The Armed Conflict in Estelí
The violent events in Estelí, in which members of the Sandinista Popular Army fought with former members of the same, are a tragic episode in Nicaragua’s present crisis. We summarize here the description and evaluation of what happend, as reported by the CENIDH.
Nitlapán-CRIES research team
The events visited upon Estelí in late July are a tragic new milestone in Nicaragua's current crisis of violence. The description and assessment contained in the following report by the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH) which witnessed some of those events first hand and investigated others from a human rights perspective in the hours and days immediately afterward provide an impartial account of a moment otherwise fraught with polarized and polarizing recriminations, self justifications and over simplifications on all sides.
At 3:00 pm on Wednesday, July 21, 1993, the Nicaraguan media reported that the city of Estelí had been taken approximately one hour earlier by a group of some 150 rearmed members [hereafter referred to as "rearmados" or "irregulars"] of an organization known as the Worker and Peasant Revolutionary Front (FROC), commanded by [former army major] Victor Manuel Gallegos, alias "Pedrito el Hondureño."
It was reported that the irregulars had issued a series of demands as the objective of their armed struggle, among them financing for small and medium farmers; access to health care; job creation; the non privatization of education; and the legalization of properties given out by the previous government, giving priority in all cases to those dismissed from the armed forces. The list also contained claims specific to the former military personnel.
The media broadcast a call from Ramón Gámez, Sandinista National Assembly representative from Esteli, requesting CENIDH's intervention through its president, Dr. Vilma Núñez de Escorcia, to seek a peaceful way out of the situation and thus avoid bloodshed among the civilian population.
The declarations of Lt. Col. Ricardo Wheelock, Sandinista Popular Army (EPS) spokesperson, were also broadcast, advising that said institution was already sending troops to reestablish order in the city of Estelí.
It was reported that telephone communication was interrupted in Estelí, as was public access to the city, and that the population had been told to store drinking water as both it and electricity services would be cut during the military operation.
Measures Taken1. Preliminary Measures.
Through the media, CENIDH called on the government, the armed forces and the irregular forces of the FROC themselves to hold their fire and act prudently and responsibly so as to avoid bloodshed, particularly among civilians. It also offered itself as a mediator to seek a cease fire, and asked respected civilians to form a commission with that same objective. Nonetheless, the offer was categorically rejected by the army which, through its spokesperson, reiterated its decision to control the situation by force.
On the morning of July 22, CENIDH delivered a letter to the President of the Republic, making known its willingness to join a commission with representative individuals of different sectors willing to mediate in the conflict to try to obtain a cease fire. No response was received and, hours later, President Chamorro declared that the conflict was not subject to negotiation.
Nonetheless, at 10:45 am, in light of reports about increased violence, which was mainly affecting the civilian population, a CENIDH team headed by Dr. Vilma Núñez de Escorcia, together with Father Uriel Molina of the Antonio Valdevieso Center , the Reverend Miguel Angel Casco, and Dr. Mateo Guerrero of the National Association for Human Rights (ANPDH), all of whom had responded to CENIDH's petition, went to the city of Estelí.
2. Steps Taken by this commission in Estelí
From 1 pm on July 22 until July 29, this commission carried out the following work in Estelí:
*Taking of testimony from Estelí residents, mainly in the focal points of tension;
*Interviews with Police and EPS authorities and local politicians;
*Meetings with representatives of the Local Peace Commission, formed by representatives of the Catholic Church, the Nicaraguan Red Cross, the Evangelical Council for Development Aid (CEPAD), the FSLN in Estelí and journalists;
*Interviews with the heads of the Special Disarmament Brigades (BED);
*Taking of testimonies from FROC members who turned themselves in to the BED;
*Visits to and inspection of Estelí's Alejandro Dávila Bolaños Hospital;
*Visits to the wounded in the Matagalpa Regional Hospital;
*Attention to family members of victims;
*Visit to, interview at and inspection of Estelí's cemetery, especially of what had been reported to be a "common grave";
*Witnessing of the transfer to Matagalpa of irregulars who turned themselves in to the BED and of the release of 16 citizens detained by the police for 48 hours;
*Interview with Dr. Juan José Cerda Saenz, public health director in Estelí, and Mrs. Elida Gámez, head of nursing at the Estelí hospital.
*Appearance before the media by the CENIDH team.
3. Measures Taken in Managua
*Visit to the National Preliminary Detention Center of the Police to ascertain if there were any people there detained in relation to the conflict.
* Visit to the BED office.
*Visits to those wounded in the Estelí events, interned in the Lenín Fonseca, Manolo Morales and Carlos Marx hospitals.
Narrative of the Events1. The Principal events of July 21 22
On Wednesday, July 21, between 1:30 and 2:00 pm, rearmados from the Worker and Peasant Revolutionary Front (FROC) arrived at the city of Estelí, with clear plans to take it over, and headed mainly to the following points: a) the Panamerican Highway; b) Public Safety of the Police (operations), known as the "comando 16 de julio"; c) Preliminary Detention Center of the Police; d) the banking district; e) Central Park; and f) the Dávila Bolaños Hospital of Estelí.
a) The Panamerican Highway. Shortly after 1:00 in the afternoon, the FROC columns, headed by "Pedrito el Hondureño," stopped the traffic on the highway. In this operation, Mr. Noel Rivas Gasteazoro, the Ambassador of Nicaragua in Honduras, was held, and between 15 and 20 vehicles were taken, in which, at approximately 1:40 pm, columns of irregulars headed toward the following points:
b) Public Safety of the National Police. Between 1:30 and 2:00 in the afternoon, one group of irregulars took over the installations of "Comando 16 de julio," where they found approximately 10 police officers, whom they obliged to remain in one of the offices of the locale. According to the testimony of one officer of that unit, the irregulars entered and disarmed them, hitting one of them. The officer pointed out that few confrontations were heard during the first hours, apart from moments of great tension when EPS helicopters flew over the city and there was fear of an air attack on the site. He also noted that his unit experienced no regrettable personal consequences.
At 10:00 pm, the police were set free.
c) National Police Operations Center. The testimonies express that the irregulars entered that locale at 2:00 pm and in only a few minutes neutralized the 9 police officers there without firing a shot, although there was an incident with one policeman who resisted surrender. The police were then locked in an office; moments later the army attacked, producing a battle. Arlen José Romero Gurdián, a civilian mechanic in a shop located 100 meters from the police, was killed as a result of the shots fired in the area.
Testimonies received from residents nearby confirm that the FROC had entered without encountering major resistance from the police, and that the greatest tension occurred when the EPS showed up, with whom FROC entered into combat shortly after the takeover began.
In that action, the irregulars suffered three casualties (one dead and two wounded), whom they carried off with them when they retreated, together with several police weapons.
d) The Banking District. At approximately 2:30 pm on Wednesday, 10 rearmados, among them "Pedrito el Hondureño," arrived in a truck at the Estelí branch of the National Development Bank. According to the guard on duty, they ordered him to open the door of the bank, but, when he turned to do so, they broke a window and entered. They promptly grabbed him, took away his pistol, called the manager and proceeded to remove the money from the bank, without attacking anyone. When they left, the leader of the group gave a speech about their struggle to some 500 people who had congregated around the exit. Then they headed on to the Nicaraguan Bank (BANIC) and the Central Bank.
At BANIC, according to vice manager Agenor Rosales Espinoza, the irregulars entered and disarmed the two guards with no violence. When they were ready to remove the money, they ordered the bank workers to go home, but the employees opted to stay and did not abandon the locale until the irregulars had withdrawn, taking the bank funds with them.
One woman who works in a commercial establishment in the banking district noted that the armed group only attacked the banks, but did not rob any commercial establishment. The testimonies also affirm that the damage to the banking installations was not done at the time of the assault, but later, during the battles with the government troops.
e) Events at the home of Estelí Police Chief Luís Enrique Rodríguez. Commander Luís Enrique Rodríguez holds that the FROC carried plans to assassinate a select group of individuals, among them the main military commanders, himself included. He stated that on Wednesday, July 21, FROC leader "Pedrito el Hondureño" went personally to his house with intentions to also kill his wife and children. He said that his bodyguard, policeman Alfredo Galeano Martínez, died defending the house from that attempted crime.
For his part, line officer Gregorio Medardo González, who was also guarding Commander Rodríguez's house, said he saw the movement of trucks with uniformed personnel and informed Alfredo Galeano when he arrived. At that moment, according to policeman González, two pick up trucks, one from each corner, headed toward the commander's house carrying FROC members who came shooting. With that, Alfredo Galeano ran to the commander's pick up, grabbed a rifle and shot, wounding a FROC member. He said that policeman Galeano was fatally wounded in that exchange of gunfire.
Policeman González stated that, at the moment of the shooting, he did not see Commander Rodríguez, who was at home to eat lunch with his wife and three children. Finally, González said that he was neutralized and disarmed by the rearmados, and was able to observe "Pedrito el Hondureño," who was unharmed.
The CENIDH team established that there were various bullet holes in the house, the doors had been forced, and nearly a dozen window panes were broken.
f) Central Park. According to some FROC members, their column, after taking the "comando 16," headed to the Domingo Gadea plaza at about 2:00 in the afternoon, where they received orders to take up positions in the park. At that hour the battles with the EPS began; they were interrupted at 12 midnight, and began again at 5:00 am on July 22. Some FROC members were killed and wounded, as were some local civilians who had spontaneously joined the group.
Subsequent to the reinitiation of combat on the morning of July 22, FROC members contacted Isaías Parrales, Estelí's FSLN Political Secretary, and asked him to speak with Lt. Col. Pedro Agurcia, EPS chief in Military Region I, about stopping the shooting. The lieutenant colonel refused. Upon receiving that news, the rearmados decided to take over the municipal government offices, where they asked National Assembly representative Ramón Gámez to call the human rights organizations, CEPAD, the BED and Bishop Abelardo Mata to mediate, since their objective was "not to die fighting with the EPS." At 11:30 am that same morning, the summoned individuals started arriving at the municipal offices, and the mediation process began.
g) Estelí's Dávila Bolaños Hospital. At approximately 2:30 pm on July 21, the first wounded arrived at Estelí's Dávila Bolaños Hospital. A few minutes later, the first armed members of FROC installed themselves in the hospital. According to hospital workers' testimonies, some 15 men entered, firing no shots, and explained that they did not want to hurt anyone, but wanted only to call the government and force it to dialogue. At no moment did they threaten any hospital staff or patients.
Subsequently, the rearmados took up positions within the hospital, by the main door, the central patio and other key points. Although shots were fired outside during the day on Wednesday, according to the workers, the shooting inside the hospital did not begin until Thursday at 9:00 am, when EPS troops fired directly at the hospital. According to the workers, EPS sharpshooters positioned on the roofs of houses opposite the hospital (particularly on the north side, where there were at least three) opened fire against the rearmados, who answered, causing a strong exchange of fire.
The hospital workers' testimonies indicate that they went through moments of constant anguish and risk, particularly between 9:00 and 11:00 am on Thursday, when, according to Dr. Juan José Cerda, public health director Estelí, and Elida Gámez, head nurse at the hospital, the labor and delivery room and the neonatal ward were hit with bullets shot from outside by the EPS snipers. The workers also state that the danger forced some to work on the floor and others to briefly interrupt their labors.
At about 1:30 pm, the shooting stopped and, finally, an hour later, the rearmados left in four ambulances, disguised as wounded and medical personnel.
CENIDH was able to verify some of the damage to the hospital building. The walls on the north side were riddled with bullet holess, as was the central patio area on the emergency room side. The labor and delivery room, where patients were treated during the actions, had also been hit by bullets, leaving several windows broken and nine large holes in the wall, one of which shows that a bullet passed directly through one of the beds.
2. Work of the Commissions and Surrender of the Rearmados.
In search of an end to the violence, and through efforts by journalists, municipal councillors and National Assembly representatives from the Department of Estelí, the "Local Commission" was formed on the morning of Thursday, July 22, comprising those same individuals, plus Bishop Abelardo Mata and representatives of CEPAD and the Nicaraguan Red Cross.
The Local Commission entered into talks with one of the FROC column leaders and, with the cooperation of Commander Marcos Arévalo, second in command of the BED, and EPS Lt. Col. Pedro Agurcia, managed to facilitate a cease fire and the surrender of some 36 FROC members in the municipal offices in the city of Estelí. At that moment by then in the presence of the commission that had arrived from Managua the surrendering FROC members were guaranteed that they would not be prosecuted by the police or army and were offered amnesty, as promised earlier by President Chamorro and General Humberto Ortega. After accepting such conditions, the irregulars were transferred to the BED's installations in Estelí.
The Local Commission, supported by the commission from Managua, subsequently toured the streets of the city, which favored the voluntary surrender to the BED of other rearmados.
At that same hour, with the intervention of representatives Carlos Gallo and Domingo Sánchez Salgado of the National Assembly's Human Rights Commission, the surrender of another group of 11 irregulars, who had previously occupied the Dávila Bolaños Hospital, was negotiated in La Trinidad's hospital, and they were also put under BED custody.
By July 26, 71 irregulars had registered with and were in the hands of the BED in Matagalpa.
At 9:30 pm on July 22, despite the guarantee offered by the BED to those who had turned themselves in that they would not be processed, they were transferred as detainees to the operations installations of the National Police of Estelí, under the control of Commander Luis Enrique Rodríguez, where they spent 40 hours in preliminary detention.
At midday on Saturday, July 23, after various initiatives by the commissions with National Police, EPS and Ministry of government officials, the FROC members were again turned over to the BED, and the conditions offered initially were confirmed. Afterward, they were transferred to the BED installations in Matagalpa, where they are currently awaiting the National Assembly's passage of the Amnesty Law.
3. Police Detentions.
At 7:10 pm on July 22, CENIDH witnessed the surrender and detention of Mr. José Ramón Pérez Gonzáles in front of the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock installations. Even though he was handcuffed and offered no resistance, the police, upon putting him in a pick up truck, picked him up from behind and, with excessive violence, threw him into the bed of the truck, hitting him on the head. Members of the CENIDH team demanded respect for the detainee's dignity and physical safety, to which a policeman responded that he was a "dog," not a human being.
Captain Orozco, second in command of the Preliminary Detention Center of the National Police, was driving the truck in this violent episode, and, although he was apprised of the proceeding, he paid no attention to his subordinates' behavior.
On that same day, 16 individuals were detained due to charges by citizens or to police suspicions that they were FROC members, but they were freed 48 hours later, after it was proven that they were not linked to the events. CENIDH received complaints on behalf of five of the citizens involved in those arbitrary detentions.
ConclusionsDespite the opposing versions presented by the involved parties regarding the events in Estelí on July 21 and 22, 1993, CENIDH reached the following conclusions:
1. The taking of the city of Estelí by FROC is an inadmissable action, the product of desperation regarding the extreme poverty in which broad sectors of the population are submerged due to the government's economic plan, which, with great force, affects the unemployed, poor peasants, and the demobilized of the Resistance and the EPS, especially those of lower ranks. These latter are a sizable group of individuals who, for years, learned and practiced skills that pertain to war but have no use in civilian life. They were thrown into unemployment with the government's partial or total failure to comply with its promises to provide them with sufficient means for their reinsertion into civilian life. On different occasions they have laid out their problems without achieving anything, in the majority of cases, other than new promises.
Nonetheless, such action can in no way be justified. Even though the rearmados insist that they did not have a violent plan, they, together with the EPS, exposed the civilian population to risk, and in fact this was the most affected party. CENIDH categorically assesses that armed actions are not an alternative for solving socioeconomic problems in these circumstances.
2. The occupation of the city engendered a military response that, going beyond the legitimate right to protect order, signified a disproportionate and irrational use of force, in which the lives of the Estelí population, already long suffering and martyred, did not matter.
According to what witnesses and other people interviewed said, the armed confrontations were of relatively low intensity in the first hours of the takeover. At that time, a mediation was possible which would have avoided the large number of victims, given that the majority of these resulted on the second day of the occupation, when the strongest battles took place.
The government's pretext that it was a question of confronting a group of delinquents loses strength in the face of its responsibility to protect the lives of the civilian population. In that sense, CENIDH condemns the government's intransigence in refusing to seek a way out through dialogue.
3. The government of Nicaragua succeeded in reestablishing order in the city of Estelí by means of force, through indiscriminate mortaring in the center of the city, which targeted homes occupied by individuals, among them children, who were all foreign to the conflict. Regrettably, such order was achieved at an extremely high cost in human lives. The result, according to official reports, is 45 dead and 98 wounded. To date, CENIDH has confirmed data for 22 dead (10 FROC, 2 armed forces, 8 civilians and 2 unknown) and 98 wounded (19 FROC, 11 armed forces, 68 civilians). In addition, 9 individuals are reported missing.
Two of the dead are children, as are 18 of the wounded; 26 women and 5 elderly people were also among the wounded. CENIDH condemns the severe suffering to which the children and women were submitted, since they are the most vulnerable sectors of the civilian population.
The President of the Republic and the head of the army publicly declared the Estelí military operation a "successful operation," but it violated norms of Humanitarian Law and Human Rights.
In particular, by attacking Estelí's Dávila Bolaños Hospital, the army flagrantly violated the norms of humanitarian law, specifically that contained in Article 19 of the August 12, 1949 Geneva Convention I of the International Red Cross, ratified by Nicaragua in 1954, which clearly prohibits attacks on units treating the wounded and dead.
4. CENIDH expresses its concern about the civilian population's lack of confidence in the police force of Estelí, demonstrated in numerous testimonies about fear of arbitrary persecution. Estelí lives in a state of nervousness, which the authorities should help to overcome. We cannot fail to note the behavior of one police patrol, and the tolerant attitude of its chief, both of which we witnessed, which disrespected the human rights of José Rámon González by violating his bodily integrity.
5. CENIDH recognizes the noble and heroic humanitarian labor of the doctors, nurses, technicians, guards, drivers and other workers of the Alejandro Dávila Bolaños Hospital of Estelí, as well as that of the Red Cross members, who risked their lives to attend to the victims of the conflict.
We also acknowledge the labor and attitude of CEPAD, the journalists of Estelí, the Estelí departmental committee of the FSLN, the Sandinista National Assembly representatives and other members of the Local Commission, who succeeded in avoiding greater bloodshed.
6. Although the armed conflict in Estelí came to an end, the conditions that provoked it, particularly the current economic and social crisis, persist and afflict the Nicaraguan population. For that reason, the government should seriously analyze the origin of the conflict and consider that an economic dictatorship and institutional violence are as disrespectful of Human Rights as is the denial of civil and political rights. In general, all sectors of the nation must make efforts to avoid situations such as the one Estelí's residents lived through, so as to prevent the loss of more innocent lives.