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Nicaragua Table of Contents


Police and Law Enforcement

The collapse of the Somoza administration in 1979 left Nicaragua without any agency of public order because the National Guard had performed police services, albeit in a repressive and corrupt fashion. For a brief period, FSLN veterans, working with the Sandinista Defense Committees and other mass organizations, provided rudimentary police functions, but this improvised system failed to prevent an upsurge of organized criminal activity, armed robbery, and attacks by youth gangs. The easy availability of weapons also contributed to the breakdown of law enforcement. A more professional police force was gradually put into place with the help of security training by the Panamanian National Guard and the Cuban government. Panama also donated vehicles and equipment and accepted several hundred Nicaraguans in Panama's police training academy.

Under the newly established Ministry of Interior, the Sandinista Police (Policía Sandinista--PS) resembled a militarytype staff organization, headed by a former FSLN brigade commander. Individual operating sections were responsible for traffic, public safety, prisons, communications, surveillance, legal processing, and embassy protection. Women made up a substantial proportion of the force.

An eight-month training course for police cadets included a heavy dose of military training, because in a national emergency the PS was expected to perform a support role in national defense. In addition to controlling street crime, the police were called on to combat the social legacy of the corrupt Somoza administration by enforcing morality and public welfare laws. Campaigns were launched against prostitution and alcoholism, but the new morality ordinances were enforced only sporadically. The crime rate was reduced somewhat when the police were granted authority to arrest "known delinquents" for "illegal association" when more specific charges could not be proven.

The police were later assisted by Revolutionary Vigilance Patrols organized by neighborhood Sandinista Defense Committees. These patrols conducted nighttime walks through neighborhoods and tended to discourage community crime. The PS also cooperated with the state security forces to suppress counterrevolutionary elements and to arrest political opponents of the administration.

Known as the National Police after 1990, the police force has continued to be controlled by Sandinistas despite the turnover of power to President Chamorro. The National Police's total complement was given as 11,000 by one source. The Sandinista police commander, René Vivas Lugo, remained its head. Police matters come under the Ministry of Government, which replaced the Ministry of Interior. The police, who act with substantial autonomy, have been repeatedly accused of human rights violations. A local human rights group has described the use of torture as an investigative tool as "systematic."

Many officials of the state security apparatus linked to serious human rights violations under the Sandinistas assumed positions as chiefs of police in provincial towns. To investigate and correct police wrongdoing, in 1991 a Civil Inspection Unit was formed within the Ministry of Government. The following year, Chamorro appointed a civilian without Sandinista ties as vice minister of government who would be responsible for supervising the police. Twelve police commanders, including Vivas, were removed and more moderate Sandinistas appointed from within the ranks. A new police law has instituted a regular system of promotion and retirement, emphasizing professionalism and subordination to civilian authority.

The counternarcotics efforts of the National Police are relatively weak, but the drug problem in Nicaragua appeared to be modest as of 1993. Although firm evidence is lacking, cocaine use is described as substantial. The only local drug produced are from small plots of marijuana, which is consumed domestically. Nicaragua is on an overland drug transit route from South America to the United States via the Pan American Highway, and drug movement by ship has been suspected through both Caribbean and Pacific ports. The effectiveness of drug law enforcement has been limited, although a law was passed in 1992 to authorize the establishment of an antinarcotics unit in the National Police.

Data as of December 1993

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Nicaragua Table of Contents