MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Even as drug gangs are taking control of wide swaths of other Central American countries, a gentle and unassuming 60-year-old grandmother appears to have held them off as national police chief of Nicaragua.
Opinion polls routinely find that Chief Aminta Granera, who once trained to be a Catholic nun, is the country's most popular public figure, by a big margin, and her numbers in the battle against organized crime are just as impressive: In the five years that she's been chief, police under her command have seized 50 tons of cocaine, $25 million in cash, 1,200 weapons, 1,400 vehicles, 180 boats, 18 aircraft and 128 properties.
Many of her countrymen view Granera as honest, fair and incorruptible — qualities sometimes seen in short supply among security officials in the region.
"We are the smallest police force in Central America, with the lowest salaries, but with the best results of any in the region," Granera said in an interview.
Granera has been a cop since 1979, when the Sandinistas swept into power. But it was the center-right predecessor to Sandinista President Daniel Ortega who named Granera to the top police job, and her often-rocky relationship with Ortega is one reason for her popularity. Many see her as a counterweight to Ortega in this country of 5.8 million people.
Ortega has worked to reassert control over Nicaragua's police and armed forces, which both were organs of the leftist Sandinista Front when it ruled from 1979 to 1990 but became nonpartisan institutions after the Sandinistas were voted out in 1990. Granera has remained at the helm, however, winning reappointment to the post from Ortega, who returned to power in early 2007 and last week won a new five-year presidential term in a landslide triumph.
An April 2009 State Department cable made public earlier this year by WikiLeaks described how an agitated Granera pulled the then-U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua aside at a public event and told him that Ortega was "completely crazy." She said Ortega believed she was part of a plot by "old nuns" praying for his assassination, it added.
The cable said Ortega might be keeping Granera in her post as a tactic "to minimize the chances of her emerging as a potent political rival."
Granera seems like an unlikely foe — for both Ortega and criminals.
Barely five feet tall and slightly built, Granera wears rimless glasses and smiles easily. She keeps a large crucifix on the wall behind her desk.
A product of a wealthy family in the colonial city of Leon, Granera attended Georgetown University in Washington for two years before deciding to become a nun. She went to Ecuador, then to the convent of the Sisters of the Assumption in Guatemala City to begin her novitiate.
When revolt brewed in Central America in the mid-1970s, relatives who'd joined the uprising against Nicaragua's U.S.-backed dictator urged her return.
Granera said she prayed and fasted for a month, then abandoned her religious training to join the armed struggle, serving as a courier and organizer for the Sandinistas.
The first of her three children was conceived as the uprising gained momentum, and she recalled traveling by rebel aircraft to Leon for delivery.
"A Caesarean was done, and I gave the infant to my mother," she said. "With the stitches still fresh, I returned to the front. These are experiences that mark one for life."
During the Sandinista government, she worked under hardliner Tomas Borge in the Interior Ministry, becoming his chief of staff.
The Sandinistas' 1990 electoral rout presented her with a dilemma.
"This was a big jolt to all of us. We were there as part of a revolutionary process. We all asked ourselves, 'What good will it do to stay?'" Granera said.
Then Granera recalled watching newscasts of security forces killing looters and rioters during a wave of protests in 1989 over pro-market reforms in Venezuela that left hundreds of people dead.
"When I saw this on television, I thought, 'I'm not handing my rifle over to someone who will use it against my people,'" Granera said. So she remained.
In the 1990s, Granera helped establish special units to deal with domestic violence against women and crimes against children. She also launched a campaign against police extracting bribes from drivers. She rose steadily through the ranks of a police force that had jettisoned the red-and-black Sandinista colors for sky-blue uniform shirts. Forty percent of the 12,000-member force is female.
"When we are in the streets, we don't ask, 'What party do you belong to?' before we investigate a crime," she said. "Security is a right of the richest to the poorest, of everyone from the ultra right to the ultra left."
Not everyone agrees that the police are nonpartisan. Opponents of Ortega say the police rarely intervene when pro-Ortega forces take to the streets.
"The police are more controlled by Ortega than at any time in recent years," said Luis Carrion, a former leader of the Marxist "proletariat" faction of the Sandinista Front (to which Granera also belonged) who is now a bitter political opponent of Ortega.
In a grand about-face, ending years of friction with Granera, Ortega named her to a new term as police chief on Sept. 5, arrogating powers of reappointment that existing laws do not give him.
"I think she's been co-opted," said Henry Ruiz, another former Sandinista leader who has broken with Ortega. "When she was handed the commander's baton, she should have said, 'Stop right there. The law doesn't permit me to take it again.'"
Granera shied away from questions about her detente with Ortega, refusing to say what transpired, noting only that Ortega is her direct superior. She relaxed visibly as the interview returned to why Nicaragua has evaded the organized crime wave washing over Honduras and Guatemala.
She cited a list of reasons, including vast community policing efforts that draw in university students, a lack of youth gangs, and centralized control of crime data.
U.S. diplomats laud the effectiveness of the Nicaraguan navy in fighting drugs but are less positive about the police, noting an incident two years ago when a U.S.-supported and -vetted police counter-drug unit was suddenly disbanded.
"They came up with some lame justification for it," then-Ambassador Robert J. Callahan said. "We were furious about it and so was the (Drug Enforcement Administration) in Washington."
Granera said the level of police drug seizures speaks for itself.
Asked about her public support, she reached for a survey from October by M&R Consultancy of the popularity rankings of 26 prominent Nicaraguans. As she has for years, she sat atop the list — with an 87 percent approval rating.
Then, putting a brake on her immodesty, she invoked a phrase from the bullring: "The greatest danger for the bullfighter isn't the bull. It's the applause."
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