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, both of which 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 this month won a new five-year presidential term.
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.
During the Sandinista government, she worked under hard-liner 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.
“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 units to deal with domestic violence against women and crimes against children. She 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.