death a few days earlier in a fight. The rival gang — Los Roqueros — quickly assembles to face the perceived invasion. Insults and jeers are exchanged. One of the older Charcones steps forward wearing a red bandana on his head, his shirtless torso covered with tattoos. Brandishing a stick, he points menacingly towards Los Roqueros as if to say, "We will finish this another time". The Charcones walk away, an uneasy peace returns to the barrio.

The war in Nicaragua officially ended 13 years ago, yet fighting continues in its streets. The combatants wear no uniforms, nor do they fight over ideological differences. They fight over territory, sometimes for a few city blocks or a football field. Their weapons range from primitive sticks and knives, to home-made 'zip' guns, to AK-47 assault rifles and fragmentation grenades. Hundreds of gangs with thousands of members are responsible for nearly half of the crime in the country.



Red Cross out on the street

The Red Cross Casa Base project, run by the Nicaraguan Red Cross in collaboration with the ministry of health, monitors the growth and general health of children in participating communities. Usually someone offers their home as a base from where Red Cross health promoters can work. In addition, health and nutrition educational programmes are offered to mothers, particularly in the prevention of diarrhoea and respiratory diseases. Health surveillance and follow-up are done through home visits. The programme is a way to ease the already overburdened health system by using Red Cross volunteers as auxiliaries to the community health post. Today there are 90 Red Cross volunteers involved in the programme.

A project like Casa Base, in Tipitapa's San Jose barrio, is according to Richard McCabe, head of the Canadian Red Cross delegation in Nicaragua, "an entry point into the community, a way to empower people and demonstrate that they can change things by taking responsibility for their health". But as the number of gangs rises, a vibrant, passionate, intrinsically social culture that was on the street slowly retreats behind walls, gates and razor wire.

There are at least 20 gangs or pandillas, as they are referred to locally, in Tipitapa. When the Tipitapa branch of the Nicaraguan Red Cross began to work in this community two years ago, it was only a matter of time before its volunteers would encounter problems with them. Eight months earlier, Red Cross youth volunteers making home visits were robbed at knifepoint. On another occasion, volunteers confronted gang members and were shot at with a home-made canon. No one was hurt, but the message was clear.

"We could have gone to the police but that would have only made things worse," explains Edgar Sanchez, a Nicaraguan Red Cross community health facilitator. "We decided to engage the gang leaders in a dialogue to explain how we help the community, their friends and even their families. They are informal leaders of the communities we work in and it was a mistake to have neglected them earlier."

Coping with drugs and violence

During Nicaragua's civil war in the 1980s, people fled fighting in the rural areas and sought safety and work in the cities. When the war ended in 1990, 92,000 soldiers were demobilized, only to come home to poverty and unemployment. Impoverished communities like Tipitapa, with its 175,000 inhabitants, were unable to absorb such a large, unskilled labour force.

Gang membership offered many people a way to fit into the new realities of post-conflict Nicaragua. Although most veterans and other adults have outgrown the gangs, new recruits have taken their place, as over 60 per cent of Nicaragua's population is under 25. In 1988 there were an estimated 20 gangs in the capital city of Managua; today there are over 100.

The war exposed people to unprecedented levels of brutality. The result is that violent crime has tripled since 1990. Domestic violence plagues most poor barrios, while drug trafficking and the trading of illicit arms are fuelling urban warfare. The influx of harder gang members from the United States as a result of deportations has also made Nicaragua's gangs more violent.

Poverty as the root cause

A visit to the homes of some members of Los Roqueros reveals the extreme conditions of poverty they and their families endure. Brothers Bismark and Miguel are older gang members. Their mother is unemployed and their father works as a street peddler. The shack and dirt floor is what they call home.

Nicaragua has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Central America with 45 per cent of all pregnancies involving girls between 15 and 19 years old. Central America continues to be extremely conservative when it comes to sex education and family planning. "When children have children, it's a recipe for disaster," says Red Cross volunteer health promoter, Oscar Danilo Santa Maria. "If home life is tough, children will look outside the home to get the love and support they need. Look around, you will see all these young kids hanging around the older gang members. They are the role models."

The local newspapers stigmatize the gangs rather than discuss the reasons for their existence. Los Roqueros are preoccupied with something quite different from what the papers claim. They want a safe place to play football. In fact, much of the fighting between them and the rival gang stems over which group controls the local football field.

"Fundamentally we are friends who hang out together," explains Castillo, a Roqueros leader. "We started this gang about five years ago to protect ourselves from other gangs."

The three leaders of Los Roqueros have modest goals. Monstro would like to be a carpenter, Castillo a manager of a company and Lulu a construction engineer. To Los Roqueros, high unemployment coupled with little education make these careers seem far beyond their reach.

"It is obvious that if we want to continue working in the community we need to address the gang issues in some way or another. Apart from simply ensuring security we have an opportunity, through the Red Cross, to give young people an alternative," explains Edgar Sanchez of the Nicaraguan Red Cross.

Red Cross volunteer monitoring the weight
of a child as part of the Casa Base project.


Focusing on community renewal

Three years ago the Tipitapa community health post looked much like its barrios: dilapidated, vandalized, menaced by the gangs. The Canadian Red Cross recognized the vulnerabilities of the community and with funding from the Canadian International Development Agency invested in the repair of the health post.

"As an integrated health programme, we cannot work in isolation from other problems in the community and expect overall health to improve," says Canadian head of delegation, Richard McCabe, "Gangs, crime and violence are linked to poverty and the resulting social disintegration, each contributing to aggravate the other. The renewal of the community health post and the establishment of the Casa Base
were important because they served as a symbol of people reclaiming their community. They are modest albeit important steps."

The integrated health programme is just the beginning in the renewal of the Red Cross in Tipitapa. There is recognition that more work will have to be done to address other issues faced by the community: fear and the gangs are high on the list.

Marko Kokic
Marko Kokic travelled to Central America on assignment for the International Federation.

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