Countering Militarised Public Security in Latin America: Lessons from Nicaragua

In our two-part discussion ‘Countering Militarised Public Security in Latin America’,  Sarah Kinosian and Matt Budd explore the roots of the increasing trend towards militarisation of  public security across Central and South America and ask what lessons can be learnt from alternative methods. Part 1 is available here.

Armed forces being transported in Mexico, where they are being used to fight the 'war on drugs'. Source: The Daily Gumboot

Armed forces being transported in Mexico, where they are being used to fight the ‘war on drugs’.
Source: The Daily Gumboot

Over the past decade there has been a sharp and sustained increase in crime and violence across Central America. Fuelled by a rise in organised crime, the growth and expansion of domestic gangs, poor socioeconomic conditions and State institutions lacking in terms of their capacity and territorial coverage, crime and violence have rocketed. Homicide rates, taken as the main measure of insecurity in public debates in the region, have soared. In the Northern Triangle, where socioeconomic conditions and institutional capabilities are generally worse, a figure of 85.5 per 100,000 inhabitants makes Honduras the most dangerous country in the world, whilst figures of 34.3 and 41.5 for Guatemala and El Salvador place them within the upper echelons.

In response to public and media pressure, there has been a notable tendency to resort to militarised responses focused on reactionary and repressive policies that seek immediate short-term results. This is particularly true of the Northern Triangle countries, which have an established history of involving the military in public security tasks. In El Salvador, following the ‘New Dawn’ campaign (Campaña Nuevo Amanecer), initiated in 2009 to reinforce security in response to the high incidence of crime, 39% of the Armed Forces are currently involved in public security tasks. This involves, for example, their collaboration in patrols to increase security in border areas and unofficial border crossings, the provision of perimeter security in penitentiary centres, and task forces that carry out patrols, apprehensions and joint operations with the national police. In Guatemala, the assistance, collaboration and coordination of the Armed Forces in public security has been further institutionalised through the Protocol for Inter-institutional Action, which regulates these activities. This approach is perhaps best epitomised, however, by the case of Honduras. Characterising a lack of political will to fully engage in the long and difficult task of reforming and developing existing police institutions, Honduras has placed its military at the centre of public security, and, with the recent creation of the Military Police of Public Order, located within the Ministry of Defence, a permanent policing role has effectively been handed to the institution. As such, prevention and reconciliation often take a back seat behind reactive and militarised approaches.

A better way?
Nicaragua National Police

Nicaragua National Police
Source: Insight crime

While Nicaragua does not depart from this pattern of engaging the Armed Forces in public security tasks[1], the government has simultaneously invested in the long term development of a policing model that stands out due to its grass roots focus on prevention, and for the results it has achieved as a consequence (in 2010, in Panama, it was pronounced as the best in the region by a panel of public security experts). Closely linked to the Sandinista Revolution out of which it grew, Nicaragua’s community policing model has developed through a process of continual reform in the light of the identification of good police practice. As such, what began as a routine focus on community relations has since developed into a model characterised by broad and deep relations between the community and the police. These permeate not only the actions of individual police officers, but also guide the structure, organisation, deployment and entire philosophy of the institution. This is combined with a proactive focus on attention, which involves the continual identification of social factors driving crime and insecurity combined with the constant evaluation of police competencies to respond to them. By monitoring the relationship between security phenomena and police competences in an anticipated rather than reactive fashion, it allows for a concerted analysis, and response to, the conditions and circumstances that are driving crime and insecurity.

The decentralised approach of the Nicaraguan National Police (PNN) is one of the keys to its success. It places emphasis on the local drivers and manifestations of both local and national security challenges. It does this by establishing broad and permanent channels of communication with the community, both through participation in community assemblies and maintaining direct links with local residents. One such example is the use of heads of sectors specialised in public security. They are police that are located in a particular territorial area, and their functions include cultivating close community ties through activities such as frequent door-to-door visits to speak to local residents.

Similarly, the Social Prevention of Crime Committees, which are made up of 40,000 members, and the Cabinets of Citizen Power, which number 143 across the country, also provide a direct link with the community. Amongst their functions, they organise assemblies, work with local public and private institutions to find solutions to security problems, and collaborate on working plans to prevent crime.  These fluid links with the community allow the police to cultivate a close and trusting relationship with them, gain an understanding of the security perceptions of local residents and actors, and extract useful information regarding crimes, particularly regarding drugs, robberies and violence between groups of youths. Community policing therefore provides police with a specialised knowledge of the local situation and the drivers of insecurity.

Tackling social drivers of crime

On patrol in the community
Source: Policía Nacional de Nicaragua

The prevention of crime requires targeting the social conditions that cause it and instead, cultivating conditions which reduce it. In order to achieve this, the PNN has created specialist bodies that focus on two major causes of insecurity: youth violence and intra-family or sexual violence (20% of crimes).

Specialised Police Stations for Women and Children were created as specialist units for prevention and attention to victims of intra-family, psychological or sexual violence. To combat these problems, attention is focused on the particular drivers of these forms of violence: the economic and social vulnerability of women and children, the attitudes of males in the community, and the lack of comprehensive victim support, which contributes to an unwillingness to denounce such crimes. Work is therefore carried out in a 3 stage response:

1)      Transformation of the local environment, using education and training in detection and response to increase awareness of the problems and how to report them;

2)      comprehensive victim support, through a leading role in coordinating with NGOs, health centres, shelters for victims, state institutions etc,  in the provision of health, psychological and legal support, in addition to the investigation and prosecution of crimes;

3)      and empowerment of women and children through vocational training and education.

By combining an understanding of local conditions driving insecurity with an integral response to them, the Police are better placed not only to respond to manifestations of intra-family violence, but to also reduce occurrences through preventive measures.

The Directorate of Youth Affairs uses the same logic in its attention to at-risk youth, those with established links to gangs, or those who have previously been incarcerated. Through a highly personal and humanistic approach, it seeks to change the attitudes and values of these young people, increase their bonds with the local community, and create opportunities for them to reintegrate into society. Recipients begin by making a commitment to change and handing over any weapons they possess, with social and psychological support applied within the family environment to deal with personal issues, such as low self-esteem or personal identity. Training and education programmes are provided through private and public scholarships, as well as through the National Police’s Centre of Youth Training and Development, through which they gain skills to assist them in finding employment, and that contribute to the development of their community. Recipients also engage in community leisure and social activities and are assisted in finding work as part of their social reintegration. As a result, the number of gangs recorded in Managua has decreased from over 200 to approximately 20, according to the PNN, with a total of 42 gangs registered across the country in February 2012, and reductions in gang-related crime have been registered in neighbourhoods such as Bello Amanecer. By engaging in prevention programmes that focus on those conditions that drive youth into gangs and violence, and by coordinating these programmes within the family and community environment, the PNN has developed a model that seeks to reduce crime and insecurity in a sustainable and long term manner.

Lessons to guide police reform in Latin America

Whilst the contextual origins of the model and the particularities unique to each country would make attempts to duplicate the model in the region futile, the Nicaraguan model provides a number of clear lessons that can be extracted. At the foundation of each of these lessons is the community-police relationship, which has come to permeate throughout the institution and its programmes. It acts as a tool to both gain an understanding of the underlying drivers of insecurity and to provide a comprehensive response to them, through a combination of preventive strategies and comprehensive victim attention programmes. While the efficacy of involving special military units to target particular security challenges should not be negated, the benefits of a police force with strong community roots and a community policing philosophy are clear. For lasting gains to be made, these lessons, together with those to be extracted from other successful experiences in the region, should underpin reform processes.

Matt Budd is a security analyst at RESDAL (Red de Seguridad y Defensa de America Latina – Latin American Security and Defense Network) in Buenos Aires, where he focuses on public security issues in Central America. Matt holds an honours degree in International Relations from the London School of Economics. Matt has most recently been working on RESDAL’s  Public Security Index, which provides information on public security challenges and institutional responses to them in Central America.

[1] The Armed Forces of Nicaragua engage in a range of public security tasks, including rural security, border security, protection of the coffee harvest, and tasks against organised crime and drug trafficking.

Featured Image:  Policeman consulting with a member of the local community in Managua, Nicaragua. Source:  John Holman, YouTube