Nicaragua Country Profile


Key Statistics

Population: 6.0 million (World Bank, 2013)

Capital: Managua

Languages: Spanish (official) 95.3%, Miskito 2.2%, Mestizo of the Caribbean coast 2%, other 0.5%

Major Ethnic Groups: mestizo (mixed Amerindian and white) 69%, white 17%, black 9%, Amerindian 5%

GDP per Capita (current US dollars): 2,023 (IMF World Economic Outlook, 2015)

GDP per Capita PPP (current international dollars): 4,983 (IMF World Economic Outlook, 2015)

Security Sector Stats

Active Armed Forces: 12,000 (Military Balance, 2014)

Small Arms: the estimated total number of guns (both licit and illicit) held by civilians in Nicaragua is 450,000; the defence forces are reported to have 425,000 firearms; and Police are reported to have 8,500 firearms (Gun Policy, 2015) 

Military Expenditure: 0.8% of GDP (World Bank, 2013)

Executive Summary

Nicaragua is far more secure than some of its neighbours in Central America, despite being one of the poorest countries in the region. This is in part thanks to its strong police force, which emphasises preventative and community-based methods, and the absence of powerful street gangs like the MS-13 and Barrio 18. However, the country is an important transhipment point for cocaine coming up from South America, and its remote Atlantic coast provides a convenient point for Colombian traffickers to stop and refuel.

The threat from drug trafficking is exacerbated by the weak and heavily politicised judiciary, which is perceived as lacking independence from the powerful Sandinista president, Daniel Ortega. The much-praised police have also been accused of corruption, with a recent high-profile drug trafficking case pointing to drug ties at the top of the force.

There have been a series of judicial and legal reforms over the last decade, aiming to make the judiciary more professional, to provide the authorities with better tools to combat organised crime, and to target violence against women. Significant opportunities for political engagement and action by donors exist, although they are complicated by the political climate and the country’s difficult historical relationship with foreign powers like the United States.

Security and Justice Context

Nicaragua is a place of relative calm compared to some of its neighbours in Central America, with a murder rate of 12.6 per 100,000 in 2011, and limited presence of organised criminal groups. Honduras, with which it shares a border, had a rate of 91.6 per 100,000 in the same year. Violence is actually on the decline in Nicaragua, with the murder rate having fallen in recent years from the decade’s high of 14 per 100,000 in 2009 (See Figure 1.).


Fig. 1 Nicaragua Homicide Rate 1999-2011

The relative peace holds despite the fact that the country is very poor, with a GDP per capita of only $1,290.  It is also dealing with the legacy of a bloody civil war, which formally ended in 1990. This success is attributed in large part to the social and institutional structures left over from the 1979 Sandinista Revolution, including the existence of “neighbourhood watch” organisations, and community-focused policing which helped to keep crime under control and stop street gangs expanding. These institutions and practices have helped to make Nicaragua a less attractive prospect to drug traffickers than other countries in the region. However, these same factors have allowed the Sandinistas to cling to power and manipulate elections.

However, shifting drug routes mean that cocaine has increasingly been trafficked through Central America in the last decade, and Nicaragua has not been immune to this. There are signs that the country’s importance in the drug trade could be increasing as traffickers face tighter law enforcement in other Central American countries. Nicaragua serves as a transhipment point for drugs, and traffickers use it as a place to stop and refuel boats, or divide and repackage shipments–particularly along the remote Atlantic coast. Cocaine seizures have shown a steady increase over the last decade, up from 2.1 tons in 2002 to 8.8 in 2011, with a spike to 17.5 in 2010. There are reports that methamphetamine production is also on the rise.

Some of this business is handled by local Nicaraguan drug trafficking groups, which are often based around extended families, and work as transporters for Colombian organisations. There are thought to be some eight separate groups with ties to Colombian traffickers on Nicaragua’s Atlantic coast, while the Pacific is dominated more by Mexican organisations, particularly the Sinaloa Cartel. Drugs and other illegal products are also shipped by road in Nicaragua, especially on the Pan-American Highway.

Criminal groups in Nicaragua sometimes work by stealing drug shipments from trafficking organisations, either on their own initiative or on commission from a rival organisation.  They keep the stolen drug shipment, selling it on, sometimes even to its original owners.

Two autonomous regions on the Atlantic coast—the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN) and the South Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAS)—are particularly attractive to traffickers because there is little state presence, and the indigenous communities there are often hostile to the central government. The regions’ murder rates are much higher than the rest of the country, at 43 per 100,000 in the RAAS in 2011, and 19 in the RAAN. These coastal areas provide service stations for drug traffickers, who can refuel and get repairs or maintenance for their go-fast boats, store their product, and access intelligence provided by local criminal groups. The region is also home to clandestine landing strips for drug planes coming from South America.

One of the reasons for the low rate of violence in the rest of Nicaragua is the absence of the “Mara” gangs, which are behind much of the violence in neighbouring countries like El Salvador. This is due in part to historical factors -- migrants leaving Nicaragua in the 1970s and 80s for the United States mostly went to the East Coast, whereas migrants from El Salvador and Guatemala often went to Los Angeles, where they were drawn into gang culture. The US deported criminals back to these countries in large numbers in the 1990s, helping to fuel the growth of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 in Central America. This did not take place on the same scale in Nicaragua.

Nicaragua does have street gangs, but they have a smaller membership and are less organised than the Barrio 18 or MS-13, generally operating only at neighbourhood level. One 2005 estimate put the number of gangs at 268, with some 4,500 members. A 2011 survey by the Institute for Strategic Studies and Public Policy[1] (Instituto de Estudios Estratégicos y Políticas Públicas-IEEPP) found that some 60 percent of Nicaraguans perceived gangs, known as “pandillas,” as the biggest security problem for the country, up from less than 40 percent who gave that answer in 2009. About half the number pointed to common crime as the biggest problem.

Nicaragua has a highly charged political climate, which affects the judiciary, police, and security issues in general. The judiciary is also deeply affected by politics and under the sway of President Ortega. Issues left over from the civil war still impact on security, with groups calling themselves “Contras,” after the US-funded anti-revolutionary forces fighting in the 1980s, posing a security threat in some parts of the country, particularly in the RAAN and RAAS.

There are some 395,000 arms held by civilians by 2007 estimates; however, only around 90,000 are registered. Many arms were left over from the civil war, when the Soviet Union donated massive amounts of weapons, many of which ended up on the black market. Among the weapons donated by the Soviet Union and remaining after the war were 2,000 surface-to-air missiles known as MANPADS, whose disposal was opposed by some parties.

Nicaragua is a source and transit point for trafficking in people. Nicaraguans are trafficked abroad and within the country for commercial sexual exploitation and forced labour.

There were only six kidnapping cases reported to police in 2011.

The cost of crime and violence to Nicaragua is estimated to stand at 10 percent of GDP, according to the World Bank.

Perceptions of Insecurity

According to Vanderbilt University’s Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), the perception of insecurity in Nicaragua has been following a downward trend in recent years. While the country had a score of 45 points in 2004, this dropped to 38.9 in 2010 and then again to 32.9 in 2012[2] (See Figure 2.). Meanwhile, over 20 percent of respondents told the IEEPP that crime had not increased in their neighbourhoods in the last 12 months.

Some 77 percent of Nicaraguans said that the economy was the country’s biggest problem, the highest in the Americas, while 9.4 percent said that crime or violence was the biggest problem—the second lowest in the Americas, after the United States, according to the 2012 LAPOP survey.

Fig. 2 Nicaragua Perception of Insecurity 2010 and 2012

Security and Justice Institutions

Justice Institutions

The Supreme Court (Corte Suprema de Justicia–CSJ) is Nicaragua’s highest judicial organ. Judges and other legal appointments are selected by the Supreme Court, whose members are themselves selected by the National Assembly (Asamblea Nacional).

A series of legal reforms beginning in the 1990s brought in the new Criminal Procedure Code (Código Procesal Penal) in 2001, which set up an adversarial justice system in place of the old inquisitorial system, with oral evidence presented before a jury. The code established the Public Prosecutor’s Office (Ministerio Público), which prosecutes criminal cases and represents victims of crime. It is an independent body, headed by the prosecutor general (fiscal general), who is elected by the National Assembly. However, as the National Assembly has been controlled by the Sandinistas since 2007, there are now questions as to its real independence.

This removed the function of prosecution from the Attorney General’s Office (Procuraduría General de la Republica), which is in charge of representing the interests of the state, including in cases of lawsuits, and in cases of public officials accused of corruption. The attorney general is directly appointed by the president, with no set term limit. There is also a government Human Rights Ombudsman (Procuraduría para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos - PDDH).

As part of the reforms, the Public Defenders’ Office (Defensoría Pública) was established in 1999, to provide legal defence to those who cannot pay.

Crimes committed by or against the military and police are dealt with by a separate system of military courts under the Military Penal Code. Nicaragua lacks an effective civil law system, meaning that many civil cases are pursued as criminal cases.

The reputation of the Nicaraguan justice system has been damaged by allegations of corruption, with accusations that judges are influenced by political considerations or by organised criminal groups. The heavy politicisation of the judiciary is due in part to the legacy of the 1979 revolution, when the new government removed most judges and prosecutors from the old regime, replacing them with pro-Sandinista individuals, many of whom lacked qualifications. By 1990, only 10 percent of local judges held a law degree.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2012-2013 places Nicaragua low for judicial independence, at 134 of 144 countries ranked. This is significantly below some regional neighbours like Honduras (ranked 69), and Costa Rica (40).

The human rights body PDDH has also faced criticism, with claims that it is politicised and ineffective, particularly after Ortega extended the term limits of its head and other members in 2010.

Former President Arnoldo Aleman was sentenced to a 70-year prison term in 2003 for corruption, stealing public funds and money laundering, but was freed from house arrest in 2009 when the Supreme Court overturned his conviction. This leniency was believed to be the result of a backroom political deal between him and Ortega.

The case against nightclub owner and drug trafficker Henry Fariñas, who was the original target in the shooting with killed Argentine singer Facundo Cabral in Guatemala in 2011, drew attention to corruption in the judiciary. Supreme Electoral Council (Consejo Supremo Electoral-CSE) Judge Julio Cesar Osuna was found to be part of Fariñas’ criminal network, producing false IDs for its members.

The CSE is also accused of being in favour of the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional-FSLN), with international observers questioning the fairness of the November 2011 general elections, which gave Ortega another term in the presidency. However, Ortega was leading in the polls beforehand and likely did have the support to win the election.

Nicaragua’s prisons, managed by the General Directorate of the National Penitentiary System[3] (Dirección General del Sistema Penitenciario Nacional), are overcrowded by nearly 50 percent, with 7,200 inmates in 2011, in a system built for fewer than 5,000. This problem is exacerbated by delays in the justice system, with suspects often held for long periods without trial -- statistics from 2005 showed that some 31 percent of prisoners were awaiting trial. There were reports of detainees being kept in temporary holding cells for long periods, rather than being transferred to the prison system.

Security Institutions

The police force (Policia Nacional Nicaraguense-PNN) is a civilian body under the Interior Ministry, with the president as commander-in-chief. It has had significant success in tackling organised crime and keeping gangs under control, thanks in large part to its community policing model and the existence of community watch organisations, said to have 100,000 members. The Nicaraguan police’s prevention-focused, community-oriented model sets it apart from many of its neighbours in Central America, who have adopted hard-line “iron fist” policies against gangs, involving mass arrests of members. These policies are generally considered to have been ineffective and even counterproductive, forcing gangs to reorganise and increasing their resentment of the authorities in countries like El Salvador and Honduras.

The PNN has been effective despite its relatively small size and lack of funding. Police earn an average of $120 per month, the lowest rate in Central America. There were 11,700 active personnel, 30 percent of them women, in 2011, giving the country a rate of 199 officers per 100,000 inhabitants, which is low relative to the region, and significantly below the world average of 300. The number of officers is up from 10,500 in 2010. Some 1,200 new officers entered the force in 2011, setting a record for the biggest expansion in a single year.

Police reported an effectiveness rate of over 70 percent in 2011, resolving 109,000 of 151,000 crimes that were reported.

The police are generally well thought of by Nicaraguans, with some 80 percent considering the police’s work as good or fair, and only 20 considering it bad, according to a 2011 IEEPP survey.  In the 2012 LAPOP survey, the PNN had the 5th highest confidence rating in the region (See Figure 3.). National police chief Aminta Granera enjoys high approval ratings. She has been the chief of police since 2006, and is closely identified with the country’s security successes.  She enjoys a high profile internationally as well as at home. In May 2012, she was chosen as president of the Commission of Police Chiefs and Directors of Central America, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Colombia. Granera is known to have clashed with Ortega, who is reported to be keeping her in the position for other motives. He reappointed the police chief in 2011, despite lacking the constitutional authority to do so.


Fig. 3 Nicaragua Confidence in Police 2012

Despite the police’s good image, there are occasional reports of police abuse, extrajudicial killings, and arbitrary detentions of government opponents. The issue of police corruption was brought into the spotlight by the Fariñas case. Following the murder of Facundo Cabral, investigations in Nicaragua presented evidence that Fariñas was working with corrupt police officers involved in stealing and reselling drug shipments, with high level officials implicated, including former head of police intelligence Carlos Palacios.

The peace accords at the end of the civil war mandated a massive reduction in the armed forces, which were cut from some 80,000 at the end of the 1980s down to 12,000 in 1992, with mass demobilisations. Nicaragua’s armed forces stand at some 10,400 personnel, including an army of 7,100, and a small navy and air force[4] .

The army has been deployed inside the country to combat organised crime, carrying out security functions on a permanent basis in some parts of the country, especially in rural areas, despite the fact that it is only mandated to do so in extreme circumstances. In December 2011, the government announced that some 1,000 troops were being sent to rural areas, including the RAAN region, to combat criminal groups.

The 800-person navy works closely with the United States on anti-drug operations, and was described by the US State Department as the “most productive counternarcotics force in Nicaragua.” The US gave aid to help it update its fleet of patrol boats and expand its operations.
 President Ortega has set up an “eco-battalion” in the army, charged with preventing environmental crimes like illegal logging.

There is corruption. Both the police and judiciary have extremely low salaries, and there were reports of members of both institutions retaining items seized from criminals. Nicaragua scores 20 out of 100 for control of corruption and rule of law in World Bank studies, lower than neighbouring countries like Costa Rica, Panama and El Salvador, where 1 is weak and 100 is strong rule of law.

The army was ranked as the most trusted institution in the 2010 LAPOP survey for Nicaragua.  It scored 66 out of 100, where 100 indicates high trust. This is compared to 55 for the police, and 44 for the justice system. The Supreme Court scored only 40, up from 36 in 2008.

The United States gave some $4.5 million in military and police aid in 2012.

In November 2012, the government launched the preliminary version of its National Human Development Plan (Plan Nacional de Desarrollo Humano) for 2012-2016. Regarding citizen security, there is an emphasis on anti-violence education initiatives for the population that will contribute to the government’s violence prevention strategy. There is an equally strong emphasis on combating organised crime, with the government seeking to increase security operations against organised criminal groups by 15 percent in the first two years of the plan and a further 20 percent in its final two years (2014-2016).

State of Security and Justice Sector Reform

Justice Sector Reform and Initiatives

The new Penal Code (Código Penal) was implemented in July 2008, with support from USAID. It brought in laws against money laundering, crimes against the financial system, and terrorist financing. Previously, money laundering was not designated as a crime in itself, making it difficult for the authorities to prosecute it. The new code set money laundering sentences at five to seven years. Nicaragua was the last Central American country to establish an independent financial intelligence unit to detect and prevent money laundering and financial crimes.  In June 2012 it created the Financial Analysis Unit (Unidad de Analisis Financiero-UAF). However, there was controversy around the new body, with opposition politicians and business representatives claiming that it could be used as a political tool by the Ortega government, and criticising the president’s decision to appoint an army major as its head.

The reform introduced sanctions for “corporate crime,” covering white-collar crimes such as misrepresenting a company’s finances. It also brought in some of the strongest anti-abortion legislation in the world, placing a complete ban on abortion, with no exceptions, with prison sentences for those seeking or providing terminations.

There has been reform in Nicaragua aimed at depoliticising and professionalising the judiciary. The Judicial Career Law, which came into force in 2005, states that admissions  to, and promotions within, the judiciary should take place on the basis of merit alone, without political considerations, but its measures have not been fully implemented.

A law aiming to protect women and punish gender-based violence, the Comprehensive Law Against Violence Toward Women, came into effect in June 2012. It defines “femicide” as a specific crime, and orders the state to set up shelters for abused women.

A law targeting organised crime was passed by the National Assembly in 2010, which defined human trafficking as a form of organised crime, meaning that the authorities could seize assets gained through trafficking in humans. It also increased the tools that could be used against organised crime in general, including establishing a witness protection program, and setting rules for wiretapping.

Nicaragua has introduced alternative dispute-resolution mechanisms, allowing for meditation rather than a trial under the 2001 Criminal Procedure Code. In 2002, the government started the Rural Judicial Facilitators (Facilitador Judicial Rural) program to improve access to justice in remote areas. These facilitators are civilians elected by their local communities to mediate conflicts and resolve crimes, in a scheme rolled out to 100 municipalities in 2007. An Organisation of American States (OAS) study found that the facilitators reduced crime by a third on average in areas where they were active.

Security Sector Reform and Initiatives

No major reform initiatives of the police or the military have been undertaken in recent years.

Nicaragua has been the recipient of US aid in the form of the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), an aid program that has sent $496 million to the region since 2008 to assist law enforcement and justice institutions and promote community policing programs, among other measures. CARSI has focused less on taking on sweeping reform measures, though, and more on increasing the capacity of forces to bolster citizen security.

Parliamentary/Congressional Capacity for Oversight

As previously noted, the National Assembly has been controlled by the ruling Sandinista government since 2007. Though the body has the constitutional power to administer oversight over several areas of government policy, there are serious questions about how effective this would be given the concerns over the Assembly’s independence.

Security and Justice Opportunities

The country does suffer from corruption throughout many levels of government. Nicaragua scored 29 out of a possible 100 (where 100 is clean) in Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index, putting it behind neighbours like Guatemala and El Salvador, and only just ahead of Honduras.

The highly charged political climate in Nicaragua presents challenges for engagement. There are particular challenges facing the United States, given its history of intervention in the country. However, the country is heavily dependent on international aid, with a third of its budget coming from foreign aid, according to 2010 statistics.

Political controversy, including claims that the results of elections have been tampered with, have caused some countries and organisations to withdraw aid to Nicaragua.

Justice Sector Opportunities

Perhaps the biggest challenge for security and justice in Nicaragua is the lack of judicial independence and the degree of politicisation of the judiciary. Engaging in reform efforts in this area, however, will be difficult due to the highly delicate political nature of the issue.

Security Sector Opportunities

The least secure regions of the country are the RAAN and RAAS on the Atlantic coast, where there is little state presence, and few transport links to the rest of the country need serious investment. Aid to these regions could significantly improve the security situation.

Police corruption is emerging as an important issue for security in Nicaragua. Despite their reputation as one of the most effective and least corrupt forces in the region, the Nicaraguan police have had their reputation hurt by allegations that high ranking officers worked with drug traffickers, as exposed by the Facundo Cabral murder case. Police chief Granera is widely respected; however, her precarious political position and problems with the Ortega government could present difficulties for international actors engaging her. On this issue, engagement with the IEEPP is advised in order to help ensure that police corruption does not become a problem on the scale of some of Nicaragua’s neighbours.

Civil Society Actors for Engagement

There are a number of independent non-goverment organisations (NGOs) working on security and justice issues in Nicaragua. Prominent among these is the IEEPP, which monitors crime and security issues and promotes transparency of government, and citizen participation in political processes.

Fundación Grupo Cívico Ética y Transparencia[5] is Transparency International’s representative in Nicaragua. The Permanent Commission on Human Rights[6] (Comisíon Permanente de Derechos Humanos-CPDH) and the Nicaraguan Centre of Human Rights[7] (Centro Nicaraguense de Derechos Humanos - CENIDH) are the most important independent bodies monitoring human rights issues. Two groups working to promote democracy and transparency are the We Make Democracy Foundation (Asociacion Hagamos Democracia) and the Fundemos Group[8] (Grupo Fundemos).


Gobierno de Reconciliación y Unidad Nacional (Nicaragua), “Plan Nacional de Desarrollo Humano 2012-2016,” November 2012 (Preliminary version)

Hendrix, S.E, “The New Nicaragua: Lessons in Development, Democracy, and Nation-Building,” Praeger, 2009

IEEPP, “IV Encuesta sobre Percepción de la Seguridad Ciudadana,” October 2012

IEEPP, “Informe de Gestión del Sector Defensa y Seguridad Abril 2011-Abril 2012,” November 2012

InSight Crime, “Nicaragua: A Paradise Lost?” July 2012 (available at

Johnson, S, et al., “Nicaragua: Lessons from a Country with a Low Crime Rate,” July 2012

Policia Nacional de Nicaragua, “Anuario Estadístico,” 2011

Red de Seguridad y Defensa de América Latina, “Atlas Comparativo de la Defensa en América Latina y Caribe Edición 2012,” October 2012

Small Arms Survey, “Small Arms Survey 2012: Moving Targets,” August 2012

Sydney School of Public Health, University of Sydney, “Nicaragua–Gun Facts, Figures and Law,” Data retrieved from

The AmericasBarometer by the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), Vanderbilt University, “The Political Culture of Democracy in the Americas, 2010: Democratic Consolidation in the Americas in Hard Times,” December 2010

The AmericasBarometer by the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), Vanderbilt University, “The Political Culture of Democracy in Nicaragua, 2010: Democratic Consolidation in the Americas in Hard Times,” April 2011

The AmericasBarometer by the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), Vanderbilt University, “The Political Culture of Democracy in the Americas, 2012: Towards Equality of Opportunity,” November 2012 (Preliminary Version)

Transparency International, “Corruption Perceptions Index 2012,” December 2012

U.S. Department of State, “2012 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report Volume 1: Drug and Chemical Control,” March 2012

U.S. Department of State, “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2011,” May 2012

World Bank, “Crime and Violence in Central America: A Development Challenge,” April 2011

World Economic Forum, “The Global Competitiveness Report 2012-2013,” September 2012


[1] More information on their website:

[2] LAPOP recodes respondents’ answers into a scale of 0-100 with a higher score representing a higher perception of insecurity.

[3] This comes under the Interior Minsitry (Ministerio de Gobernación).

[4] The 2012 defence budget was $65.7 million, an increase of more than 50 percent in absolute terms since 2008. This is .85 percent of GDP, up from 0.65 percent in 2008, and higher than regional neighbours like Guatemala and El Salvador.

[5] More information on their website:

[6] More information on this page.

[7] More information on their website:

[8] More information on their website.

Igarapé Institute

The Igarapé Institute is a southern think tank devoted to evidence-based policy and action on complex social challenges including global drug policy, citizen security and international cooperation. Its goal is to stimulate humane engagement on emerging security and development issues. Across all its programs, the Institute adopts a three-prong approach:

  1. Diagnose challenges through cutting-edge research;
  2. Trigger informed debate and action across public and private spheres; and
  3. Design tailor-made solutions that are people-centered.

The International Security Sector Advisory Team

The International Security Sector Advisory Team (ISSAT) provides practical support to the international community in its efforts to improve security and justice, primarily in conflict-affected and fragile states. It does this by working with a group of member states and institutions to develop and promote good security and justice reform practices and principles, and by helping its members to build their capacity to support national and regional security and justice reform processes.