Nicaragua should aim higher than safest country in Central America

While the country is working hard to fix its old image problem, it needs to do more to prevent the next one


Nicaragua, it seems, has had an image problem for as long as it has had an image.

Part of Nicaragua’s eternal public-relations predicament is a monster of its own making, while the other half is due to the collective ignorance of the lumpish masses who think that Nicaragua is A) a country in Africa, B) a country in the grips of civil war, or C) all of the above.

Nicaragua’s extreme image makeover during the past decade, following years of revolution and counterrevolution, has recast the country as “the safest in Central America.”

The campaign has worked. It’s no longer uncommon to hear people repeatedly giving Nicaragua that badge of honor. But the problem with claiming to be the best at something is that there is little motivation for improvement. Worse yet, when you are basing your claim to greatness on comparisons to your basket-case neighbors, your concept of excellence is already a bit catawampus.

Now that 2012 is coming to an end, it might be a good time for Nicaragua to set its sights a little higher for the New Year.

Instead of endeavoring to defend its title as the safest country in one of the most violent regions of the world, Nicaragua needs to start thinking about putting on a few pounds and going up to the next weight class—something the tourism industry is already trying to do. Nicaragua, after all, could be a contender—it just needs to be more disciplined with its training regimen (less fritanga, more jump rope).

The worst thing Nicaragua can do right now is rest on its laurels by just repeating its claim to safety. Nicaragua has gotten all the miles it’s going to get out of the superlative of being the safest country in Central America. It’s time to get off that horse and work harder to make Nicaragua better than it is now, not just better than the rest of Central America.

But before the advent of 2013, Nicaragua first has to get through the Christmas Craziness. December is always the nuttiest month of the year, as every tin-pot thief and aspiring criminal in the country becomes filled with an addled urgency to “collect their aguinaldo” by robbing and stealing whatever can be carted off.

Nicaraguans, expats, tourists, rich and poor—everyone is a target in December. The craziness officially began last weekend, when four of my friends and colleagues were robbed and assaulted within 48 hours in Granada—everything from a knife-point cash-grab to purse-snatching.

Luckily, most of the crimes in Nicaragua are still non-violent, or “opportunistic.” But when you constantly find yourself consoling people with the words like: “It could have been worse…” or “just be thankful you weren’t seriously injured….” or “In Honduras, they kill people…” it’s a sign that things aren’t as good as they should be.

Tourists who come to Nicaragua can spend 10 wonderful days exploring volcanoes, walking the beach, shopping in artisan markets, and washing down fried cheese with a cold Toña. But if they get robbed on the street during their visit here, that’s what they are going to talk about when they go home. They won’t be talking about how Nicaragua is the safest country in Central America.

Yes, street crime can and does occur everywhere in the world. But quite frankly, that’s a tired excuse—a helpless shrug of surrender. People’s reaction to lesser crimes now should be just the opposite; now is the time to organize and take action to prevent crime from evolving to the frightening and violent levels found in Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Belize and even Costa Rica, for that matter. 

If Nicaragua is really serious about trying to make a great leap forward to become a serious tourist destination and a standout in the region, it needs to try harder on several fronts. It’s not enough to just convince people abroad that Nicaragua is safe, “unique and original.”

After all, what good does it do to change people’s opinion about Nicaragua in other parts of the world if the country can’t clean up the streets of garbage and crime? There’s nothing “unique and original” about trash blowing around on the streets or pipeheads stealing your camera.

Nicaragua needs to stop worrying about its old image problem of being a war-torn violent nation, because that’s no longer true. People who still think that aren’t worth trying to convince otherwise. Instead, the country needs to start working on its emerging image problem as a filthy, lawless and chaotic place. A visit to Granada these days means treading through trash drifts piled up against the curbs, navigating a gauntlet of young prostitutes who aggressively ply central park to solicit every man unfortunate enough to make unintended eye contact, fending off glue-sniffing beggars with nipping fingers and faraway eyes, and plugging your ears as you run for cover from deafening din of Calle La Calzada.

For these reasons, the cruise ship companies that bring hundreds of bewildered-looking tourists to Granada each week are already threatening to cancel their excursions here. While cruise-ship shufflers might not be the ideal type of tourism for the city’s growth, Nicaragua isn’t yet in a position to be too picky about who comes here. If Granada starts scaring off the doddering older crowd, soon they’ll be left with only pinche backpackers, and some of them are undistinguishable from the glue-sniffing beggars.

After nearly 500 years of continuous existence and occasional prosper, it’s hard to imagine this is the best Granada can do. The city’s new Sandinista mayor appears willing to work with local business leaders who are trying to effect change after four years of embarrassing and sweaty leadership from the current guy, who will soon be sent back to the rice fields of Malacatoya. But, like every mayor who takes over Granada after four years of mismanagement from the previous yob, she’ll have her work cut out for her.

The good news is that Granada’s most pressing problems are still largely fixable. If the city cleans up the streets a bit, they’ll rediscover a lovely colonial city. If they regulate the noise a bit, they’ll find a charming old-world city with vendors calling out their wares, church bells chiming the hour and parrots chattering in the trees. If the government offers some social services for the drug addicts, street urchins and teenage prostitutes (after all, they number in the dozens, not the tens of thousands) they’ll clear the way for sidewalk café tourism, where visitors can enjoy a peaceful meal or an ice cream in the park.

This is not about cleaning up Nicaragua for the foreigners, this is about cleaning it up for the Nicaraguans so the country can aspire to develop, grow and prosper as an orderly and healthy tourism destination. The locals have more to gain or lose in this equation than anyone else. Tourists can always go elsewhere—and indeed they might if Nicaragua doesn’t get serious about keeping them here.

Granada’s private sector is stepping up to address part of the mess. CANATUR, the business chamber of local tourism businesses, is organizing efforts to combat commercial sexual exploitation of minors and clean up the garbage. Local police are onboard, and INTUR is along for the ride. So good things are starting to happen.

But much more needs to be done in the New Year. If Nicaragua is so proud of its citizen security and growing tourism, why does Granada only have four tourist police charged with patrolling the entire historic center on one motorcycle with no gas? Though they are dedicated and hard-working bunch, four cops to attend to the needs of an industry that sends hundreds of thousands of wallets to the city each year hardly seems sufficient—especially considering that’s about the same amount of police protection assigned to every knavish and whiskey-breathed government official who farts around the country with the pretention of nobility. Plus, every nitwit government apparatchik is given a gas subsidy by the government, while the cops are always parked on an empty tank.

In San Juan del Sur, the situation is even more troubling—and the crime is more brazen. The police’s capacity to serve and protect in the popular beach town is so deficient that one expat has started a private security force of motorized security guards that zip around town to protect their clients from break-ins and other robberies. The success of that business speaks to the failings of public security.

The police are, however, giving adequate protection to those who matter most to the government. “There are as many police officers protecting Roberto Rivas’ two mansions at the top of the hill as there are patrolling the entire town of San Juan del Sur,” said one foreign resident, referring to Nicaragua’s disreputable electoral boss, who is simultaneously building two palatial compounds above town—somewhere to unwind when he’s not misplacing ballots. “This is just another one of the ironies of living in the third world; all the police are protecting one guy while everyone else has to hire private security.”

While the country works hard to promote its image abroad and change the way people who never think about Nicaragua think about Nicaragua, it would be wise to focus more effort on improving the reality that visitors and Nicaraguans experience here every day.

Nicaragua is on the brink of a genuine tourism revolution. The country has all the tools it needs to succeed. It just needs to focus on the task at hand. After all, the best way to fix Nicaragua’s new image problem is to address the actual issues that are causing it.

  • Luciana Rojas

    Great editorial. I don’t think Nicaragua, nor even Granada is ready. The last local goverments has been a disaster and Granada is in a huge debt. The Sandinista Goverment has a good opportunity to do something for the municipalities now that they control most of them and all the national institutions, the problem is that they are not interest in development, just in controlling the country.

  • David Myrick

    What a great article and so true! I work in Sales and I am in Nicaragua almost each month and have visited all areas of the Country. One suggestion I would make is why not use the non-violent offenders being held in jail to help keep the highways and streets clean? We do that here in the United States and it saves us a tremendous amount of money. Also, I have been a victim of being mugged in San Juan Del Sur and the sad part is that they caught them and even came up with my cash from my wallet but told me they needed it for two days for evidence. Well, you can imagine what happened when I returned to the police station to get it;somehow disappeared. I love Nicaragua and have had several friends visit and even buy property but there are definitely some areas that could improve!

  • Jennifer Jurgens

    Great editorial.

  • Nospam Sonny

    Can you please stop trying to turn Nicaragua into a cheap Costa Rica? Thanks.

    • Kelvin

      How does that work Nospan?… Trying to make it secure makes it cheap?

      And you were the fourth post…didn’t the others give you a Clue?

  • ells

    Great editoral!

  • Pat Withrow

    I have owned a home in Granada for seven years, have seen it grow in tourism and better safety. However my home is broken into regularly with much expense. I find this article very perceptive and hope Nicaragua continues to improve and tourism increases. The people for the most part are wonderful, I am too old for the teenage girls.

  • Mike @ Farmstay El Porton Verde

    I like the tone of this editorial by Tim Rogers. There is a lot of petty crime and just plain old hassles that one has to deal with here, whether tourist or resident.
    I personally know a couple who had an off-duty policeman and his henchman break into their home. They shot one dead and injured the other guy. So it is not just small-time stuff…
    (Knocking on wood…) In almost two years we have not had any problems in our area in a small shire in the hills south of Managua overlooking Ticuantepe and Volcano Masaya.
    I wonder if there is a cause and effect going on here where the street crime predominates where the majority of tourists visit? There are several reasons why I did not choose to live with a bunch of gringos and it seems to me that this editorial points out yet another reason to be happy for that decision.

  • Ken Granacki

    I think the editorial started with a good idea but got away from the point and went into a lot of complaining. I agree that Nicaragua is a wonderful country. I would love to see it continue to improve and become even safer and be more inviting. That is why I have bought property here and love to visit as often as I can. After that I think the editorial got off track. Yes, there are break ins and theft. A lot less here than in Detroit, Chicago, or LA. This country does need to clean up and work on supporting is police units. Amigos de policia is trying to help do that. There are other organizations that are out there to try to feed the poor and get the people off the street. I am here now and have seen less glue sniffers than in past visits. Maybe if someone had the time an resources to do a rehab for them it that would be a great project. There are prostitutes on the Calzada,maybe arrest a few of the gringos that patronize them. If the business went away then so would they. The street dogs are fewer and healthier than in years past. Thanks to Donna Tabor and others for making that happen. I see the country as expanding and becoming better each and every visit. The construction to expand the Calzada is wonderful and will help the city in its recruiting of tourists. Every time I come there is another shop to explore and more people to meet. Until the standard of living is raised there will be thefts and robberies. The only way to reduce that is to help the police do their jobs. See Darrell Bushnell in Granada to donate to his group to help the police with gas money and stuff to help them do their jobs better. Working on making this country better is a much better option, in my opinion, then complaining about it.

  • Rob Laurich

    An excellent editorial, As safe as Granada and Nicaragua as a whole are, the petty crime is very problematic. Whereas Central Park should be the crown jewel of Granada, it is frankly scary late in the day. As for the youth who hang out on the side of the Cathedral, some outreach should be done with them. I find it heart breaking to see these youngsters deteriorating without anyone one helping them.

    • Fhuh Kew

      Outreach is a .223 from a roof top. Fuhgm.

  • Darrell Bushnell

    Good timely article, Tim and interesting comments. Yes, Nicaragua’s image is difficult to change especially in the minds of those that still cannot find it on a map but the Granada of 2012 is so much better than the one we first discovered in 2001. Sometimes I think Nicaragua could best improve its image by just starting over and changing its name. Perhaps a new name like Santa Lucia or San Pinolera.

    Seriously, community involvement always helps. We have so many good organizations here that are helping to correct deficiencies that Tim has pointed out. Support them! Yes, we have too few tourist police but the new chief is working on it. When you see one of them, greet them and thank them for their efforts.

    Same for all of those people that do clean the streets and pick up our garbage. The spirit of Christmas is now upon us. Don’t want to or don’t think you should give them some extra money? Give them some food items for their families.

    A community is only as strong as the efforts to live together. As expats we are merely guests in this beautiful country but we do have responsibilities.

    • Tomas Phillips

      Darrell , I have been to granada for the last 3 years and last year gave away presents with Valeria ( hospeje Valeria ) this year I solicited donations from the states and could use some assistance aquiring gifts and how to distibute them I have some thoughts my moviestar # 85577465

  • Mark Oshinskie

    Managua parece mucha mas peligrosa que Granada. Yo vi malas cosas alli.

  • jim bier

    Ken Granacki has it right. More practical suggestions, more citizen involvement and empowerment. Less bitching, moaning, and mud-slinging.

    • Ternot MacRenato

      Jim, Ken, As a former Marine, I am very familiar with the old “bitching, moaning and complaining” bit. However, that refers to those who complain but never offer any suggestions for improvement. That’s not what Tim is doing. His point is well taken. Relative to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, Nicaragua is better off. But to the many victims of crime, what the hell does that mean? Everyone with an ounce of common sense and civic pride ought to join in the betterment of his/her community. I agree, crime has social roots, but if not addressed, it becomes part of a culture where it become harder and harder to eradicate. We need to address the root causes of the problem but we also must stand firm with the miscreants who see their fellow citizens and tourists as easy marks. No community can afford to just shrug their shoulders and be glad it didn’t happen to them. If Tim’s suggestions are stupid (and they are not) then let’s hear yours. I’m all ears.

  • Dick

    Great, Timely article. Tim you hit the nail directly on the head.

  • Caroline

    This was a great Article! I agree Nicaragua is on the verge of a big tourism boom. Let’s just hope they don’t mess it up!

  • Adolfo

    It will not happen. I am Nica, I have been back and forth from states and Nica a bunch. I feel to Nica in the states, and to Americanized in Nica. My grandparents live on Atravesada and uncles on Calle Calzada.

    First, there is to much corruption. From the little boy sniffing glue to top government officials. For example, I am on la carretera between Granada and Managua with a couple friends of mine from the states. We get pulled over. I am chele, and this happens to me a lot. Not to mention I was with American friends. I told everyone in the car just to not say a word. I could tell he was surprised once he heard me speaking Spanish. Anyways, we beat aroudn the bush, and I gave him $20 to forget anything ever happened. I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve given 100 cords or 200 cords. This is common. It is instituionalized.

    The boy sniffing glue, the teenage prostitutes. These people are socially and economically immobilized and stationery. Crime goes hand and hand with poverty. And to see a beginning of reversal of these trends takes half a lifetime. To see improvements takes even longer. We must do away with corrupt, inefficient governments. And educate our people. And have a social movement where we Nica’s see eachother as equals, rich or poor, chele or indio, white or dark, european descent or indigena.

    • Wallace Murillo

      I partially disagree with your response Adolfo. I am Nicaraguan too and I travel there to visit family once a year. Each year I have seen more improvement, maybe not as much as I would like. It does not take a lifetime to change things around just good leadership and education of the population. Rudy Guiliani ex mayor of New York cleaned the streets of manhattan in four years where it was common to see prostitutes in times square and he fouhgt the mob and sent most of them to prison. Change can be around the corner.

  • Why Granada?

    Granada, Granada, Granada! Boring … Why not recommend tourists to visit US in the Región Autónoma Atlántico Sur, Southeast Nicaraguan “Biosphere of Humankind” (UNESCO 2003)? You can start in Nueva Guinea, RAAS, where there is not always special police forces beating up election fraud protesters. In Nueva Guinea you can enjoy from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. loudspeaker cars with commercials, mainly the “Gallo más Gallo”, breaking all rules of the WHO’s maximum decibel allowance. And in your hospedaje at night you may participate acustically in 3 evangelistic services at the same time.

    Nueva Guinea maybe is not as dirty as Granada, but there is still a lot of trash in the streets. And then the humid tropics, the beautiful hinterland! Livestock ranchers succeeded in transform majority percentages of Mother Nature to pastures, pastures, pastures. You can ride on a mule from Puerto Príncipe to Rama people’s Kukra River, during which you may experience 5 hours of hot sun with no trees, but can see really a lot of Holstein and other cow brands, and when you ask on your way some campesinos, who is the owner of this great landscape, the answer is always “señor Casco” (that is it about landreform in the 80s). Sometimes a river or creek appears, but don’t drink the water (as you could 20 years ago), today all rivers, creeks, lagoons etc. are contaminated with cow dung and allowed or forbidden agrochemicals. Welcome, tourists!

  • Fred

    Some mixed feeling about the article although as I understand it really points out that if Granada is indeed to be the Grande Sultan it could be then improvements are necessary. Not even a great deal of improvement would immediately be noticed.

    Mind you I’ve never noticed teenage prostitutes, but then probably past the age where even they’d be interested. The warmth, friendliness and yes helpfulness of the majority of Nicaraguan’s makes up for a lot.

  • Daddy-yo

    I read some true words in the comments above: “As expats we are merely guests in this beautiful country” (Darrell Bushnell). However, some expats are owners & profiteers whose motivation is clearly to see changes made that enhance the value of their investments. Tourism makes a whore of Nicaragua. To tour Paris, New York, London, Tokyo, Rome, St. Petersburg, Beijing is to be overwhelmed by the crowning creations of advanced civilizations. To rent time on a tropical beach in foreign luxury being waited on by beautiful (poorly paid) servants, that speak a language irrelevant to your purpose, selected from the surrounding impoverished natives – from whom you are guarenteed safe & sanitary isolation by your tour guide – is a profanity against humanity. You’re asking Nicaraguans to sell their souls for dollars & Euros. Do you really want to make Ticos out of these beautiful, life-loving people?

    Police exist mainly to protect property. Latin communities rise above the need for much policing because of common vigilance. Most people know their neighbors, and they know who’s a stranger and who is acting suspicious. That sense of community comes with years of living, growing up & struggling together. And they help each other too. Sprinkle into that society a bunch of rich foreigners who are sure they know best and you’ve got trouble.

    In SJdS, the Dispatch reports, the police guard Rivas’ two mansions. Adolfo mentioned paying off the police when stopped (la mordida) – it’s “common, it is institutionalized,” he said. He’s right; I’ve paid several times. How can any sane person expect the police who are not paid enough to support a family to not take advantage of their position. And before answering from some supposed moral high ground, gringo, look to who’s paying your senators, representatives, judges, doctors, &c., beyond their ‘salaries’ to do their bidding. You only get what you pay for, right? So hire another Wm. Walker & his mercenaries to protect your tourists.

  • M.I.

    It’s true there’s so much to improve in Nicaragua, just like in most of the world. Of course I’d like to see a lot of improvement not only in Granada but everywhere in the country. Granada should improve first and mostly because it’s Nicaraguan people’s rights to live in a healthy and safe environment, not because Nicaragua should become a paradise for foreigners. Tourism and exports increasing are the new and common Neoliberal recipe for so called “developing countries”. Yes, Nicaragua needs to “develop” but what development we’re talking about? the one constructed from “developed countries” perspective? Nicaragua´s development plans must not be determined by the level of satisfaction foreigners/tourists experience here, the country should not become a exhibition show where tourists and adventurers can experience traditional food, see folkloric dances and be surrounded by a court of local servants and artisans who have been changing their ancestral traditions in order to meet westerners standards preferences. No, Nicaragua’s life cannot turn around the tourism industry which is bringing a new kind of colonization to this country. We can see all the luxury compounds bringing “development” to different areas of the country -especially near the ocean- while creating armies of Nicaraguan maids, gardeners, security guards, etc… and a kind of apartheid.

    • Marc


  • Andrew W

    If the municipal officials can handle their authority and funds it is up to the democratic citizenry to take it away from them until they can prove otherwise.

    While a fully privatized security or waste management or social welfare system may not be the ideal, it may be the only way to light the way for officials until they are ready to become leaders.

    Lots of redevelopment zones in Los Angeles have uniformed “ambassadors” who support the community and take care of any need that arises from picking up litter to offering directions to providing eyes and ears to prevent crime / prostitution. Perhaps Granada and SJDS might try such an experiment and help to set an example of good management and civic organization.

  • Marc

    I believe that this article is aimed more at improving Nicaragua so it is more palatable to tourists and not the native Nicaraguans. It’s easy to talk about a government spending more money on security, policing, social programs, civic pride, trash clean up etc. when you come from the richest country on the planet, or one of them if you happen not to be American but from one of the other privileged First Nations.
    Nicaragua on the other hand is one of the poorest countries in the world, with a GDP of just over $7 billion a year. That by the way is a drop in the ocean compared to New York City which has a GMP of $1.2 trillion. To more fully understand how poor Nicaragua is, Nicaragua’s GDP is less than Billings, MO. The priorities for the government should be improving the livelihood of the local population. Increasing education, medical care and other basic social requirements would be a start.
    Let us not forget that in large part it’s thanks to the United States that Nicaragua finds itself in it’s current position. Ravaged by colonial imperialists who supported corrupt dictatorial leaders, and a paronoid government so bent on erasing any leftist form of government that the US ended up being complicite in the death of thousands of innocent men, women and children.
    The continued exploitation of locals by ex-pats who set up businesses here does little to improve the situation. Hotels, resorts, surf-camps, restaurants, and other developments perpetuate the low salaries, and exclusion if the local population with their over inflated prices. Why not share in the wealth you are generating by over-charging the very tourists you are trying to attract with some of the locals through profit sharing? “No, no, that would be a terrible mistake, because then we wouldn’t be able to live here for less than $700 a month!” The very fact that this kind of marketing to attract retirerees exists is evidence enough that what is being touted is not a ‘come and live the nica life,’ but a ‘live like the king and queen you could never afford to be in the US.’ And why, because you never were a king or queen and never will be, and most definitely shouldn’t be in Nicaragua. I see so many expats come down here, ending up getting lazy, complaining about almost everything and reminiscing about how great it was in the States as they spend at least $200 of the $700 they spend here on getting plastered on beer and rum. BTW, more than a teacher’s salary in Nicaragua.
    To summarize, if you want change so badly become proactive in creating it. Stop being the king/queen in the castle and mix with the locals. Become involved in local social customs, and events. Why not sponsor an event yourself? Why not increase your maid’s salary by $20 a month? Why not give your maid two days off a week and pay for the treatment her son needs to quit his glue-sniffing habit? Why not divert some of your time to being an active member of the local community where you live, instead of cloistering yourself in your gringo enclaves (bars, restaurants, super-markets etc) that exclude all local nationals? If people spent just a fraction of the time(and money) they spend in the “REAL” local environs of nicaragua, then change might be created. Learn Spanish, make a “poor” nica friend, adopt a family. We are in a very special and privileged position in this country, a position with power and money to make a serious impact on the lives of the locals – the outcome being a less us and them and a united “us.” Everyone says that Nicaragua is where Costa Rica was 30 years ago, lets start making Nicaragua, Nicaragua in 2013!

  • Peter Rawlinson

    I lived in Granada for over 10 years and unfortunately have to agree with 99 % of what Tim is writing, there is not much to add or remove. Maybe the market and Calle el Comercio which sidewalks now literally belong to families who have set business there and where there is no way to walk at all anymore (In San Jose the CR authorities kicked off all the -mostly Nica- families that had invaded all the side walks and put their “businesses” there). I left last year for all those reasons, we have had many meetings with all kind of authorities, and that has made no or very little improvements, things are getting worse little by little. It is not mainly a question of money, but a question of political will. The last mayor has been a disaster but local residents aren’t expecting any better from the new one. Accept it or leave!