JAIME CUADRA is a man with a nearly impossible mission. As the Ministry of Government's representative in Matagalpa, the rancher's job is to supervise the local Sandinista police force, converting it into an independent institution. As a former campaign director for the National Opposition Union (UNO) coalition that defeated the Sandinistas in last February's elections, Mr. Cuadra is not exactly popular in his new role.
The delegate's precarious position was driven home in October, when a bomb exploded in Cuadra's garage, blowing out a bedroom wall. Though no one has been charged, the crime is widely attributed to Sandinista militants.
``This bomb wasn't to scare me, it was to kill me,'' says Cuadra, who has since hired two bodyguards. ``There's no doubt in my mind that it was the Sandinistas.''
Eight months after assuming office, President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro remains constrained by a police corps largely loyal to the opposition. Her efforts to restructure and retrain the force are hamstrung by small budgets, political opposition, and a legacy of Sandinista control.
Sandinista influence in the police, coupled with an Army equipped and trained by the opposition, has deeply undercut Mrs. Chamorro's ability to govern, making her reliant on the Sandinistas, according to many observers here.
``This administration cannot survive without the Sandinistas. After all, how can you be tough if you don't have the Army or the police?'' asks a Latin American diplomat. Adds Roberto Ferrey, director of the government agency in charge of resettling the contra rebels: ``This government doesn't control the armed forces, so it has no power to implement its policies. And the police have acted worse than the Army.''
Chamorro has tried to restructure the nation's 5,000-member police force, changing the name of the Ministry of the Interior to the Ministry of Government and appointing an engineer, Carlos Hurtado, to replace Sandinista hard-liner Tom'as Borge Mart'inez. Under Mr. Borge, the Interior Ministry housed one of the region's most extensive spy networks. The Sandinista security apparatus has since been eliminated and many of its employees transferred to the Army.
But many of Borge's lieutenants remain. Top Borge aide Ren'e Vivas is chief of police. Lenin Cerna, former head of the security apparatus, has a post in the Army. Of 12,000 Ministry of Government employees, only 500 are appointees of the new government, Mr. Hurtado says.
A transition agreement signed with the Sandinistas last March prohibits the government from firing officers of either the Army or police. Budget constraints have also hampered restructuring efforts. Although Hurtado changed the name of the corps to the National Police, policemen continue to bear the Sandinista Police emblem on their shoulders. Most people here continue to refer to the force as the ``Sandinista'' police.
``I wanted to change the uniforms in the first few months, but we haven't had the money,'' says the minister in an interview.
Old loyalties linger
Policemen queried about their loyalties insist they are behaving properly. ``The police are acting in a professional manner,'' says Enrique Ra'ul Lara, a Matagalpa policeman. ``All Nicaraguans who commit crimes are submitted to the same procedures.''
Hurtado says he believes seven months of retraining have changed attitudes in the police force. ``I feel I can count on them now,'' says the minister.
Yet to all appearances, the institution remains a Sandinista force.
``When there are illegal takeovers of land, I ask the police to act, and they go to the location and watch, but they don't do anything else,'' says Frank Lanzas, the UNO mayor in Matagalpa. ``There are certain members of the police who simply don't understand that this is a democratic government now.''
The recalcitrance of police has made the Chamorro government highly dependent on the goodwill of Gen. Humberto Ortega Saavedra, brother of former president Daniel Ortega Saavedra, who remained head of the Army in a controversial decision Chamorro made before taking office.
It was the Army to whom the government turned to clear street barricades during a violent strike by Sandinista workers in July. ``With the lack of compliance by the police, Humberto's loyalty becomes that much more important,'' says a foreign diplomat.
Such issues are particularly explosive in the former war zones of the countryside, where many people sympathized with the contra rebels and anti-Sandinista sentiment remains strong. In these areas, the Sandinista police emblem has come to symbolize government complicity with a highly-unpopular opposition.
Resentment toward police in these regions has erupted in violence in recent months. Many casualties have been policemen. According to the government, seven policemen have died and 25 have been wounded since September.
Rural violence grows
One of the biggest clashes involving local animosity toward police disrupted Nicaragua's southern Region V in November, when demonstrators blocked 100 miles of the critical Rama highway for nearly two weeks.
``The dispute in Region V was never about land. It was about the police,'' says Mr. Ferrey. ``The problem with the police force is that it was a body formed to repress people.''
Chief among local complaints is the continued presence of members of the former Sandinista security apparatus.
``The chief of police here is the same guy who was the head of state security under the Sandinistas,'' complained UNO supporter Efrain Rodr'iguez, as he stood by a street barricade outside of Juigalpa during last month's crisis. ``Nothing has changed.''
Such sentiments have forced the government to substitute Sandinista police units in areas of conflict with forces comprised of former contra rebels. About 330 ex-contra police now operate in various parts of Nicaragua. In towns like Waslala, they have completely replaced the Sandinista police. Such replacements have resulted in the curious spectacle of two distinct police forces patrolling the same country.
It is members of the ex-contra police force who stand guard at the gate outside Jaime Cuadra's house in Matagalpa, a fact that does not sit well with some of their colleagues down the street.
``Radicals in the UNO like Jaime Cuadra want to substitute us with the ex-contra police so they can protect their own interests. They're not interested in protecting the people,'' says Mr. Lara, the policeman.
A few steps away, a young policeman ponders the Sandinista emblem on his shoulder and the Sandinista Police sign above his head, which still marks the Matagalpa police station.
``Look, we're a professional force and we follow the orders of whatever government is in power,'' says the young man, who refuses to give his name. ``But you can't forget things overnight. We had 11 years of war here. To forget everything just like that would be like forgetting that you ever had a wife.''