Frustrated with police inaction, residents taking justice into own hands
Second in a two-part series on citizen insecurity in tourism towns
A string of robberies in Granada and the perception that police aren’t doing enough to stop it has some residents of this colonial city taking the law into their own hands. In a trash-lined arroyo behind a row of houses on Calle Nueva, Martín Ugartez points to a flip flop he says was left behind by a thief after their late night struggle here several nights earlier.
Ugartez, a private security guard employed by an expat, together with another local resident of Calle Nueva, descended down the steep arroyo slope with machetes and dogs one night three weeks ago to hide and wait for the thieves, who had already burglarized some 10 homes in the neighborhood.
“We hid and waited for them to run from one house to the other,” Ugartez says.
A half-hour later, their stakeout paid off as two thieves approached through the darkness.
Ugartez released the dogs. One went for the first criminal’s throat, knocking him over and giving the two vigilantes time to jump on him. The second man escaped.
“When we caught him his breath smelled of glue,” Ugartez says. “He said, ‘Kill me first but don’t put me in jail. Please, do it for my daughter.’”
The police, upon arrival, recognized the thief as a wanted man, says Ugartez. Jorge Alvarez, one of the many burglary victims on that street block, was the one who called police after the vigilante ambush of the thieves. But he says he didn’t bother notifying the cops after his house was burglarized several nights earlier.
“You could inform them 1,000 times, but they are not going to catch the criminal,” Alvarez says of the police. “The best way” to catch a crook, he says, is “to hide and wait” and do it yourself.
The success of the Calle Nueva vigilante team has them and others considering attempting it again.
“We need to start a vigilante group because the police aren’t doing anything,” said U.S.-expat resident Lilly Filipow, a property manager for Granada Rental Escapes and Ugartez’ employer.
Prior to her guard catching one of the thieves, the house Filipow manages had been robbed four times. On the third occasion, Filipow called the police while the burglars were on the property, saying, “It’s an emergency, there are robbers there right now!”
But the police didn’t show up until several hours later, by which time the crooks were long gone.
“They always say they’ll be right there,” she says.
Other times, she adds, there is no answer at all, the number is disconnected or the police say they are too busy to respond.
The Granada resident of five years believes the city is experiencing a “surge” in home break-ins. Of another home she manages, which has been burglarized three times, she says, “It was the first time I saw a robbery where they pried open the iron gate.”
The communications officer for the National Police of Granada, Luis Alonso Carrillo, says citizen security is not just the police’s responsibility. He says everyone has to work together to ensure “citizen security.”
“The citizen has to point out the vulnerabilities or insecurities of the neighborhood,” Carrillo says. The officer said residents should engage in “community vigilance in working with the police.”
But contrary to the perception of a crime wave, Carrillo says those claimants don’t know the facts.
Police statistics for the Granada department shows the number of robberies of homes, businesses and vehicles (404 total) decreased by 10 percent during the first six months of this year, compared to the same period last year, when 446 robberies were reported.
Carrillo says anyone doubting police effectiveness should “look at the statistics” and the police’s 63 percent success rate solving crime this year.
The police spokesman also dismisses the more worrisome statistics, showing a 57 percent increase in non-violent street thefts this year, and a 79 percent increase in home break-ins in downtown Granada between July and August. Carrillo says those spikes are “normal” due to an increased population and the city’s festivities in August, which brought more people to the city.
As for complaints about the police’s slow or no response, Carrillo blames the phone carrier, Moviestar, saying that calls are first directed to a Managua operator before getting transferred back to Granada. Upon further reflection, the officer added, “Maybe we are making mistakes in the applications of police policies; it’s possible.”
The Number You Have Dialed…
Residents, however, claim that the statistics are misleading because many crimes go unreported due to the lack of confidence in police response.
Even Amigos de la Policia, a group of foreign residents created to help the police, is frustrated by the police’s failure to respond to calls.
Darrell Bushnell, a board member of the five-year-old Amigos de la Policia group, says it is impunity that’s bringing out more thieves.
But he doesn’t believe vigilantes are the answer to the city’s problem.
He says the best solution is to continue working with police to get them to improve public-security services. This means better training, which Bushnell hopes to address by bringing in a professional police trainer from the United States next February.
In e-mails to foreigners living in Granada, Bushnell stresses the importance of reporting every crime.
“I just think the community needs to become more active,” he says. “The alternative is to do nothing, and that’s not acceptable.” Bushnell goes to the police station every month to hand over pre-paid receipts for $150 in gas vouchers to help the police with transportation costs. The money is provided through the organization’s $75 membership fee.
Sometimes he talks directly with Police Chief Ramón Avellán to express the group’s concerns. Bushnell says the police chief denies reports of poor police response, and asked for specific dates of when such incidents occurred, and the names of the officers who answered the calls.
“That’s not the problem, all of them do it,” Bushnell told him at the time.
Back in his home, the community activist says, “We don’t seem to be able to get that point across. We can’t get them to take action.”
The Nica Times tried repeatedly to interview Avellán, but he was never available for comment.
Waiting is the Hardest Part
Those who choose to follow the rules are still waiting for the boys in blue to answer their calls.
Canadian couple Paul and Heather Aquin say they think they can identify a suspect in the recent break-in at their house, which also serves as the El Garaje restaurant.
Yet despite repeated requests to talk to the police, the “investigating officers” have not responded.
The couple slept through burglars stealing their Dell laptop, a mountain bike, four propane tanks, cash from the till and some diet coke, which one thief even paused to drink, leaving the empty can behind before scurrying back into the night.
Two days after it had happened, Heather Aquin said she still had the shakes.
“To know they were in our house and were upstairs,” she says, before trailing off, visibly upset.
The couple had new security features added to their front doors that same day and are going to add steel bars to their bedroom door.
Clouds on the Horizon
While many of the reported crimes are non-violent, that’s not making people feel much better about the situation.
One foreign woman, who wished not to be identified, was robbed at knife-point in late August while walking home around 3 a.m., accompanied by a male Nicaraguan friend. She thinks the three assailants watched them leave Café Nuit and trailed them on bicycles – an increasingly common modus operandi among late-night assailants, according to those who frequent the popular dance club.
With a knife held menacingly at her chest and a second man holding a knife to her friend’s throat, the criminals stole their cell phones and some money. The whole thing was over in less than five minutes, the European victim said, but the effect has been longer-lasting.
“It’s affecting my desire to live here,” she said.
Granada’s National Police force has 190 officers to serve the entire department of 168,000 people, according to Carrillo. The officer cites a lack of resources and agrees that they need more patrols.
“We are not perfect,” Carrillo says. But he’s quick to add that Granada is the safest department in Nicaragua – a country struggling to defend its title as the safest in Central America.
“The panorama of citizen security here is still less worrisome than it is in El Salvador or Guatemala, but the situation is worsening fast,” said Mónica Zalaquett, of Nicaragua’s Center for Prevention of Violence, in Managua.
Even more worrisome yet, Zalaquett says, are reports from marginalized youth in Managua who claim they have been approached by organized crime associates from Guatemala offering them employment as hit men.
If Nicaragua doesn’t do a better job of getting a handle on increased crime and violence, Zalaquett warns, “it’s just a matter of time” before the transnational gangs and organized crime syndicates move in and take the situation to a whole new level.