How a grandmother and aspiring nun became Nicaragua's top cop
National Police Chief Aminta Granera, who once trained to be a Catholic nun, is Nicaragua's most popular public figure, thanks in part to her department's success in fighting organized crime.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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 Ms. 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 Mr. 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-US 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 US-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."