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Democracy, Transition and the rule of law: The case of the Nicaraguan Police

Jan Wörlein
Freie Universität Berlin
Jan Wörlein
Freie Universität Berlin
Open Panel

Abstract

The Central American state has often been described as a precarious actor with limited capacities. Especially the state of Nicaragua faced multiple transformations since the 1970s which constantly rearranged its institutional setting. Impunity and a selective rule of law accompanied the changes of the political environment. Nevertheless, the transition of the Nicaraguan state from an authoritarian to a revolutionary regime in 1979 also produced an autonomous law enforcement institution: La Policía Sandinista. As Policía Nacional, it survived not only the election defeat of its Sandinista founders and the transformation of Nicaragua into a liberal democracy, but maintained its organizational structure during the kleptocratic Aleman government in the mid-1990s and the regain of power of Sandinista president Ortega in 2006. In a region where police forces are perceived mostly as a threat, the Policía Nacional managed to be the most trusted public institution in Nicaragua for years. However, for the last two years, symptoms of organizational erosion and partiality have emerged. This paper inquires the reasons for the enduring stability of this institution in the light of the continuing transformations of the Nicaraguan state as well as its current decay. The Nicaraguan Police will be conceptualized as a societal agent that has been relatively autonomous from a changing political class. The creation of the institution out of a popular movement resulted in an institutional structure rooted in civil society. Furthermore, the transition of the 1990s initiated a process of adaption in the course of which the Policía Nacional acted as a mediator between different social groups, thereby profiting from exceptional low crime rates and the strong cohesion of Nicaraguan society. Following the increasing polarization of post-liberal Nicaraguan society under a new Sandinista government, the once professionalized agency is now open for the increasing exertion of influence by the ruling elite. The case of the Nicaraguan police therefore exemplifies the conditions under which a law enforcement institution can guarantee its integrity under different political regimes.