The repressive structures will eventually have to be investigated
When Nicaragua’s justice system
becomes independent and autonomous,
the structures that captured, beat, injured and killed
thousands of Nicaraguans will have to be investigated.
The Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI)
explains in its report that the ways these structures were
recruited, armed and financed must also be investigated,
along with their actions in coordination with the National Police.
The investigation must also cover the Army’s role in training them
and the Vice President’s role in the orders they were issued.
Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI)
With Ortega’s return to official power in 2007, political violence began to increase throughout Nicaragua. The police became increasingly drawn into violent, repressive actions that involved clear abuses of authority and disproportionate use of force that went unpunished.
The State’s reaction to the protests
For many years before April 2018, police officers mainly stayed on the sidelines, observing without acting when paramilitary groups and government sympathizers attacked and injured civic demonstrators. In some cases, they organized powerful police deployment in a clear effort to intimidate marches, not daring to prevent them outright. The pattern of police behavior evolved over time into more active repression and more flagrant disregard toward violent acts by third parties.
Some of the more relevant cases prior to April 2018 include the conflict and violence generated by the 2008 municipal election results; the massacre in El Carrizo during the 2011 presidential elections; the attack on the #OcupaINSS youth protest movement in 2013; repression of a sugar workers’ march in Chichigalpa and of the International Women’s Day march in Managua on March 8, 2014; the massacre in Las Jagüitas in 2015; the neglect, disregard and aggression toward citizens during the “Protest Wednesday” weekly gatherings in front of and in protest against the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE); and the police blockade of the peasant march on Managua and the mine workers’ protest at El Limón in 2015 and 2016, respectively.
In 2016 the government prevented or repressed various marches protesting irregularities in the presidential election process. In 2017 three cases of police or military brutality were registered: the killing of 15-month-old Daira Junieth Blandón; the killing of two underage children, sons of Ms. Elea Valle, in a purported clash between irregular armed groups and joint army and police forces; and the beating of peasant Juan Lanzas, who lost his feet as a result of the attack.
According to reports by various human rights organizations and security experts, in addition to using anti-riot forces to prevent marches, the regular police also hit protesters, acted with clear abuse of authority and disproportionate use of force, and conducted arbitrary detentions with brutality and cruelty. In most cases, no investigations were reported, and few penalties were applied to the police officers involved.
A thorn by any other name
References to “shock groups,” “violent Sandinista mobs [turbas]” and “paramilitaries” appeared in media outlets, in reports from international organizations and in the language of people interviewed. In its May 2018 observation visit report, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) referred to the existence of what it called “para-police groups,” indicating that they acted with the “acquiescence, tolerance and collaboration” of state authorities, specifically the National Police.
Likewise, the UN High Commission for Human Rights warned in its report of a pattern characterized by the intervention of “armed pro-government elements.” For its part, Amnesty International recorded the government’s use of “para-police groups” to generate chaos, inflict threats and aggressions, and operate outside the law. We also refer to these various groupings as “quasi-governmental groups,” as they undertake repressive tasks without identifying themselves as police or state officials while at the same time acting in a coordinated fashion with the National Police.
These so-called “shock groups” began to be formed at the end of 2007 and beginning of 2008, and their participation in attacks and violence against political opponents or expressions of social discontent has been a fixture of the Ortega government’s 11 years in power. Throughout these years, they have acted parallel to and in coordination with the National Police.
One of the first occasions that saw them in action for which there is a record was in the 2008 municipal elections, when they confronted and attacked opposition sympathizers who were protesting the election results in municipalities around the country. They did this in view of the police, in full daylight and directed by government officials.
According to newspaper articles and testimony collected by the GIEI, these groups are composed of youth recruited from various sources and in various ways: Sandinista Youth members; people identified in neighborhoods by the Councils of Citizens’ Power (CPC), municipal government officials or political leaders; government employees; and current or former gang members.
Since 2011 managers of gang member reintegration centers publicly raised an alert about recruitment by ruling party political secretaries, who gave the young men guns so they could take part in acts of aggression against opposition groups. The most serious case was that of Samir Matamoros, a young man who shot into a “Protest Wednesday” march outside of the CSE. Matamoros had belonged to a youth gang, gone through a reintegration process and was then pressured by government sympathizers to join the shock groups.
The “blue shirts”
Also in 2007 the formation of a group whose purpose was to bolster Ortega’s security became known. According to newspaper reports, it was made up of 150 ex-military men, all former members of the “Parrales Vallejos” transportation cooperative, well known for their political belligerence and trained by former members of Ortega’s personal security team from the 1980s.
Since the shirts they used were deep blue to distinguish them from the light blue shirts of the regular police and other Ortega sympathizers, people began to call them “blue shirts.” Their creator and leader is said to be Manuel Alí Rivas Vallecillo, a former Sandinista militant, one of Ortega’s most trusted men and head of his security team in the 1980s. Since their creation and the first incidents of 2007 and 2008, the “blue shirts” kept a low profile. They were only seen at mass public events where Daniel Ortega participated, and their role was his personal protection. Very rarely were they openly seen using weapons.
Recruitment after April 2018
During the violent events that took place starting in April 2018, it was possible to observe the actions of organized groups with high firepower that took to the streets using weapons of war. These groups displayed much higher levels of organization and preparation than the traditional shock groups or turbas. And they were seen using distinctive shirts of different colors.
According to information gathered by the GIEI, when the government reorganized its repressive strategy to face the sustained mobilization and social protests that began in April, a group of historical militants close to Ortega set about visiting cities around the country to recruit former military comrades, demobilized draftee soldiers, retired Interior Ministry officers and other historical militants like themselves to include them in the quasi-governmental groups. Some of the recruiters were retired high-ranking Army officers. The participation of these groups became evident in May 2018, although their most notorious actions were only confirmed in the following months.
Social control apparatus:
CPC, CLS, Family Cabinets
Along with the institutions and apparatus of repression, the government also relied on surveillance and social control mechanisms organized by territory: Sandinista Leadership Committees (CLS) and Family Cabinets, successor to what were originally named Councils od Citizens’ Power (CPC).
The origin of the CPCs goes back to 2007, and stems from the idea of “direct democracy” announced by Ortega during his 2006 election campaign. On assuming the presidency in January 2007, Ortega imposed this new type of social organization. He first tried to do so through a legislative reform, but failed [the FSLN did not control the National Assembly as it does now], so instead, he set them up via presidential decree on November 29, 2007.
Both the CPCs and Citizen’s Power Cabinets (GPCs) were created in each urban neighborhood and rural community, [in a hierarchical structure that moved up through municipalities and departments] culminating in a National GPC, which was a national expression of this system of participation. Named to head this structure was Gustavo Porras, then-secretary to the National Economic and Social Planning Council, a national consultative body created by the Citizen Participation Act during the preceding government. Porras was answerable for the CPCs to Rosario Murillo, Ortega’s wife, at the time coordinator of the government’s Communication and Citizenship Secretariat.
At first, the CPCs handled issues of interest to the community: health, education, cleanliness, etc. The November 2007 decree also designated the CPCs for citizen security, supplanting the Crime Prevention Committees, which had been the civic organization and consultation structure promoted by the police for years to coordinate criminal prevention activities in neighborhoods and communities. The CPCs’ actions “were negatively perceived by the population, leading to political discontent as well as emotional dissatisfaction,” according to envío’s description of that year.
In 2014 the National Assembly approved the Family Code, which introduced a new organization: Family, Community and Life Cabinets. With these Cabinets legally included in the Code, the government ensured its own organizational structure, with the possibility of assigning it tasks using public budget resources. Indeed, every municipal government had a citizens’ participation office that coordinated actions with the Cabinets.
For their part, Sandinista Leadership Committees (CLS) were established within the public institutions, coexisting with partisan FSLN and Sandinista Youth structures within each institution. Interviews with security experts have revealed that these organizations are charged with ensuring public employees’ participation in activities: marches, occupation of traffic circles in Managua, counter-protests, fairs and other political acts. Furthermore, they are responsible for monitoring public employees who do not sympathize with the government.
Weapons of war for
repression in April 2018
From the beginning of the repression in April 2018, the quasi-governmental groups displayed varying degrees of violence: from shock groups that acted in the more “traditional” manner—basically using brute force with blunt objects and mortars—to groups using firearms.
The highest level of offensive organization and power was manifested by the groups using long guns and that showed a level of organization similar to that of police and military structures. For this reason, they were called “paramilitary” or “para-police” groups. The conduct of these more organized groups could particularly be seen in the months following the period covered by the GIEI mandate (April 18 to May 30, 2018), when they began to don shirts of the same color (usually deep blue) to identify themselves.
The formation of all these pro-government groups that took on repressive functions should be investigated to determine, in each case, the means of recruitment, financing and provision of material resources, including high-velocity rifles and assault weapons, which by law are exclusively handled by the State.
Information obtained by the GIEI, which includes interviews with security experts and former military personnel, refers to diverse forms of recruiting citizens to take part in repressive acts: public employees from different state institutions and municipal governments; Sandinista Youth and governing party militants; gang members; youth with prior records or those at risk who are linked to the State through programs managed by the National Police; low-income people who are informally paid sums of cash or to whom land is promised; retired military officers and draftee combatants from the 1980s.
The participation of public employees in violent groups confronting protesters was another phenomenon confirmed by videos obtained. This fact is invariably pointed out in multiple interviews, which include accounts by people who currently or until recently worked at public entities.
The case of a Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure employee was widely shared on the social media and in press outlets, where he appears in various photographs posing with a long gun with a telescopic sight and a payroll sheet that approves him for 150 overtime hours at that ministry during the month of April. This case came to light when the GIEI was at work in Nicaragua and had already received information about the participation of salaried public administration workers in the repression. While this case postdates May 30, it confirms the information previously received.
The recruiting done by municipal governments or people with local power connected to the government was described in many interviews conducted by the GIEI in Matagalpa and Estelí. Some interviews mentioned people brought in from rural areas, identified by various interviewees as “peasants.”
Recruiting people to participate in the repression by promising them land was confirmed in several videos that were only shared when these lands were taken back from them. You can see several people explain how they were given the land, saying that it was in exchange for actions benefitting the government and against the protesters. They express surprise at how, shortly afterwards, the government itself evicted them. Land occupation organized by the government, in addition to being a way of temporarily compensating those who participated in the repression, seems to have also had the goal of pressuring the private sector involved in the National Dialogue.
Information received by the GIEI also points to the use of programs managed by the police and financed through the national budget, in particular the “at-risk youth assistance” program of the National Police Youth Issues Office, whose 2018 budget planned funds for 9,000 youth.
Information about this form of recruiting young people to enter the shock groups isn’t new; it can be seen in many press releases on the issue or connected to specific events. According to available information, a large part of these youth have been included on the employee payrolls of state institutions, especially municipal governments, the Nicaraguan Institute for Telecommunications and Mail (TELCOR), the Nicaraguan Institute for Social Security (INSS), and the Youth Ministry, among others. Other young people returned to their neighborhoods and remain on alert for calls from the police or from leaders in charge of each neighborhood, district or city.
In Nicaragua there is a branched structure that reaches into the neighborhoods and combines formal institutions (like the CPCs) with local political power organizations (like the Sandinista Leadership Committees). This enables a significant level of local population-based control for both gathering information and recruiting for pro-government activities.
“You can’t get a job without
a letter from the CPC”
The GIEI had the opportunity to interview two people who mentioned this phenomenon based on their direct experience, including a young man from Managua who has been a member of the Sandinista Youth for years. He left the country in fear of retaliation for having decided not to take part in repressive acts linked to the protests.
The interviewee, whose identity was protected in the report, explained the CPC’s role in the neighborhood and in arming the shock groups, as well as the power held by governing party leaders—especially the party political secretary and the Sandinista Youth, structures that know every person in the neighborhood and have the power to decide, for example, whether or not to provide access to sources of state employment or state benefits: “Without a letter from the CPC you can’t get a job, especially not with the State.” This local power feeds asymmetrical power relationships, based on dependence and even coercion.
The Army’s role
must be investigated
Interviews conducted with security experts and ex-military personnel, among others, reveal that former combatants or retired military officers were recruited into the formation of groups displaying a greater level of organization and offensive capacity. Many of these recruits have a historical connection to the FSLN or did at one time. Different sources indicate that a group of government advisers traveled around the country to summon former combatants, appealing to rhetoric that evoked a common history, as well as offering economic compensation.
The Army’s role in events has been openly debated. Authorities have officially denied any involvement in the repression, and the GIEI has found no evidence of Army involvement. Some images seem to show participation in the safeguarding of public places, but none indicate direct involvement in the repression of the protests, in the universities, or in the dismantling of blockades. The participation of individual Army personnel in armed pro-government groups or in training said groups—as some versions suggest—cannot be dismissed and should be investigated.
All types of recruiting for “para-police groups,” in whatever form, should be subject to investigation when conditions permit, together with the origin and handling of the presumed state resources used.
At first the government denied any connection to these groups. However, it later claimed—undoubtedly in light of evidence that the groups acted in coordination with the National Police—that these were “volunteer police.”
Volunteer Police is a figure that has been recognized in organizational police law for years. According to National Police Law 872, it concerns “an auxiliary body that supports the National Police, composed of Nicaraguan citizens who voluntarily and temporarily offer their services.”
The law expressly states that “members of the Volunteer Police in the conduct of their role shall be duly identified by uniforms and unique distinguishing features” and that “they will solely undertake tasks in support of prevention work such as: 1) Aiding the police in surveillance, patrolling, traffic management and cases of natural disaster; 2) Aiding authorities by having knowledge of the commission of criminal acts, preserving the scene, offering needed help to victims and giving timely reports to corresponding authorities.”
There is a clear disconnect between what the law sets out with regard to the Volunteer Police and the actions that have been observed in groups of people bearing weapons of war, dressed as civilians and lacking any type of identification. The GIEI requested that the State provide information about the membership of this supposed “voluntary police,” its creation and training plans, but received no response.
Despite the fact that quasi-governmental groups that conducted acts of aggression cannot be considered “volunteer police” in a legal sense, there is no doubt that they acted in coordination with the National Police and benefited from the guarantee of impunity.
It was the State
In sum, information shows that the State has a parallel structure for repression that visibly acted in the majority of repressive events from April 18 on.
A comprehensive analysis of the facts allows confirmation that the State’s existence and conduct respond to policies determined by the national government, above and beyond the fact that its specific composition is organized, at least in part, at the local level. There is no other way to explain the intervention of these groups at the same time, in different departments around the country and with coordinated acts together with an institution such as the National Police, which is answerable to the national government and whose commander-in-chief is the President of the Republic.
What happened cannot otherwise be explained when considering the involvement of different municipal governments all allied with the governing party, direct involvement by political figures within sandinismo and officials from diverse institutions, the use of state resources and the guarantee of impunity with which they have acted.
“We’re going all out!”
In its months of work in Nicaragua, the GIEI has gathered different accounts that refer to the role of Vice President Rosario Murillo in managing these structures, and to the role of a group of advisers and FSLN political secretaries in the coordination of acts and transmission of orders. While it has not been possible to find elements that demonstrate it, this possibility cannot go unmentioned, and should be investigated when conditions of independence and autonomy exist within the justice system.
On September 27, 2018, a declaration was circulated by Ligia Gómez to the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission [a bipartisan caucus of the US House of Representatives]. Until recently Gómez headed Economic Investigation for the Central Bank of Nicaragua and was the FSLN political secretary in the Bank’s CLS from 2014 to 2018. In her statements, she refers to the political structure managed by Rosario Murillo, whose orders are communicated by Fidel Moreno Briones, the general secretary of the Managua mayor’s office.
Ligia Gómez explained that “on April 19, all political secretaries, Sandinista Youth coordinators and union secretaries were summoned to the Japanese Park’s auditorium. At the entrance, officials scanned all the participants’ identification, and Fidel Moreno Briones forbade anyone from recording the meeting. We all put our cell phones away. The purpose of the meeting was to organize the response to the street protests. Moreno Briones had a clear message: ‘We must defend the revolution, we’re going all out, we won’t allow them to steal the revolution.’ This meant that all types of repression would be applied.”
Gómez also mentioned the measures taken to occupy various locations around the city to stop protests. This policy of occupying spaces is a highly notorious characteristic that has been seen in numerous images. On some occasions, they try to arrive at the gathering site ahead of time and on others they conduct “counter-marches,” often accompanied by shock groups. That is what happened in Managua and León during the first days of the protests.
All elements gathered point to the existence of a structure comprising a framework of actors who undertook repressive duties with differing levels of intensity, acting in coordination with the National Police.
The formation of this structure and its guidance system should be investigated in the future to identify the people involved. Beyond what those names may be, there is serious evidence both that this structure exists and that the conduct of these groups—in a broad and recurring fashion and in coordination with the National Police—cannot be explained by decisions made apart from the national government.
Chapters 5.2 and 7.3 of the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI) report presented in Washington, DC, before the Organization of American States on December 21, 2018. Subheads and editing by envío.