Granada’s top cop says foreign tourists aren’t doing the city or Nicaragua any favors by giving money or food to the growing glut of young beggars who ply the streets with doleful expressions and outstretched hands.
The children—some of whom stagger by sidewalk cafes with the faraway eyes and listless gestures of glue-huffers, while others approach with friendly greetings and nipping fingers—are part of an expanding group that is turning begging for money into a lifestyle, says Granada Police Chief Fátima Flores.
“These children are not begging because they are hungry, they are begging because it has become their habit to beg,” Commissioner Flores told The Nicaragua Dispatch in an interview. “I have seen foreigners buy these children food; they buy them grilled steak or hotdogs and the kids eat a few bites and then throw it away and go bother somebody else. So the children are not begging out of need, they’re doing it because it has become a bad habit and irresponsible parents allow them to walk the streets late at night.”
That may sound cold coming from the head of a police force that prides itself of community relations, but Commissioner Flores says it’s the community she has in mind. When tourists reward begging, the group of young alms-seekers continues to grow to the point where it starts to reduce citizen security, drive away tourists, hurt the economy and leave behind a generation of youth who walk the streets putting palm-frond crickets on empty tables.
“Foreigners come here to relax and not to solve problems,” Flores says. “If a foreigner moves here and becomes a member of society, then they can help. But individually they can’t do anything to help, because that kid who is begging today will beg tomorrow and will beg forever; they will grow up begging.
“If you teach a kid to earn a living honorably, he or she will become a good man or woman, but if you (contribute) to them making a living from begging, you are not collaborating with the future of Granada or helping the city,” the police commissioner stressed.
In many cases, Flores says, the children are working with adult handlers who are waiting nearby. The commissioner says the police have “identified” who the parents of these children are, and are working to “take them out of circulation.”
The young panhandlers are seasoned and savvy, Flores warns. “They know who to approach and they usually target women, who have a proclivity for tenderness.”
But no matter how compelled people feel to give kids food or money, doing so only encourages bad behavior, Flores says.
“Tell them to go away…without mistreating them,” Flores says.
The Granada police chief, who next month will complete one year at her post as the city’s top cop—and 34 years on the national police force—says foreigners in general need to be more leery of others when they come to Nicaragua. Though the country’s reputation as the safest in the region is well-deserved, that doesn’t mean foreigners should let their guards down or be lulled into a false sense of security, Flores says.
“Foreigners are sometimes too trusting,” Flores says. “We should have a minimal level of suspicion to not expose ourselves to crime. But here foreigners walk around very confidently. You see people walking around by themselves on abandoned streets carrying expensive cameras. Delinquents are always studying their victims, and if a person looks like they are easy target to rob, the delinquent waits for the appropriate time and place to commit their crime.
“Granada is safe, but there are always criminal elements willing to do you harm,” she adds. “Foreigners need to be careful and not flaunt their belongings.”
And when young kids approach with hat in hand, down-and-out at the age of seven, tourists need to think twice before automatically giving or trusting.
“Foreigners have to be very careful and at the same time help the city,” Flores says. “(By not giving), they teach parents that this is not an alternative. There are lots of ways to work for a living; in one way or another, people find work.”