San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Meet the region’s top crime fighter

From the print edition

WASHINGTON, D.C. – It may be the poorest country in Central America, but when it comes to nabbing drug traffickers and putting the brakes on crime, Nicaragua has done better than any of its neighbors.

That’s the word from Aminta Granera, director general of Nicaragua’s National Police. 

The 60-year-old grandmother, who once trained to be a catholic nun, is widely respected for her success in bringing down the incidence of violent crime during the five years she’s commanded the force – 40 percent of whose 12,000 members are women. 

With only 17.9 police officers per 10,000 inhabitants, she noted, Nicaragua is the least-policed of all Central American countries. That compares to 22.4 officers per 10,000 in Honduras, 28.6 in Guatemala, 32.1 in Costa Rica, 40 in El Salvador, 46.2 in Belize and 50 in Panama. Nicaraguan police officers also receive the lowest pay – $120 per month – in comparison to other Central American countries ($232 in Honduras, $370 in El Salvador, $450 in Panama, $500 in Belize and $584 in Costa Rica).

Yet when it comes to actual crime statistics, Nicaragua ranks at the bottom of the region in just about every survey. In 2010, the country had only seven kidnappings, compared to 19 in Costa Rica, 29 in El Salvador, 38 in Panama, 71 in Honduras and 133 in Guatemala. Last year, only 272 cars were reported stolen in Nicaragua – a tiny fraction of the 2,811 stolen vehicles logged in police blotters in El Salvador and 7,334 in Guatemala.

Speaking June 18 at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, in the United States, Granera told her audience that only 6.9 percent of police complaints last year dealt with violent crimes such as murder, kidnapping, rape and robbery. Most of the remainder had to do with minor offenses. That 6.9 percent, she said, was down from 7.9 percent in 2010 and 8.2 percent the year before, which represents slow but steady progress.

That’s because Nicaragua has been able to do more with less, the country’s top cop said. 

“Nicaragua is the only country in Central America that has been able to consistently bring down its homicide rate over the last two years,” Granera said, noting that the rate now stands at 12 per 100,000 inhabitants, which along with Costa Rica, is the lowest on the isthmus and only marginally higher than the world average of 8.8. The low number stands out in a region notorious for having the world’s highest murder rate, led by neighboring Honduras (86 homicides per 100,000) and El Salvador (72 per 100,000).

Granera has been on the force since 1979, the year the Sandinistas came to power. A one-time student at Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown University, the five-foot former revolutionary remained at the helm of the National Police even as the Sandinistas were voted out of power in 1990. The Sandinistas returned to head the government in 2007 under the leadership of President Daniel Ortega.

Over the years, she’s enacted a number of police reforms, such as creating a unit to fight domestic violence against women and implementing policies to crackdown on bribery. A recent survey that ranked the popularity of 26 prominent Nicaraguans put Granera at the top of the list, with an 87 percent approval rating.

She’s not particularly popular among the bad guys, however. In the last six years, Nicaraguan police have confiscated 59,873 kilograms of cocaine, $31.7 million in cash, 1,417 weapons, 1,234 land vehicles, 18 aircraft and 168 boats.

Also, the economic cost of crime and violence in 2011, according to World Bank statistics, was lowest in Nicaragua ($529 million). That compares favorably with Costa Rica ($791 million), Honduras ($885 million), El Salvador ($2.1 billion) and Guatemala ($2.3 billion). 

Only 4 percent of Nicaragua’s 5.8 million citizens put violence and criminal gangs at the top of a list of urgent problems in their country, according to the Latinobarómetro polling firm. That’s by far the lowest in Central America and in all of Latin America. At the other extreme is Venezuela, where 62 percent of inhabitants say crime and violence is the country’s top priority.

“Central America finds itself caught between the North, which is the biggest customer for illicit drugs, and the South, which is the biggest producer. Some 95 percent of [illegal] drugs coming to the United States passes through Central American land, air and maritime routes,” she said.

Compounding the problem, Nicaragua’s neighbor to the south, Costa Rica, is home to a series of drug warehouses and storage facilities, while to the north lies Honduras, the site of dozens of clandestine air strips where planes land, laden with Colombian cocaine, she said.

“With the pressure in Mexico that has been put on the cartels, the Zetas [an extremely violent drug cartel] have practically taken over Guatemala. And the Panama Canal has become one of the principal routes for the transport of drugs from Central America to Europe,” she said. “But the problems the region confronts are not the responsibility only of Central Americans. They affect the world. Transnational organized crime doesn’t have frontiers, even though the criminals use our territories.”

Another problem plaguing Central America is the rise of gangs. At the moment, she said, the region is home to 900 groups with more than 70,000 members who have links to organized crime.

“They fight over territory and the confrontations between these gangs is the principal cause of murders in the northern triangle,” Aminta said, referring to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. “There is also the matter of 4.5 million small and light arms circulating legally and illegally in the region, and obviously this increases the danger.”

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