Nicaragua's National Assembly has approved a new law that gives President Daniel Ortega unprecedented control over the country's police force, raising concerns about the institution's independence and increasing the risk of police corruption through political ties.
The "Law of Organization, Functions, Career, and Special Regimen of Security of the National Police" (see attached pdf) -- makes the president "supreme commander" of the institution, alongside other clauses that restructure and provide institutional support for the police force. The legislation replaces the National Police Law dating from 1996, under which the police fell under the control of Nicaragua's Governance Ministry.
The law also increases retirement age of officers, creates new specialized police units and the institutions to support them, and officially establishes community-based volunteer police within the force, something that has been occurring for a number of years as part of the nation's successful community policing model.
The new legislation has already attracted criticism from certain quarters. Elvira Cuadra, executive director of the Nicaragua-based Institute of Strategic Studies and Public Policy (IEEPP), told InSight Crime that although many of the articles install a positive restructuring of the institution, the direct presidential link created by Article 1 of the law that allows Ortega to dictate every facet of the institution essentially "politicizes" the police.
According to Cuadra, the government's claims that turning over control to the president will strengthen the police and make the force more efficient are baseless, and instead it will grant Ortega unaccountable power.
Overall presidential control is compounded by article 10 of the law, which gives the president the ability to name -- on a five-year tenure -- the force's director, sub directors and inspector general, bypassing the previous shortlist selection process.
Furthermore, the law gives the president authority to dismiss these high-ranking officials for "disobedience," as well as for physical or mental disability, or based on previous criminal convictions.
This generates the risk of creating a police hierarchy with a personal loyalty to the president and impedes institutional reforms and renovation, according to concerns raised by the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH) prior to the law's approval.
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However, government supports have hit back at criticisms. Edwin Castro, congressman and bench coordinator for the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front (FLSN) party, said the law "consolidates the country's democracy," reported Siglo 21.
He added that the police, as stated in the new law, are a nonpartisan institution and at the community's service, reported La Gente.
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Critics of the reforms believe the new police law is a power grab by President Ortega that could have worrying repercussions for security and the integrity of the police.
For Cuadra of the IEEPP, the approval of this law is the fruit of a process of "reconcentration" of power in the presidential office, a process that has been developing since Ortega ascended to the presidency in 2006 after a 16-year absence. These sentiments are further echoed by the CENIDH, which states the law is indicative of Ortega's desire to "centralize power".
With so much power concentrated in the president's hands, there is a risk Ortega will be tempted to use it serve his political agenda by persecuting opponents or granting impunity in cases linked to his or the FSLN's interests.
Even before the law was passed, there were several cases in which the police actions appear to have been acted in the Sandinistas' political interests. In June 2013, anti-Sandinista protesters who occupied the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute (INSS) demanding government pensions were violently ousted from the building by thugs allegedly working in tandem with the police and backed by the FSLN. In February 2013, miners from Santo Domingo in the central department of Chontales complained of police repression and abuses during protests against the operations by Canadian mining giant B2 Gold, which left 141 wounded, according to the CENIDH.
Furthermore, as InSight Crime has noted, criminal organizations are thought to be involved with both Nicaragua's police force and government, and reduced accountability for the police could play into their hands.
Both drug trafficking networks and gangs dedicated to the theft of drug shipments, known as "tumbadores," are known to operate in Nicaragua. These groups, as is the case throughout the region, often work with corrupt state officials and police to carry out their operations.
The FSLN has also been implicated in criminal activities and corruption. In 2006, confidential US documents released by Wikileaks stated that the FSLN accepted drug money for campaign financing, offering traffickers judicial favors in return.
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According to the CENIDH, this level of corruption throughout the institution will likely be amplified by article 38 of the law, which allows police members to accrue up to 40 years in the service instead of 30 as outlined by the previous law, with the power to extend a policeman's tenure in the hands of the president. For the CENDIH, this prevents the "constant renewal" of police leadership and the institution, which can be a critical factor in fighting police corruption.
Even the laws' critics admit some of the reforms in the new act could benefit policing and security in Nicaragua, which remains less ravaged by corruption and violence than many of its Central American neighbors. However, the potential for politicization of the police force with a concentration of power in the president's office and a lack of accountability over how the body is run far outstrip the positives.