I've had limited interactions with the police of Nicaragua in the last year and a half (thank goodness?) but each interaction has been totally different and inconsistent, so that I feel they can be used to paint a picture of the law enforcement situation here in the country.
The problem, as with other sectors such as education (which I'll discuss in a future post), lies in several areas that I've identified and possibly others that I am not yet aware of. I am not a researcher, so please be aware that the problems I'm identifying are based on anecdotal evidence more than anything else.
For starters, public servants in Nicaragua still make the kind of money that reeks of leftover communism. Which is to say, very, very little. Police are some of the lowest paid formal jobs in the country. Which means often people who feel they have very few other options or opportunities (say, are unable to or uninterested in going to school for any reason) are the ones choosing this career. Which is not in and of itself a problem, but becomes one when you realize that the police force is very largely un- or under-educated.
Additionally, that whole not being paid well thing? Ya it leads to corruption, naturally. And apathy, and generally a lessened desire to do your job. We all know what it feels like to be underpaid for a difficult job, amiright? Long term, it's extremely demotivating. And lastly, since effectiveness and efficiency go largely un-emphasized and un-enforced in Nicaragua, the police force as a whole can be counted as lacking both of those things and more. Stick around to read my personal, anecdotal evidence, to support the claims I've just made...or hop straight to the comments if you'd like and tell me your thoughts. But you know, preferably the first option ;-)
My first police encounter
"What? What's going on? Why are we being pulled over?"
"It's just the police, Cynthia. Normal stuff."
"I get that but like, were we speeding?"
"Does it matter?"
"Um, yes? No? I don't know? Yes!?"
We pull over and the police officer comes up to the window, asks for some things - I understand the idea...paperwork. Duh - then mentions something I don't catch, takes the paperwork and walks away.
"Do either of you have a bit of cash on you?"
"CASH? (me again). For the police? Are we getting a ticket?"
"Cynthia do you have a bit of cash or not?"
"Uh ya, how much do you need?"
"100 cordobas (four dollars) should be good"
The police officer returns and as he hands the paperwork back through the window, a tight, folded 100 cordoba bill is placed into his hand underneath the paperwork. He's told we'd like to buy him lunch. It's hard out there, as a police officer. He says great, stashes it in his pocket, and puts away the yellow ticket pad he carried with him upon his return to the vehicle.
We roll up the windows and drive on.
"So, um, can someone explain this to me? I don't really get what just happened."
"What do you think just happened? We gave the police officer some money so he'd leave us be."
"But why? And how do you know how much to give him? And will this always work or just sometimes? Could you get in trouble for doing this? What if I did it (as a foreigner)? Would I get in trouble? Were we even doing anything wrong? I DON'T UNDERSTAND!" "Cynthia! Do you honestly not know how to deal with this stuff? What do you do in Canada when a cop pulls you over?" "Um, try to be nice, ask why the heck they pulled me over, and try to talk my way out of a ticket (always unsuccessfully)." "Oh right. You neeevvveerrr offer them a few bucks?" "UM NO. That's a huge, serious crime in Canada. I could go to jail for doing that!" "What? For real? Are you being serious? You guys don't give the cops money there?" "No! This is what I'm telling you! I don't understand this process. I need some explanation. I don't want to go to a Nicaraguan jail, you guys. Fer realz." "Oh. So it's not normal for you? HUH. Well. Ok, so here's how it works..."
And that, my friends, is how I learned that in Nicaragua the police can almost always be bribed, and that in fact it should almost always be your first line of defense. Just don't be obvious about it.
As I mentioned, the police in Nicaragua are some of the lowest paid and least educated public servants and so they feel it is their right to stop people at random and request "lunch money". You heard me. Near Christmas when spending goes up and citizens also receive an extra pay cheque, the police stops likewise increase. However strange or even alarming this may seem to some of you, I feel it bears mentioning that this can really work to your advantage.
For example, if you actually are caught without a seat belt or passing where you shouldn't be, the fines can be steep and they can take your license and keep it until you pay the fine...which can be a real hassle if you happen to get pulled over in a different part of the country from where you live. Fortunately, the majority of the police officers will take a bribe (because it's less paperwork for them as well) and so you can just "buy them lunch" and carry on your merry way. Have I had this happen to me personally while driving? No. Literally not ever. They don't want me in on their business and I don't want in on it. So that works out nicely for all of us :) But it has happened to a foreigner friend on numerous occasions, and so it's not impossible or even particularly unlikely. I've probably just gotten lucky.
Update: This DID happen, and I was able to talk myself out of losing my license (temporarily) and paying a $25 fine to just paying $5 to the policeman who pulled me over. So it happens, and it also works. Sometimes.
Unfortunately the part I mentioned above about them being poorly paid and under-educated? That also means that in an accident or crisis or domestic situation they are commonly unhelpful. Sometimes even detrimental, if you think about it...
Story of an accident
When Sebas and I witnessed and were run off the road by a collision (drunk moto driver, sober van driver), the police were extremely slow to respond. Furthermore, two off-duty police who happened to pass by stopped to see what was happening but in fact offered zero assistance. Neither of them thought to put up some form of road block so that traffic would slow down and go around the scene, neither of them knew how to help the victims lying bleeding on the side of the road, and neither of them asked witnesses to stick around to give statements. In fact, it was all the passersby who took care of all of these things without the help of the police, and some of whom (including us) had already done our part and left before the police even arrived.
Another time, another motorbike accident, and this time the man flung from his bike literally laid in the gutter bleeding from the ear while many people tried calling police, ambulance, AND fire and no one - BUT NO ONE - came for 45 minutes. We were smack dab in the middle of two towns, both with ambulances, both no more than a ten minute drive away at normal speeds. When eventually cops (that's right, still no ambulance) did arrive, they made the man bleeding from the head and thrown from a motorbike sit up (without checking or stabilizing him), then told him to walk to the cop car where they put him in the backseat and drove him to the nearest hospital. And this is what passed for adequate emergency services that night.
When our house got robbed
When our house was robbed with my housemate inside of it, the cops did come this time. About twenty minutes after the assailant had fled with my housemate's iPhone in hand. But they arrived, asked some questions, and told her to submit a police report the next day. This seems strange to me, personally, and I can't help but feel it's just a matter of passing the buck because they didn't want to deal with it themselves.
However we did as told and went down to the police station and filed a report. And, lo and behold, the police actually came by the house a few hours later to take photos, ask for clarifications, and have the situation re-enacted. At this point it had been over 24 hours since the robbery so I'm not sure it was useful for any reason at all...? But we did at least feel they were taking it somewhat seriously the second time around. Unfortunately, later that night pictures of both the inside AND outside of our house appeared on the news, without our permission, and every person in the city learned a couple of foreigners lived in our house. So the lesson we learned there was...don't tell the police stuff because they will actually put us at MORE risk. Are you starting to see what I'm saying?
I was going to post this blog last week and didn't get around to it...and how interesting that I didn't. Because I had another experience with the police!
robbed at gunpoint in the street
Two of my friends were robbed at gunpoint just outside of my home on Saturday. Don't worry - minimal important items were lost and they were both okay, though obviously quite shaken. They ran back to my house and spent the night and we got bank cards cancelled before anything could be used. Also, after the enormous stress of the moment, they think the gun had been 'just' a bebe gun...still, I KNOW, scary. Well the point of this story is that we called the police. And they asked literally where it took place and the colour of the motorcycle and said they would come patrol the area. We never saw them, they never came to the house, and as far as I can tell, it was forgotten just as soon as we hung up the telephone. I swear on my life - the bank asked my friend more questions about the incident when we called to cancel cards than the police did.
So ya, it definitely has its' drawbacks to have an under-educated, under-paid, and uninterested police force. But at least they're not super corrupt in the really bad ways of some other countries' police forces?... Right? ....Guys? :/