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  Number 448 | Noviembre 2018
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Nicaragua

What happened in the Police under Aminta Granera’s command?

The National Police has morphed from a state institution into the personal guard of a sectarian regime. It thus can no longer be conceived of as a police force, which is supposed to protect all citizens, not just the regime. It attacks, represses and kills those it should protect. What has been Police Chief Aminta Granera’s role in this transformation?

Roberto Orozco

The departure of First Commissioner Aminta Granera as chief of the National Police wasn’t a dignified event, quite the contrary. After almost 13 years in command of this institution, and in the middle of the brutal repression that has resulted in hundreds of deaths since April 18, Daniel Ortega’s government unceremoniously replaced her with the second-in-command, Deputy Director Francisco Díaz.

Some people said Granera “left through the back door,” contrasting her top popularity ratings in all polls for years with the attrition of that esteem over recent years and the delegitimized end to her mandate. But did she truly leave by the back door? Was she responsible for the Police’s institutional deterioration or was it Ortega who dragged it into the abyss? Or did both of them do their bit in what is now being seen as the denaturing of the National Police? I’ll try to answer these questions by reviewing the two main challenges Granera faced when she took command of the National Police in September 2006.

Was Granera fired
or did she resign?


In order to evaluate Aminta Granera honestly, we first need to lay to rest months of doubt and confusion fed by an absence of official clarity: she wasn’t fired; she resigned. And she didn’t do it on July 31, the date Ortega’s presidential decree 113 A-2018 stipulated as the official end of her career. Various police sources say Granera communicated her decision to Ortega, by law the Supreme Police Chief, on April 20, three days into the mounting protest and its violent repression by anti-riot police and para-police. It was the very day a bullet in the neck ended the life of 15-year-old Álvaro Conrado, the youngest victim by then, shot while taking water to the protesters. These sources say she opposed the idea of Ortega blaming her command for the large number of deaths by police and para-police repression that were already predictable. That number by now ranges from 322 to 512, according to the counts of several national human rights organizations and the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (IACHR).

Nor was Ortega’s decree made public the day it was issued. It was only promulgated in the official daily La Gaceta on August 23, four months and three days after she presented her resignation.

Ortega accepted Granera
leaving on April 23


Granera informed Ortega of her decision despite the fact that the amendments to the National Police Law that resulted in the current Law 872 exclude resignation as a form of severance from the police career or from the obligations and rights between the officer and the institution. Under the new regulation, no police officer can resign, under pain of imprisonment. According to Article 53, officers end their relationship with the National Police only by meeting one of eight conditions: death, retirement having completed the required years of service, reaching the age or status to enter the pension system, retirement, institutional convenience, desertion of service, disciplinary resolution and final judgment for crimes committed.

Due to this legislation, sources say, President Ortega considered Granera’s resignation a desertion of service. Hence the claims, rapidly propagated, that she was “confined by presidential order” to her fourth floor office in the Faustino Ruiz building, the Police’s central command post in Managua.

These sources also allege that Ortega summoned the National Police Council to deal with “the Granera affair” on Sunday April 22. He accepted her departure and demanded she hand over her command to Francisco Díaz the following day. But only after another two months and five days did Ortega issue Presidential Agreement 98 A–2018, in which he appointed Díaz director general and the new First Commissioner of the National Police.

Granera was seen as the
recipe against corruption


When then-President Enrique Bolaños appointed Aminta Granera to the command of the National Police (PN) in September 2006, she chose to raise public expectations about changes in the institution and took personal responsibility for making them, presenting herself as the solution to police corruption. She knew she was taking over an institution severely delegitimized due to blatant corruption in the ranks, as she had already taken action against police officers who committed acts of corruption and human rights violations during an earlier posting in the General Inspectorate. At the announcement of her appointment, she stressed that during her stint as inspector general and in the three years prior to her naming, that office had processed the dishonorable discharges of 400 police officers.

It was precisely this approach that raised confidence in her from a society tired of so many payoffs to traffic police and scandalized to see how drug trafficking had penetrated the highest levels. This had already been confessed by Edwin Cordero, her predecessor as first commissioner, in 2003. He admitted to the media that the National Police had been paying its informants with drugs and took responsibility, both personally and as an institution, for that being one of the causes of the increase in drug dealing in the country’s main cities and the consequent increase in neighborhood crime. A drug dealer who “worked” for the National Police followed up this admission with statements to the media that police officers supplied him with drugs, which in his case he sold. The public already knew this had been happening for a long time.

This whole scandal was known as the Plan Escoba case. In an attempt to publicly defend what was indefensible, two former police directors, Fernando Caldera and Franco Montealegre, both denied that this was common practice in police ranks. Their statements didn’t do Commissioner Cordero’s reputation any good, but the police force was blemished.

Aminta Granera emerged as the solution to the institution’s internal corruption problem. How to purge the Police of corrupt officers became one of her first challenges, and it was a major one. Could she beat the internal system of police corruption or would it end up devouring her?

The case of the missing millions


In September 2006, right after Granera assumed her new post, she faced a new corruption scandal that shook the institutional pillars.

Julio César González Peña, a truck driver accused of smuggling millions of dollars into Nicaragua among the detergents he was bringing from Panama, charged during his trial that the police statement that they had only found $2 million was false because he had actually brought in $4 million. The incident was front page news for days and was widely discussed among the population. The media kept asking where the missing money was and who had it. The corrupt system scored the first point in its favor. It was as if from within the institution they were letting Granera know it would be difficult for her to fight corruption.

Losing both money and drugs during the National Police’s drug busts became very frequent. Careful followers of the news began to notice that the amounts reported in successive coverage were always less than those initially reported.

The FARCOSA case


The truck case wasn’t the only one discussed widely. In 2008 a case erupted concerning the pharmaceutical distributor Farmacéuticos y Conexos S.A. (FARCOSA). Its finance capital came from the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute (INSS) but it was moved to the portfolio of the National Police’s Social Security and Human Development Institute (ISSDHU).

As one of ISSDHU’s businesses, FARCOSA quickly enjoyed million dollar contracts from the Health Ministry. An investigative journalism piece by Octavio Enríquez in the newspaper La Prensa linked it directly to Aminta Granera. One link was her husband, Oswaldo Gutiérrez, adviser to the company, and another was that FARCOSA occupied the facilities of the Granera family’s abandoned laboratory on the new highway to León.

Another business deal made with INSS and ISSDHU money was the sale of the building that is today used by the National Electrical Transmission Company (ENATREL). The building belonged to ISSDHU, which sold it to ENATREL for US$18.5 million. Another journalistic investigation uncovered that at least two senior police commissioners close to Granera were partners, in their personal capacity, in the corporation that sold the building to ENATREL. The scandal, documented by the digital newspaper Confidencial, revealed that individuals had benefited personally from public money.

There were so many more corruption cases during her watch that there isn’t enough room to describe each of the ones uncovered and verified…

The corrupt system
ended up devouring her


The PN was even further delegitimized by a different mode of corruption: the divvying up of rural and urban properties confiscated from people accused of drug trafficking. Very valuable farms and houses of those suspected of this crime passed into the hands of more than one senior and general commissioner, who became large landowners overnight, even without a final conviction being handed down that ordered the confiscation of such properties.

Law 735, in force since 2010, establishes that money or property resulting from illicit acts committed by organized crime must be immediately transferred to the Ministry of Finance and Public Credit. Its Article 43 further establishes that the ministry must create an administrative unit for the seized, forfeited or abandoned property derived from such illicit acts, but that never happened. Senior officers profited from this, further increasing public awareness of the institution’s internal corruption. Money, real estate, furniture, jewelry, luxury vehicles… all became part of the personal patrimony of high-ranking officers.

These signs soon made it clear that Granera couldn’t achieve what she had proposed as her main challenge. She couldn’t win the battle against internal corruption. The corrupt system forged ahead and ended up devouring her.

“It’s hard to say no to Ortega”


Corruption was only one of Granera’s main challenges, as shown by security experts and journalists specialized in covering the National Police. The institution’s professional performance, autonomy and respect for and obedience of the law were other challenges of equal or perhaps greater importance and were where both she and the National Police get the worst ratings.

Only months after she assumed her new office, the main threat to the professional integrity of the police force emerged with Daniel Ortega’s return to government. On January 10, 2007, during his inauguration, no one failed to notice his public reminder to the chiefs of both the Army and the Police of their Sandinista origins as he called for their oath of obedience. Once put on notice like that, would Granera be able to prevent partisan politicization of her institution? With Ortega in charge, could she maintain certain areas of functional autonomy? Could she get the institution to act in accordance with the law?

In response to these questions, I offer the words of René Vivas Lugo, guerrilla commander during the insurrection against Somoza and an experienced police chief who served as director general between 1979 and 1982 and again between 1989 and 1992. In 2009, when the Institute of Strategic Studies and Public Policies (IEEPP) held a forum titled “The institutional challenges of the National Police,” Vivas summed his up presentation “Survival as an institutional challenge” by stating that in the new political context “it is very hard to say no to Ortega.”

How Daniel Ortega undermined
Aminta Granera’s command


Time proved Vivas’ words prophetic. Ortega not only totally rooted out any area of autonomous functioning in the police force but also subjected the whole institution to his direct orders and his political project. With Granera at the head, the National Police succumbed to Ortega’s power, and he stripped it of its natural character, converting it into a security apparatus for maintaining his regime.

The answer to how this happened is simple. Ortega undermined Aminta Granera’s command, creating parallel centers of power: political commissioners within the Police with no other function than to act as his faithful personal agents. The President also exercised subjective control by giving material benefits to specific officers in exchange for their absolute loyalty.

A former founder of the Police—whose name is omitted for security reasons—explains this process as follows: “Ortega began by giving individuals material benefits they had never had before: the Mitsubishi President Alemán gave the chiefs became Toyota Land Cruisers for all senior and general commissioners. For some of them he even ordered the remodeling of their homes, allowed them to have their own businesses or companies, turned a blind eye to the illicit operations many of them had and granted them financing or loans, as well as many other perks.”

These officers stopped obeying the mandate Granera held by law and blindly obeyed their benefactor. They felt Ortega gave them the recognition they deserved but had never received from any other government. Consciously or not, these officers on the command hierarchy gave themselves to Ortega’s game, which was to create police elite directly answerable to him. A state of affairs was thus created that was only possible with Ortega in power. Some believe that in the current crisis the most committed police officers aren’t defending Ortega, but the benefits and privileges they get from him and status they create. With that, Ortega dragged Granera and the National Police into the abyss of social delegitimization.

Granera’s lost opportunity


Ortega procured the collaboration of then-Director General Aminta Granera to achieve what he did. As a loyal FSLN militant, she consented to his project, helping get total National Police submission to his political project.

On September 5, 2012, the year she was due to rotate out of her term of office and retire, Granera lost a golden opportunity. Still at the height of her popularity in the polls, she was already being mentioned as a possible future presidential candidate, but she decided to obey Ortega. When the President read the presidential agreement that extended her command for five more years, she told him: “Comandante, I serve at your command.” It was still two years before Law 872 would name the President as the supreme chief of police.

From then on the institutional commitment to the party-political goals of Ortega and his regime was undeniably visible. The PN didn’t participate in but passively tolerated the violence and other abuses of the shock troops sent to repress protest demonstrations by civil society groups. The most flagrant case, known as #OcupaINSS, took place in June 2013 with the violent repression and robbery of young people in the presence of police officers who did nothing. Five years later, that tolerance escalated to active and combative participation with the by-now highly trained shock troops and since April we have seen the Police accompanied by Ortega-supporting troops (also referred to as para¬militaries, para-police and thugs) repressing people engaged in widespread protest.

Today the National Police is totally denatured, first because it has ceased being an institution working for the nation, instead becoming a personal security corps for a sectarian regime, and second because it has ceased being “police.” The dictionary defines police as a civil force for maintaining order, preventing and detecting crimes and enforcing the laws. It’s understood as an entity that guarantees the physical wellbeing of people and property, not the regime’s political mandates. Today, this organization under the mandate of the presidential couple attacks, represses and kills those it should protect.

A challenge she did meet


Not everything has been negative under Aminta Granera’s command, however. During her mandate she increased and strengthened the National Police’s capacities. The personnel increase was the principal feature of this strengthening: the number of officers went from 179 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2006 to 242 ten years later, a 35% increase.

Since Ortega’s return to power, the police chiefs’ agenda has been to take advantage of his blessing to increase not only their forces but also their capabilities to equal their “big brother,” the Army of Nicaragua. Ortega turned these aspirations to his advantage by totally supporting plans to strengthen the National Police.

It today has about 15,000 troops, although this figure isn’t verifiable given the restricted available information. If it is correct, what’s been created is an armed body equal in size to the Army, which officially has 14,000 troops. If to its expanded size we add that the National Police was equipped with weapons of war under the pretext of the fight against drug trafficking, what we now have is two armed bodies: one for the city and another for the countryside. And both, each in its own sphere of action, provide security for the current regime.

A police force armed for war


It has been evident, although not proven, that the fastest growing Police unit is its Special Operations Division (DOEP), identified by their black uniforms and the weapons of war they are trained to use. This unit has received Russian military training, always under the justification of preparing them for the war on drugs.

The DOEP was the unit that caused the most damage and deaths after the April uprising, during what was dubbed the “clean-up operation” in June, July and August. With a force never before seen, the regime decided to attack and dismantle the roadblocks put up in protest by unarmed citizens throughout the country. Masaya, Carazo, Jinotega, Matagalpa, León and Managua suffered the worst from this onslaught.

The Special Ops troops were filmed and photographed carrying Russian-made PKM heavy machine guns, Dragunov sniper rifles, RPG7 granade launchers and other weapons used exclusively by the military, which should never be used to ensure public order. That weaponry equipped the DOEP to withstand a major armed uprising rather than the unarmed civilian protests they were pitted against. Put another way, Ortega used both the excuse of the fight against international drug trafficking and the police chiefs’ competitive aspirations to strengthen their institution to create a force capable of quelling any threat to his regime that went beyond asymmetric threats, such as organized crime.

Granera was obviously fully aware of the already strengthened capabilities and numerical growth of the National Police. She knew that a repressive response to a peaceful and asymmetrical civic protest such as the one that began on April 18 would cause a bloodbath, as in fact ensued. Apparently unwilling to assume responsibility for it, she resigned, but too late. She shares with Ortega the responsibility for already dragging the institution to the precipice of delegitimization and widespread social rejection.

Why did the regime use paramilitaries?


Even this growth and strengthening of the National Police’s capabilities wasn’t enough for the regime. It had to turn to irregular groups of paramilitaries to deal with the protests that grew by the day after April 18.

Two reasons explain why paramilitaries were mobilized to quell the conflict, even with the more developed police force. First was the widespread nature of the protests: the rebellion covered all the main departmental capitals and extended to smaller and less important municipalities. The protests could be considered a nationwide demonstration of repudiation. The regime never expected or calculated anything on this scale. While their scenarios always envisaged demonstrations of repudiation, they believed they would be focused: never imagining they would reach national dimensions. But the protests not only reached those levels, they did so in the very first days, quickly requiring more police forces than any other in the institution’s entire history, surpassing its reactive capabilities.

To put down the protest, the regime first added Special Ops forces and anti-riot units to the police officers from different dependencies: traffic, personnel, Managua, personal security and others. Still totally overwhelmed, the regime then sent key party members throughout the country to summon retired members of the Sandinista Police, Army and Interior Ministry from the 1980s to join in the repression. One Facebook posting from that time showed Sandinista-turned contra leader-turned Sandinista again Edén Pastora in the north of the country pumping up historical Sandinistas to join the fray in “defense of the Comandante.” Even though it was also suggested that they would eventually be recompensed, many old militants ignored the call because they were well aware that “the Comandante” had enabled their sidelining from the party for many years. Youth gang members and others with criminal records were thus “hired” to complement the repressive forces, thus varying the composition of the paramilitaries. The regime employed whomever it had to and did whatever it took to beef up the forces supporting the Police in its mission to stop the protests.

The second reason for using paramilitaries could be political calculation. As Daniel Ortega is now by law the supreme chief of the National Police, he’s directly responsible for deaths caused by his uniformed officers, particularly those who committed multiple homicides and extrajudicial executions. But, legally speaking, if all these crimes are committed by paramilitaries, nothing links him to them. Should such cases come up, the regime can argue that the paramilitary forces acted on their own, not following instructions from central police command or the government itself.

When power comes
from the barrel of guns


Whichever the reason, or even if both, the joint operations between paramilitary and police showed that the fundamental pillar on which this regime is based is fire power. This is in line with Mao’s famous statement that “All power comes from the barrel of a gun.” It is the style of power Ortega has chosen and the Police and paramilitaries are pivotal to his holding on to it.

Some people are now talking about dissolving the National Police or reconstructing it from its base—the Police Academy—revising the values taught there. They’re right. History has shown that when security bodies are used for personal purposes and when power comes from guns, it always provokes institutional and political violence and can even incite revolutions.

Would the story have
been different..?


Many of the founders of the National Police are outraged with the direction taken by their institution of public order. Some blame Aminta Granera herself and argue that she wasn’t qualified to assume the top command.

One of them said: “Granera’s police career began in 1990 when she moved from the General Secretariat of the Interior Ministry to that of the National Police. There were comrades who were founders of the institution and had much more police and Sandinista merit than she did. Here we have the results. That’s why she left through the back door.”

Would the story really have been any different if another police chief had taken command?


Roberto Orozco is an expert in citizen security and organized crime.

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