Project for combating juvenile delinquency

One section of Nicaragua’s Congress is planning a law against juvenile gang members, whom, if the Liberal Party proposal is approved, would be treated under the same legal regulations as adults. They would go to prison or serve harsh terms without any kind of consideration or mitigation for their age — from 12-18 years.

As a general rule, one’s future goals and objectives begin to take shape at an early age. However, life plans for many become complicated if they fall — whether from negligence or poverty — into a spiral of violence, as is occurring at a high rate among Nicaraguan youth. In spite of the sharp increase in juvenile delinquency, according to the opposition Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), the looming supposed solution is worse than the problem itself, given that in the long term, it only puts off the problem and ignores the root causes. In addition, the proposal is unconstitutional and would generate schemes similar to the anti-crime measures taken by the governments of El Salvador and Honduras, according to Casa Alianza, a regional civic organization for children’s rights.

Were the initiative to materialize, it also would disregard stipulations of the Code on Childhood and Adolescence, in effect since 1973. At one time, the code was qualified as a tremendous step forward in providing a shield of protection for that sector of the population, so decisive for every country. Zelmira García, director of Casa Alianza in Nicaragua, also stated that the measure under discussion will never go beyond the narrow framework of its applications, given that it precisely seeks to punish and not to eradicate the problem. Such legislation would distort the country’s Constitution and corresponding social rights. And in a more general context, it would ignore the 1989 enactment of the General Convention on the Rights of Children, a historical landmark for the protection of minors.

“This project does not deal with the causes that produce the problem, such as poverty and unemployment. It attempts to solve with imprisonment the social problems that remain unsolved by the justice system in the second poorest country of Latin America,” García commented.

In addition, in the regional magazine Derecho penal de menores y derechos humanos en América Latina, Carlos Tiffer Sotomayor, a law professor at the University of Costa Rica, affirms that juvenile delinquency proliferates where diverse factors of risk and social response are combined. Thus, it occurs in every society where the anti-values of violence, aggression, savage competition and consumerism are imposed over the superior values of tolerance, solidarity and justice, Tiffer emphasized.

The magnitude of the problem

Some 7,000 people die violently every year in Central America, as is admitted by the Pan-American Health Organization (OPS), whether from premeditated homicide or as the result of fights and assaults. Likewise, in Nicaragua, the average number of arrests per year for minors who commit such crimes is 40,568. The largest concentration of them is in Managua, the capital.

Some 100 street gangs are based there, and the rest of Nicaragua’s total of 365 gangs are spread throughout the country, using names such as Come muertos (Death-eaters), Las Gárgolas (The Gargoyles) or Los Sultanes (The Sultans).

For Commissioner Hamyn Gurdián Alfaro, chief of police in Managua’s District 2, the local gangs have not yet lost their family connections, which is positive in one sense; however, there is concerned at their growing connections with organized crime. When that occurs, Gurdián says, they become - as is occurring in Honduras — extremely violent and aggressive in terms of controlling their territory, with a well-defined organization that facilitates their acquisition of weapons.

The product of diverse social and economic crises, the large majority of these youths live beyond the reach of health, education, housing or recreational services. Jobs in informal sectors, due to the lack of offers by the state, involve inexperienced young men and women in marginal and risky situations, such as selling drugs or prostitution. The average rate of unemployment is about 60%. Casa Alianza in Nicaragua confirmed that violence has a stronger presence in families of five or more children (where an appropriate father figure is missing), and among homeless and extremely poor young people. It is also present among individuals with little or no education, or who live in densely populated urban areas.

An inhuman attitude

Since 1999, the question of how to sentence minors who have committed a serious offense, such as murder, is a daily issue in Nicaragua. It reached A peak after the death of Deputy José Alfonso Cuadra García, who presumably died at the hands of a teenager.

On that occasion, several press reports highlighted the increasing violence; there was even a commentary published in La Prensa daily asserting that many minors commit crimes knowing that they will not be tried.

In line with that position, former president Arnaldo Alemán himself — now imprisoned for corruption — lent his vote to reforming the Code on Childhood with the following statement: “For extremely dangerous juvenile delinquents, it is valid that the more serious and harmful the crime committed, the more severe the punishment that should be imposed on the criminal”” (see El Nuevo Diario 26/08/99)

Years later, and in the face of the persistence of that inhuman and scandalous attitude among the followers of “Arnoldismo,” Judge Alba Luz Ramos Vanegas, of the Nicaraguan Supreme Court, recommended a genuine and gradual application of the Code on Childhood and Adolescence, which complicated the previous effort to reform or abolish that law. For Judge Ramos, the problem is not the law, but the lack of conditions - both material and economic — and the infrastructure of Nicaragua’s judicial system.

Maria Victoria Valdes-Rodda
2 July 2004

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