I first visited Central America in 1988, and I've returned to the region several times since — enjoying each educational and eye-opening trip more than the last. Below are some impressions from my travels.
Fear and violence haunt the streets of Managua, Nicaragua's capital, rife with extreme poverty and inevitable crime. Rather than whole, safe neighborhoods, there are mostly small islands of safety clustered around malls and fancy hotels. A wealthy tourist (nearly all tourists here are relatively rich) happily pays triple the local rate for a taxi that works with the hotels to ensure a safe arrival. The trip is generally a hop from one safe zone to another. In the evening, taxis are even more important because it's unwise to walk around after dark, especially with a camera. While you're unlikely to be hurt, there is a risk that groups of young thugs might just rob you at knifepoint.
In Nicaragua, there are more armed guards than military and police forces combined. Every major hotel and nearly every business has an armed guard. Nicaraguan security guards make about $1 an hour and consider the work a blessing. On my most recent trip, I chatted with one guard while watching a kid in the street juggling small flaming torches for tips. I couldn't help but think, "I'll spend what the guard makes in a day on a taxi back to my hotel, and I'll spend what that juggler hopes to make in a day for a poolside rum-and-Coke."
Whenever my cabbie stopped at an intersection, we were confronted by a battery of children begging, washing the taxi's windows, and trying to sell us little trinkets. These school-age children weren't in school. I marveled at how a society suffers when it makes ends meet by cutting education.
I wandered through one Managua barrio, keeping an eye on the street for Nicaragua's notorious open manholes (desperation drives people to steal the lids and sell them as scrap metal). The neighborhood felt desolate. There was almost no business metabolism. A few shops sold odds and ends through barred windows, and rustic cantinas served beer to a rough-looking male crowd.
I came upon a small yard where the neighborhood children were jumping giddily up and down while one kid blindly swung a stick at a mischievously darting piñata. I enjoyed the scene, but I winced every time the stick viciously cut through the air among all those excited little heads. As I took a photo, a mom came over and suggested I stow the camera for safety. I suddenly realized I was in a bad neighborhood. With her baby in her arms and her elderly mother at her side, the mother escorted me to a nearby street. As I reached a bank with an armed guard out front, she said, "Now you are safe."
Mexico City was the next stop on this visit. I wanted to greet the New Year in one of the world's biggest cities. Celebrating the holiday with throngs in the streets, all I noticed was how the city seems occupied by military police (as opposed to Nicaragua, where private security dominated and there was almost no military presence). Contrary to what I was led to expect, everything seemed mellow and in control. Subway stations with security cameras and more guards are labeled as "safe stations." All New Year's Eve, rather than wish the police gathered on major corners "Feliz Año Nuevo," I'd say, "Police Año Nuevo"…and they'd return big smiles and answer, "Igualmente" ("Same to you!").
While much of Central America has petty crime and gang violence, Mexico has that and more: a violent drug war, fought mainly in the north. People in Mexico City and the vast majority of Mexico only read about the violence in the news, but the border regions are seeing lots of bloodshed. Juarez is considered to be as dangerous as Baghdad. My take: I'd fly over the border towns and enjoy the wonderful energy of Mexico City.
The lessons I take home from my trips to Central America? A progressive observer would probably blame pro-business policies for contributing to the brutal gap between rich and poor, particularly in Nicaragua. A conservative would likely blame socialist policies or a lack of law and order. After my experience traveling in Nicaragua and Mexico, it seems that both sides can agree on one thing: that fear and street violence is bad for the economy — and a failure for every stratum in that society.
While fear, poverty, and drug wars employ security guards and sell razor wire, they also ruin any chance for a healthy tourist industry — and cause beautiful people who'd want to rebuild their country to dream of escaping to the US instead.