MANAGUA – A new legislative bill tocrack down on youth gangs here has raisedconcerns that Nicaragua may be on the vergeof taking a step backward toward the repressivepolices of its recent past.Nicaragua has 62 gangs throughoutthe country, totaling 1,058 members – thefewest of any Central American country,according to a regional police registry ofgang members.Gangs in Nicaragua register only as ablip on the crime charts, accounting for lessthan 1% of all violent transgressions, nationalpolice statistics show.Public perception polls, however, revealmost Nicaraguans think the gang problem isworse than statistics suggest, and the nation’spoliticians have taken note.WITH no national gang policy in place,some lawmakers are arguing that Nicaraguaneeds to pass a tough anti-pandilla law now– before the problem gets out of control as itappears to be in Honduras and El Salvador,where gangs are blamed for more than 50%of all violent crimes.“Our gang members are good comparedto those in Honduras and El Salvador. But ifwe don’t stop them now, it can become a spiralof violence,” said Liberal ConstitutionalParty congressman Wilfredo Navarro, authorof Nicaragua’s new anti-gang bill.The proposed law, introduced toCongress April 29, would stiffen sanctionsfor crimes committed by gang members asyoung as 12, tacking on additional jail sentencesof one to six years, depending on thenature of the offense.POLICE and rights activists who workwith gangs in Nicaragua claim the best wayto demobilize youth bands and work with at riskteens is through a coordinated communityoutreach plan. Anti-gang legislation, theywarn, could unintentionally exacerbate theviolence if interpreted by marginalized youthas an act of government aggression.“For every action, there is a reaction,”said Hamyn Gurdián, Commissioner ofNicaragua’s National Police Juvenile AffairsUnit and a leading critic of the new bill.The gang-law debate in Nicaragua illustratesan emerging division between old andnew approaches to dealing with impoverisheddissidents.The old way of thinking is for the governmentto apply the “mano duro” – thestrong-hand military and police repressionthat has been resurrected recently inHonduras, El Salvador and Guatemala tosquelch gang activity.The new way of thinking, Gurdián andothers say, calls for a dialogue with the poor,an understanding of societal problems thatgive rise to gang violence, and a solutionbased on compassion rather than fear.WORKING with government ministriesand private businesses, Gurdián’spolice unit implemented an outreach plan inManagua in 2002 to disarm gang members,convince gang leaders to become positiverole models in their communities and helpfind jobs to reinsert the youth back into society.The program goes against the round-‘em-up and lock-‘em-down model employedby law enforcement in Honduras, ElSalvador and Guatemala. But Nicaraguanpolice insist it is working.Last year, the outreach program helpeddisband 30 of the 33 youth gangs inManagua’s districts 2 and 6, effectivelydemobilizing 400 gang members – almostone-third of the country’s total – Gurdiánsaid.“About 90% of the gang members wehave worked with want to get into the program;there is an enormous will among thesekids to get out of the gangs and out of the violence,”Gurdián said. “They just need achance. If you give them limits and responsibility,they respond.”With 45% of Nicaraguans living inpoverty and nearly half of Managua withoutformal employment, Gurdián said it isimportant not to create unrealistic expectationsthat could frustrate youth trying tomove out of gang life and into society.But, he said, using police contacts in thegovernment and private sector, the programhas been able to place many former gangmembers at jobs in public works, factories,or even as security for festivals.DESPITE the apparent early success ofthe outreach program, Navarro and membersof his congressional bloc are determined toget an anti-gang law passed by the end of theyear.The congressman said he does not discountthe police efforts, but insists the countryneeds a clearly defined gang policy in theform of a law.The draft bill, currently in a congressionalcommission, identifies a gang as an illicitgroup that disrupts public order, or a band ofpeople that meets habitually, identifies exclusivelywith a piece of territory and/or usessigns or symbols as a means of identification.Gangs are not outlawed under the bill – asthey are under anti-gang laws in Hondurasand El Salvador – but members of gangswould be subject to harsher jail terms forcrimes committed.Navarro says the measure is intended todeter young men from joining gangs, not tobe used as a repressive tool.“This is a response to a new type ofcrime that is based on a culture of societalpressures,” he told The Tico Times.RIGHTS activists and lawyers are blastingthe initiative.“This bill iscrazy and offensive,”said Evelyn Palma,legal departmentcoordinator for CasaAlianza, a regionalc h i l d – a d v o c a c ygroup. “The intentionof this bill isvery clear: to repressthe poorest children,those who havealready been excludedfrom the system.It is an attempt to resolve an economic andsocial problem by putting the victims in jail.The stigma is we would be returning to aperiod of time we have already overcome.”Critics claim politicians are trying to passthe bill because anti-gang legislation is currentlyen vogue in Central America and lawmakersare trying to give voters the messagethat they take citizen security concerns seriously.ACCORDING to the Central Americanpolice registry, which includes the names andlast names of all identified gang members inthe region, there are 14,000 pandilleros inGuatemala, 10,500 in El Salvador, 36,000 inHonduras, 2,660 in Costa Rica and 1,385 inPanama. Experts say the gang problem innorthern Central America, where the violentLos Angeles, Calif.-born gangs MaraSalvatrucha and Mara 18 operate, is distinctfrom the gang phenomena in Nicaragua,Costa Rica and Panama.The transnational problem posed byMara Salvatrucha and Mara 18 is consideredso dire in northern Central America that thePresidents of Guatemala, El Salvador,Honduras and Nicaragua last January signeda joint anti-gang declaration against the twogroups, identifying them as threats to regionalsecurity.Gang experts in Central America insistthe problem here is the product of poverty,social exclusion, poor public policies andfamilies divided by migration.HONDURAS was the first CentralAmerican country to pass legislation outlawinggang membership – a crime that carries a12-year jail sentence.El Salvador’s provisionalanti-gangdecree is set to expirenext month, thoughnewly appointedPresident AntonioSaca is lobbying congresshard to pass whathe calls his “superstrong hand” anti-ganglaw (TT, June 18).Guatemala andCosta Rica are studyingsimilar measures.The anti-gang laws in Honduras and ElSalvador have been criticized by activistswho claim the legislation violates the right tofree association and throws due process outthe window.The United Nations Committee onRights of the Child and Amnesty Internationalboth have come out against ElSalvador’s provisional anti-gang decree,claiming it violates international rightstreaties. Amnesty International has advisedthe Salvadoran government to not pass a permanentlaw.Nevertheless, the Saca administrationhas already announced it will propose aregional anti-gang policy during the CentralAmerican integration meeting this weekendin Guatemala.