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  Number 301 | Agosto 2006
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Nicaragua

The New National Police Chief Faces Colossal Challenges

In September Aminta Granera will become the general director of the National Police, the second woman to hold the post since the revolutionary decade. The challenges she faces are much greater than the ones then.

William Grigsby

The suspense ended on July 18. Aminta Granera was named general director of the National Police for the next five years, the second woman to hold that maximum post after Doris Tijerino in the eighties. The fight for this position has left open wounds in the institution’s high command and if the new Police chief doesn’t show maturity and an ability to close them even before she takes her new office, she will confront serious problems that will complicate her many challenges even more.

Granera or Guido

Although it is the task of Nicaragua’s President to name the successor, Edwin Cordero, the outgoing police chief, announced publicly in the middle of last year that his favorites were Deputy Directors Aminta Granera and Ana Julia Guido. Since that date, all of the other members of the high command—37 major commissioners and other two deputy directors, Orlando Aguilera and Horacio Rocha—have taken sides for one or the other. Commissioners, deputy commissioners and captains also lined up behind their favorite candidate. With that began a self-interested and sometimes sordid fight for power.

By March of this year, everything suggested that Deputy Director Guido would succeed Cordero. She proudly showed an impeccable résumé which began when she joined the Sandinista guerrilla army as a young woman and distinguished herself for her bravery. After the revolutionary triumph she gained enormous prestige within the police ranks for her discipline, integrity, strength of character and problem-solving ability. She also knew how to be loyal to her superiors within the police institution and within the government. An example of the social prestige she achieved is reflected in a July 14, 2006, website reader survey done by El Nuevo Diario, in which 7,760 people responded to a question about preferences between the two police leaders. Guido got 75% of the votes and Granera just 14%.

Preferences notwithstanding, the alliances that Ana Julia Guido felt obliged to make to win the post ended up dealing her a bad hand. According to different sources, Major Commissioner Carlos Bendaña, Managua’s police chief, was one of Guido’s supporters and offered her his solid network within the government, and especially with President Enrique Bolaños, in exchange for Guido naming him as one of the new deputy directors. Bendaña had earned Bolaños’ confidence through his effectiveness in the anticorruption operations against Bryon Jrez and ARnoldo Alemñan when he was head of the Economic Affairs Office. No one then, in 2002, could have foreseen the scandal that would involve Bendaña four years later with the murder of nightclub owner Jerónimo Polanco, whose killers had strong ties to Bendaña.

A second factor that could have influenced Bolaños’ decision not to elect Guido was her indisputable Sandinista identity. She was always seen as close to FSLN Secretary General Daniel Ortega. Nevertheless, Aminta Granera is also Sandinista, with a solid political and institutional trajectory from her time in the revolutionary guerrilla forces through the variety of roles she held during the revolutionary government, first heading the Chiefs of Staff and later the Interior Ministry’s Secretariat under the direct command of Tomás Borge, and more recently in her police responsibilities, as head first of the Secretariat and then of the National Transit Police, as Managua police chief, and finally as Cordero’s successor as inspector general, replacing Cristian Munguía, who was murdered in May 2002. Never in that time did she publicly distance herself from Ortega.

This leads some to believe that the fundamental factor in naming Granera over Guido is her class origins. While Guido is of humble origins and became part of the professional class as an adult, the 54-year-old Granera comes from a well-off León family, majored in sociology, philosophy and theology, and in the nineties got a graduate degree in business administration at a private university in Managua. She was a religious novitiate with the Sisters of the Ascension, doing her primary and secondary studies in their school in León. While she was preparing for her vows in Guatemala in the early seventies, she contacted the Sandinista guerrilla forces and joined them instead.

Tensions and pressures

Aminta Granera gained notoriety as the National Transit Chief when she launched a massive offensive against the bribes that police were extracting from drivers. She also gained recognition for her stint as Managua Police Chief known. Many remember her ordering the police to help flood victims in the outlying neighborhoods of the capital during Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and saw her personally carrying children and victims’ personal belongings through the mud and rock flows.

During the Polanco-Bendaña case, the most recent crisis of the National Police, Granera asked for Bendaña’s immediate suspension from his duties. While she received Commissioner Rocha’s support, the other two deputy directors (Guido and Aguilera) opposed her. Cordero agreed to retire Bendaña, but 48 hours later he changed his mind, bowing to pressure from high Bolaños government officials and even the President himself.

The contradictions between the two bands became public in mid-July 2006, a few days before Granera was named. Cordero surprised journalists by announcing that he had suggested Bendaña retire in September, using the occasion of the renewal of national commands. Granera immediately backed him up. “We fully back the police director’s criteria and opinions,” she volunteered, and Rocha echoed her words. Guido, however, disagreed: “That’s a personal opinion, which I respect, but until there’s a decision I have no opinion on it. All the compañeros have done a good job and that’s what matters.”

The powerful rightwing media also took sides, choosing Commissioner Granera as their candidate. La Prensa did so in the worst way, launching a systematic campaign against Guido. “It seems like an insult to me, slander,” said Guido, defending herself against a series of articles that ran in that daily newspaper. “They link me to Daniel Ortega and Lenín Cerna as if I were their candidate. I don’t want to be the candidate of anyone or any political party. I’m loyal to the law and that’s what interests me. I have no economic or political commitments to anyone. I take care of the institution, love the institution, am no one’s token, am not promoting myself, and am not campaigning. I’m working on the November national elections, but in fulfillment of my job. To me, President Bolaños is a serious and responsible person, and isn’t going to take these malicious articles seriously.”

Is Granera more of the same, domesticated,
or self-contained and independent?

Why did Bolaños finally choose Aminta Granera, knowing that Bendaña, his man in the police force, supported Ana Julia Guido? The details will surely come out, perhaps after the presidential succession if not sooner, but one thing is certain: Bolaños doesn’t want his friend to leave the Police. Ten days after discarding Guido, journalists asked him what he thought of the decision to retire Bendaña for his presumed ties with Polanco’s material killers, and Bolaños responded: “Until he has been found guilty, this is still under investigation.”

A security specialist and former army colonel commented to envío that the naming of Ana Julia Guido would have “raised the moral standards of the bulk of the Police command” given her enormous personal and political reputation with the great majority of officers. “On the other hand,” he went on, “Granera will continue the trend of recent Liberal governments to turn the Police into an institution politically docile to the Presidents’ will and servile not only to the power of the social hierarchy, but also to the business class that supports it.”

Given her history of strength, integrity and independence, however, it’s not a foregone conclusion that Aminta Granera will be “domesticated,” as a former government minister called it, by her post and the political ties inherent to it.

Time to pass the baton:
The founding Sandinistas are leaving

In September current Police Chief Edwin Cordero, Commissioners Guido, Aguilera and Bendaña and probably two other high commanders will retire. Francisco Bautista, dismissed by Bolaños in April 2005 then reinstated by the Supreme Court four months later, will also officially retire after keeping his salary but never returning to his post. “There’s a 35-member ceiling for the major commissioner post,” explained Cordero, “and there are commissioners who are keeping the heat on because they need promotions. So, we need to retire groups of high officials.” In fact, a large number of its Sandinista founders will leave this year, since the law establishes that officers must retire when they complete 55 years of age or 30 years of service.

Cordero also announced that the three new deputy directors had already been chosen, though he opted not to reveal their names. By law, the list must should be proposed by the incoming chief, in this case Granera, and appointed by the government minister. The only deputy director eligible to remain in his post is Major Commissioner Rocha, who was appointed in April 2005 when the Police commands seconded Bolaños’ decision to expel Bautista.

Trusted sources told envío that two of the new deputy directors will be General Commissioners Juan Baez, currently chief of Internal Affairs, and Carlos Palacios, director of the Walter Mendoza Police Academy and head of the Anti-Drug Division when the “narco-jet” scandal exploded in the first year of Arnoldo Alemán’s administration. Both men are of Granera’s generation, and she has had a close relationship with them for many years. The fourth deputy director will probably be a woman. The names being tossed around are Commissioners Vilma Reyes Sandoval, currently chief of the department of Chontales, and Glenda Zavala, chief of the department of Granada.

Stop the internal decay
and eradicate corruption

Granera and the new deputy directors don’t have much time to lose. The new National Police command will face colossal challenges.

The institution is passing through an historic breaking point, a sink or swim moment. This means that the National Police command can no longer turn a blind eye to the growing moral and institutional decay perceived in its ranks. The examples of doing so are many and major: the Polanco case, paying for information with drugs, the case of the murdered police officers in Bluefields... If drastic, radical measures aren’t taken soon, this could rapidly undermine the commanders’ authority and public order nationally. Granera will have to get a grip in the first six months of her administration.

The National Police crisis could end up affecting the whole country in short order, because once the decay grows, corruption will change into an institutional “style,” and if this happens, the impact on public security will be brutal. Common and “white collar” crime will assume control of the spaces the Police can’t or doesn’t want to control.

It’s an open secret that the tentacles of drug trafficking have penetrated middle and high levels of the National Police throughout the country. It’s no longer just a problem on the Caribbean coast, where the most powerful Colombian mafia networks have settled. Drug money circulates generously between the small “retailers” in any neighborhood of any city in the country and those who run the extensive land, sea and air transport networks. This money often ends up in the pockets or bank accounts of some police chiefs.

The other face of police corruption is the tendency of those in government office to guarantee loyalty or, even worse, complicity among Police commanders by bribing them, matching their salary or letting them use unregistered resources in state accounts, or simply giving them cash. This has happened and is happening with many officers, some of them still active. For example, it doesn’t escape the notice of ordinary people that some still active or recently retired police officers have an inexplicably ostentatious standard of living. The mansions they live in, the vehicles they ride in, the trips outside the country for family vacations or the private schools where they send their children obviously can’t be explained by their 10, 15, or 25 thousand córdoba salary or pension.

In confronting these problems Granera and her team run a risk of falling into “witch hunt” extremism, taking down even innocent people, although the internal situation is so serious that it could end up being the lesser evil. The corruption in the subordinate structure (captains, lieutenants and inspectors) and in the executive level (deputy inspectors and deputy officials) takes refuge in the argument that “the chiefs do it, too.” The loss of scruples among these officers is much more visible because they’re the ones most frequently in contact with the citizens. Because of this, it’s not enough to take measures with the superior officers, major commissioners, commissioners and deputy commissioners, but also with the subordinate ranks.

As if it were a small thing, the bottom rung police aren’t exempt from irregular behavior either. Complaints rain down daily about the bribes still given to transit cops, payments to officers to look the other way when a crime is committed or a prisoner is let go. This type of behavior isn’t exempt from individual responsibility, even though those who engage in it “justify” it by the corruption that reigns in the institutional culture.

The two things Commissioner Granera can’t do are look the other way and limit the internal disciplinary measures or punishments only to the intermediate commands, officers and line agents. If she truly wants the Police to recuperate its prestige and strengthen its effectiveness, she’ll have to prune evenly, starting at the top.

Cancel the hidden privatization of the police

The “committees of friends” of the Police were started in the mid-1990s, the period of the highest reported number of Police killings of civilians in jails or in the streets, when the force was under the command of now-retired Commissioner Fernando Caldera Azmitia. These regrettable committees are made up exclusively of businessmen and controlled by the big businessmen-politicians of the Supreme Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP), a private business umbrella. Under the euphemism of “friendship,” the members of those committees support a number of public charity activities in exchange for the preferential treatment by the Police in guarding the donors’ businesses and homes, or giving special attention to their complaints.

The National Police has been and is one more victim of the brutal neoliberal politics ordered by the International Monetary Fund in Nicaragua. Its members’ salaries are below the Central American average. In general, they work in poor conditions. Only some of the serious limitations they face are that neither they nor their families are adequately protected against on-the-job risks, illnesses, injuries or death; they don’t have enough vehicles or fuel to do their job adequately; and they have few uniforms and fewer weapons. It’s also true, however, that the state has a responsibility to pay them well; provide them with sufficient tools, weapons, vehicles, fuel and uniforms; prepare them adequately; and guarantee decent work and living conditions, housing, social security and pensions. That’s the only way the Police can serve all of society’s citizens and not just those who have enough money to “contribute” to the institution.

For Aminta Granera and the institutional commanders, obtaining an adequate police budget will involve a political battle and a search for allies within the new government and parliament elected in November, and within organizations. This path is longer, involves bigger leaps, and will require patience and cleverness. Without a doubt it is “the” path. Achieving a better police budget from the state is a national imperative.

Make the police defend the law,
not just some functionaries

With ever greater frequency, Nicaraguan society is witnessing unfortunate events where functionaries use police officers as their private security guards. Or the government uses them to violently repress social movements protesting the ministries’ failure to resolve popular demands.

This year during the Polanco storm, for example, Commissioner Bendaña wanted to clear his name with his friend, President Bolaños, so he beat up some doctors who were in a justified strike for better salaries. A couple of months later, his officers showed what they were physically capable of doing to defenseless teenage students. He wanted to show the government how energetic the Police can be when called to keep public order. More recently, two police patrols were given the responsibility of watching over bricklayers who were building a wall near the mansion of Francisco Fiallos, named minister of government on July 1, keeping the affected neighbors from protesting. Two days later, 12 police officers, including a captain, a deputy officer and several specialists, plus two trained dogs, spent hours looking for a peacock and a macaw that a burglar had taken from the luxurious home of former construction minister Pedro Solórzano that morning.

Granera will have to gather her courage to guarantee that the Police won’t treat protesters brutally, because it’s one thing to assure public order, including using force when necessary, and another to beat up citizens just for the pleasure of it when they’re using their legitimate right to protest. No matter how much money the governments of Spain and the United States give the Nicaraguan National Police, no matter how much both governments claim to be “models of public order,” the political and human essence of our police force, whose DNA code was originally imprinted by the Sandinista revolution, is radically unlike the Spanish Police, the child of Franco’s reign, or the US Police, spawn of the Indian-killing cowboys and the New York gangs.

Safeguarding the police institution from this country’s political ups and downs will require putting an end to the recurrent use of the Police for strictly political ends. This is a great challenge, because it depends exclusively on the top Police commanders and the stance they take with the next government.

Improving staff selection
and their training programs

The murder of a police officer by a crazed knife-wielding peasant right in the police station in Juigalpa earlier this year revealed weaknesses in the squad’s basic training, and particularly the absence of a refresher training plan for officers who have been in the institution for some time. This regrettable event showed that the physical and technical capacity of frontline officers needs substantial improvement.

There’s evidence that more than a few who enroll in the Walter Mendoza Academy do so simply to guarantee a fixed income or gain a more powerful position and use it for personal gain, whether as a sure source of quick money or for improving their résumé. It’s natural that if there’s generalized social decay in the country, many of those who aspire to be police officers are also decayed. In this situation, improved methods and filters are needed to guarantee the fewest possible number of cadets with behaviors symptomatic of corruption.

But even if the filter to enter the Academy is made more rigorous, as it should be, it will all be for nothing if the students, once inside, aren’t adequately molded as public servants and as professionals at the service of the citizenry. That’s where the perception of many agents and officers that the Police is society’s whip needs to be changed. The training they receive should be much broader if the desire is to have exemplary as well as efficient police. Today, the top police commanders complain in public and in private that the Academy is the Police equivalent of a Cinderella: deficient infrastructure, poorly paid instructors, scarce study material.

The combination of these three factors—improving staff selection, basic education and ongoing training of all officers—is a fundamental requirement to improve the command and subordinate staff over the short, medium and long haul.

Improve the living standards of
police officers and their families

To assure that the police are less permeable to the temptations of corruption, it’s essential to improve their quality of life. Commissioner Cordero made some important progress on this front: he got the Carlos Roberto Huembes Hospital back for the Police, began a modest housing plan and significantly improved salaries at all levels.

Besides raising salaries, creating mass housing and improving hospital attention, however, the Police need a plan that assures annual vacations for each of its members, and if possible, guarantees them a place where they can effectively relax. It’s also necessary to assure the minimum resources for a decent life for each police officer who falls in the line of duty, or becomes incapacitated from injuries received in service. What happens now isn’t only unjust, it’s a humiliation. Many officers and staff who have given years of service to the institution are resigned to starvation pensions when they can no longer work well. Families of some who have died have to seek public charity to assure a decent burial or to allow their children to finish their studies.

Another important aspect is to assure proper work conditions for female police officers, above all those who are single mothers. Added to the machismo that predominates in the Police commands, female officers also have to meet their responsibilities as mothers, wives and daughters, something almost never demanded of males. Many times this keeps them from assuming greater work responsibilities. Paradoxically, however, 80% of the best cadets in the Academy are female, an eloquent figure given that it measures both intellectual and physical capacities.

Increase the number of police and
create closer relations with the people

According to the last census, Nicaragua has just over 5.14 million inhabitants while the Police has a national payroll roster of just over 7,000, including all administrative staff, secretaries, cooks and janitors. That translates to one member of the police force for every 700 inhabitants and every 18 square kilometers of territory and hence to the impossibility of adequately attending to the citizenry’s demands. Neighboring Costa Rica has over 15,000 police personnel, a million fewer inhabitants and 80,000 square kilometers less territory.

Our society needs more police. There are whole towns that have none and many more with only four or five, and they have terrible working conditions and no transportation. The urban centers, Managua included, need many more police stations in order to create closer relations with the people. Even the capital, with over a million inhabitants, currently has only five police stations and 1,700 police officers, with the outer neighborhoods in a district dozens of kilometers away from their district station. This not only reduces the officers’ coverage capacity, but also discourages people from reporting crimes.

Distance isn’t only geographic. One of the National Police’s major sources of pride, and with good reason, is the juvenile delinquency prevention plan. The result is that gangs haven’t taken over our streets as they have in the three Central American countries north of Nicaragua. A large part of the success of this plan is that dozens of police are fully dedicated to this work; they meet daily with parents and youth and are in close touch with social realities. A similar model needs to be applied to achieve a similar success in stopping common crime and drug dealing in the markets, neighborhoods and regions all over the country, and that can only happen with a large number of police officers.

Establish our own national priorities
and not those of the United States

The US government has cowed almost all Central American governments into following US priorities. And through those governments, it has gained control over the police and armies as well.

The US priority tasks are to control and contain terrorism, narco-terrorism, drug trafficking and the movement of immigrants to the United States. Except for drug trafficking, none of those objectives are really Nicaraguan national priorities. One of the major contradictions of Nicaraguan government policy in recent years has been to pursue, jail and deport Peruvian, Ecuadorian, Chinese, Caribbean and African immigrants, while begging Costa Rica, Mexico and the United States to offer humane treatment to the Nicaraguans who emigrate to those countries or travel through them.

Nicaraguan citizens set their own priorities for police work some time ago: deal appropriately with juvenile delinquency, gangs, street muggings, home burglaries and other robberies, white collar fraud, usurpation of other people’s property and drug dealing—the latter together with its cruelest consequence, drug addicts.

“Our” police

The problems of the National Police are the country’s problems because they affect everybody. There’s still a perception that people feel the Police belongs to them, but this feeling is noticeably weaker all the time. It’s less often “our police” and more often “the damn police.” If there’s anything the National Police should fear, it’s that the people turn on it. It’s natural that they should fear it, but not that they hate it. And there are already certain segments of the population, above all in the cities, that hate the Police for the way it operates.

If within five years, in September 2011, outgoing National Director Aminta Granera can truly affirm that the Nicaraguan Police has recovered Nicaraguans’ affection, that we’ve returned to saying “our police,” then she can say “mission accomplished.”

William Grigsby Vado is a Nicaraguan journalist.

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