MANAGUA, May 25 (UPI) -- The Nicaraguan police force has won international praise in recent years for bringing crime down to some of the lowest levels in Latin America. But with officers accused of killing dozens of protesters last month, it's become one of the most hated groups in the country.
During the week of April 19, people across Nicaragua took to the streets to protest the government's plan to increase social security taxes and cut benefits. Police attempted to quell the protests. Emotions flared and bullets were fired, resulting in 76 deaths and 868 injuries, according to a report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued Monday. Most of the dead were protesters or protest supporters; police and civilian groups associated with the police were blamed for the killings.
'Their objective is repression'
Police are called "asesinos" (murderers) on social media and street graffiti. In political cartoons, they're depicted as dirty dogs owned by President Daniel Ortega. Police are the first to be blamed for various killings and attacks that have happened since the April clashes, including an attack on university students on Saturday, which ended a truce between the government and protesters to end roadblocks.
A widely shared video of the incident doesn't make clear if the attackers were police; a police official vehemently denied the force's involvement. But many people in Nicaragua assume only the police or people associated with the police would carry out such deeds.
"You can't trust anyone in a uniform," said Wyman Bacon, a resident of Managua who has been documenting the protests. "The people don't trust them anymore."
"Their objective is repression," said a university student protester who asked not to be named. "They're there to attack and oppress us anyway they can -- bullets, bombs, whatever."
Not everybody holds that view.
Lenard Gonzalez, a 50-year-old taxi driver in Managua, says it's the protesters, comprised of many university students, who are to blame for the April killings.
"The students are causing problems when they attack the police. So how can you blame the police for defending themselves? If the students don't attack the police, the police don't have to defend themselves," Gonzalez said.
At a rally coordinated by Ortega's ruling Sandinista Party on Tuesday, hundreds of supporters waved the party's red-and-black flag next to others waving the country's blue-and-white flag as a preacher asked God to protect Nicaragua and its police force.
"We want peace for all Nicaraguans," he said.
There are also widespread rumors that many police officers have quit the force over demands made of them during the April protests. These can't be substantiated, but they do indicate a common feeling among many Nicaraguans, which is that the police force has been used as a political apparatus by the government.
"What Ortega did was blur the line between his government and the police," said Elvira Cuadra, a sociologist and former police officer who studies policing methods. "It used to be a professional organization. But he turned it into a political organization."
International praise masked internal problems
The anger toward police in Nicaragua is in stark contrast to the force's reputation around the world.
Over the last five years, the Nicaraguan police force's model of community policing has been studied by American university students and praised in national magazines. A 2016 USAID-funded study found, out of 26 countries in the Americas, including the United States and Canada, Nicaraguans had the eighth-highest confidence in their police force. That same year, Nicaragua Police Chief Aminta Granera, an Ortega appointee, spoke about her country's policing methods at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington, D.C., which described Nicaragua as a "sea of calm."
"The Ortega government has been very good at creating a positive image of the country and the national police force," Cuadra said. "But in reality, they've been destroying the police force."
Cuadra said the community policing efforts that have won praise from international observers began in the 1990s, after Ortega's first stint as president.
That doesn't mean that police weren't used to squash political protests back then. In 1993, police under the direction of then-President Violeta Chamorro confronted striking transportation workers demanding better pay, resulting in at least two deaths, including a police officer.
Ortega, then the opposition leader in Nicaraguan politics, led those protests.
Cuadra said that there was a greater separation between the police and national government that led people to have more confidence in the police. In 1996, the law was changed so that the police force was separated from the presidency by being placed under another government branch.
When Ortega returned to the presidency in 2006, he inherited a polished police force. Over the next few years, despite scant resources from a government of one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, the police helped push the crime rate down as next-door nations El Salvador and Honduras saw their murder rates rise to near the top of the world.
After Ortega's 2013 re-election, he changed the national police law back to the way it used to be -- with him in charge. The 2014 "Law of Organization, Functions, Career, and Special Regimen of Security of the National Police" made him the "supreme chief" of the national police, granting him unlimited power over the force.
This was followed by a series of incidents in which the police used deadly force in political protests.
Six months after the national police law was changed, people protesting the government's plan to build a canal through the country blocked the Pan-American Highway. Police injured 40 people as they broke up the protest.
In October 2015, Nicaraguan miners at a gold mine owned by Canadian-owned B2Gold Corp. protested the company's union-busting efforts. Police were sent in to break up that protest, resulting in injuries to 23 miners and the death of a police officer.
Other examples include police using violence to break up protests in 2015 against Ortega's plan to change election laws to allow him to run for a third term and several more protests against the building of the canal.
These events gave credence to the idea that the police force wasn't working for the people as much as it was working for the government. When more than 70 protesters were killed in April in one of the most violent events in Nicaragua since the 1980s -- when the United States armed and funded anti-government groups -- that idea became a reality for many people.
"The country changed after that," Bacon said. "The government crossed the line and showed this was a different place."