Overhaul the existing Police or create a new one?
The new Nicaragua will have to create a new police force,
in part because in 2011 the existing one embraced
Daniel Ortega’s open-ended authoritarian project,
sacrificing the legitimacy of its origins by so doing.
Even more importantly, the human rights violations
and crimes against humanity the Police have committed
during the bloody repression since April 2018
have put paid to what little legitimacy it still retained.
Nicaragua needs and wants a new police force
with a new doctrine, and new formation and training
governed by a democratic public security policy.
Reforms won’t do; the change will have to be total,
right down to a new name and different uniforms,
Two years ago no one could have even imagined that Nicaragua would be shaken by the most severe political crisis of its recent history—an unarmed civic insurrection that the Ortega-Murillo regime attempted to put down with blood and fire. Yet back then, I wrote an article for envío revealing the systemic crisis eating away at the National Police. Even in April 2017, I argued that the only way to respond to this then-incipient crisis was with an equally systemic solution. Patches and touch-ups wouldn’t be enough.
What is a systemic crisis?
For years now the Police as an institution has needed a drastic, radical change rather than a typical reform, one that starts at the very top and goes all the way down to its last rungs, touching all the institutional spaces along the way. But despite the urgent need for it, this treatment could not be applied. The police system was then and still is inserted into a greater system, also in crisis, installed by the Ortega-Murillo regime. The Police was to be the repressive arm in this since-consolidated system.
A systemic crisis happens when a system collapses, leaving no part untouched. Among other causes, it results from incapacity, a lack of instruments to resolve problems, disasters created by its own development and dynamic, or the simple absence of either need or will to resolve the crisis among those who dominate the system because they don’t recognize that it exists and in any event are convinced the system must be maintained at whatever cost.
A systemic crisis doesn’t sneak up overnight, catching everyone by surprise. It takes time, incubating until it emerges in all its dimensions, by which time the damage is already done. It is an accumulation of multiple factors, although there is normally a dominant one that determines and defines the nature and scope of the crisis
The larvae of this crisis
The origin of the systemic crisis in Nicaragua’s National Police can be traced back to two moments that are separated in time but closely related. The first is the 1980s, which culminated in the transition of the relatively authoritarian wartime FSLN regime to also relative peace and democracy. The second is Daniel Ortega’s return to power in January 2007.
Between the overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship in 1979 and the electoral defeat of the FSLN in 1990, a period largely spent at war, the Police functioned in part as the caboose of the General State Security Division (DGSE), playing that role outside of the theaters of war. It was essentially a political entity that functioned as an apparatus of the governing party and was made up of former FSLN guerrilla columns that had fought against Somoza; it was even called the Sandinista Police. The guerrillas-cum-police thus considered themselves FSLN members first and members of an institution of public order second; they flashed their FSLN militant cards with more arrogance than their police badges. An unknown but important number of its officers were sent to different Warsaw Pact countries or to Cuba for police training, obviously copying those regimes’ police techniques and methods. That in turn fed the larvae of a crisis that was already beginning to gestate.
The FSLN’s 1990 electoral defeat marked the start of yet another major political transition in Nicaragua, during which the Police was dragged through a traumatic regime change bereft of both institutionality and leadership. Its existence and future were put in the hands of General Humberto Ortega, Daniel’s brother, head of both the Army and the FSLN team negotiating the transition with the new government. The Transition Protocol, signed by the outgoing and incoming governments on March 27, 1990, established that the Police would be a national force, a change that would begin with the rupture of its organizational ties with the FSLN.
The agreement further stipulated that police [and Army] officers would resign their party posts, the force would be reduced from 8,000 to 6,000, and the institution would be apolitical and professional, subordinated to civilian authority. In exchange, the new government pledged to respect its integrity, hierarchy and command structure.
The Police transition:
Angels and demons
The government of Violeta Barrios de Chamorro fulfilled its part of the bargain and so did the Police. But there was no way some protocol could guarantee that the police officers would once and for all shed the “red and black party colors” they had identified with since becoming FSLN members.
The Police made significant efforts to professionalize and institutionalize in the move from authoritarianism to democracy in the 1990s, and with visible successes. But they did not extirpate the larvae of the FSLN’s authori¬¬¡tarianism that had burrowed deep within the institution. In a complex, violent and frankly hostile external environment, they remained alive and active.
Among other reasons was the demand for the complete dismantling of the Police [not to mention the Army] being made byby extremists in both he US Congress. and UNO, [the wildly divergent, cobbled-together political coalition that with no little help—some illegal—from Washington suc¬cessfully ran Violeta Chamorro as its candidate. They considered the Police a foreign body in the fragile democracy being born in Nicaragua with so many labor pains. From its opposite flank the Police was also in the sights of FSLN radicals, who were accusing it of having betrayed the “revolutionary principles.” Lacking both institutionality and skilled and energetic leadership, the Police was constantly put to the test on the bumpy road of the nascent Liberal democracy, which was still little more than a desire. In such a polarized atmosphere, the government itself was under constant fire from adversaries of both the Right and Left.
But alongside these larvae, new democratic shoots also bloomed in the Police, ready to engage in a spirited contest against the FSLN’s authoritarian inheritance: “angels” challenged “demons,” as they identified themselves in the police ranks. The angels fought for a professional, institutionalized Police under the authority of civilian power and at the service of democracy. The demons, trapped in the past, maintained their fidelity to a defeated revolution they desperately wanted to bring back.
Faced with the violence of those governing “from below”
It was no easy task for the Police to undertake the construction of a new institution while dealing with the onslaughts of unions and university students controlled and directed by Daniel Ortega, who in those years repeated again and again the rhetoric that “we lost the elections but not the power.” His call to his party to govern “from below” gave a pretty good show to that effect.
The first years of President Chamorro’s government were thus extremely complicated. It was obvious that the Police were not prepared to control the demonstrations by Ortega’s followers, who used paving blocks to set up barricades in the cities and roadblocks on the highways, just as was done last year, and also took over public institutions. A seminal difference was that the police were sympathetic, not hostile, to the demonstrators back then. At one point the Army had to go out into the streets of Managua to impose order, although it did so without firing a single shot, making use instead of its undeniable dissuasive power.
It was in response to the violence orchestrated by Ortega, when the newly redefined police body was just starting to adjust to a professionalization process, that police officials clearly chose sides between angels and demons.
Thirteen years as legal orphans
The Sandinista Police were left without any law or juridical canon regulating their organization, missions and actions for 13 years—between August 22, 1979, and September 7, 1992—and three changes of government. That’s not to say they operated outside the law, but that they had no statute giving them juridical underpinnings or backing them up.
The only legal thing they had going for them over such a long time was the Law of Sandinista Police Jurisdictional Functions (Decree 559 of October 25, 1980, promulgated in La Gaceta 253 of November 3, 1980). There was also a Sandinista Police Functions Law (Law 65, predated to La Gaceta 244, December 26, 1989), which was part of what could be characterized as a “juridical piñata” when, after its electoral defeat in November 1990, the outgoing Ortega government frantically tried to fill the innumerable legal gaps left by the arrogance, and perhaps inability, of a leadership that had previously preached that “the Revolution is the source of law.” Under tremendous pressure, laws such as this one, which should have existed many years before and were predated to assemble a precarious legal order that in reality had never existed, were pushed through in only three months.
1990: Who are we now...?
The 1990 electoral defeat shook the FSLN to its core, as it had never thought it could lose elections. It was also a shock for all the state institutions, but the Sandinista Police may suffered the worst from the cataclysm.
Thrown into the abyss of uncertainty, it was left facing the triple crisis of identity, mission and legitimacy and the following questions: Who are we now if we were previously the State Security’s caboose? What is our mission? Will we be accepted by the citizenry after the civil war? While the Army, which had its own institutionality, legal clothing in which to wrap itself, and strong, able and bold leadership, rapidly found responses to these questions, the Police had to row against the current to find them, and in the end did so with the Army’s help. All these questions and the way the Police handled them help us understand the origin of its “angels” and devils” issue which was dispatched quickly and dispassionately in the Army. They also help explain the nature of its systemic crisis today.
The Police subordinated to civil power
One of the Chamorro administration’s achievements with respect to public security was to initiate the process of institutionalizing and professionalizing the Police. It began immediately with Law Decree 1-90 Creating the Ministries of State (La Gaceta 87, May 8 1990), which changed the institution’s name from Sandinista Police to National Police. The new name was more firmly established in the Organizational Law of the Ministry of Government (Decree 64-90, La Gaceta 241, December 14, 1990).
It would be wrong, however, to claim that, despite the initial violence of the political transition, security was the Chamorro government’s number-one priority. A decade of war and erroneous economic policy decisions had left the country in ruins, with a collapsed productive apparatus and the faucets of the international financing institutions (IFIs) turned off due to the US economic boycott and vetoing of all loans by those institutions.
The first positive, though still weak, economic signs began to appear in 1992. The raging hyperinflation was contained and substantially reduced and the IFIs were renewing their relations with Nicaragua, although with strict controls. Having financially asphyxiated the previously government, the White House and US Congress had also slowly begun to release significant resources to the new one.
In those minimum conditions of recovery, the executive branch, which at that time shared legislative faculties with the National Assembly, approved two Police-related laws in 1992. The first was the Law of National Police Functions on Issues of Judicial Assistance (Law 144, promulgated via La Gaceta 58 of March 25). Six months later it approved the National Police Organizational Law (Decree 45-92, La Gaceta 72 of September 7).
For the first time in Nicaragua’s history, the public force’s organization, functioning, fields of action and civil nature were defined and the juridical basis of its institu¬tionality was laid, underscoring above all the preeminence civil authority would have. Decree 45-92 established with unmistakable clarity the upper-level chain of command; the President of the Republic would be the Supreme Chief of Police, exercising that post through the minister or deputy minister of government, or directly if deemed necessary, while the National Police Director General would be the functioning police chief, directly answerable to the minister of government. In other words, the chain of command would be: President of the Republic – Minister of Government – Director General of the Police.
The obvious result would be that the Police would not run itself alone, but would be subordinated to the civil power, as in any democratic government. During the 1980s, the Sandinista Police had been subordinated to the Ministry of the Interior, whose name was changed to the Ministry of Government under Chamorro, but the functions of this ministry changed significantly as well.
Law 228: The “finishing touch” to
the professionalization process
If the professionalization of the Police began with its name change in Decree 1-90, the finishing touch was the National Police Law (Law 228, La Gaceta 162, August 28, 1996). This defined the Police as an “armed body of a civil, professional, political, non-party, non-deliberative nature that will be governed in strict compliance with the Political Constitution of the Republic, to which it owes respect and obedience.”
It further states that the mission of Nicaragua’s “single police body” is to “protect the life, integrity and security of individuals and the free exercise of the rights and liberties of the citizenry; it is also responsible for the prevention and prosecution of crime and the preservation of public and domestic social order, enforcing respect for and the preservation of goods belonging to the Sate and to individuals, providing the necessary assistance the judicial branch and other authorities require in conformity with the law for the fulfillment of their functions.”
Law 228 actually contained four laws in one: Organization and Functions, the Police Career, Police Social Security and Police Jurisdiction. These clearly establish the Police functions, fundamental principles of its actions, organizational structure, consultative body and council of specialties, voluntary police, judicial assistance, police career, disciplinary regime, economic regime (sources of its resources) and social security.
1996–2006: Major social acceptance
In the 1996-2006 period, the National Police made substantial progress in its professionalization and was nationally and internationally recognized for it. Opinion polls consistently showed a high degree of social acceptance. In 2011, by which time Aminta Granera was director general of the Police, she said that the Preventive, Proactive and Community Police Model had “its roots in its origins: the Sandinista revolution.” But it also has to be recognized that the concepts and practices of “Policing by proximity” or “Police closeness” introduced into this model were influenced by the Spanish Civil Guard officials who gave training courses in Nicaragua’s National Police Academy during the early 1990s. It is in fact very probable that both Law 144 and Decree 45-92 were conceived and drafted with the advice of Spain, governed in those years by the socialist Felipe González.
A police model sold
as luxury merchandise
Starting in 2007, with Daniel Ortega’s return to power, the model began to be promoted and “sold” as luxury merchandise in the international markets. Its star salesperson was First Commissioner Aminta Granera from her top post in the Police.
The objective was to present Nicaragua as “the safest country in Central America” and one of the safest in Latin America and the Caribbean. It was an almost perfect emotional “hook” with which the government sought to attract investors to Nicaragua to shore up the regime economically. The plan worked: By 2016, Foreign Direct Investment had reached US$1.442 billion, coming from 47 countries. By January 2018, 21 more countries had bit the bait. Back in 2009, seduced by Ortega as the sen.tinel of the safest country, Nicaraguan business leaders hammered out an agreement with him for a “dialogue and consensus” model that established a sort of division of labor: they would focus on their businesses without monitoring or even paying any mind to Ortega’s authoritarian drift while he would see to controlling the institutionality.
In no time at all, the novelty of Nicaragua’s police model made it a paradigm to imitate. There was no lack of people who believed that the solution to the lack of safety in their own countries was to replicate the Nicaraguan model. Without getting bogged down in often specious comparisons, our country has always had relatively low levels of criminal activity. Perhaps the most important result of this police model has been to help preserve those low levels of criminality and the accompanying sense of safety.
The little brother syndrome
As mentioned earlier, the existence and future of the Sandinista Police was in Army General Humberto Ortega’s hands in the 1990 negotiations between the incoming and outgoing governments, a process in which the institution was at best a mere spectator. During that time it developed a “little brother syndrome” with respect to the Army that seems to have marked its conduct ever since.
The police officers unsuccessfully tried to repeat the steps the military officers took. For example, when the Army inaugurated a supermarket to benefit its members, the Police wanted to do the same, but while Army personnel enjoyed a luxury department store (in which top police chiefs were frequent clients), the Police version was barely more than a large ma and pa corner grocery.
Perhaps the best example of that syndrome was Aminta Granera’s desperate effort to get President Ortega to be the unmediated “Supreme Chief” of the Police, as he was for the Army.
2007: “Now everything has changed”
Ortega’s return to power after “winning” the elections with less than 39% of the vote thanks to his pact with Arnoldo Alemán, sealed the end of the political transition initiated in 1990. It also marked the start of a worrying process of democratic involution that, much like an aggressive cancer, metastasized into the entire State. Obviously the Police was not immune. Nor was anything done to immunize it.
Towards the end of 2007, with Ortega well ensconced in the presidential chair, a meeting was held to examine the execution of a project agreed to months earlier. One of the top-ranking police officers reported, without the slightest hint of bashfulness, that the project was not going to be implemented. His reason: “Now everything has changed.”
Coming from one of the police chiefs, these words have to be understood as a collective decision assumed by the Police top brass as a whole. Going over the Constitution and their own law, they would henceforth submit to the designs of Daniel Ortega, more as the head of the FSLN than as the President of Nicaragua.
What happened was not, as is often claimed, that Ortega “took over” the Police. Rather, these historical “devil” officers turned themselves over to him, pawning their institution’s future and jeopardizing its very existence. Perhaps they thought that with Ortega back, they would regain the “Paradise Lost” of the 1980s.
Aminta Granera had been named to the top police post by President Enrique Bolaños in September 2006, shortly before Ortega’s return to power. She had previously headed the Transit Police and then the Managua Police, but had no other police formation.
Her nearly 12 years as head of the Police was a mix of highs and lows, positive moves and errors. She assumed the job with a virtual halo of sanctity, and with an ably designed and executed communication policy and a public personality to match, Granera parleyed it all into top opinion poll ratings in a relatively short time. Between 2007 and 2015, she got the most consistently positive legitimacy and social acceptance ratings in the country, the envy of the shopworn traditional politicians with many miles run on the country’s political tracks. She even beat out Daniel Ortega, whose positive ratings were high but whose negative ratings far outstripped hers.
Much can be said of what Granera did and what she could have done but didn’t do. Soft-spoken by nature, she raised her voice when necessary, but cried when she had to. In a mid-July 2015 chronicle in Spain’s newspaper El País, Carlos Salinas wrote that “she succeeded in creating the aura of a competent woman sensitive to social problems, strong-handed but benevolent, a hunter of evils, a superwoman who stood up against drug trafficking or organized crime to avoid it infesting the country. She intentionally drew a picture of a Police that would be idealized, very sagaciously hiding the errors of her subalterns and the corruption that was castigating the institution.”
Article 88 of Law 228 stipulates that the director general must go into retirement at the end of a five-year term. Granera was scheduled to retire in September 2011, but violating the law, Ortega named her to stay in the post another five years. She accepted, submitting herself to his will in violation of the regulation she was supposed to uphold. As a loyal party member, she didn’t have the mindset to reject this flagrant transgression of the law.
But she paid dear: accompanying Daniel Ortega in his adventure to remain in government indefinitely was the beginning of her end. In fact, as of 2016 she disappeared from the TV screens and newspaper headlines. When I asked a close friend of hers what had happened, I was told that “they ordered her to be quiet.” “Who did?” I asked, faking innocence. The answer was categorical: “La jefa,” obviously referring to Rosario Murillo. Granera, who was left a mere figurehead of the institution with no real command power, accepted that major humiliation.
Back in October 2014, when the inspector general and a police sub-director very close to Granera were removed from office—not passed into retirement—on Ortega’s direct orders, she accepted it with these words: “We’re not eternal here; no one is. We all have to leave, some now, others tomorrow, and others the next day.” Had she suspected that she would also end up leaving, and just as summarily?
Granera gives the Police
over to Daniel Ortega
That same year Nicaragua’s National Assembly, which the FSLN bench now controlled outright, had reformed a flurry of laws, including the Constitution, the Army Law and the Police Law. Daniel Ortega was setting up the pieces of his political chess game. From the legal perspective, these reforms completed his authoritarian “drift,” giving him absolute control over state institutions, particularly but not only those of social control. Early critics of the way he was handling his return to power soon defined it as an “incipient” dictatorship because while it was authoritarian and non-inclusive, it did not control the levers of coercive power any dictatorship must have. These reforms addressed that failing.
A July 2014 reform that abrogated Law 228 went way beyond just renaming it the Law for the National Police Organization, Functions, Career and Special Social Security Regime (Law 872),. It was Aminta Granera’s “masterwork,” handing her, its political independence and its future to Daniel Ortega on a platter.
Like its predecessor, Law 872 is also a compilation of four laws, as its name implies. Beyond that juridical formality, its importance lies in what was eliminated and added, and the intentionality behind the changes. The first thing that stands out is the elimination of the Ministry of Government from the top chain of command.
In any democratic regime this ministry plays an important mediation role between the Executive and the top police authority, which is crucial to exercising democratic civilian control of the Police. Aminta Granera wiped out that intermediation by establishing direct political pairing between the President as supreme chief and her as head of the institution’s national structure of police chiefs.
To validate that pairing, Law 872 gives Ortega 15 powers that allow him to run the police according to his own whims: from making use of the Police forces and equipment to receiving its annual report, not to mention naming its subdirectors general and inspector general and reincorporating retired police officers under contract.
“The devil repays poorly
those who serve him well”
Both the abrogated Law 228 and the new Law 872 establish the President as responsible for appointing the Police director general for a five-year term. But while the former law explicitly said the director must retire at the end of that period, the new one opened the doors to “continuism” in the institution, leaving Ortega free to prolong the person in that post “in accord with the interests of the nation.”
When Granera’s second term was about to end in 2016, the President should have named a new director by law, but article 47 of Law 874 stipulates that the existing director general must remain until the chosen replacement takes over. Even though she had already been effectively een sidelined, he kept her in her post simply by not naming and sending in a replacement. The official conclusion of her career came on July 31, 2018, at the peak of the crisis resulting from the excessively repressive police response to the civic uprising that April.
Without prior announcement or any ado, Presidential Acord 113-A-2018 of that date, published in La Gaceta on August 23, passed her into “retirement.” Presidential Accord 98-A-2018, dated July 5 but also published in the same issue of La Gaceta, named Francisco Díaz Madriz, a founder of the Sandinista Police in 1979, to replace her effective September 5, although he had been the de facto chief ever since “la jefa” silenced Granera two years earlier.. On the very date of the decree promoting him, a US Treasury Department press release announced that Díaz, whose daughter is married to one of the presidential couple’s sons, had been sanctioned by the US Global Magnitsky Act for “serious human rights abuses against the people of Nicaragua” and acts of corruption.
Granera’s departure was more than humiliating. She left by the back door, almost furtively, and virtually no one lamented it. As she departed the institution she had handed over to Ortega she may have ruefully recalled the old adage that the devil’s work doesn’t always pay well.
Trained to kill and torture?
It is impossible not to wonder how a police force many considered “exemplary” could, as of April 2018, suddenly become a bloody criminal body that worked alongside para-police bands with no sign of distaste and did not balk at killing, torturing, kidnapping and disappearing people.
In fact, there is no way an entire institution could change from one day to the next, so an obligatory question must be asked: what kind of police officers and agents has the Police Academy been forming? Those who participated in the repressive orgy were trained and educated in the Walter Mendoza Academy, recognized by the National Council of Universities (CNU) as an institution of higher education.
Was the Academy where they learned to kill, kidnap and torture? Did it teach them to disdain human life and be insensitive to others’ pain? Given the reality of an entire year of indiscriminate repression against civil protests, the response must be “yes.”
What other explanation could there be for the hundreds of murders, many by precision snipers (and the Special Police Operations Division definitely has highly-trained snipers); the thousands wounded; the hundreds captured, jailed illegally and reportedly tortured and treated degradingly; the undetermined number of disappeared; and the alleged selective executions.
What are they teaching
at the Police Academy?
Looking for answers to these questions, I turned to the legal underpinnings of the National Police, but didn’t get anywhere. Law 872 only mentions the Police Academy once, and then only in passing, simply indicating that it is one of the institution’s support bodies, while the most you could squeeze out of article 18 is that the Academy’s responsibility is to train those who enter its doors.
Article 28 of the previous law (Law 228) at least stipulated that the Police Academy was responsible for “the professional formation, training and development of aspirants and police in active service.” The Regulations of an old Police Law (Decree 26-96, La Gaceta 32, February 14, 1997) dedicated 12 articles to training, indicating that the Academy’s function consisted of “organizing, planning, directing, coordinating and supervising the professional formation, training and development of aspirants, police in active service and auxiliary forces through comprehensive, specialized, scientific and humanistic plans and programs.”
Even those old regulations didn’t reveal exactly what the Academy teaches. Unlike other universities recognized by the CNU, the Police Academy has no open-access web page presenting its careers, study plans or even courses, demonstrating not only a lack of transparency, but, even more seriously, a determination to hide information that should be accessible to the public.
In her 12 years as director general of the Police, Aminta Granera was the immediate superior of the Police Academy’s chief and director. Although Law 872 is exaggeratedly frugal, it does state that one of the director general’s attributes and functions is to promote the education and instruction of the institution’s personnel. Granera, then, was the main person responsible for what the Academy taught and how police cadets, agents and officers were prepared and trained in the Academy.
The chain of command is
on the sanctions waiting list
Like the police force of any country, the organizational structure of Nicaragua’s National Police is pyramidal and functions under the concept and practice of a single vertical command.
At the apex are the supreme chief, the director general and the national chiefs. In descending order are five general subdivisions and the Inspector General’s Office, 12 divisions (one of which is the Academy) and the Internal Audit Unit, 24 specific departments, 12 departmental delegations and 2 regional delegations.
The order of responsibility corresponds to this hierarchy of authority, so any application of justice must follow that internal chain of command, starting with the supreme chief of police and the director general. In the current conditions, we obviously cannot expect the system to apply that justice, so it will be the responsibility of the new government.
On December 20, 2018, US President Donald Trump signed the Nicaragua Human Rights and Anticorruption Act of 2018, colloquially known as the Nica or Magnitsky-Nica Act. Under this act, the State Department’s undersecretary for intelligence and investigation, in coordination with the treasury secretary and the national intelligence director, must present to the corresponding congressional committees the names of the top Nicaraguan government officials involved in human rights violations, grave acts of corruption and money laundering.
There is no reason to doubt that the long arm of the US sanctions could reach all the National Police chiefs, including both Aminta Granera and Supreme Chief Daniel Ortega himself. They are surely all on the waiting list.
What is to be done with this Police?
Seeing all this and everything that has happened, will an in-depth reform of today’s National Police be enough, or do we need to create a new police force from scratch?
In societies with a democracy that is functioning despite certain limitations, some governments have tried to figure out how to improve the organization, capacity and efficiency of their police forces to deal with problems of insecurity. To that end, they have tested different reform processes, some of which have failed while others have shown relative successes. In the latter cases, it has been due in large measure to not having to reform the entire penal justice system—Police, Prosecutor General’s Office, Attorney General’s Office, judicial system and penitentiary system—as is necessary in our case.
Successful police reforms have been implemented in societies seeking to correct faults, overcome limitations and improve the performance of their police force to raise the public security levels in society. Nicaragua’s case, however, isn’t about faults or limitations; it’s about providing a systemic response to a systemic crisis in the police force provoked by its politicization and aggravated by the fatal results of its repressive escalation since April 2018.
The solution is easy to say and extremely difficult to do. But it needs to be done. The cancer of politicization that distorted and corrupted the police function needs to be extirpated in order to found a new public force with a new police doctrine governed by a democratic public security policy with a specific law and its corresponding regulations. The change will have to be total, right down to a new name and different uniforms, although some elements are recoverable, such as the relation with the community, if they are depoliticized of party bias.
But first we’ll need a new government
The National Police is a “chronic patient” in its terminal stage. It won’t recover with a simple reform or two, but needs a total transformation of its chain of command, both the supreme one and the internal one.
It’s not a question of “saving” the Police but of creating a new public force. And that won’t be possible until a new State is created, the reference point for which is the not too distant experience of 1979, when the Somocista State was dismantled. If it could be done then, it can be done again, although in very different circumstances.
The objective is the same: pull down a dictatorship to found a democracy. This will be one of the big challenges of the new democratic government authorities installed in the country after the end of the Ortega-Murillo dictatorship. The end will come sooner rather than later, despite the regime’s resistance. The great challenge will be to prepare ourselves in the meantime for that scenario of justice and democracy that will be opened.
One of the first measures, if not the very first one, for the new authorities at the very beginning of the transition must be to take control of all police structures, from the central headquarters and the Managua districts through the departmental, regional and municipal delegations down to the small district units. It will be vital to protect the archive system, particularly the dossiers of all officers and agents in the institution’s Personnel and Cadres Division. Those records may have already been hidden or destroyed, as happened in all the state institutions between February and April 1990 before handing over the government.
The Army’s role and the
disarming of the paramilitaries
How will the new authorities be able to take control of all the police structures? Beforehand they will have to design a General Plan of Transfer and Control to be executed by a National Transfer and Control Commission that will be replicated at the departmental, regional and municipal level.
A Subcommittee of Transfer and Control of Public Security will be in charge of implementing this plan in the Ministry of Government, the Police and the penitentiary system. This subcommittee will be made up of both civilians and Army officers, with specialized advice from international institutions and specific contingents from the European Union and friendly Latin American countries—the 12 members of the Organization of American States’ Working Group for Nicaragua—including the United States.
The Army will be crucial not only in this subcommittee. It must also make its forces and means available to guarantee the citizens’ security. This may well be the most complex mission the new authorities will assign to the military, as National Police officers and agents will cease their functions and must remain under Army custody in their respective units until a Truth Commission reviews their files and it is determined who will face justice.
This implies that the internal police chain of command, from the director general all the way down to the municipal police chiefs, will be temporarily assumed by Army officers. To comply with this, the officers and soldiers must be able to rely on the support of he OAS and the European Union, and particularly the UN peacekeeping forces, whose job is to help countries travel the difficult road from conflict to peace. It is necessary to start exploring the possibilities and mechanisms for cooperation by these international organizations and friendly countries now —based on our own vision of the future and sense of responsibility—so the new authorities know ahead of time who can help them assure a transition with some degree of public security.
The new government’s two priorities
Guaranteeing public security in what will be very difficult conditions with a predictably complex and violent scenario isn’t just a question of preventing crimes and coping with common delinquency, drug trafficking and organized crime.
The end of the Ortega-Murillo regime will not automatically bring firm and lasting peace. If they decide to govern “from below,” as they did in the 1990s, they already have an irregular force—the paramilitaries—with which to do so, which will have to be disarmed by the Army of Nicaragua and forces from the international agencies and countries that support the new authorities. Once disarmed, the members of this irregular force will have to be brought to justice to pay for their crimes.
Unlike the outset of the Chamorro government in 1990-91, the new democratic government will have to prioritize both the economy and public security this time around. Without security it will be impossible to make any progress with the economic recovery. International cooperation will be crucial in both challenges, but won’t be eternal. Hence, the urgency to create a new police force based on a new education and training system. Although this will take time, temporary programs to form new officers and agents of the public security force will hAve to be designed and rapidly applied, which will necessarily require the international community’s support.
A new and legitimate police force
The founding of a new police force is critical in the transition to democracy, and not only because the existing National Police embraced Daniel Ortega’s open-ended and authoritarian project starting in 2011, thus squandering its legitimacy of origin. Even more importantly, the human rights violations and crimes against humanity unleashed by the Police during the bloody repression starting on April 19, 2018, also ended its relative legitimacy of performance.
Roberto Cahina is a civilian consultant on security, defense and democratic governance.