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  Number 359 | Junio 2011
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Nicaragua

All governments have used the police for their own interests

This guerrilla commander, then brigade commander, then director general of the National Police (1979-1982 and 1989-1992) reflects on the evolution of the Nicaraguan police force, particularly in light of recent events.

René Vivas Lugo

First of all, we have to look at the historical role played by the police force we founded when we brought downthe Somocista dictatorship, analyzing it beyond just the current moment. In 1979, when the revolution triumphed, we didn’t even know what a police force was. There were no police in Nicaragua, because the National Guard wasn’t a police force. This vacuum was characteristic of all of Central America. It was different in Cuba, for example, where there was an armed body similar to what we would today understand as police in the times of the Batista dictatorship, before the revolution.

Our enormous achievement was to
separate the police from the army

The National Guard and its functions were designed by the US Marines. They installed the same model in Panama and all the other countries they invaded, and it was later copied in El Salvador and Honduras. The objective of Somoza’s Guard and of those armed bodies wasn’t public order. They were repressive forces designed to maintain the status quo of the power groups at any price. The Guard was a corps under a single command that controlled everything. It was a cheap and very efficient model: they controlled, beat up and killed people, efficiently fulfilling the roles they were assigned. For example, in the Somoza years, the national baseball stadium was protected by only four Guardsmen, and that was enough. A child once crossed into an enclosure reserved for the wealthy, and a Guardsman shot him dead with his Garand. Problem over; everyone understood that you don’t cross over into those enclosures. Years later, we knew we weren’t going to be like that. In my time, I had to put 80 cops with dogs to watch over the stadium and they didn’t control anything. From that perspective we were a lot more inefficient.

When we founded the Police, officially on September 5, 1979, none of us had gone to police school. And like everything else, we had to invent it all from scratch, and with the greatest possible realism. Those who did know about it—the socialist countries—helped us a lot in that task. We learned from the police model in use in the socialist camp and discovered a basic premise: separate the army from the police. Such a separation had never existed in Central America; the military, in our case the Guard, functioned as police, migration agency, customs agency, tax collectors, everything in a single armed body with the essential feature of repression, and naturally with all the corruption that generated.

The first thing, then, was to separate the army from the police. The army was one thing and the police another. The army would defend the nation’s sovereignty, the territory, and the police would defend domestic order, property, deal with crime, guarantee civic peace and tranquility. That separation was an enormous achievement. Nicaragua was the first country to do it in Central America. Years later, as a result of the peace accords that put an end to the wars in the region, police tasks started being set apart from what had been the Central American armies and the separation between the two armed bodies was institu¬tionalized in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. In Nicaragua we did it with the revolution.

We sent thousands off to study

The other great task was to train ourselves, to turn us into good, professionally prepared police officers. In the eighties it was the socialist countries that supported the forming of our police force; Cuba in first place because of the language, the geographic closeness and also the friendship and affection. We also had a great many police officers trained in the Soviet Union, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and Bulgaria. Those were the countries that helped us the most, and in that order. Today Spain, Sweden and the Nordic countries are supporting the National Police. And the United States. I’ve heard that there are police chiefs who go take courses with the FBI, which are surely very good courses, technically speaking.

Nonetheless, the number of officers who study abroad today is light years away from the number we formed in the eighties, when we sent thousands off to study. Among the best courses our officers received were two-year criminology course in the GDR to train lab experts. The animal technique courses were a year and a half and the officers came back with their trained dog and knowledge of how to train others. Any other basic course was at least a year long. Our police received excellent courses. It was a massive program, and totally free.

We were proud to be a
party police force back then

During the revolutionary years we weren’t embarrassed to say we were Sandinista police. All of us were children of the revolution. We very proudly confessed to being Sandinistas, although some find that hard to believe today. We were a party police force, because the revolution was the FSLN. It wasn’t the same party we have today, which I don’t like and don’t believe in. We all felt part of the revolution, but not of a party like the current FSLN.

In those years there was a total mix between State, Party, Army, Police and Revolution. And yes, there was political education within the police force, and Sandinista organizing within it. But, contrary to what many may think, that organization and that education really helped combat deviations. In those times any police officer could point out problems to anyone higher up and there was a structure that paid attention to those complaints and processed and resolved them.

After 1990, the US government tried
to get rid of the force we had built

After the change of government, everything was transformed in the nineties. With support from the government of Spain the US government promoted an initiative against the police force. They told us one thing in the police force, but got together with the most radical sectors of the UNO [the Organization of National Unity, the electoral coalition on whose ticket Violeta Chamorro defeated Daniel Ortega in 1990] and did a whole other thing under the table that not even President Chamorro knew about. The idea was to get rid of the Sandinista Police by creating three bodies with three different leadership structures, like in Costa Rica: the judicial investigation body, the transit police and the Public Security/Patrol Police. It was obviously not a technical-professional decision. It had a clear political objective. Alfredo César knows nothing about police and public order or security issues, nor do those who were promoting this with him. They’ve never nabbed a thief or investigated a crime in their lives.

That was a transcendental moment for the Police. We had to make a decision: save the institution we had consolidated or let it disappear. We knew that saving it would come with some cost. We finally decided that Nicaragua required a police force like the one we had built and not like the one the United States and radical sectors of the UNO wanted. But as I say, maintaining our police force had a price, including my departure as police chief. The force decided to subordinate itself to civil power and separate itself from the party, but de-linking itself from the party didn’t mean de-ideologizing itself, which is probably what’s happening now.

It was a major crossroads for me. We couldn’t make that debate public; it wasn’t a good idea to open what was happening to public debate. When we took the dilemma to the FSLN leadership, the person who seemed clearest about the best decision to take was General Humberto Ortega. For the other FSLN leaders, changing the cassette of the eighties wasn’t so easy or so clear. We finally concluded that the best decision was to preserve police unity. President Chamorro played an important role in this process. At a certain point she realized that the most radical UNO sector was going behind her back and from that point on she and her son-in-law Antonio Lacayo, the minister of the presidency, supported us. So did the most sensible people in the UNO. When we reached the end of the crisis, the Spanish pointed the finger at others, saying they knew nothing about it, but the truth is that they were all in on it; everyone knew what was at stake. The US government was very annoyed with President Chamorro and Lacayo. To calm things down, she gave them a “piece of candy”: me. I was removed from the force in 1992.

The institutionalizing of the Police

We did separate ourselves from the party, but I don’t think Sandinismo is just a party. It’s a conception of Nicaragua and of Nicaraguan society. That’s why I think that today’s police officers, even the newest ones, those coming into the academy, are still Sandinistas. They aren’t Liberals or Conservatives or Social Christians. I get invited to a lot of the Academy’s acts, and I chat with them a lot. Of course they’re Sandinistas with a different conception from the revolution, when being a Sandinista meant being in the FSLN and accepting democratic centralism and all that. Today they learn and transmit patriotic and national values.

We now often talk about what a great accomplishment it was to transform the police force into an institution subordinated to civil power, i.e. to the President. That was an achievement of the Chamorro government, and was something that President Alemán later liked a lot, and President Bolaños downright loved. Even President Daniel Ortega is now delighted by it.

Throughout the nineties what they consider another achievement was being forged, what they term the “professionalization” of the Police. I don’t like that word, because the Police were already professional before then. Furthermore, I don’t think the Nicaraguan Police has ever had people as professional and prepared as we had in the eighties, when we sent them out to be prepared in those schools in the front line of the world by the thousands, aware that we were ignorant and had to learn.

Presidential decree 559 of 1980 created the Law of Jurisdictional Functions of the Sandinista Police. The Police operated under that legislation until we came to the crossroads of the nineties. I recall that when we were analyzing what legal form to give the change that was about to take place in the Police—its separation from the party and subordination to civil power—Minister Lacayo said to me, “If I take this issue to the National Assembly to draft new legislation for the Police, we’ll end up with a Frankenstein. We’re better off issuing a decree.” There was such a fight between the more radical sectors of the UNO and the intelligent sectors that it was impossible to push a law through. Given that the 1987 Constitution allowed the President to legislate on administrative issues—a disposition both Daniel Ortega and Violeta Chamorro used a lot—we decided she should issue an executive decree defining the function and organization of the Police and the police career. It was the first outline of what would eventually be the Police Law, which wasn’t promulgated until 1996, by which time the Army Law had already come out and Humberto Ortega had left the Army command, opening the way to legislate in greater detail on the National Police.

Subordination to civil power is a challenge

It was possible to dialogue, to debate with President Chamorro, even though she had obvious differences with us. Alemán wouldn’t allow that, and it was even less possible with Enrique Bolaños who was proud and arrogant. One time Commissioner Francisco Bautista Lara went to his offices to present an issue that was worrying him and was promptly dismissed from his post. According to Bolaños, Bautista had come to bully him because he was in uniform…

I have to say that before the revolution, before any law or Constitution, the great temptation of all Nicaraguan Presidents, from Frutos Chamorro right up to the present day has been to use the repressive forces and armed bodies on behalf of their particular party, group or even personal interests. No President of Nicaragua hasn’t fallen into that temptation. Some did it ostentatiously, like Somoza. Even Zelaya had a heavy hand; he was no “light” ruler. I’m guessing Adolfo Díaz didn’t have a very light hand either. Obviously, with the revolution, we were fully subordinated to the political interests of the revolution and the FSLN, and we did it openly, without subterfuge. Since 1990 all Presidents including the current one have had that same temptation.

All Presidents want us to protect their own
and be tough with the opposition

We have an excellent police force. I basically believe the problem lies in the governing class, which thinks the Police ought to be a kind of reformatory for dissidents. The President in office at any given moment—and not only Daniel Ortega because all have behaved the same—is always in favor of the police beating up on “the others” while totally expecting them to turn a blind eye to “ours.”

During the Chamorro government, the contras—then called re-contras—had taken over Boaco junction and Mulukukú Bridge, and wouldn’t let any car or truck through, even those carrying milk or perishable agricultural production. But despite the problem those barricades created, Antonio Lacayo was hugely concerned that we not to disperse or attack them. That was a time in which police officers were the ones being killed. We weren’t just attacked with rocks; they shot at us with AKs, and in Estelí they even attacked us with mortars and grenade launchers. They were better armed than the police.

As long as the political class considers the “others” to be the “bad guys,” the Police will always find itself in a major contradiction with whatever civil authority it must subordinate itself to. Given that today’s President is Daniel, obviously a Sandinista, I imagine—in fact I’m sure—that Police Chief Aminta Granera is being pressured: Don’t touch my CPCs and don’t give the others permits. But let’s not forget that the previous Presidents did the same thing. Perhaps it’s more brazen now, but we should remember that all previous Presidents did the same and that subordination to civil power, to the President, is now considered the great democratic achievement of the nineties.

The civil authorities underestimate
the country’s domestic problems

The Police also have to be subordinated to the Ministry of Government. And even though no minister has ever collared a thief or tried to control an angry mob either, that doesn’t stop them from deciding things about the Police.

There have been continuous changes in that ministry. Luckily, in this government, Ana Isabel Morales has been there the whole time. But if you review the files, you’ll see how many changes there were in both Alemán’s and Bolaños’ administration. Just when a minister began to remotely understand what the ministry had in its hands, he or she was changed, which indicated an underestimation of the county’s domestic problems.

Granera is getting a bad rap

A police chief doesn’t run into any problems doing what has to be done with thieves or drug traffickers, with delinquents or organized crime. We have an excellent police force in Nicaragua for those tasks that are so essential to society. And although there will be exceptions, as there are anywhere else, we’re still far from having a corrupt police force that covers up for organized crime, that’s involved in trafficking people, prostitutes or children, or in money laundering and drug trafficking. Nor do our police kill people. Unlike other Central American countries, that’s something we don’t have in Nicaragua. Nicaragua has the best figures in the region, especially with respect to the level of our police officers’ involvement in such crimes. If it was revealed that one of our police officers was involved in one of those crimes, it would be a national scandal. In other places it’s an open secret.

Yet if you let yourself be influenced by the media, you’ll end up believing that First Commissioner Granera is useless, and that vision is a real injustice. You’d have to be in her shoes to understand that her job isn’t easy. When the police force she directs discovers kilos of cocaine or dismantles a criminal network or rescues a kidnap victim, everyone says she’s just doing her job; that it’s what she’s being paid for. All those things the police do, and do very well, have no weight in the appraisal; the only thing that carries any weight is what happens in a civil society march or doesn’t happen in some other march, where maybe some people should have been arrested. What those with such a one-sided vision are asking the police chief to do every day is disobey the President’s orders. But the President is the commander-in-chief of the Police.

What do you do if a President
issues an improper order?

The Constitution and the law say the Police must not be belligerent and must subordinate itself to and obey civil power, meaning the President. Given that, I found that one of the most complicated things for a police chief is to decide what do in the face of a presidential order that seems improper. What do you do if a President gives you an unreasonable or irresponsible order, or one you believe to be irrational or against the law? Do you rebel? If you do, you could create an even greater conflict. Do you obey? That’s bad too, because of what you’re being asked to do… or not do, as the case may be.

Let’s look at an example of one such dilemma I had to deal with in 1990, a very difficult year, with major civil disturbances and barricades in the streets every day. The radical sectors of the UNO—Alfredo César, Jaime Cuadra and others—called me to the presidential offices one day when the streets were boiling over with protests, and they ordered me to clear them. I knew that if I did, there would be a massacre. So I went to talk to doña Violeta, the President. “Are you going to remove those barricades?” she asked. “Sure,” I replied, “it’s real easy. Tell Humberto Ortega to loan me three or four artillery tanks and a few helicopter gunships and there won’t be anybody left in the streets in ten minutes.” “And what does that mean?” she asked. “Two or three thousand deaths, then give me the stadium and I’ll fill it with prisoners.” “No, I don’t want that!” she insisted. “Well, that’s what you’re asking of me. Or do you think I’m going to be able to clear these barricades with a few truncheons?” Then she said to me, “Okay, go talk to them.” So with Humberto Ortega’s backing I went to talk to the FSLN directorate. She made the decision and obviously if she had given me the order to dislodge them by force I would have resigned. I’m using an extreme case, but what I’m saying is that you could dialogue with doña Violeta. There were very tough decisions that year, almost every day. The Sandinistas would take over a building and the contras would take over something else. And everybody was armed; it was like smoking around a powder keg…

I also recall the UNO electoral campaign in 1989 and 1990. We beat up UNO supporters and didn’t let them go out on their marches. So the United Nations observers complained to the government, demanding to know why the Police weren’t giving proper protection to Violeta’s candidacy. From then on I had to go to all the demonstrations she appeared at, almost like her bodyguard, because if I wasn’t at her side, the Sandinistas would raise Cain against UNO’s supporters.

There’s no third option

There are only two alternatives: obey with clenched teeth or rebel and cause a greater conflict. Regrettably there’s no third option. Do I rebel? The consequences of an institutional rebellion are often enormous and go well beyond whether or not to swing truncheons or turn a blind eye. I think that if the police rebellion against Ecuador’s President Correa had happened here in Violeta Chamorro’s times, the US 82nd Airborne Division would have immediately come down here to restore order.

There are only two choices but the decision has to be made by the one in command, because that’s who knows more of the elements required to make the decision. And it has to be made knowing that the decision will never please both sides, which is the hardest part. The Police isn’t a political reformer; its function is neither to educate nor to form people.

In defense of the decision not
to retire all original police officers

I’d like to add a few more reflections about that one-sided vision the media and the opposition to the government are pushing today. Thirty-one years have passed since July 19, 1979, and by law all original police officers should already have left active service because they’ve put in more than 30 years. President Ortega’s December 2009 decree to keep them in their posts was highly criticized in the media, a criticism I view as unjust. Retire 400-600 founders of the National Police? To me it was correct to prolong the useful life of so many of them who are still of working age.

It was very hard for us, and for society, to create that police force. And retiring them is also hard, because they have to be given a good pension. It wasn’t like that for me; I left with nothing, but it was made a condition when they removed me from my post that there would have to be a pension from then on. It costs society to retire a police officer, but it’s better to pay them a decent pension, because they know enough to easily get involved in stealing or prostitution or selling drugs or whatever. We need to keep in mind that there’s no police force in the world that doesn’t play around with thieves or drug traffickers. You don’t pick them up at a police roadblock; you have to infiltrate their world. As one friend said to me: the police have to be like lab technicians who work with shit but don’t contaminate themselves. A good pension is like gloves that help keep them from getting contaminated.

The main problem is the
mental cassette of the political class

In my view, the President’s measure was misunderstood. I think the politicians’ discourse is too extremist, too black and white, which doesn’t help society understand the role of the Police. In five or six years none of those who founded the Police will be there any more. They’ll all be new. And I’ll tell you something interesting that few are aware of: so far, no police chief except me started in the force. The demand and aspiration of the kids in the institution that a police officer be able to rise all the way up to chief of police is fair enough. After me, the only one who started in the force and looked like he might make it was “Cuadrita,” Eduardo Cuadra Ferrey, but he rubbed President Alemán up the wrong way. Alemán fired him because of his declarations in the narcojet case, [a plane hired to take the President on international flights and discovered to have traces of cocaine]. Cuadrita acted correctly, as a good cop ought to act, and he paid dear for it. It was an arbitrary firing, something common among Nicaraguan Presidents. That’s why I say that Nicaragua has to educate its politicians.

For me the main problem is in the mental cassette of the political class. We’re all to blame, not just the politicians, because they know we’ll elect them in the end, no matter what they do. When we vote for such politicians, we’re dis-educating them, because they learn they can get away with anything. How else can we explain that the big vote-getters in Nicaragua are Daniel Ortega and Arnoldo Alemán? How can we explain that they pull the majority of the national vote between them?

Is public security being privatized?

On strictly police issues, I think the Police have a real worry. Nicaragua’s crime rate has already exceeded the capacity of the National Police. We have one of the smallest forces in the world by international per-capita parameters and should have nearly double the number of police agents we have today. We have 7-8,000 and should have 15-16,000.

We have twice that number of guards in the private security businesses, but they aren’t better armed, better trained or more disciplined. I wish the private security companies created in Nicaragua since the nineties had the human and professional capacity of the National Police. The only place we win is in numbers.

Has the proliferation of private security agencies meant a privatization of public security? I think it has. It’s one more expression of what’s happening in today’s capitalist system, in which everything is being privatized. And it responds to the old reality that «the one who pays the piper names the tune.» If people from a barrio tell Police Chief Granera they want a cop on their block because there’s a lot of theft, she’d like to assign one, but can’t. So those with money get a private guard. If they can pay for it and have things worth stealing, they hire a guard because they’ve got no other choice. We private guards aren’t looked on well, but we fulfill a preventive function. And obviously we’re great protection for the business sector, which is the one that can pay. Equally obviously we serve those with money in general.

At the beginning of the nineties, most of these guards came from the National Police, when officers were so badly paid they left the force and hired themselves out to security companies because they could earn more. Luckily that atrocity has been corrected. Today officers in the National Police earn more than they would in the private security companies. A line cop, the lowest paid tier in the Police, gets a monthly salary equivalent to $150-160, and naturally they also get uniforms, boots, food, training and the like, as do private guards, although the latter get a lower salary.

Could Nicaragua’s private guards
be used as paramilitaries?

Some people worry that such a large number of private guards, people familiar with arms, could be used as paramilitaries. There’s no basis for that concern because kids don’t become private guards and wear a gun for political or ideological reasons. They do it for economic reasons; because they were unemployed in the street. I think that job is the first opportunity to pull themselves out of poverty. Getting into a paramilitary group implies having an issue and a project. I don’t see those kids following me into a paramilitary adventure in which they risk the little they have, including their life. My company has about 2,200 young men, and I know their psychology and their motivations pretty well. All they’re looking for is a better job, and when they find it they leave, and stop being guards. There’s a super high personnel rotation in this industry, which means that it’s just a stopgap, and they aspire to something better.

There’s a proposal in El Salvador to increase certain taxes in order to bring in enough to ensure better security for the population. It’s an excellent idea, but I don’t know if it would work here, where the rich don’t like to pay taxes. They’d rather pay for their own private security than pay taxes to improve public security. But maybe if other Central American countries do it, it might encourage them. It’s a bit like what’s done in Nicaragua with the fire department. A small portion, almost a symbolic amount, of what’s charged in fuel taxes, goes to pay for the fire department, which is a very costly service technically. In the eighties we had the best equipped and best prepared firefighting force in all of Central America.

The Economic Investigation Division’s logic
is less clear than in the time of the revolution

I’d also like to talk about the Police’s Economic Investigation Division, which has appeared in connection with some recent corruption charges. I really don’t know what’s there now or how it works. In my time, the Economic Police did serious in-depth investigations, and produced results. You need to remember that in the eighties the State owned a lot, many means of production. So the Economic Police in my time, formed out of the Soviet and Cuban experiences, where the State also owned a lot of things, oversaw not only government institutions but also many state companies: sugar refineries, ports, farms… We created that division and were constantly informing the government of the poor management we perceived. And ministers often asked us to investigate on their behalf, or did it together with us. That was the logic of the revolution. But I don’t know what they do now under capitalist logic. The recent police investigation in the tax division shows that the logic isn’t very clear. In my time, there was more government sensitivity to avoid corruption. It was shameful back then for a minister to be discovered being tolerant of, knowledgeable about or complicit in an act of corruption. Today things have changed a lot and people don’t find it embarrassing.

Is Daniel looking to turn the
Police into the National Guard?

Finally, I don’t think the President has any shortage of desire to totally control the Police. As I have stressed, controlling the armed forces has been the tendency and temptation of all governments. I also think, however, and I may be wrong, that analyses that say Daniel is looking to turn the Police into the National Guard are exaggerated, although he is looking to use it for concrete things of his own. His discourse is skillful, because he doesn’t tell the Police to crack heads. He says the exact opposite: “Don’t repress them!” Obviously that’s accompanied by an intimidating attitude. The government doesn’t hide its strategy; it tells the opposition straight out: “The streets belong to us and we’re not giving them up to you; you have a right to the media, but not the streets. And if you go out into the street, the Police won’t do anything to you; I will through my forces.” The government has its own people to intimidate and crack heads.

Could there be an
Egypt or a Spain here?

Naturally that strategy has its risks, because something’s bound to give when you close all the spaces. Every action generates a reaction. I’m guessing the government is doing its own appraisal of how far it can stretch the rubber band before it snaps. So far the streets still belong to it. That strategy could work for six months, a year, two years or even more, but the government could suddenly find itself with an Egypt on its hands.

The movements we’re seeing in some Arab countries, in Spain, in Europe, are against the system. They’re indignant with capitalism. I’m obviously sympathetic to that type of movement, but they still aren’t significant relative to the whole population. They’re civic movements. And in Nicaragua civil society, the citizenry, is still an amorphous body with no clear leadership. We’re still stuck in the tradition of party mobilizations. We haven’t seen anything in Central America or in the rest of Latin America that’s anything like what we’re seeing in other parts of the world. I think we have a long way to go before we witness anything similar.

René Vivas is currently a lawyer and director of a private security company.

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