MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
We've heard a lot about the violence in Central America that spurred tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors to flee for the U.S. But there is an exception amid the turmoil that plagues much of the region. It's Nicaragua. Its history is just as bloody as its neighbors. But today, Nicaragua is one of the safest countries in the hemisphere. NPR's Eyder Peralta reports on how that happened. He begins in an area that exemplifies that turnaround.
JORGE SANDOVAL: (Spanish spoken).
EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: As the sun sinks just below the horizon, Jorge Sandoval strolls across a dusty street. He's a small man in his 50s who runs volunteer patrols. The neighborhood is poor. The houses are cobbled together out of leftover wood and pieces of metal. Two years ago, Sandoval says, these streets used to be desolate and controlled by gangs.
SANDOVAL: (Through translator) They would shoot at each other at all hours. Suddenly, you'd find someone injured - someone innocent 'cause the gang bangers just didn't care.
PERALTA: The Dimitrov neighborhood in the capital, Managua, used to be one of the most dangerous in the country. But today, music pours out of open windows and neighbors sit on stoops. Sandoval says people in the neighborhood have come to an understanding.
SANDOVAL: (Through translator) All that shooting, all those deaths. They were part of the war we lived. Why should we be shooting each other now?
PERALTA: We stop in the middle of the street and see something surprising - children running out of their homes to play in the streets.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN LAUGHING)
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Un momento, un momento.
PERALTA: This kind of tranquility is not something you'd see in other parts of Central America. While Nicaragua's neighbors have embraced so-called mano dura, or iron fist policies, Nicaragua has taken a softer approach. The Nicaraguan police, for example, pacified the Dimitrov neighborhood by having the community patrol itself and by having police officers mediate talks between gang members often after soccer games. Pedro Argueta, the police commissioner in charge of youth issues, says right now Nicaragua has just 70 juveniles in jail. He says the bloody civil war taught them that violence only begets more violence.
PEDRO ARGUETA: (Through translator) The repression that we had during the 1970s taught us a lesson that when there is repression, there is a reaction.
PERALTA: Elvira Cuadra, who has studied Nicaragua's police force for decades, says that's a romanticized version of events. She says that many of these policies were actually crafted as political tools.
ELVIRA CUADRA: (Through translator) Every government agency had a specific role. And their primary objective was to defend the revolution.
PERALTA: So in the '80s, when the Soviet-backed Sandinistas fought against the U.S.-backed Contras, the government used community volunteers as intelligence agents, keeping them informed of who was with them and who was against them. Cuadra and other human rights groups say that since the Sandinistas came back to power in 2007, the police and even the community volunteers have begun to take on those roles again. But despite those criticisms, Nicaragua's approach seems to be working. The country's homicide rate is a fraction of the homicide rate in Honduras. And while children from El Salvador and Guatemala are streaming North, Nicaragua is keeping its youth at home. On the hills that surround Managua is Nicaragua's newest youth training center. It's a huge campus that's part of a program that sends kids to school instead of prison. In one of the classrooms, I find Jonathan Ruiz. He's 16 with a tattoo that starts at his hand and snakes its way up his inner arm. He's learning how to be a barber, so he's telling a classmate's hair.
JONATHAN RUIZ: (Spanish spoken).
PERALTA: He says he used to be a gang banger. But a few weeks into the program, he gave up his gun. I ask him if he worries about going back to his neighborhood and coming face-to-face with his old friends and rivals.
RUIZ: (Spanish spoken).
PERALTA: Yeah, he says, but I always go back to my neighborhood. And they view us differently now. They don't view us as delinquents. Eyder Peralta, NPR News.
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