Nicaragua is the poorest country in Central America and has the smallest police force, yet its murder rate is the lowest in the region, and its police are seen as a model for others. On June 19, InSight Crime interviewed national police chief Aminta Granera about the challenges facing the region and her country.
(Watch video of interview, below)
InSight Crime: Central America has seen crime and murder rates skyrocket in recent years. Why do you think that has happened?
Aminta Granera: Well, in Central America, we must distinguish the Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras) from the Southern Triangle (Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama). In the Northern Triangle, I think Mexico’s effort has caused a shift of the Zetas and the Mexican cartels, which are already established in Guatemala. In El Salvador and Honduras, [this presence] has been increasing. Honduras is the country with the world’s highest homicide rate. The maras [street gangs] have a lot to do with this. In the Southern Triangle, we have a homicide rate much lower than the Northern Triangle. However, according to a study conducted by the University of Costa Rica, the homicide rates of Costa Rica and Panama have doubled in the last four years. The only country that has remained stable and even declined in recent years has been Nicaragua. I think that has to do, to a large extent, with the police model.
IC: What does that mean?
AG: Our police model is determined by our origins. Coming from a revolution, coming from a people, has branded us the Nicaraguan police. What I mean is that we are part of the community. [We have] a great respect for the people, a willingness to make sacrifices because we are putting on these uniforms because of the sacrifices of others who died — friends, relatives — so we could put on these uniforms and serve our people. So that’s how we are marked by our roots. The police model here is preventive, proactive, deeply connected tp the community. We are only 14,000 police in uniform, but we work with 100,000 people who form an organized, voluntary service with the police, to ensure their own safety. And this closeness with the community, the mutual respect [and] the public’s confidence in their police, I think dates back to our origins.
IC: Nicaragua has far fewer gangs, gang members and gang violence than its neighbors. How did Nicaragua keep the gangs at bay?
AG: I would say that we had a sort of 10-year head start over other countries in Central America. I remember in the middle of 1985, we had the first meeting, the Nicaraguan police chiefs, where we were wondering what was going on in Honduras, because the first gangs in Honduras were appearing. We did not have them, and we said to ourselves, “Why don’t we?” And we saw, well, young people at that time were involved in Nicaraguan literacy campaigns; vaccinations were going on; they were picking cotton, picking coffee; they were in the military. There was no room for Nicaraguan youth to engage in criminal activity or gangs.
Ten years later, in the mid 1990s, we started getting our first gangs (we don’t call them “maras”). And we met again, the same bosses, which is another advantage we have: the Nicaraguan National Police Command has continuity. We said, “How are we going to face up to this?” I remember in Honduras they were tackling it with zero tolerance, and for every gang member that they threw into prison, they would put a head, literally the head of a police officer or a person, in the park across from the presidential palace. And we said, if 10 years ago the reason why our young people were not in gangs was that they formed part of the state program, then the key word and the antidote for gangs is inclusion. And we are going to treat them with inclusion rather than repression. And we created a youth program section. We worked it the other way as well. Our intelligence agencies also penetrated them. We could tell whether they had links with foreign gangs. If they were armed or not. We could see if they were criminals, or they were just excluded from the labor market, cultural, student or even family life. We could see if they joined the gangs because they had no other reference point. We currently have 10,000 youths who have demobilized as part of the 100,000 people who voluntarily work with us. They have surrendered their weapons and are committed to the police.
IC: Which foreign criminal groups operate in Nicaragua?
AG: The cartel that had the most presence was the Sinaloa Cartel, which operated on the Pacific Coast. That’s the one we hit the hardest. All of its social base — all the Nicaraguans and Mexicans — are in the Nicaraguan jail system now. We have an area along the Atlantic Coast where a Colombian group operates. The Gulf Cartel also operates along the Atlantic. And that’s it. It’s a constant battle we have. How do they operate? They need a base to fill their go-fast boats up with gasoline, then go. They need to have properties in unpopulated areas where they can build runways, land their planes, fill up with gasoline and continue. Because this isn’t a destination, it’s a stopover. So that’s what the locals and internationals do: refuel, monitor the authorities, and allow safe passage.
IC: How does Nicaragua approach the “war on drugs”?
AG: We have worked hard in two directions, and perhaps this differentiates us from other countries. In the early years, we were more concerned with drug seizures. We seized an average of 15 to 20 tons of cocaine annually. Eventually we said, “This is not working because the guy who moves drugs through your territory is leaving you, and fostering corruption, destroying your society, breaking apart the family, corrupting youth, destroying your institutions.” So we decided to [do] more than just drug seizures. It’s much more important to break apart the social base, the logistical base that the Mexican cartels, and to a lesser extent the Colombian cartels, have in our territory than it is to seize X amount of cocaine or X amount of dollars that was making its way from the north to pay for the drugs. So we’ve spent a lot more time focusing on destroying the cells, the logistical support.
What matters most is that we in Nicaragua have said [to the drug traffickers]: “Look, we are not afraid. We are not intimidated. With us, you’re not going to have your way. You’re not going to be able to buy us.” And we’ve shown them with our actions. We are David making war with Goliath, and wherever they open the door we are going to be there and strike them hard.
*Transcription and additional reporting by Kelly Walbert.
Also in InSight Crime’s Nicaragua Special:
Folk Singer’s Death Shines Light on Nicaragua Police Corruption
Bluefields: Nicaragua’s Cocaine Hub