MANAGUA, Nicaragua -- Acting amid growing U.S. pressure, the Nicaraguan government removed 12 top officers from the Sandinista-run police force yesterday but came under immediate FTC fire for its choice for new national police chief.
An outspoken Roman Catholic bishop once sent into exile by incoming Police Chief Fernando Caldera called him a "dogmatic" Sandinista with a "totalitarian ideology."
President Violeta Chamorro said the police shake-up was part of a drive to make the 6,600-member force less partisan and more professional.
The police changes followed increasing U.S. demands that Mrs. Chamorro reduce the strong influence the leftist Sandinistas retain on her government despite their election loss in February 1990.
The removal of Police Chief Rene Vivas, a veteran Sandinista, was one of a series of conditions imposed by the U.S. State Department for the freeing of more than $100 million in U.S. aid, critical to the Nicaraguan economy.
While Sandinistas voiced pleasure that Mrs. Chamorro had resisted more far-reaching reforms to obtain the aid, critics on the right said they were deeply dissatisfied.
"With these changes . . . instead of going forward, we are going backward," said Mateo Guerrero, head of a U.S.-financed human rights group. It would have been better to keep Mr. Vivas as chief than name Mr. Caldera, who has committed "many atrocities," Mr. Guerrero said.
"What they have done is taken out one thug and put in an even bigger thug," said Deborah De Moss, a U.S. Senate staff member and aide to Sen. Jesse Helms, the North Carolina Republican behind the hold on U.S. aid to Nicaragua.
At a news conference, Mr. Caldera was asked several times about charges that he had abused human rights as police commander of southeastern Nicaragua during the war.
"I am not a human rights violator. My conscience is completely at ease," he said.
Interior Minister Alfredo Mendieta, responding to concerns about Mr. Caldera's record, suggested that "Nicaragua needs to leave the war behind."
He said authorities looking into Mr. Caldera's background determined that whatever happened "came in the context of a war . . . where certain situations can get out of control, even of the chiefs."
Earlier, in a telephone interview from the southeastern city of Juigalpa, Catholic Bishop Pablo Antonio Vega said he was expelled from the country by Mr. Caldera July 4, 1986, because of his outspoken criticism of the Sandinistas. Bishop Vega was taken by helicopter to the border with Honduras.
At the time, Mr. Caldera was regional police commander for much of eastern Nicaragua.
Mr. Mendieta said the police force would maintain "absolute political neutrality" under Mr. Caldera.
In addition to naming Mr. Caldera, the government created a new post of deputy interior minister to oversee changes in the police, including promoting officers from within the department to replace the 11 other commanders who were ousted. The changes will occur with 30 days, Mr. Mendieta said.
The 46-year-old rancher and businessman filling the new post, Ronald Aviles Iglesias, said he collaborated with the contras' southern front and had been imprisoned "several times" by Mr. Caldera between 1984 and 1986 for being against the revolution.
Yesterday's shake-up followed several days of consultations between a State Department envoy, John Maisto, and top Chamorro government officials.