MANAGUA, Nicaragua (AP) — Guillermina Flores had lost her $130-a-month job at a clothing factory and the 29-year-old single mother was struggling to feed her three children. So like tens of thousands of others across Central America, she decided to leave her homeland and seek a better life abroad.
"It's hard to think that I will leave and they will stay, but it's even harder when they ask for things I can't give them," a teary-eyed Flores said as she stood in line for a visa.
Unlike most Central American migrants, though, she wasn't looking north toward the United States, but south toward Costa Rica.
As the U.S. struggles with a flood of Central American migrants, especially unaccompanied children, one fact stands out: Few are from Nicaragua, the poorest country in the region — but one far less violent than the so-called Northern Triangle of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
"Economic conditions in Nicaragua are terrible but what's really pushing families out from the Northern Triangle at this particular moment is the violence," said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas, a New York-based think tank.
Family ties are also a factor. Many Guatemalan, Honduran and Salvadoran migrants already have relatives living in the United States.
Between October and July, the U.S. Border Patrol detained about 63,000 minors who had crossed illegally into the United States. Of those, only 194 were Nicaraguan.
When Nicaraguans — or their children — leave, they usually stay closer to home, migrating to neighboring Costa Rica, a relatively peaceful country with a much higher standard of living than their own.
"If I go to Costa Rica it's less complicated to eventually bring (my children) with me," Flores said. "But I don't dare to go alone to the United States."
The conflagration of Cold War conflicts that swept through Central America in the 1970s and 1980s raged across Nicaragua as well as Guatemala and El Salvador. But far fewer Nicaraguans fled that violence to seek shelter in the United States.
And so when youth gangs spawned on the streets of Los Angeles began drifting back home, some expelled by American authorities, it was El Salvador that received the brunt of that infection of crime, one that soon spread to Honduras.
Mexico-based drug gangs also began using the region as a route to the United States, spreading their influence and expanding local crime networks. The Northern Triangle evolved into one of the most violent non-wartime regions of the globe.
With reports rife that the U.S. allows unaccompanied children to stay in the country pending a hearing, many in Honduras and El Salvador saw the risks of keeping their children at home as greater than sending them on a dangerous solo journey, especially because many already have relatives in the U.S. who might help the child who arrives.
"That gang culture has facilitated some of the insecurity at the street level in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras and contributed directly to the crisis of undocumented migrants," Farnsworth said. "That hasn't developed in Nicaragua and Costa Rica." Honduras' homicide rate is running at 90 per 100,000 people, the rate in Nicaragua is 11 homicides per 100,000. In Costa Rica, it's just 8.5.
Nicaraguan authorities say their country's relative safety also has been aided by a community policing system created after the leftist Sandinista rebels took power in 1979.
"This is about protecting one another, it's about being one more police officer who can help eradicate crime," said Guadalupe Ruiz, a 28-year-old teacher who is a member of the crime prevention committee in Managua's Omar Torrijos neighborhood.
The committees discuss issues that range from domestic violence to small-scale drug dealing, addressing the problems themselves or calling in the police.
Not all are happy with the system. Critics say the committees follow a Cuban model and exert political control, as well as gathering intelligence government.
For Nicaraguans who do leave, Costa Rica long has been a destination, thanks to the abundance of low-skilled jobs and incomplete border enforcement. It was spared most of the dictatorship and revolution that tore other nations in the last half of the 20th century and has a per capita income of about $10,000 — more than five times the figure in Nicaragua.
Nicaraguan migrants can simply take a boat along the San Juan River to farms where they work picking bananas or pineapples or travel by bus to cities where they work as maids or in private security.
"If they don't give me the visa, there are other ways to cross," said Flores on a recent afternoon as she lined up with about 300 other people outside the Costa Rican consulate in Managua. She said a friend had found her a job caring for two elderly people in the Costa Rican capital of San Jose, and she planned to leave her children with her sister for now.
Associated Press writer Javier Cordoba reported this story from San Jose, Costa Rica, and Olga R. Rodriguez reported from Mexico City. Associated Press writer Alicia A. Caldwell contributed from Washington, D.C.