As awareness of sex crimes grows gradually in Nicaragua, several communities are starting to round the wagons to defend children and punish perpetrators—sometimes extrajudicially.
On Dec. 5, a 70-year-old drunken pervert with a penchant for exposing himself to young girls was made to pay the ultimate price for his pruriency. As the old man staggered home from a weekend bender at his neighborhood bar in Ciudad Sandino, he came across two young girls standing in front of their house. He slurred some inappropriate comments at them, and then dropped his trousers.
The girls’ father, who was within shouting range, didn’t appreciate the gesture. He came running out into the street and beat the man viciously. According to reports, several street-corner youth with nothing particular to do saw the street beat-down and decided to jump into the fray, just for kicks. The man took such a beating he died of internal hemorrhaging within hours of being taken to the hospital.
The savage episode suggests a growing level of social frustration with sexual abuse and impunity, and a growing grumble for extreme measures to fight the scourge.
Tertiary ex-presidential candidate Enrique Quiñonez tapped into some of that frustration with a campaign proposal to implement draconian measures requiring chemical castration for anyone convicted of raping a minor. The proposal found strong support among voters—73% of the population backed the idea, according to an online poll in El Nuevo Diario. It turned out to be the only issue that drew any attention to Quiñonez’s campaign, although ultimately not enough to get him above 1 percent of the vote.
Other groups are focusing on prevention and detection.
In Granada, the local chapter of the National Tourism Chamber (CANATUR) has been working for the past two years to coordinate efforts between the private sector, civil society and the police to raise awareness about commercial sexual exploitation and encourage business owners to prevent and denounce such criminal behavior.
Granada’s dramatic increase in tourism over the past five years has brought the problem of sexual exploitation of minors to the surface. As more tourists ply La Calzada on their nightly rounds, more kids and teenagers have started to work the streets at all hours, selling gum and cigarettes, begging for money, performing music and dance routines for change, and offering themselves for sex to lecherous older men.
“The situation is going to get out of hand unless we do more to raise awareness and control the situation,” said Maria Isabel Canton, general manager of Hotel Plaza Colon and vice coordinator of CANATUR Granada. “We don’t want Granada to become the next Thailand.”
To combat commercial sexual exploitation, CANATUR Granada in conjunction with the Municipal Commission on Children and Adolescence is launching a new public awareness campaign in Granada’s Central Park on Dec. 12.
The campaign will ask local businesses to get involved in the public-awareness campaign by displaying twin boy and girl ragdolls with the sign “THERE ARE NO EXCUSES! !!…We are boys and girls. The commercial sexual exploitation of minors is a crime.”
In addition to holding training workshops for people working in the tourism industry, the volunteer-driven campaign will also post bilingual bumper stickers and posters around town to bring more attention to the problem and encourage people to denounce exploitation.
International youth-activist group Casa Alianza is also working with the government to improve coordinated efforts to prevent, denounce and prosecute cases of commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking.
On Dec. 13, Casa Alianza and the Ministerio Publico will launch a brilliant new website that allows anyone with Internet access and an email account to file an online complaint or tip denouncing commercial sexual exploitation of minors or trafficking in persons.
The site, www.noalatrata.org.ni is already online.
All information sent through the site goes automatically to the Public Ministry and to Casa Alianza. The government ministry then coordinates with police to investigate the alleged crime while Casa Alianza attends to the victims and ensures that government authorities follow through on the investigation and prosecution of the crime.
The role of police
Since 2010, the National Police Force has been undergoing an institutional reorganization to focus more efforts on fighting trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation of minors.
The National Police formed its first national sex crimes units in Managua in October, 2010, and has since been working to implement the same model on a departmental level. The goal is that every department police force will eventually have a specialized police unit dedicated to combating commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking in persons.
In Granada, which has already created its own sex-crimes unit, police have shown a strong willingness to cooperate and coordinate efforts with CANATUR and civil society, according to Canton.
But investigating commercial sexual exploitation is not easy work, police insist.
In general, Nicaragua’s culture of silence, lack of education and dire socio-economic conditions make investigating sex crimes difficult, according to Granada Police Commissioner Horacio Sobalvarro.
“In the case of sex crimes, we can take the initiative to investigate but it’s very difficult when the victim is unwilling to cooperate with the investigation and provide proof,” the police chief told The Nicaragua Dispatch. “It’s sad; here in Granada we have information about an underage girl who has been a victim of sexual abuse, but she is not willing to allow the police to investigate.”
Sobalvarro says in general terms the situation has “improved a lot” since the 1960s and 70s. People have become more “socially aware” about what constitutes sex crimes, he says.
But a lot still needs to be done.
“Families are still vulnerable to this because of their (economic) situation—their lack of access to food and healthcare,” Sobalvarro said. “But it’s getting better compared to other times.”
Rights activists say government institutions—generally speaking—are showing a willingness to combat sex crimes. But budget restraints and the lack of an integral policy leaves a lot to be desired.
Casa Alianza says the National Police, the Public Ministry and the judicial system are “making advances in the specialization of their officials to combat and prosecute the crime of trafficking. But in terms of prevention and attention to victims, there is a lot to be done still.”
But the biggest and most daunting obstacle is corruption, activists claim.
“One one level, the police are working well with civil society and non-governmental organizations to help combat trafficking, but we’re only catching the small-time offenders; the big fish are being protected by high-ranking members of the police,” charges María José Argüello, national director of Casa Alianza.