When it comes to nabbing drug traffickers and putting the brakes on crime, Nicaragua — the poorest country in Central America — 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).
Doing more with less
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 stolen in Nicaragua — a tiny fraction of the 2,811 stolen vehicles in El Salvador and the 7,334 in Guatemala.
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. And 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, said the country’s national police chief, speaking June 18 at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“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 proudly, noting that the rate now stands at 12 per 100,000 inhabitants, which along with Costa Rica is the lowest in the isthmus. Only marginally higher than the world average of 8.8, it’s especially impressive in a region notorious for having the world’s highest murder rate, led by neighboring Honduras (86 per 100,000) and El Salvador (72 per 100,000).
Top cop is also Nicaragua’s most popular public servant
Granera has been on the force since 1979. Over the years, she’s been responsible for a number of police reforms, such as the creation of a unit that fights domestic violence against women, as well as a 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).
Perhaps for all these reasons, only 4 percent of Nicaragua’s 5.8 million citizens put violence and criminal gangs is at the top of the list of urgent problems in their country, says the Latinobarómetro polling firm. That’s by far the lowest not only in Central America but 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.
Geography makes problem worse
“Central America finds itself caught between the north, which is the biggest customer for drugs, and the south, which is the biggest producer. Some 95 percent of the 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.
“The problems that the region confronts are not the responsibility only of Central Americans," she said. "They affect the world. Transnational organized crime doesn’t have frontiers, even though the criminals use our territories.”
Yet 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 that 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,” said Aminta. “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.”