“The Police has changed its role to guarantee the regime’s security”
This expert on issues of citizens’ security and drug trafficking
paints us a Dorian Gray portrait of Nicaragua’s National Police
and analyzes the factors that have contributed to its transformation
from a force that protects the citizenry to one that protects the regime.
I want to begin by warning that I’m not bearing good news. The way things are going in our country, we can expect a worsening of the political violence. Nicaragua is at a very dangerous threshold given the regime’s political instrumentalization of both the Army and the Police and the critical point the regime’s internal contradictions have reached.
We’re constantly being told that ours is the safest country in Central America, but it would be more accurate to describe ourselves as the least violent. With a homicide rate of 10-11 per 100,000 inhabitants, light years away from the rates for our neighbors in the North Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador), we can live relatively calmly.
But these indices aren’t just a product of the role played by the National Police. Other factors must also be taken into account. One is the massive emigration of Nicaraguans. The diaspora of Nicaraguans in the 18-25 range—the ages during which statistics tell us most crimes are committed—helps reduce the social tensions, as do the remittances those migrants send back to the families they left behind, improving the standard of living of a great many people. These factors haven’t been well studied in our country, but they definitely have an influence.
Social violence v. political violence
Another point we must bear in mind from the outset is that while Nicaragua has relatively little social violence, and the National Police unquestionably deserves some of the credit for that, we are still experiencing political violence. Our history is plagued with it. One of the lines in the national anthem tells us that “On thy land roars the voice of the cannon no more, nor does the blood of brothers now stain thy glorious bicolor banner,” but the fact is that our history has been repeatedly marked by Nicaraguan brothers killing one another. And it’s still happening. The blood of brothers has always mainly flowed in our country as a result of political factors. As the political spaces continue closing and the armed forces continue to be politically manipulated to serve the political ambitions of those exercising power, a breeding ground is being created in which the political violence will increase and become harsher. We’re already seeing it.
When talking about today’s political violence, I’m not just referring to the polarization that unquestionably divides our country. We also need to talk about other factors that are generating both political and institutional violence. Reports by Nicaragua’s human rights organizations, the US State Department and other international agencies are already saying that torture is being practiced here again. We read and hear testimonies in the independent media about people who’ve been tortured and, even worse, executed or disappeared by the security forces. They don’t appear to be isolated cases of an officer who lost it and hit a prisoner, but rather a systematic practice resulting from the regime’s political instrumentalizing of the security bodies. Meanwhile, the police force is also suffering casualties in various parts of the country.
The history of the National Police
When it took power in 1979, the leadership of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) made a number of good decisions, one of which was a sweeping institutional transformation. This included very wisely separating public security from national defense, creating both an army and a police force, whereas Somoza’s National Guard had been both things. The Sandinista Police was put in charge of defending the citizenry, guaranteeing public security and answered to the Ministry of the Interior, as did State Security, the National Penitentiary System, the Fire Department, and the Department of Migration and Aliens.
In 1990, with the change of government, the Ministry of the Interior was transformed into the Ministry of Government. During that transition many members of different entities under the Interior Ministry moved to posts in the newly-named National Police, above all those in State Security, because their agency disappeared. None of them had been “police-police,” as we call those who joined the force back in 1979 to distinguish them from the ones who tagged on in 1990. To be clear, when I refer to police-police, I’m talking about those trained for that post, including being sent abroad to study forensics, fingerprinting, criminal investigation and other related techniques needed to create a police force capable of guaranteeing public security and scientifically investigating crime.
Another important fact is that between 1990 and today, the National Police has never been headed up by police-police with the exception of René Vivas, one of the force’s founders. After him came Fernando Caldera, previously in charge of internal order in Chontales and Interior Minister Tomás Borge’s delegate there. He was followed by Edwin Cordero, who had held the same two posts as Caldera, but in Chinandega-León, and then Franco Montealegre, who came out of the National Penitentiary System. And finally, we now have Aminta Granera, who had worked in the Interior Ministry’s executive secretariat and was never a police agent of any kind.
Fast-forwarding to 2007:
The Police answers to Ortega
To understand the institutional and functional changes that have brought the National Police to where it is today we need to move up to 2007. That year, with Daniel Ortega having recently taken office again, the National Police drew up reforms to the Police Law (Law 228) that essentially proposed uncoupling the force from the Ministry of Government, which at that time still retained most of the departments that had been under its forerunner. Like all the others, the Police answered directly to that ministry, which acted as a civil intermediary between them and the executive branch. Although this was the correct approach in a democratic system, being equated with the other departments made the National Police feel less important; it aspired to be a “ministry” or a “secretariat” itself, directly answerable to the presidency and dealt with by the President.
Both the parliamentary opposition and independent experts seriously criticized its reform bill, submitted to the National Assembly that same year. As the FSLN didn’t then have the votes it now has to push through whatever it wants, the opposition was able to block the bill’s passage. Nonetheless, President Ortega soon reformed Law 290 on the executive branch’s organization, powers and procedures, introducing subtle changes into the Police Law that de facto eliminated the Ministry of Government’s mediation and made the National Police answerable to him. All these events are part of the full picture needed to understand what’s happening today.
A product of mutual interests…
Seeing the current results and analyzing that first change, my own thinking is that rather than a conscious and programmed plan, the Police command structure submitted its bill based on an opportunity factor. They had felt neglected during the three previous governments and wanted to take advantage of the political opportunity represented by Ortega’s return to government to implement reforms they had already been thinking about. They hadn’t presented them to the previous governments because they knew they’d have to do a lot of lobbying and horse-trade other aspects they didn’t want to change. Moreover, the Police Law hadn’t been reformed in some 20 years and certain technical and professional changes were by then obviously necessary. So they had jumped at the chance to make the changes they aspired to with a sympathetic President.
In any event, that was the beginning of the Ortega regime’s political instrumentalization of the security bodies, and it has responded to mutual interests. It’s not true, as some have said, that President Ortega used all his power to coopt the “poor little” National Police, trapped by law with no other choice than to obey the President’s wishes. No, there was complicity, mutual interest, or as a friend of mine put it, “hunger joined forces with appetite.” The Police wanted increased institutional importance, technical capacity, presence and budget, while Ortega wanted absolute fidelity to ensure his regime’s security.
…accompanied by a new law
That instrumentalization process culminated in 2014, when Law 228 was repealed, replaced by Law 872 on the Organization, Functions, Career and Special Social Security Regime of the National Police. According to the new law, the Police would nominally continue under the Ministry of Government, but functionally would answer strictly to the President. In practice, then, the Ministry of Government is out of the picture, and National Police Chief Aminta Granera, held on past her rotation period, takes her orders from Daniel Ortega.
Law 872 also created new police divisions in particularly sensitive spheres such as intelligence and counterintelligence and by extension changed the previously-existing command model. From her post as director general, Granera no longer commands three deputy directors and an inspector, as before the reform. There are now 12 general commissioners and an equal number of deputy directors. The Police has thus been turned into a super-institution. Retired general deputy director Javier López Lowery, another founder of the Sandinista Police in 1979 and former chief of the investigative area, recently criticized the Police for having a rectangular rather than a pyramidal structure, as there is no longer a single top-down command that makes decisions and executes and implements national policies, but many areas, making the command structure more horizontal. According to him, this has triggered a command crisis in the institution with orders occasionally given that are at cross purposes.
The formal Nicaragua and the real one
So even though the 2007 bill didn’t make it through the National Assembly, the initial Police project has become reality through the incremental reforms made over time. Today’s National Police really is a “ministry” and functionally assumes tasks corresponding to an interior ministry. I know police officials would tell me I’m wrong, whipping out the law to show me that the legal regulations say something else. But we know the same thing happens in the Police that happens everywhere else in this country: there are two Nicaraguas, the formal one and the real one. What the law says is irrelevant because all that counts is what happens in reality. It is in this functional reality that the National Police has become the new Ministry of the Interior, whose job is to deal with and neutralize the threats to the regime’s security.
As a direct consequence of the institutional reforms and functional changes, the relative autonomy the National Police enjoyed in previous governments is a thing of the past. As the supreme chief, President Ortega achieved the total objective fidelity of the National Police, while at the same time earning the subjective and direct fidelity of some of its officials by granting them perks and promotions.
What all these de facto functional changes have created could be defined as two police forces. Or to be fairer and more precise, the National Police has been made responsible for two types of functions. One is standard public security: ordering traffic; investigating crime; pursuing and processing criminals and turning them over to the courts, and the like. The other is to guarantee the present regime’s security, and to that end it has been assigned the tasks State Security had in the eighties, with all the bad memories that institution left in our historical memory.
Security of the State equals
security of the current regime
And if the National Police is now responsible for state security… today Daniel Ortega is the State. That function is the one causing the human rights violations, repression of the opposition, excessive use of force, arrests without warrants, torture in the prisons, interrogations under torture and even summary executions in a country that has no death sentence… It’s the one that explains why there are undercover police officers doing intelligence work such as taping and photographing anti-interoceanic canal demonstrations to gather information on the leaders, create dossiers…
From the moment Daniel Ortega secured the fidelity of the National Police, it has been in charge of neutralizing any threat to the regime. Who defines the threats? The Police. And how do they plan to neutralize it? With techniques they define and that we’ve already seen.
How the security bodies see reality today
The peasants who live and work along the proposed canal route—some 300,000 people—have been told they will be expropriated and evicted yet the government has yet to offer a social or productive plan for their future. Where are they supposed to go? What credit or other guarantees will they be offered to remake their lives in a new place they know nothing about? They feel afraid and insist they won’t be moved, that they prefer to struggle and die for their lands. They have already held 46 demonstrations and there will be more. In so doing they’re within their right; they’re acting in defense of their basic human rights because what’s at stake is their right to life and livelihood, which is precisely what their land represents to them. But the regime has defined this legitimate struggle as a threat to its security and begun to treat it as such. This is only one example of how the security forces see reality today.
The political and civic demands for changes in the electoral system are another legitimate protest being seen as a threat to the regime’s security. So we’re also seeing police officers doing intelligence-gathering work in the opposition marches. It’s the same thing the National Guard’s National Security Office did under the Somoza dictatorship, keeping files on all citizens believed to be a potential threat to the regime. Now any neighborhood, community or other grassroots leader will have a file in the current security bodies.
They are supported in this task by the regime’s territorial network, originally known as Committees of Citizens’ Participation (CPC) and now as Family Cabinets. They know who’s in the opposition in each block on each street; they know who everyone’s going to vote for, who supports the government, who should get—or not get—the zinc roofing sheets being given out… They’ve got it all mapped out at the base, performing functions similar to those of the Sandinista Defense Committees (CDS) in the eighties, exercising social control at the neighborhood level, gathering information, identifying threats and informing.
Protecting the regime’s
economic project as well
The obvious problem with all this is that any political or social issue, no matter how legitimate, is being defined as a threat to the regime. With the mentality generated by the new security tasks, everything is seen as a threat and the security bodies will seek any pretext or even invent any absurd reason to get in good with the regime’s chief. It’s precisely this that is triggering an excessive use of force as well as the corruption that’s on the rise within the institution.
It’s no longer a secret to anybody that Daniel Ortega has become one of Nicaragua’s richest men. The National Police is thus now guaranteeing not only the Ortega project’s political security and plans but also its economic ones, because they also require protection. It was no mere formality that the Chinese technicians who went to measure the land of the property owners along the canal route were accompanied by armed Police and Army officers.
Here’s yet another example of the regime’s economic interests creating a breeding ground for violence. With the change of government in 1990, many former military officers formed cooperatives on state lands granted through agrarian reform titles. Many settled on lands near Nicaragua’s most heavenly beaches in the department of Rivas. The Gaspar García Laviana cooperative has some 1,750 hectares there. Many of its members fought under Edén Pastora against intense National Guard assaults during the insurrection in that same zone. They’re historical combatants, people who then devoted another 10 years of their life to the Sandinista Army, fighting the contra war in the eighties. The FSLN always gets 100% of the votes there in elections. Yet today, despite that history, the regime is using the state institutions, new laws, straw men and security bodies to get those lands back. The same has already happened with the lands in Amarillo, Wiscoyol and Naranjo, all of which are apparently assets with which the regime hopes to negotiate shares in the megaprojects envisioned for the Brito tourist corridor under the canal law’s protective umbrella. To boil it down to its simplest terms, they’re grabbing land from their Sandinista brothers, and these are people who know how to fight…
Distorting and delegitimizing the Police
Two consequences of this whole process and this model are the distorting and social delegitimizing of the National Police. Its functions have been twisted because it has been turned from a public security force to a security force at the service of the regime and given license to repress for political reasons. If that was what was wanted, they should have created another, secret police-like entity to do the regime’s dirty work instead of muddying the Police.
As for the social delegitimizing, a good part of Nicaragua’s population no longer feels secure with this police force; the way it’s acting frightens them because they see it as biased. The first point of Law 872’s article 6 states that the National Police must act “with absolute neutrality and impartiality, without any discrimination, with total determination, dedication and without delay.” Those values would appear to give us a police force with 100% social legitimacy in the formal Nicaragua, as we in fact did have for a number of years. But since that’s not how things are in today’s real Nicaragua, a large part of the population feels threatened when a police officer approaches. The hitching of its institutional interests to Ortega’s personal ones, the linking of hunger to appetite, thus provoking the serious problem we’re now seeing, is the worst thing that could have happened to the National Police.
We had the best police force in Central America until very recently. Who distorted it? Both the President and the national police chiefs did, the latter fully aware that they’re now guaranteeing the security of a dictatorial regime. The entire upper police echelons are now staffed by officers who have the President’s unqualified political trust.
A reflection of the regime’s
In addition to acting in a partisan manner and provoking human rights violations, the National Police has acquired another serious problem with all these functional changes: it is now suffering the same internal contradictions as the regime itself. On the one side are the high-level officers, formerly State Security in the main, who unquestioningly follow the governing party’s political guidelines, and on the other are those who were there when the institution started in 1979, who genuinely love it, gave their youth to it, disagree with the changes and are demanding professionalism. These opposing positions reflect the internal fights that have created bad blood in the governing party itself, where a good part of the FSLN’s historical combatants, its old guard, have been sidelined, replaced by today’s Sandinista Youth, a decision that has totally subverted the FSLN.
We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that while the FSLN lost the elections in 1990, it never lost control of the Police and Army. And although very successful efforts were made over the years to professionalize both institutions, they were also partly a façade. Antonio Lacayo, President Chamorro’s minister of the presidency between 1990 and 1997, alludes to this in his book La transición difícil (The difficult transition). As chair of the 1990 Transition Commission for UNO, the newly elected coalition, Lacayo describes how General Humberto Ortega, head of the Army and chair of a similar commission for the FSLN, laid out the ground rules in the two commissions’ first joint meeting. “We can negotiate anything here except the Police and the Army.” And that was how it went: never losing control of the armed institutions means it always had the real power.
The invasion of the National Police by all those Interior Ministry officials and the assigning of top posts to them even though they had no police experience was part of that strategy to ensure the FSLN’s continued control of both armed bodies. Institutional control of the National Police is now firmly in their hands. While there have been and still are “police-police” in intermediate leadership posts, their departments aren’t where the real control is exercised.
Political violence is gaining ground
Political violence is increasing in Nicaragua and is particularly heating up in rural Nicaragua, where the worst human rights violations are being committed by both the Army and the Police. Doesn’t this regime remember recent history? Or does it feel so all-powerful that it doesn’t realize that history could be repeated? The revolution only strengthened the Contra when it began violating human rights in the countryside during the 1980s. Although it’s not easy to learn everything that’s going on in rural Nicaragua first-hand and we in Managua are sold distorted versions of only a few events at best, the violence incubating in several areas of the country is getting worse and could soon produce a serious peasant revolt, an armed movement with a political emphasis.
Logic and analytical method point toward more political violence with low-key and relatively quiet but nonetheless fateful results: intimidation, threats, extortions, arrests, seizures, juridically unfounded political accusations and the like, methods they call “prophylactic” because they’re aimed at dissuading worse scenarios. We’re defenseless against such methods because the instrumentalization of the National Police has been accompanied by what I call the “politicizing” of the Public Ministry. It has been turned into the juridical arm of the Police, thus also losing all functional autonomy. It’s now even headed by two former police officers who, by law, still receive salaries and benefits from the National Police. Its role of responding to the citizenry and defending the victims has been distorted, as we saw more clearly than ever in the show trial it organized to put a quick end to the Las Jagüitas crime in which at least nine Police special forces troops opened fire on a car full of civilians on their way home from a Saturday evening church service. Three of the eight passengers were killed, including two children, and two were wounded.
All these changes have left victims defenseless and perpetrators juridically protected; in short, impunity reigns. This is another aspect of the police State we’re increasingly seeing: it doesn’t just respond to what it sees as a political threat but actually sparks political violence, which is very bad news indeed.