Resisting the strategy of terror
By the May 30 attack on the Mothers’ Day march, the government’s strategy for dealing with the grassroots rebellion had become clear: repress (dismantle the road blockades, shooting to kill) and terrorize (intimidate villages and neighborhoods day and night). All these actions have been implemented throughout the country by the National Police and parapolice with the complicity of local authorities loyal to Ortega. Officially, at least, the Army is on the sidelines.
“We are not responsible”
The government’s strategy regarding its own role has continually rested on denial of responsibility. It has steadfastly refused to acknowledge so much as a shred of responsibility for what triggered the April uprising or anything that has happened since, blaming it all instead on an imaginary concoction of terrifying enemies: vandals, extreme rightwing fanatics linked to organized crime, diabolical bishops, bloodsucking youths, coup-mongers… And when the mood strikes, the governing couple even refuses to acknowledge reality.
On May 31, while the entire country was still reeling from the Mothers’ Day massacre, the government issued a press release, two points of which revealed a degree of cynicism that contradicted everything Ortega’s representatives had accepted—in consultation with Ortega—in the dialogue regarding compliance with the recommendations in the IACHR report, That press release demonstrated that we were entering a new stage of both intensifying repression and parallel reality:
“#5. The Government of Reconciliation and National Unity emphatically denounces all the crimes committed since April 18, denies any responsibility for this violence and categorically states that we will fulfill our duty to avoid more bloodshed, more fratricidal confrontation, more slanderous photo-shopping, demonstrating every day the origins of this action that seeks to enthrone chaos, accusing us when the main evidence of such fallaciousness is the 11 years of Peace, Justice and Development Nicaragua has known in Christianity and Solidarity.”
“#8. No shock troops or paramilitary groups allied to the government exist in Nicaragua, so we cannot accept the attempt to accuse us of painful and tragic events we have not provoked and would never provoke, and, based on unfounded accusations, are aimed at restricting the application of the Constitutional Duty of the Forces of Public Order to help secure the safety of Families.”
The uncertain “Almagro factor”
The government combined its strategy of wearing down and terrorizing the protestors and denying reality with the “Almagro factor.” On June 1 it published a calendar prepared bilaterally with Wilfredo Penco, who had come to Nicaragua at the end of April as OAS General Secretary Luis Almagro’s representative to “get started on the electoral reforms” agreed to in January 2017. The calendar, which Almagro didn’t refute, took the country up to 2021, the end of Ortega’s current term of office.
It was probably planned for release at a later date, but was published early to leave no doubt about the govern¬ment’s refusal to negotiate anything regarding electoral reforms or election dates in some dialogue with the Civic Alliance. That subject would be dealt with strictly with the more pliant OAS. Its implicit refusal to move the elections up to 2019 as called for by the majority of the population and its explicit refusal to admit any responsibility for all the violence and hence to contemplate punishment for its perpetrators effectively closed the door on the only two agenda items of the Civic Alliance representing the populace in rebellion in the national dialogue: democracy and justice.
The “clean-up operations”
After its first confused, improvised and sometimes contradictory responses to the April uprising, the government decided to retake the offensive by arming the National Police and the hundreds of paramilitaries who accompanied it with weapons of war.
Even more than the massive mobilizations, marches and university occupations of late April and throughout May, the roadblocks and barricades had become the main instrument of civic pressure on the government throughout the country, both economically and organizationally. As such, they were an unceasing affront to the government’s pathological need for absolute control.
Starting in June, the government’s strategy of terror prioritized dismantling the roadblocks and barricades without quarter, which President Ortega announced as “clean-up operations.” To this end, bona fide military operations involving caravans of heavily armed and hooded police and parapolice with a bulldozer in tow were deployed around the country, with orders to attack, kidnap, imprison and also kill those guarding them and their supporters.
According to military experts the assault weapons came from the Army’s arsenals and former Army members were recruited to lead the paramilitaries. The hypothesis about the Army’s complicity in the operations gains credibility since the question of why the Army hasn’t dismantled the paramilitaries has never been answered. Moreover, guerrilla leader turned contra turned Ortega follower Edén Pastora was captured on a cell phone video recruiting former comrades in arms in a northern area of Nicaragua.
Who are these irregular forces?
These heavily-armed irregular forces—a.k.a. paramilitary groups, parapolice, thugs, mobs, gang members, armed third parties, etc.—drive around in caravans almost always accompanied and protected by police patrol pick-up trucks filled with equally heavily-armed police and riot police or in unmarked Hi-lux pick-ups with no license plates. Many of them are not on their first “tour of duty” as they were earlier recruited to put down smaller disturbances such as the student-supported pensioners’ protest in 2013.
This time these hooded forces were reportedly joined by murderers released from prison gang members, drug traffickers and others to do the “dirty work,” such as searching houses—looting them on occasion—and forcibly capturing residents from lists given to them by informers. These informers belong to the FSLN’s para-party Cabinets of the Family, Community and Life originally called the Citizens Power Councils (CPC) and still called that by the general public. The lists include the names and addresses of people they knew or suspected were participating in protests or roadblocks, even though such participation is perfectly legal. Most of those captured were taken to prison, while others were tortured and murdered.
This criminal paramilitary activity imposed a de facto state of siege on the entire population in June and July. By dusk, people all over the country were locked in their houses, but even then they didn’t feel safe because the clean-up and capturing operations, also the torching and looting of houses, took place at any hour.
Eight months later, a large part of the population is still afraid at night, especially in rural areas where the paramilitaries continue to move about with impunity.
Hundreds of political prisoners
The terror strategy was established together with criminalizing those who protested. Those illegally kidnapped were taken to police stations or more frequently to the auxiliary judicial police prison in Managua, known as El Chipote, where Somoza used to torture his opponents.
In June CENIDH was receiving five reports a day on average about illegal arrests. At the end of that month, the Police began transferring those held in El Chipote to La Modelo Prison in Tipitapa. The Pro-Human Rights Commission (CPDH) reported the existence of clandestine prisons and said there was evidence that torture has taken place in them.
Every day in June and into late July, relatives, mothers in particular, gathered outside of El Chipote asking about their loved ones, holding up placards with their names and photos, all to no avail. On July 22 the regime installed the mobs to harass family members and prevent the area from continuing to be used for meeting and protest.
The detainees are held for an unspecified number of days, with no information provided to their families and no access to a defense attorney at that point, all of which is illegal. In that time they are threatened, beaten and if considered to have played a leadership role tortured to obtain information, then tried for crimes they never committed including pillaging, arson and even murders committed by the parapolice.
This widespread pattern throughout the country hasn’t varied in eight months. By November the government was reportedly holding 600 political prisoners, many of them accused of “terrorism.” Its forces continued to hunt people down even in December, five months after all roadblocks and barricades had been dismantled.
The Church challenged the terror
In the absence of credible political parties, Nicaragua’s bishops have earned tremendous recognition in this crisis. Despite their fragilities, the role they played, particularly in the first months, was indispensable and irreplaceable.
Today’s reality has turned Catholic Church bishops but even more so parish priests and members of religious orders into the country’s most credible and reliable actors. No political institution or social organization with a national presence was capable of taking on this role in April when the citizenry rebelled against the government. From those first moments, Catholic Church representatives responded to the growing challenges with increasing valor, commitment and spirit of service.
In such an extreme situation, Catholic leaders followed the basic commandment “thou shalt not kill,” unequivocally taking the side of the people whose life and loved ones are in danger, protecting the persecuted, healing the wounded and accompanying those struggling for a change in the country.
“God is with us”
Ortega and Murillo, mistakenly under the impression they had the Catholic Church leaders under control, today consider them and vindictively treat them as enemies. It is one of the governing couple’s major weaknesses, particularly given Nicaragua’s extremely traditional religious population.
Many expressions of grassroots religiosity have been laced through the civic rebellion: images of the Virgin Mary sitting atop highway roadblocks and propped up against the barricades’ paving stones; “self-organized” protesters wearing rosaries around their necks or marching with the national flag in one hand and a rosary in the other; callers requesting time on radio talk shows to share improvised prayers or ones based on biblical verse to protect the protestors; banners in the mobilizations reading “If God is with us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31)
Local Evangelical pastors and their followers, who currently make up 40% of the Nicaraguan population, were also supporting and protecting people, but the most prominent Evangelical leaders, the ones who get the most media attention, either remained silent or defended the government openly or implicitly by insisting “there’s violence on all sides.” While that is strictly true, it is deceptive if there is no mention of the causes of the rebellion, how unequal the forces are in this struggle, the commitment to peaceful solutions on the part of most protestors, and the difference in numbers between those ordered to shoot to kill and those on the other side who either did harm while defending themselves or gave way to rage in response to unnecessary mayhem.
The terror in numbers
The terror increased noticeably with the initiation of the clean-up operations in June. A report by the Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights (ANPDH) provided the data on human rights violations it had collected between April 18 and June 25 within the context of the protests. Unlike CENIDH, which only reports figures it has been able to substantiate, these figures include unverified charges it had received:
• 285 people killed (262 fully identified and 23 still being investigated) of whom 96.2% were civilians, 3.8% were police and one was a journalist.
• Of the 56.1% (127) of the dead whose age was identified, 21 were children and adolescents and the rest were adults under 30 years of age.
• Just over half of the dead (145) were killed in Mana¬gua, followed by the municipality of Masaya with 30.
• 82.2% (235) were killed with firearms, 32% of them shot in the head.
• 1,500 injured people reported in hospitals, of whom 46 were permanently disabled.
• 72 illegally detained and 201 detained and released with signs of torture or degrading treatment.
• 156 people missing.
Just one week later, as of July 2, ANPDH increased its figures to 309 dead, 297 of them civilians and 253 killed by firearms, and calculated 200 illegally detained. Recalling CENIDH’s figure of 45 deaths as of May 4, it becomes clear that the majaority of deaths occurred during the “clean-up.”
The economy’s collapse in numbers
The national economy has also taken a beating in the deadlock between Ortega and Murillo’s insistent clinging to power and the people’s determination to resist that power and the terror and fear it wields.
The grassroots economy has been the most damaged: hundreds of small and medium businesses, mainly in tourism, trade and service sectors, closed or at least cut their hours, leaving thousands definitively unemployed or laid-off “until further notice.” It’s a tragedy in a country where 80% of businesses are small and medium-sized and the population’s main problems have traditionally been unemployment, underemployment and informal employment.
Tourism has been especially hurt. The violence unleashed by the government and the turbulent situation turned Nicaragua into a very unattractive and even dangerous destination, as the US State Department’s travel advisories described. With the drop in tourist visits throughout the summer vacation period, commercial airlines reduced their flight schedules, particularly cutting nighttime arrivals. Arriving planes were virtually empty, while departing ones were full.
Lucy Valenti, president of Nicaragua’s Chamber of Tourism, was the first and thus far only representative of a guild in the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP) to publicly ask Ortega tp resign, noting that any self-respecting head of a parliamentary government would already have done so in response to such a massive vote of no-confidence. She estimated losses just in the tourism industry at US$200 million as early as June and job losses at half of the 120,000 formally employed in that industry.
At the end of June, the president of the Central Bank had to acknowledge that the target growth rate set by the government for 2018 of between 4.5% and 5% was no longer realistic: growth would be no higher than 1.5% and could end up as low as 0.5%. Only hours after the Central Bank issued its new calculation, the Nicaraguan Foundation for Economic and Social Development (FUNIDES) released an even more negative report. It projected that “after 72 days of crisis and the government’s unwillingness to seek a negotiated solution,” the economy in 2018 had already lost more than US$600 million and could lose $1.4 billion. It estimated that the year would close with negative growth, with the GDP falling between 0.03% and 5.6% relative to last year and announced that 215,000 jobs had already been lost throughout the country.
The sudden massive unemployment and fear of the government’s pro-active violence, both of which only threatened to get worse, led hundreds of people, especially the young, to stand in line every day at migration offices and foreign consulates seeking passports or visas to leave the country. With the economy in a nosedive and emigration on a steep growth curve, the only source of income expected to increase was family remittances.
“It’s a coup d’état by the oligarchy”
Juan Sebastián Chamorro, executive director of FUNIDES and a member of the Civic Alliance, described it as a “historic” economic crisis, adding that there hasn’t been as large a recession coming out of a situation of positive growth” since 1978, the year the insurrection against Somoza entered its final stage. He considered it very hard to predict how long it would take the economy to recover. Some analysts calculated that the economic consequences of the political crisis as of June had already exceeded the damage that would have been caused by the US Congress approving the Nica Act, aimed mainly at instructing US representatives to international financing institutions to vote against Nicaraguan government loan requests. While two versions of the bill had passed the House since it was first introduced in 2016, they were stagnated in the Senate due to strong lobbying by Nicaraguan big business and the Ortega government.
The FUNIDES estimates were followed a few days later by new government figures accompanied by an interpretation of the crisis by the Nicaraguan Treasury Minister Iván Acosta. He put the job losses at a quarter of a million and blamed them on “a coup d’état to the country’s stability and economy” caused by “the oligarchy in the name of institutionality.” Huh?
A policy of vengeance
The regime’s terror strategy and option for chaos added a new element in June: vengeance. To get even with the business elite for their “betrayal” and try to intimidate them while he was about it, Ortega ordered a well-organized campaign of invading private farms and farmlands.
With the land invasion plan, the governing couple, acting for all the world like a pouty spoiled child, “got even” with the entrepreneurs who had supported mobilizations, protests, roadblocks or participated in the national dialogue. The future impact of this promoted anarchy will make it harder to resolve the still-pending property problems that swept the country following the land confiscations of the 1980s.
The Union of Agricultural Producers of Nicaragua, one of COSEP’s business chambers and a representative of the business sector in the Civic Alliance, reported in a June 20 communique on “an unconscionable increase in illegal invasions of farms belonging to our associates, violating the right to private property, which began to be recorded in the first week of June in León and Chinandega and has extended to areas of Managua, Rivas and Estelí.” The invaded properties range between 35 and 500 hectares. By the end of the month 2,800 hectares of agricultural lands had been occupied and by November the number had risen to 5,000. The police later forcibly evicted some invaders because in the prevailing chaos they had taken over state lands or those belonging to the presidential family or near relatives.
finally reached the OAS
The determination of those rebelling against the government has needed international support from the outset, but the international community, for better or for worse, was slow to respond. June finally brought the beginnings of international pressure on Ortega, who is increasingly isolated and with ever fewer friends.
On June 5, Nicaragua’s crisis unexpectedly found its way onto the day’s agenda of the OAS General Assembly meeting in Washington, which was supposed to be dedicated to the issue of Venezuela. It was an enormous achievement for the Civic Alliance’s delegation, which had traveled to Washington to make Nicaragua’s voice heard and attract greater continent-wide attention to events in Nicaragua.
The US and Nicaraguan governments surprisingly presented a joint “Declaration of Support for the People of Nicaragua” which was promptly adopted. The brief declaration condemned and called for “immediate cessation of acts of violence, intimidation, and threats directed against the general public” but did not specifically hold the government responsible for them.
Carlos Trujillo, the new US ambassador to the OAS, was more explicit when speaking in the Assembly’s plenary session than he had apparently been when negotiating the declaration. He explained that it marked only the start of the OAS member states’ involvement in Nicaragua’s grave situation and was aimed at stopping the violence perpetrated against the population by the government and its supporters and eliminating the anti-democratic practices the government has instituted in its decade in power. He clarified afterwards that, in line with OAS procedures, the only way to get a declaration of this type was with the Nicaraguan government’s backing.
The declaration’s sixth and final point was an invitation to the IACHR to brief the OAS Permanent Council as soon as possible on the results of its May 17-21, 2018, working visit to Nicaragua to observe the human rights situation there. It would turn out to be a pivotal point.
“No negotiation as long as there’s violence”
Trujillo arrived in Nicaragua on June 19, 10 days after McCarry, for a two-day visit during which he also spoke with the bishops, members of the Civic Alliance and Ortega. Although both Trujillo and those he conversed with were circumspect in their statements afterward, the visit’s specific purpose was clear by the end: to get Ortega to invite the European Union and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to visit Nicaragua and allow the IACHR to return, which Ortega had insistently rejected in the national dialogue.
Days later, in an interview with La Prensa, Trujillo commented briefly on his meeting with Ortega: “We told him that the United States is very concerned about the violence and we are keeping ourselves informed about the people responsible for it because one day they will be tried for these crimes. As long as there is violence there will be no negotiation.”
Four Nicaraguans sanctioned
by the Global Magnitsky Act
On July 5 Trujillo’s words were shown to be true. The US Treasury Department applied the Global Magnitsky Act to three more Nicaraguans in Ortega’s closest circle: Francisco Díaz, de facto police chief and an in-law of Ortega and Murillo; Francisco López, wearer of more than a few financial hats crucial to the government and governing party; and Fidel Moreno, FSLN political secretary in Managua.
The US State Department communique explained that Díaz “has engaged in serious human rights abuses against the people of Nicaragua,” Moreno “has directed acts of violence committed by Sandinista Youth and pro-government armed groups which have been implicated in numerous human rights abuses related to the ongoing protests against the Nicaraguan government,” and López “is vice president of ALBANISA, president of Petronic and treasurer of the ruling FSLN party, and has been accused of leveraging his position to his and his family’s benefit by using companies they own to win government contracts…”
“As a result of today’s actions,” the State Department explained, “any property or interest in property of those designated within US jurisdiction is blocked. Additionally, US persons are generally prohibited from engaging in transactions with blocked persons, including entities owned or controlled by designated persons.”
Ortega showed no sign of change…but Almagro did
Before April Ortega was clearly confident he would finish his term in 2021 and be able to cut a deal with OAS Secretary General Almagro, with whom he had already signed a plan to that effect, by only implementing a few reforms to the profoundly tainted electoral system.
But with the arrival of the Nicaraguan situation to the OAS in June, Almagro began to change the language he was using to interpret the crisis. When parapolice forces set fire to a house in an eastern Managua neighborhood on June 16, killing six people including two children, that criminal act aroused greater international reaction than anything the government had done previously. For the first time, Almagro referred to it as an act of “repression,” on Twitter, and described it as a “crime against humanity” that “cannot go unpunished.” A few days later, when Ortega’s ruthless “clean-up operation” got underway in Monimbó, Almagro tweeted again: “The people of Masaya have demonstrated their heroism in the darkest pages of Nicaragua’s history. We condemn any kind of attack on the life and security of the residents of Ticuantepe, Nindirí, Masaya and the Pueblos Blancos.”
The greatest change in Almagro’s language up to that point, however, came on June 22 in the OAS headquarters in Washington. It was the day the IACHR presented its final report on Nicaragua to the OAS Permanent Council and the first time in 15 years the Council had met to hear any IACHR report.
Almagro preceded the presentation with a few words, referring to “the repression,” but still not holding the Ortega regime responsible for it. The most important change was that he eliminated 2021 from the electoral calendar, instead proposing other earlier dates that ranged between March and August 2019.
“This report doesn’t fully
express Nicaragua’s drama”
IACHR executive secretary Paulo Abrão then prefaced the reading of the report to the plenary by saying “This document is incapable of fully expressing the drama people in Nicaragua are experiencing today;” and IACHR rapporteur for Nicaragua Antonia Urrejola asked the Permanent Council members present to stand for a minute’s silence in memory of the victims of violence.
The final report repeated information already contained in the preliminary report presented in Managua on May 21, ratified the identified patterns of state violence and updated the figures. An attachment listed the names of all those who died in the first two months of the insurrection. The report also added 9 more recommendations to the 15 it made to the government in the preliminary report, most of which it still hasn’t complied with despite having agreed to them.
It’s “notably one-sided”
Foreign Minister for Nicaragua Denis Moncada, present at the meeting, rejected the report out of hand calling it “subjective, skewed and notably one-sided.” Not stopping there, he attributed everything happening in Nicaragua to “the destabilizing of a legitimate government” that started, according to him, with the “fake news” of a death in the Central American University on April 18. Although he offered no details about his allegation, he claimed it triggered all the deaths, detentions, disappearances, injuries, lootings, fires and other destruction that has happened since...
After the reading of the report 13 countries spoke for the record. Eleven of them (Mexico, Peru, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Colombia, Canada and the United States) praised the report, called for an end to the violence in Nicaragua and spoke in favor of a democratic, constitutional and peaceful solution within the framework of the national dialogue. Only Bolivia and Venezuela openly supported the Ortega government, the former very cautiously. Venezuela, in contrast, claimed the Nicaraguan crisis evidenced “the same media, narratives and spokespeople” employed against the Venezuelan government. Venezuelan President Maduro’s representative rejected the “malicious IACHR report” and the “precipitated way” the OAS session had been organized.
None of Central America’s three Northern Triangle countries (El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala) took the floor, fearing to be singled out for the human rights problems taking place in their own countries. Neither did any of the small Caribbean countries, which receive Venezuelan oil in concessional terms through the Petrocaribe agreement. At the end of the session, the OAS Permanent Council president announced an upcoming session “to follow up on what’s happening in Nicaragua.”
The rest of the world
begins to take interest
As a result of international pressure, human rights monitoring teams began arriving in Nicaragua in June to observe events and investigate the crimes committed.
On Sunday June 24, the Follow-Up Mechanism for Nicaragua (MESENI), comprising three people from the IACHR technical team, arrived to coordinate work with representatives of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, whose delegation arrived the following day, to assure respect for human rights in the country via its own actions and suggestions to the State. Just in its first week here (June 25 – July 1), the MESENI team confirmed 18 violent deaths and “multiple people wounded in the context of the protests.” It also verified one of the most common actions of the regime’s terror policy: “selective acts of repression manifested in arbitrary detentions, breaking into houses in search of people who participated in protests and roadblocks.” In addition, it received “abundant information from people forced to flee their homes to hide in safe houses in other parts of the country and from those who fled the country seeking international protection and requesting asylum.”
On July 3 the four members of the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI) arrived to look into compliance with the IACHR’s first 15 recommendations and specifically investigate what happened between April 18 and May 30. They were scheduled to be here for six months, at which time they would issue their report, but their stay could be extended for another six months if need be. Paulo Abrão said the GIEI’s mission would be “to classify conducts, identify those responsible and come up with a comprehensive plan of attention to the victims.”
The desperation, impatience and impotence felt by the victims and their families, in fact the entire population, given the terror promoted by the government exceeds the influence and power these international institutions have to halt the repression and punish those responsible. Their mandate isn’t to pacify the country, judge or sanction, it is merely to document events, recommend guidelines for improving respect for human rights and conduct independent investigations of crimes. Judging and punishing are tasks for the national justice system (the public prosecutor general’s office and the judicial branch of government in general). The dilemma is that in Nicaragua these institutions are headed by officials who have loyally obeyed Ortega’s will for 11 years.
The march of the flowers
Even though May ended in a bloodbath, the country has done its best to resist the fear sown by the strategy of terror. On June 30, one month after the massacre during the massive Mothers’ Day march in Managua, the capital’s streets again filled with an estimated 100,000 people carrying the blue and white national flag in the “march of the flowers,” held in memory of the children and teenagers killed since April.
The first one killed, 15-year-old Álvaro Conrado, was shot dead by police snipers on April 20 while taking water to university students seeking refuge in the Cathedral of Managua. The last by the date of the march was 14-month-old Teyler Lorío, killed by a paramilitary bullet while being carried in his father’s arms.
Other “marches of the flowers” demonstrating grassroots resistance to the terror were held in Matagalpa, Somoto, Ocotal, León and in other places that same day. They were matched by vigils with flowers, lights, blue and white flags and Nicaraguan songs in 90 cities in 30 countries around the world, in which local citizens joined in solidarity with Nicaraguans living and working in their countries on behalf of justice and democracy at home.