Like many of the countries of Central America, Nicaragua went through a period of authoritarian government, civil war, and revolution, lasting through the 1970’s. Today, it is the second poorest nation in the region, with significant economic disparities and high levels of migration to neighboring countries like Costa Rica. However, this migration has historically stemmed from Nicaraguans seeking improved economic opportunities rather than fleeing from violence. Nicaragua has also had a relatively low crime rate with high levels of trust between communities and the police. This can partially be attributed to the country’s police culture being rooted in a community-based approach – a Community Oriented Policing (COP) model based on outreach, accessibility and accountability was established in 1979 following the Sandinista revolution. However, this has been undermined in the late 2010’s by the Ortega government’s efforts to bolster presidential power by placing public institutions (including the police) directly under its control. A recent turn from COP to a reactive form of policing has undermined trust and heightened tensions between local communities and the police, and contributed to the violent episodes that have taken place in the country in recent months.
Nicaragua’s main state security provider is the National Nicaraguan Police (PNN). The PNN has a significant presence in urban areas and is generally well-connected to communities through strong contacts and working relationships. In rural areas where there is less of a police presence, the military will occasionally step in to provide security. Nicaragua’s primary justice institutions include the Public Ministry, which prosecutes and represents both public interest and victims of crime (although its coverage is limited), the Supreme Court of Justice, which leads the judicial power, and the Public Defense Office which provides legal defense services to those that cannot afford it.
In certain areas of Nicaragua, alternate security and justice providers may be active within communities. These include churches and church leaders, who provide mediation for minor disputes, or youth gangs that provide protective services in rural areas. Additionally, within certain indigenous communities that populate the Atlantic coast, customary indigenous law prevails. Recently it has been reported that it has become increasingly common for Nicaraguans in communities underserved by police to purchase firearms to take the law into their own hands (although this is contested by police).
The vast majority of Nicaraguans report feeling safe in their neighborhoods, due to a perception of police being grounded in their communities. However, trust in police has fallen in recent years (as of 2020), after a 2014 motion in which police control was turned over to the president. Despite a generally positive perception of physical security, robberies of homes and businesses pose a problem, as well as increasing levels of drug use. While women experience unwanted sexual attention on the streets (verbal taunts, gestures, or actions) there are relatively few violent crimes against women reported (rape, physical assault, armed assault, etc.). Other criminal concerns revolve around drug and human trafficking, as well as money laundering.
However, the top insecurities that Nicaraguans face are economic in nature (with rural Nicaraguans reporting the highest levels of insecurity): poverty, high food prices, and unemployment. Although poverty levels in Nicaragua decreased significantly in the 90’s, overall poverty rates have increased in the 21st century, partially as a result of population growth, natural disasters and the distortion of commodity prices in the international market. Along the Atlantic coast there have been increased instances of violent “land grabbing” from indigenous and afro-descended communities by internal migrants. Additionally, drug cartels from other Central American countries have tried to gain a foothold in the region to aid in the trafficking of narcotics.
Following changes made to the National Security Policy of Nicaragua and moves by the president to recentralize power under the Sandinista political party, public demonstrations have increasingly been repressed. In 2018, protests that began over pension reforms and a lack of sufficient government response to forest fires are estimated to have left over 300 dead. The police and members of the Sandinista political party are reported to have carried out a series of unlawful arrests and detentions of members of the political opposition, including protesting students. In general, Nicaraguan security is decreasing, and a rising percentage feel that the police are not doing their job correctly.
After the Sandinista revolution in 1979, the Sandinista Police was established, and throughout the 1980’s was tasked with preventing crime and counter-revolutionary activities with a strong foundation of participation from the public. In the 1980’s, the National Police implemented the concept of public security as its principal doctrine, establishing the ideals of policing as being communitarian, proactive and preventative. This was accompanied by improvements in human resources, training, candidate selection, and gender equity.
As such, the National Police have had several structural initiatives oriented towards strengthening ties between police and the community through broad channels of communication and service. Among these were the creation of Family assemblies (formerly Committees for Citizen Power), which served as points of articulation between police and families, and appointments of jefes de sector (heads of sector), who served as specialists in public neighborhood security. Increased rural and municipal coverage, judicial assistance, policies for the prevention of youth violence, and the creation of Mother and Child stations provided integrated attention to victims and survivors of intra-family and sexual violence. Additionally, the police have sought for the institutionalization of gender awareness in police policies and practices to provide better symmetry in relations between women and men within the police, and the articulation of an increased role for women in police work. For more information about COP in Nicaragua, as well as current challenges to its model, read this article.
The Nicaraguan National Police has received funding assistance from the EU and other actors on projects that aim to prevent drugs, crime, and violence, and exchange experience between Nicaraguan and other national police forces. Although information technologies are important to Nicaraguan police, their strategy for Preventative Community Policing relies mostly on “social technologies”. This includes broad channels of communication through community assemblies and direct door-to-door visits with residents. Another relevant committee is the Social Prevention of Crime Committees, with 40,000 members and 143 Cabinets of Citizen Power, which organize assemblies, work with public and private institutions to find solutions to security problems and collaborate on plans to prevent crime. These fluid links allow the community and police to cultivate a close, trusting, and effective relationship, although the changing security context in the country under the Ortega presidency suggests that this may be coming under increasing strain.