Nicaragua’s Street Children
Nicaragua’s Street Children and the Unlikely People Who Dedicate Their Lives to Helping Them.
Note: The names of minors in this story have been changed for their protection.
It’s an uncharacteristically hot and muggy night in the highland Nicaraguan town of Matagalpa. The heat has driven more families out of their homes and onto the wooden benches of the city’s charming colonial-style central park. Well-dressed teenagers rev motorcycle engines and tell bawdy jokes to impress the girls who gather in roaming clouds of perfume and laughter. Children play raucous games around a bronze statue of Nicaraguan poet Ruben Darío, who was born not far from the spot. Standing furtively at the edges of the crowd is a young man, not much older than 13, with an oversized hoodie and tattered jeans hanging over his shoeless feet. “Buy me a cigarette.” He looks up at me with plaintive eyes that belie a guarded frustration, as though he has already decided I will say no. I decline, confirming his suspicions. “Well then at least buy me a hotdog, I’m hungry.” I decide to walk away and stroll the park’s perimeter. As a frequent traveler I’ve seen my share of street children. Like most, I tend to give an apologetic look and move on, unsure of how, or even if, I truly can help. A few minutes later my curiosity brings me back around to check if he has found food. He hasn’t, but he and a friend have managed to get a cigarette. The boy whispers something to his friend, who looks up at me; he gives me a look somewhere between disinterest and disdain. I ask him why such a young man would smoke cigarettes. The question causes his eyes to grow cold and distant, and in a flat, unemotional tone he replies, “So that I’ll die sooner.”
This was my first conversation with Mateo, one of many street children I would meet in Matagalpa, a mid-sized town in the mountainous coffee-producing region of northern Nicaragua. Understanding the situation facing Mateo, and the other children who populate Matagalpa’s parks and markets is not easy. There are no reliable statistics on the numbers, ages, or locations of Nicaragua’s homeless population. What is not lacking is opinions about how they got on the streets, and why they are likely to stay there. Some of the most oft repeated by the town’s wealthier residents were:
“Those children’s parents are lazy alcoholics, they send the children out to beg.”
“They would rather sleep on the streets and rob people than be in school.”
“They are dangerous, they are all addicts and criminals and their parents won’t have them.”
The accusations that the “niños de la calle,” as street children are called in Spanish, are drug addicts are not unfounded. Many abuse alcohol, crack, marijuana and cigarettes, but the most rampant problem is ”pega,” a cheap leather glue purchased from shoe repair shops. It is put into the bottom of empty plastic bottles and huffed until the glue runs dry, apparently offering a dissociation from pain and a mild euphoria that is understandably preferable to the reality facing many of Nicaragua’s homeless children.
Street kids huff “pega” out of plastic bottles in Matagalpa’s central park.
“Why do you smoke?” “So that I’ll die sooner.” – Mateo, age 13.
That reality is about as stark as one could imagine. In September of 2015, Oscar, a 20-year-old homeless man who had grown up living on the city streets, was stabbed to death after a property owner caught him sleeping in an abandoned home. This kind of violence is not uncommon among young people on the street in Nicaragua; in 2002 the United Nations World Organization Against Torture issued a call to action against what it called the “extrajudicial executions” of homeless youth. Sex work is also prevalent, and while statistics are characteristically absent, one social worker I spoke to said that of the over one hundred street children she has worked with, she knew of only four who had abstained from selling their bodies for money, food or drugs. Sexual violence is a constant threat as well. The streets offer little protection from predators and recourse against perpetrators is difficult to exact without money for legal representation.
Further evidence of the challenge facing street children is visible in any of Matagalpa’s public spaces. In the market I met Marilena, a 15-year-old girl with a pregnant belly whose eyes were consistently lost in a glue-induced haze. Xavier, 11, has an addiction to glue and cigarettes that has prevented him from saving the roughly $2 US required to buy shoes for his calloused feet. Hector, 16, has to steal on the street to feed himself, and told me while fighting back tears, “I’m not a kid. I was never a kid.”
Pega offers a temporary escape from the trauma of life on the streets.
Matagalpa is not an impoverished city. Upscale coffee shops and high-end restaurants line the main streets connecting the city’s two main parks. Uniformed schoolchildren walk the avenues with eyes fixed on the glowing screens of smartphones, too distracted to notice the flashing golden advertisements on the local casinos promising “a world full of fun” to those who can afford the price of admission. Perhaps this staggering contrast is not a surprise in a nation whose top newspaper, citing an investigation by Oxfam, recently declared wealth inequality in Nicaragua to be “scandalous.” The article notes that the progressive tax scale in the nation takes huge percentages from salaried employees, but exonerates profits made from investment. This essentially exempts a growing class of ultra-rich multi-millionaires—whose combined net worth represents 267 percent of the country’s GDP, the highest rate in Central America—from paying into the nation’s tax system.
Meanwhile, Mateo and the rest of Matagalpa’s homeless children struggle to find clothing and shelter, often sleeping on park benches or in the front yards of posh homes in the city centre.
This discrepancy, among other hallmarks of corruption, has led to a severe lack of government programs designed to keep children off of Nicaragua’s streets. An official of the Ministry of the Family, speaking on the condition of anonymity, complained about a lack of funds and manpower. “The problem is that [Nicaragua’s] government is centralized. There is plenty of money pouring in. We get donations and international grants [meant to help impoverished children and families,] but most of it goes to paying the salaries of people in unrelated departments or to accomplishing political goals.” This leaves the ministry tasked with supporting Nicaragua’s impoverished families with deeply understaffed offices. The official I spoke with described one office charged with serving fourteen municipalities that is staffed by three employees, “and the director of that office makes about $350 (US) per month.” She lamented, “The street children are a symptom of Nicaragua’s neglect. They are everywhere, but to the government and the wealthy they are invisible.”
Ecklesdafer with Hector, who she credits with convincing her to stay in Matagalpa.
This problem is compounded by policies that have more to do with ideological goals than on-the-ground realities. “The government strategy is entirely focused on holding together the family. This means we are legally prohibited from checking children into rehab centers or moving them out of homes with abusive situations.” These restrictions force those few dedicated workers who remain with the ministry to resort to clandestine means to help children in need. The official recounted, “I went to a home today with a five-year-old child who looked as though he was almost dead from starvation. I have to get him out of that house but officially I can’t do anything to separate him from his family. So instead, I have to do my work behind the camera. And to be honest, my best bet is to work with people outside of the government, people who can get on the street and work with these kids hands-on.”
Mario shares his newfound positive outlook at El Hijo Prodigo.
The Gang Leader and the Criminal Justice Worker
Some degree of salvation for the street children of Matagalpa comes from two of the least likely sources imaginable. Juan Sosa is a self-proclaimed former drug trafficker, gang leader, revolutionary, and arms dealer. Amanda Ecklesdafer is an American social worker with a background in criminal justice. Two people who could easily have ended up on opposite ends of the law have instead been engaged in an unlikely partnership to lift the street children of Matagalpa out of poverty and addiction to give them a second chance at life.
Ecklesdafer has been working in Matagalpa since 2013, when she visited the city looking for an alternative to the social work she had been doing in the United States. “I knew I wanted to work abroad, and I wanted to do something that felt more direct and hands-on.” What was initially meant to be a temporary stopover became an extended endeavor driven both by her passion for philanthropy and the desperate need she witnessed. “There was really nowhere for these kids to go. I showed up and started by helping out, buying food, and just talking to them. I think having someone to tell their story to, someone who cared about them as people made a big difference.” When her allotted time in Matagalpa came to an end, she found it harder to leave than she anticipated. “There I was sitting on the side of the road in the middle of the night with [then 14-year-old] Hector just balling, saying ‘you mean you’re not even coming back to visit me for Christmas?’ And that was it, I knew I couldn’t leave.”
Ecklesdafer visits former street children at El Hijo Prodigo.
The experience inspired Ecklesdafer to found Project Open Arms, which she now runs out of her home in the city’s Totolate neighborhood. The project feeds between thirty and forty children and young adults every day. She explains: “The primary goal is to establish relationships and trust.” Children are not required to abstain from drug or alcohol use in order to receive food, the only requirement is that all those who come to the house refrain from violence or criminal acts while in the neighborhood. “We want these kids to know they have a place to go where they will be received without question.” So far it appears to be working. To date Project Open Arms has successfully convinced twenty children to willingly enter rehabilitation centers in nearby towns. Above all, Open Arms provides street kids a safe place to congregate. A visit to a dinnertime gathering turned into a dance session, full of laughter and play. It was a stark contrast to many of the somber interactions I had witnessed among Matagalpa’s street children, and that is precisely the point. “These kids really appreciate being looked at as kids, instead of as thieves or addicts.” Ecklesdafer is aiming to expand the project’s outreach, with plans to open a full-time bunkhouse for street children who demonstrate consistent positive progress and a dedication to getting off of the streets. For many of Matagalpa’s homeless children, this will require treatment for various addictions—treatment available primarily at centers run by Juan Sosa.
Sosa came to the street children of Matagalpa via a long and violent road. Born into a turbulent family situation, he was on the streets soldiering for local gangs as a child. By fourteen he was leading his own small time mafia, organizing robberies, drug sales and acts of violence. He was swept into Nicaragua’s bloody civil war when two of his brothers were killed by anti-government Contra forces. His time among the Sandinistas was characterized by violence and heavy drug use. “I just wanted revenge, I drank and took any drug I could find to numb my pain and anger, but mostly I wanted to kill those responsible for taking my brothers.” When the cease-fire was signed in 1990 Sosa was left without a purpose, and with a network of out of work soldiers, pilots and military-politico leaders. “That’s when I started moving drugs and guns around Nicaragua. I knew all of the right people.” While this was a period of economic success and great influence for Sosa, he says that a dark shadow overhung his life. “I was an addict. I had never fully recovered from the addictions I developed on the streets or during the war. My family could see it, but I was in denial. The money only made it worse, I had access to everything and nobody could tell me to stop.” Sosa’s drug use eventually led to the loss of his family and a great deal of his fortune. At the age of forty-five he checked into a rehabilitation center a broken man. “I should have died in that time, only by the grace of God was I saved.” Sosa’s subsequent recovery triggered a shift of conscience. “I knew for the first time the purpose God had for me in my life.” Sosa found this purpose in lifting others out of addiction in his rehabilitation center “El Hijo Prodigo.” In English, “The Prodigal Son.”
Former street children play soccer at Sosa’s rehab centre.
A visit to El Hijo Prodigo offered a glimpse of the potential of Sosa’s vision. Children are given food, shelter, and counseling for their addiction. In return, they work on the grounds and attend religious meetings. Teachers are brought in from nearby communities to deliver lessons, and students are able to progress normally through grades as though they were in regular schools. The rest of the time they are free to play and relax on the ample grounds, complete with a soccer pitch. All of El Hijo Prodigo’s employees are recovering addicts who have been through recovery programs themselves. One employee explained through tears, “This program saved my life. I was living a terrible life. Addiction, sex work, it was very painful. Now I get to help others.” Sosa firmly believes the perspective of those who have overcome their own addictions is necessary to the success of the program. “How can I tell you how to find your way out of the darkness if I haven’t been there myself? Everybody in the center knows how difficult addiction is, and they know how to help these kids.”
During my visit I spoke to Mario, 14, who described how the program had changed his outlook. “I thank God all the time that I’m here. I don’t know what would have happened to me otherwise.” When asked if he felt he was likely to return to drug use after his release he was emphatic. “No way, if I do that I’ll just end up right back here, and worse, I’d probably lose my girlfriend. I’d rather get a real job so that I can take care of her and be a good man.”
Mario’s positive vision for his own future was a stark contrast to how he was living before being checked into the center. “When I lived in Matagalpa I never wanted to be home, my mother and father fought all the time and would often hit each other and me. So I stayed out as late as I could. The first time I did drugs it was just out of curiosity, but after a while I couldn’t help it, it was all I wanted to do. A friend and I started to rob people for the money. We never hurt anyone, we would just grab what we could and run away. Sometimes we would pay a taxi driver to wait around the corner for us so we could get away. We would do anywhere from ten to twenty robberies a day.” At this admission he smiled sheepishly. “Sometimes I felt bad, some people really need their stuff, but man, it was great having all the money I wanted. I was free to do anything I wanted.”
That freedom was a recurring theme among the street kids I spoke to, both in an out of treatment. While the life on the streets is difficult and often bleak, it is also essentially a life of freedom. Nobody tells street children what to do or where to be, and they can indulge their addictions and whims whenever they can secure the resources necessary to do so. For this reason a life of self-restraint and discipline can be not only a difficult adjustment, but a hard sell. Attempts to get children steady work often ends in abandonment. Ecklesdafer explains: “They either have trouble keeping a regular schedule or get bored of showing up to work everyday. They just aren’t used to living that way.” Often, those who wish to help kids off of the street are forced to wait either until the police bring them in for a crime, or until the trauma of street life becomes unbearable.
Juan Sosa, a reformed gang member and drug trafficker, now runs rehab centres that treat street children at little or no cost.
Programs like Open Arms and El Hijo Prodigo offer an opportunity to escape life on the streets for those children who are ready to seek them out. But without governmental support, maintaining these programs is a consistent struggle. Sosa explains, “Our bank accounts are often insufficient for feeding our kids for more than the coming week. We have open accounts at several local bakeries who give us food on credit, but the threat of running out of money is always there.” Open Arms faces similar challenges, with the cost of maintaining programs for homeless children often outpacing the rate of donations and funding. Ecklesdafer rolls with the challenge. “I try not to think about the money, I focus on the work I’m doing and trust that [the money] will come.” Official support from the Nicaraguan government does not appear to be coming anytime soon, and until then organizations such as Open Arms will continue to rely on private donations and the dedication of their founders to function. According to Ecklesdafer “The hardest part [of my work] is when I’m holding one of these kids in my arms, knowing that here they are safe and loved, and then having to let them go, knowing that they are heading back out into a life of danger and uncertainty.
Clearly there are no grand solutions in the offing to the situation on the streets of Matagalpa. Without greater government support, almost any attempt to help los niños de la calle will be limited to the efforts of dedicated people like Ecklesdafer and Sosa. To many outsiders the presence of homeless children in wealthy cities can feel like symptoms of social ills that run too deep to be solved by a few independent actors. But to the children who are aided by these heroic efforts the work done by people like Sosa and Ecklesdafer is both tangible and potentially transformative. And for that, at least, we can feel deep appreciation and at least a modicum of hope.
Project Open Arms in need of ongoing support. Donations help to feed, house, and rehabilitate homeless children. You can donate at www.projectopenarms.co
As an anthropologist, archaeologist, journalist, photographer, and educator, Kevin wears many hats. He currently works for Carpe Diem Education, National Geographic Student Expeditions, and Wilderness Travel. Kevin aims to document the human experience through investigative writing, documentary photography, and meaningful research. In doing so he hopes to inspire others to live with passion and engage purposefully with their world.
Kevin has worked on a diverse range of projects, including an intensive mapping survey of the Inca Road System, a study of high altitude ceremonial sites in the cloud forests of the Vilcabamba region of Peru, and an anthropological exploration of the Peruvian Amazon. His archaeological work and photography can be seen in the latest edition of the excellent volume of The Incas. Kevin’s background in anthropology profoundly affects his views on life, his writing, and his photography. He aims to give every shot as much cultural, historical and human context as possible.
Kevin also has a love for the natural world that finds expression is his photography as well as his work. He has volunteered at a wildlife refuge in Bolivia caring for big cats orphaned by the illegal pet trade as well as at a private nature reserve in his home town of Santa Rosa, California. He hopes that the presence of natural beauty in his work can inspire others to connect with the natural world as well as to work to protect and appreciate wilderness areas as custodians of the planet.
Currently, Kevin is engaged in The Uncontacted Project, an ambitious documentary film and journalism project exploring the border of the zone of legal contact in the Peruvian Amazon.