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
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
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