The National Police under Attack: The Clues Behind the Crisis
Nicaragua’s police force is still proud of its Sandinista origins,
but it has just gone through the worst crisis in its
short institutional history as the National Police.
What was behind it and how is it being dealt with?
The National Police, née Sandinista Police, a once in corruptible and proud institution born of the guerrilla force that took power 24 years ago, has just survived its worst crisis since it was institutionalized with its new name ten years ago. Serious errors of judgment and even graver misconduct by some of its leaders and officers fueled a savage media campaign that almost brought down the current police director, First Commissioner Edwin Cordero.
For several weeks, the newspaper La Prensa headed up a campaign using various cases of police corruption to create the general impression that the whole force is corrupt and useless; the country’s other big media soon joined in. But beyond the undeniable charges against certain municipal police chiefs in Nicaragua’s hinterland (see the article “We Live Alongside Drugs in Bluefields” in this issue), more intensity, resentment and passion has been expended on this campaign than on the plethora of more deserving problems in Nicaragua, raising the inevitable question of why. Is it the noble objective of overseeing public officials and denouncing their acts of corruption, or a desire to imitate the zealous US press of the 1970s—with us no longer—that even brought down a President? Or is it simply the historic tendency of La Prensa, whose anti-Sandinista bias is no secret to anyone? In the eighties, in open and even proud collusion with the Reagan administration, it used every word it could squeeze past the censor to support US aggression against the revolution.
Rather than any of these, it appears to be a very complicated puzzle that centers on Washington and the anti-communist faith maintained by those currently pulling the strings of power behind US foreign policy. To put enough of the pieces in place to reveal an approximate idea of what might be going on, it is worth first recalling some of the history behind the National Police and the process the force has gone through during its 24 years of existence.
A brand new institution: the revolution’s ugly ducklingThere was no police institution at all in Nicaragua before 1979; what has been called the National Police since the early nineties was the work of the revolution. In other words, a large part of Nicaraguan society has no historic experience of having a separate police force. Between 1934 and 1979, Nicaragua only had an army created by the United States, known as the National Guard (GN). Among other things, it assumed the policing responsibilities it inherited from the armed body created in 1926, which Conservative General Emiliano Chamorro and the US Marines called the Constabulary.
The GN encompassed a whole range of functions. It was in charge of protecting the country’s borders, but it also had an espionage office to liquidate political opponents, a police traffic department to enrich the colonels, a migration office and a department to investigate common crimes ranging from serious to trivial. It even had an anti-narcotics office, although its generals owned the biggest marijuana plantations in the areas around Sébaco and Waslala. It also controlled the press, using its dreaded Radio and Television Office to censure in advance everything issued by the media. In short, the GN had its fingers in every pie, in the image of the Somoza family line of dictators who it served so faithfully.
During the first few years following the defeat of the Somoza dictatorship, the Sandinista Police, as it was then known, went through a major learning process. It was a militarized force and its members rotated through all the other specialties of the Ministry of the Interior (MINT), such as state security, the penitentiary system and the migration office. Those other specialties, which at the time were more important and more politically relevant, looked down on the Sandinista Police as the ministry’s “ugly duckling.”
Mass displacement and a major weaknessDuring the transition period between the government of Daniel Ortega and that of Violeta Chamorro it was rumored that most of the MINT’s security apparatus would disappear, so an enormous contingent of military cadres from other specialties were quickly moved over to the police force. This massive transfer significantly strengthened the institution’s combat and conspiratorial skills, but edged out those who had pursued a career in this “ugly duckling” for years and now found themselves subordinated in both functions and hierarchy to officers with different kinds of training and different concepts.
At the same time, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) made the strategic decision to transfer the General State Security Office and its top leaders, particularly Lenín Cerna, Efraín Castillo and Vicente Chávez, from the MINT (now the Ministry of Government) to the Army. There they founded what is now known as the Defense Intelligence Office (DID).
The platform of the National Opposition Union (UNO) in the 1990 campaign had included the liquidation of the Sandinista Popular Army to be followed by the radical transformation of the Sandinista Police, processes that first required getting rid of the middle and top officials of both armed forces due to their Sandinista backgrounds. When the UNO candidate, Violeta Chamorro, took office, these two objectives became the prime political priority of the US government, then in the hands of George Bush Sr. and most of the same Republican gang in office again today. The Chamorro government accepted these priorities as its official policy, although President Chamorro’s team did not begin acting on them with anything like the alacrity the Bush administration wanted.
Both the Police and the Army had a serious weakness that the Americans would later skillfully exploit: they had no regulatory law. This was yet another revolutionary oversight, as FSLN leaders always believed that laws were unnecessary because they would be in power forever.
Negotiating which heads would rollIn 1992, President Chamorro’s son-in-law and all-powerful Minister of the Presidency, Antonio Lacayo, returned from one of his visits to Washington and inopportunely ordered the summary dismissal of the then police chief, Brigade Commander René Vivas Lugo. (By one of the numerous paradoxical twists of Nicaraguan politics, Lacayo is one of the FSLN’s current allies.) What was the political motivation behind this move? Simple. Lacayo caved in to US blackmail: if his government did not stop dragging its feet and start fulfilling its defined priorities, the United States would withhold US$100 million in credits and donations. The priorities were to deliver the heads of Vivas and of Army chief General Humberto Ortega, also one of the FSLN’s nine National Directorate members. The assumption had been that the US government was going to provide Nicaragua US$100 million annually for ten years in exchange for President Chamorro’s official renunciation of the over US$17 billion awarded to Nicaragua by the International Court of Justice in compensation for the terrorist attacks financed by the Reagan administration during the contra war.
In the cut and thrust of the negotiations with the United States, General Ortega said, “Alright then, take René Vivas.” He recommended to Lacayo that Vivas be replaced with Fernando Caldera Azmitia, an obscure officer stationed in Granada following a hurried exit from a wealthy cattle-raising area of Chontales, where as a State Security delegate he was linked with the activities of cattle-rustling gangs. But they didn’t just get rid of Vivas. Another 17 top officers were removed by US order, among them historic cadres of the pre-revolutionary FSLN with equally distinguished records during the Sandinista government. Following laborious negotiations, others of a similar cut managed to survive.
Important steps toward institutionalizationThe Police put up stiff resistance to these dismissals, but more than defending their chiefs’ posts they wanted to guarantee that the Americans would never again decide on their high command. To that end, René Vivas agreed to his arbitrary dismissal only in exchange for the issuance of a law regulating the institution. Exploiting the fact that the Constitution granted the President legislative faculties at that time, Lacayo and Vivas personally sat down and drafted the first organizational law for the National Police. The journalistic world speculated on why René Vivas did not attend the ceremony to mark the appointment of the new police chief on September 5, 1992. In fact, he had been up until two that morning with Lacayo, painstakingly drafting the presidential decree point by point.
Decree 45-92 went into effect two days later, when it was published in the official government daily La Gaceta above President Chamorro’s signature. That law was the first step in creating a legal framework that has protected the institution from further political whims of domestic or foreign governments or their counterparts. It guaranteed the absolute subordination of the National Police to civil authority and the institutionalization of the force’s hierarchical order and functioning. No more police chiefs would be removed or appointed according to caprice or foreign interference; everything would be ruled by an institutional policy defined by the National Police itself. The law also created the National Police Council and the Specialties Council.
Franco Montealegre, who headed the Police between 1996 and 2001, would later stress the importance of that step: “For the first time in the history of Nicaraguan public order, the police’s organization, functioning and field of action is established. The foundations are laid [for the force] to acquire its own differentiated identity; the institution’s civil nature is reaffirmed and it declares itself to have a non-party nature.”
The establishment of that minimum institutional framework and minimum stability for National Police personnel was followed by a discussion of the legislation that would be politically approved in the National Assembly. Montealegre recalls this phase of police institutionalization as follows: “In the constitutional reforms of 1995, the National Police functions and nature are spelled out at this highest level for the first time in the country’s history, differentiating them from the Army’s functions and nature. The climax came in September 1996, when after a long consensus-reaching process in a still highly polarized political context, we were able to get Law 228, the National Police Law, approved with a high level of consensus. Law 228 details and develops... the constitutional regulations regarding our institution and defines the police career and other important aspects. Its entry into force entailed the definition and definitive acceptance of the Police required by the state and society to guarantee the security of people and their belongings. It must be said that it was the National Police itself that succeeded in mobilizing public opinion and the main political and social actors, particularly in the final phase of designing, discussing and approving the law.”
A limited budgetToday, the National Police’s institutional framework consists of the following fundamental norms: the Law of Functions in Matters of Judicial Assistance (September 7, 1992) the Organic Law and its Regulations (August 1996 and February 1997, respectively) and the Disciplinary Regulations (February 17, 1997). But it is worth recalling the limited budget annually assigned to the National Police between 1990 and 1998. As Vilma Núñez, president of the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH), once said, “this ‘under-financing’ makes the police more susceptible to corruption and accelerates the ‘privatization’ of the force and its functions.” For years, CENIDH has documented numerous cases of police officers holding down second jobs with private security companies and the existence of “contracts” in which companies hired police officers or paid the local station for special police operations.
A last factor to bear in mind is the brutal pressure to repress people to which the force was subjected by both the Chamorro and Alemán governments. Vivas always refused to do so during the strikes—barricades included—of 1990 and 1991, but Caldera was much more docile and his term was the most bloodthirsty in the short history of the National Police, with at least four deaths in the student protests over the 6% university budget allocation.
Honor, sovereignty, autonomy, dignity: Several other elements are essential to understanding the brief and complex process that has developed since the revolution built a police force out of nothing. During its first years, the most important aid that the MINT received for police matters came from the Panamanian Police. Traffic instructors came to Nicaragua to teach kids who until recently had been guerrilla fighters and and found it easier to gun down a National Guardsman than bring order to the traffic on Managua’s northern highway. Omar Torrijos’ death put an end to the expert collaboration from Panama’s Police.
Principles that no longer fit the bill
With great difficulty and major vacuums—such as lack of criminal records and of officers trained in criminal investigation, forensic science or any other police specialties—the Sandinista Police started to build itself from scratch. Various top MINT officials participated in its construction, including Minister Tomás Borge, Deputy Minister Luis Carrión, Doris Tijerino and René Vivas, and most of its officers came from a guerrilla background. This profile lasted until 1990, but today police officers from such a background represent a negligible minority. Only 600 of the almost 8,000 police officers—less than 10%—have been in the force since its founding.
The intermediary and upper echelons of the National Police are essentially still patriotic, if not Sandinista from a party and ideological point of view, which is more than can be said for many other government institutions. They have a sense of dignity as an institution and honor as individuals and a relatively developed sense of national sovereignty. Although some of them have been polluted with other interests, the institution generally responds to the basic principles imprinted above its badge: Autonomy, Honor, Sovereignty. But such principles do not fit comfortably with US imperialism, currently in another of its phases of hegemonic expansion. In the geopolitical map that the United States has designed for controlling every last aspect of the small Central American republics, there is no room for what fundamentalist Republicans view as such obsolete vestiges of the past as honor, sovereignty and autonomy, not to mention dignity. They are simply incompatible with US foreign policy.
Central American disarmament A couple of years ago, after the electoral fraud cooked up in Florida gave the Republicans the US presidency, a second edition of the Reagan Administration’s 1980 Santa Fe Document became known. In its review of Latin America and its armed forces, this policy outline for the area proposed, among other things, recovering the Panama Canal, remodeling the Central American armed forces and destroying the remnants of communism that had infiltrated the Nicaraguan and Salvadoran armies. The Republicans started to implement their plans for Central America in line with this ideological conception. The terrorist attacks of September 11 turned out to be just what the doctor ordered, offering them the argument they needed to implement these plans more easily and rapidly.
and its Nicaraguan standard-bearer
Understanding the current puzzle necessarily involves this geopolitical perspective. It also requires recalling that Enrique Bolaños, Nicaragua’s current President, consistently declared himself a staunch enemy of the Army and to a lesser extent the Police due to their Sandinista origins during the revolution itself, later during the Chamorro government and in the 1996 electoral campaign, when he was Arnoldo Alemán’s vice presidential running mate. Later, as Vice President, he started detailing his vengeful position, but the courageous actions of soldiers and police officers during Hurricane Mitch forced Bolaños to publicly retract, at least temporarily, his open objective of cutting the Sandinista heart out of the two institutions and in fact dissolving the Army altogether. Given this background, it should have come as no surprise that when Bolaños visited President Bush he established himself as a faithful proponent of disarming the Nicaraguan Army and the standard-bearer for limiting and controlling all Central American armaments. It is nothing more than the culmination of a consistent and prolonged ideological and political discourse.
The “narcojet” caseAnother significant factor to bear in mind in the great police puzzle is the 1998 case of the “narcojet,” a plane President Arnoldo Alemán often used for personal trips that had been stolen in Florida and was piloted by a criminal on the FBI’s wanted list. It was the first scandal publicly involving Alemán, currently in prison awaiting trial on an array of massive corruption charges. Who can forget the belligerent, tenacious and professional role of Commissioner Eduardo Cuadra Ferrey in shedding light on that murky incident? “Cuadrita,” as he was fondly known, was one of the founders of the Federation of High School Students in 1977, when he was 15 or 16 years old; in fact he was the only surviving founder after Somoza’s National Guard killed Mariano Sediles and Manuel Olivares. Over the years he earned a huge following among police colleagues, who considered him a “policeman’s policeman” because he had not come from any other MINT specialty but had always been a policeman, working his way up from patrolman to the high command. He was particularly respected by other life-long officers.
When the “narcojet” case blew up, Cuadra used all of his accumulated wisdom as anti-drugs chief to disentangle the different threads of the case, all of which led to the door of President Alemán himself. But his effectiveness cost him his post. Enraged by the police report’s conclusions and the rigor of its investigations, which clearly indicated that the plane had been stolen and used to traffic cocaine, Alemán had Cuadra pulled off the case. He was first sent to Washington and then to Honduras, during which time Cuadra earned the increasing trust of the Drug Enforcement Agency and other institutions dedicated to fighting organized crime, such as INTERPOL and the FBI. He still enjoys a great deal of personal respect and professional confidence in that world.
A change of command and clear signalsWhen the five-year term of Police Director Franco Montealegre, originally from the Penitentiary System, ended in September 2001, it was up to President Alemán, who was nearing the end of his own term, to pick his replacement. Given Eduardo Cuadra’s leadership, background and capacity, among other qualities, he was the natural candidate, and middle-ranking officers harbored the hope that they would finally have a police chief who had come from their own ranks. But this was politically impossible, no matter how hard the National Police Council members pushed; Alemán could never let Cuadra run the police force. The man finally elected was Edwin Cordero, who had been the MINT’s delegate in the department of León until 1990. He looked the least likely to win at the beginning, when it was frequently rumored that Alemán was more inclined towards Commissioner Eva Sacasa, daughter of Constitutionalist Liberal Party founder Ramiro Sacasa.
Cordero’s first responsibility after taking command was to decide which of the general commissioners in the sub-leadership would pass into retirement. By law, he had the prerogative to choose who would remain in the leadership posts. Cordero decided to dispense with Eva Sacasa, Javier Palacios (who had a great deal of experience and authority within the institution) and Eduardo Cuadra. Within a few months, he clashed with Commissioner Pedro Aguilar—a personal friend and disciple of Cuadra, who took over from him in the anti-drugs department—and decided to retire him as well. Cuadrita’s generation was thus excluded from police leadership. This cleanout sowed seeds of resentment among some of the intermediary officers, and obviously with Cuadra and Aguilar, both of whom are now officials in the Bolaños government, working as “advisers” to the health ministry with salaries paid by international cooperation.
The police under media attackThis puzzle admittedly includes objective elements and proven irregularities, including crimes committed by individual police officers and even the National Police itself. From the case some months ago involving arms sold to Panama and diverted to Colombian paramilitaries, which was the subject of an OAS report, to that of a police captain who raped a girl in Bonanza, pressure has rightly been exerted on the police leadership for the errors committed. The most recent broadside by La Prensa, thanks to work by its correspondent in Bluefields, was the exposure of Police Commissioner Larrave, that municipality’s anti-drugs chief, who is now in prison on drug trafficking charges.
As meritorious of censure as these cases are, they are neither huge enough nor numerous enough to explain the spiraling pressure and the skillful, eager and even vicious hammering away at them by certain media organizations, headed up by La Prensa. This campaign goes well beyond the media’s civic duty to report problems and even beyond the sensationalist journalism that supposedly sells more papers. The message attempts to demonstrate that the entire current leadership is corrupt and the institution as a whole is rotten, that it must be revamped from the bottom up and better yet replaced entirely.
The newspaper is not just exploiting major and deserving cases like these, but is inflating every case, no matter how small, into a scandal to give the impression that the force is riddled with decay. It is an intelligent, well-worked, cunning and malicious campaign to tear down the institution brick by brick. It should be mentioned that Eduardo Cuadra’s brother-in-law is the editor of La Prensa’s accident and crimes page and is responsible for the campaign. Furthermore, Cuadra himself is an adviser to La Prensa’s editorial council, which means he has an important sounding board at his disposal.
Cordero’s declarations: The biggest mistakeOn top of the irregularities and crimes committed by individual officers, the National Police as an institution has made some major political mistakes. The worst was undoubtedly the one committed by First Commissioner Edwin Cordero on July 8 of this year, when he admitted to a group of journalists that police officials had used drugs to reward other officers and informers for successful operations against drug traffickers. Cordero’s exact words on that particular occasion were as follows:
“Before, they were even told to ‘keep a little packet as your pay.’ But that was two or three years ago. The police force recognizes that it has collaborators, informers who provide information that leads to police operations. No informer works free. I’ve said it before and I recognize it. There was no money before, so certain anti-drugs chiefs in the country would say to the informers, “OK, you keep a kilo, we’ll take the rest and we’ll catch the criminal.’ But that’s not right, so what happened? Some drug traffickers or dealers would give you information just to expand their own market…. I’m not saying I committed acts of corruption, but I am saying that this happened, as it did in other areas. It’s definitely a crime. I’m talking about the past and we’re bringing this out into the open because it seems like a way of showing that we have no bad intentions here and if our colleagues did it as well, it wasn’t out of any bad intention, but was rather a way of resolving a problem.”
That same day, Cordero confessed that he was saddened by the corruption cases in his institution, particularly the discovery of criminal activities by the Bluefields anti-drugs chief. “There hadn’t been such a series of big scandals in the Police before,” he lamented, “and I feel bad about the way it’s been handled, because the Police itself is capturing the criminal officers and working with the Public Prosecutor’s Office on cases of police officers involved in acts of corruption. It’s not some other police force.”
Cordero never said that paying people with drugs was institutional policy, just that it had been used in certain cases; and most importantly, he said it was no longer practiced within the force. But La Prensa and Channel 2 television inflated his declarations to the point of calling for his dismissal.
The same day he made these declarations, Cordero had to be hospitalized due to high blood pressure. Commissioner Francisco Bautista took over as acting police chief in conjunction with Inspector General Aminta Granera and the other two sub-directors, Commissioners Ana Julia Guido and Orlando Aguilera.
Making matters worseWhile Cordero’s confession turns out to have been a serious error, the way his colleagues in the Police high command tried to correct it only made matters worse. The day after Cordero’s hospitalization, his immediate predecessors Fernando Caldera (1992-96) and Franco Montealegre (1996-2001) demanded that he rectify his statements because they felt they had been alluded to personally. When Cordero refused, the two men burst into police headquarters on the afternoon of July 9, and in a barrage of shouting, particularly by Caldera, forced Bautista to get Cordero on the phone. Neither knew how to handle Caldera’s virulent protests, backed up Montealegre.
To satisfy their own egos, the former first commissioners preferred to defend their own administration of the National Police over preserving the institution. In so doing, they made a laughing stock of Cordero and by association the institution itself. Cordero was forced to publish a communiqué in which he virtually contradicted what he had said previously. For his part, Bautista caved in to pressure from his former bosses and called a press conference during which an irate and defiant Caldera told journalists, “It has never been institutional policy; the police leadership has never authorized the use of drugs to pay for drug information services. Let anyone investigate it who wants to! We have absolutely no fear of any investigation because it was never institutional policy.” Again, Montealegre echoed his words.
During the conference, Caldera also expressed what at first appeared to be a sympathetic attitude, although its true significance would be revealed in the following days. These were his words: “We must be understanding about the conditions in which Commissioner Cordero made those declarations. He was ill and didn’t even realize it. He’s in a delicate state of health, under permanent medical observation. It was a personal slip, the kind any of us can make at any moment and is linked to stress, to the intensity of the work.”
Commissioner Bautista was also indulgent with his boss: “Sincerity and frankness do not always seem to be very appropriate virtues, because suddenly you can say things that can be unnecessarily or inappropriately interpreted.” He promised that the Police “will have the capacity to restructure itself, change and refocus its activities to be successful.”
Bolaños refuses to give them Cordero’s head on a platterThose involved in the campaign upped the ante, insisting that President Bolaños should dismiss Cordero. Neither his communiqué nor the press conference did anything to abate the campaign’s ferocity. Bautista had to remind the media that “removal of the Director General of the National Police is in the hands of President Enrique Bolaños, according to Law 228—the Organic Police Law. The police director was named for a five-year period and the Law establishes the grounds for dismissal.”
So what exactly are those grounds? According to Article 89 of the Organic Police Law: “The President of the Republic may dismiss the Director General of the National Police for the following reasons: insubordination, violating what is established in article 2 (the director general may not practice political proselytism inside or outside the institution or hold public office of a civil nature), having been found guilty of a crime deserving of more than a correctional sentence or physical or mental incapacity declared in conformity with the Law.”
It was on this last point that La Prensa and its cohorts hung their hopes. In its July 16 edition, which quoted Bautista’s declarations, the paper immediately recalled Caldera’s references to Cordero’s serious state of physical and, implicitly, mental health, before citing the fourth grounds for dismissal mentioned in article 89.
President Bolaños was on a tour of the United States when Cordero slipped up. He made his first simple but eloquent statement on the matter when he returned on July 14. “ I know there’s a row going on,” he said, “but I’ve said it in other words and with gestures; I support the institution. I’m interested in the institution, not the men. The Police as an institution has President Bolaños’ full support….” A journalist from La Prensa insisted: “President, on the issue of Cordero, it’s rumored that you’ve had your differences with him, and that you were therefore possibly going to dismiss him.” Bolaños replied forcefully: “That is false. I can’t answer for the future, but what you’ve just said is false.” At another moment, the President insisted that “things have to be done well, with careful consideration. I think I have to continue studying the matter and consulting.”
Perhaps this encouraged Cordero to put an end to his medically prescribed “rest” and resume his duties on Tuesday July 15. The following morning, accompanied by the whole Police top command plus Minister of Government Eduardo Urcuyo, he held a four-hour meeting with Bolaños at the President’s residence. The result was the ratification of all the police chiefs. After the meeting, the President said to the press: “We want you to know that President Enrique Bolaños, his government and all of us have faith in the National Police. It is an institution that we need and must strengthen. We can’t be damaging it. It is a very tough struggle and the boys who are there, the Police officers, are members of our family who are up against many situations. We can’t risk their skins, their lives, because they are looking after the country’s very welfare. We have to support them and give them all our backing. They have the support of their President and their government.”
Minister Urcuyo tersely put the issue to rest: “Everyone here is named for a fixed term and the terms have to be respected. Period. We have to start learning that terms have to be respected and there are no grounds for dismissal.”
La Prensa could hardly contain its fury. Under the headline, “Bolaños decides not to decide anything,” it published a bitter article complaining that he and Urcuyo had given “the best demonstration of what people in polls term ‘an ambiguous and not very firm’ government style, using many words to dodge journalists’ questions about the solution they are supposed to bring to the profound leadership crisis in the National Police.” The following day it wrote that the decision to keep Cordero in his post was the result of explicit backing by the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) and the FSLN, and the President’s fear of causing an even greater crisis after both parties had publicly suggested cutting Bolaños’ term from five to three years in order to call a Constituent Assembly.
An old plan dusted offThe conspiratorial experience of the anti-Somocista struggle taught many Nicaraguans the basic lesson of how to exploit contradictions. The Americans are also perfectly acquainted with this skill and are currently applying it to the various contradictions within the National Police generated by the above-mentioned factors, among others, and between it and the Army. Since 2002, but with greater urgency since their illegal war against Iraq, they have been accelerating a plan that dovetails with the Santa Fe document to eliminate the Central American armies’ fighting capacity and convert them into mere police auxiliaries. The greatest stress here is being placed on Nicaragua. They propose the disarmament and transformation of the Army, followed by reorganization of the National Police.
When the first Bush government ordered the Chamorro government to remove the whole police high command in 1992, it was acting on an existing plan prepared with generous advice from Spanish President Felipe Gonzalez and his country’s Civil Guard. In fact, the plan was to have been implemented that very year, when Arnoldo Alemán, then mayor of Managua, announced that he would organize his own municipal police. His initiative, however, enraged the FSLN leadership, which correctly anticipated that such a visceral anti-Sandinista as Alemán wanted his own constabulary only for repressive political purposes. It also met with the determined opposition of Army chief Humberto Ortega, by then allied with Minister Lacayo.
The Bush Jr. government has recently dusted off that shelved plan and placed it on its priority agenda. It involves dividing Nicaragua’s National Police into three or four big discrete areas, with hierarchical leaderships not interconnected in any way but subordinated to a single civil, and therefore political, leadership structure. These four areas would probably be investigation, public order, traffic and municipal police forces. The plan is to be implemented over five years, although this could be speeded up if conditions appear to be favoring the FSLN’s return to government. The aim is to destroy the National Police as we now know it, get rid of the remaining police cadres formed during the revolution and subordinate the four new areas to a political command designated by the government with Washington’s blessings.
The final element in the US idea is to transfer some Police functions to the Army, such as the fight against drug trafficking and environmental protection. Certain advances have been made in that direction with many factors indicating that in practice the Army is already gradually assuming the fight against drug trafficking. Whether this is a good or a bad thing is another question.
The contradiction between the Army and the Police currently being exploited is an historical rivalry born of the desire to show which (and who) is most important. It was expressed clearly in 1992 when Humberto Ortega and Antonio Lacayo sacrificed René Vivas, but rivalries over wages, hierarchy, influence and social standing are ongoing. During the revolution, soldiers contemptuously referred to police officers as mangachingas [“shortsleeves”] because of their uniform. When off-duty soldiers committed some abuse in a town and police officers turned up to control them, there would often be fights, some of them involving gunfire, between the military draftees and police that sometimes even included battalion heads.
After staying behind the scenes for a good while, merely leaking bits of information to the media involved in the campaign against the National Police, the Nicaraguan Army announced that it would not investigate the police, as that did not form part of its mission. Nonetheless, the Army appears to be watching this whole process attentively. Part of its high command seems to have concluded that if the Army must inevitably transform its functions and the Police must cede it part of its institutional arenas and functions, then better to do it now and help direct the process. The idea has started to circulate that it would be good to put an Army general in charge of the Police in a hypothetical transition, as happened in Mexico—with terrible consequences, by the way—and throw out all the “rotten apples.” That would kick off the US-Spanish plan, the first step of which was the downfall of the Police chief, who could have been Cordero, Cuadra or any other Sandinista who happened to be holding the office at the time. In the event, it happened to be Cordero, although he compounded his problem by “spilling the beans,” as some put it. He was to be the first brick torn down in the demolition of the institution; if he resigned or was sacked, the National Police was through.
So where does La Prensa’s campaign fit in? Since we are in a “democratic transition,” it would be unseemly for the United States to “impose” such a conclusion. As is often the case, it falls to the media to guide public opinion towards the desired political conclusion so that the public appears as the actor pressuring for whatever change has been cooked up on high.
The FSLN, PLC and government: Throughout the crisis, frankly disconcerting rumors continued to emanate from FSLN ranks. For example, one parliamentary representative who works closely with retired General Lenín Cerna leaked rumors to selected journalists of supposed internal contradictions within the top police leadership, even mentioning assassinations and the like. Another two Sandinista representatives, María Lidia Mejía and José Figueroa—who was laid off from the Police during the 1992 clean-out—quickly declared that they were very concerned about what was happening in the force and would instigate a parliamentary investigation of the reported payments using drugs. They were apparently not just indulging in an impromptu attack, but rather making politically calculated declarations aimed at influencing decisions about the National Police’s future. They even went as far as joining up with two other Sandinista representatives to send a letter to Foreign Affairs Minister Norman Caldera, requesting that he send them the text of the agreement signed between the DEA and the Nicaraguan state.
Where their different interests lie
According to different sources linked to the top Sandinista leadership, however, the party’s official position changed almost immediately once Daniel Ortega himself decided to rein in the attacks. Using his habitual “communication mechanisms,” he talked with Cordero and at least three high-ranking Police officials. Among other things, he made certain detailed complaints and after expressing his “concern” about their supposed distancing from their Sandinista roots, they promised to “mend their ways.” Through these meetings, Ortega concluded that any change in the Police leadership implied too high a risk not only for the country’s institutionality, but also for Sandinismo in general, and would appreciably reduce the FSLN’s capacity for political maneuvering. As a result, he decided to talk to Bolaños and clearly express his backing for Cordero and the country’s “institutionality.”
And the Liberals? From his comfortable “house arrest” on his hacienda in El Crucero, Alemán still pulls all the strings when it comes to running the PLC. He also has his “cadres” in the National Police, the most noted being the current head of the force in Managua, Commissioner Horacio Rocha. Alemán has a particular fondness for Rocha, who as the head of his police bodyguard during his 1996 election campaign saved him from an attempt on his life in January of that year.
Although not generally liked among the police leadership due to his links with Alemán, Rocha has imposed internal order as Managua chief and scored notable successes in various areas of his work. He also closed ranks with Cordero, which he let his friend Alemán know. In fact, Liberal leaders have shown little interest in destabilizing the police, among other reasons because of fear that a leadership change would produce a new first commissioner hand-picked by Bolaños. If the new chief were loyal to the President, the PLC would see its influence reduced to a minimum. According to one former police chief, it was thanks to the PLC’s influence over certain high-ranking officers that almost all of Alemán’s top officials accused of involvement in the plethora of corruption scandals were able to flee the country, tipped off beforehand of imminent orders for their arrest.
But beyond the string-pulling by Ortega and Alemán, Bolaños’ fears and the warnings issued by the independent media, what did the National Police itself do to check and finally push back the onslaught? As an institution, it only did one thing: close ranks. The police leadership talked plainly to anyone who wanted to listen, warning Sandinistas, Liberals and the government alike that any change in their ranks would destabilize the institution…and they wouldn’t answer for the consequences.
But perhaps the key factor was the political moment, characterized by a President locking horns with his former party, distanced from the Catholic hierarchy, with no influence in any of the other state branches and with a deteriorating public image, relying on the Sandinistas for any parliamentary or social stability. Bolaños first talked with his political advisers, a group of government leaders led by Health Minister José Antonio Alvarado, then with Ortega and finally with US Ambassador Barbara Moore. He then decided that the time was not right. In exchange, he received two solemn promises from the police leadership: political loyalty and that they would silently but decidedly throw out the rotten apples.
Reflect and resistBeyond the decisions of the political class and the questioned police leaders, the country needs a police force like the one this institution has grown to be, because it has demonstrated its professionalism and efficiency and particularly because it is not an instrument of political persecution. There are discipline and behavior problems that are not in keeping with its regulations and with ethics, but the corruption is neither institutional nor generalized. It would be much more sensible and feasible to improve this institution than destroy it and try to erect a makeshift one on the rubble where it once stood.
The planned fragmentation of this police force into different areas and tasks, particularly the transfer of some police functions to the municipal sphere, is extremely dangerous. Nicaraguan society is still highly polarized and municipal police forces would only facilitate political persecution of the social movement and of Sandinismo in its widest sense. The US government knows that this country will not be totally docile to all of its designs as long as Sandinismo remains alive, but it currently has no instruments with which to persecute it—neither the Army nor the Police are willing to lend themselves to that role. One of the political objectives behind demolishing the police force, then, is to set up an instrument of political repression in its place, especially to go after all of the grassroots sectors that still answer to the top Sandinista leadership and could represent a threat if they escape the control of Ortega’s sphere of influence.
William Grigsby is a Nicaraguan journalist.