The six phases of state repression against the civic uprising
“Nicaragua’s human rights crisis is one of the
most serious in the Americas in recent decades,”
said Antonia Urrejola, rapporteur for Nicaragua of the
Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).
“The grave number of victims we have recorded
in the short period of time involved
is one of the most concerning elements,”
added Joel Hernández, the IACHR rapporteur
on the Rights of Persons Deprived of Liberty.
“Such a large universe of people subjected to detention
and penal processes with so many due process violations
is unprecedented in Latin America’s recent history.
This ongoing crisis has involved various phases
of repression over the past 16 months.
We are now in the sixth…
Elvira Cuadra Lira
Ever since the civic insurrection kicked off in April 2018, the government of Daniel Ortega has responded to the massive peaceful protests with repressive actions involving the police force, shock groups of pro-government youths, and paramilitary bands made up of former army and police personnel and fanatic historical FSLN militants and sympathizers.
At least six different phases of repression can be identified between April 2018 and July 2019, each characterized by how the repressive forces acted and the consequences of those actions. In each phase the overall objective has been the same: to eliminate the protests and block the civic movement. But as it proved impossible to put a definitive stop to the civic movement’s protests and other actions, each phase has also had its own specific objective, even in the strongest moments of the repression.
The first phase occurred in the first weeks of April 2018 and the main participants were regular police forces and pro-government shock groups made up of young undercover police officers or at-risk youths attracted by the violence.
At that time the objective was to dissuade the protestors. The repressive actions were similar to the bully-stick tactics previously used against other mobilizations and protests. This time, however, the demonstrations continued mounting all over the country, quickly outstripping the capacity of the police to break them up, even when they began employing lethal force as of April 19. The first mass march was called by private enterprise and held in Managua on April 23. The second, also in Managua five days later, was called by the Catholic Church. The fact that they brought out hundreds of thousands of people led the government to redefine its strategy of repression and reorganize its forces.
The second phase began with the National Police in crisis due to the intensity of the protests. It began acting erratically in a useless attempt to halt the marches and other forms of protest occurring all over the country.
This phase was very brief, as the police and shock groups were overwhelmed by the level of social mobilization, even though they were now aided by highly trained anti-riot police armed with assault weapons.
At this point the government decided to call up and deploy paramilitary groups, including skilled snipers, who took to the streets in mid-May and began to employ a much higher level of force and lethal violence than in previous weeks. The May 30 Mother’s March in Managua was the culminating point of the repressive actions of this second phase and marked a turning point toward the next one.
The third phase of state repression consisted of what the government dubbed “Operation Clean-up,” implemented by the regular and special police forces and paramilitary groups.
It included quasi-military armed attacks against the highway roadblocks in the different parts of the country and the elimination of the barricades and focal points of civic resistance in various cities, particularly in Masaya, but also in other departments including Carazo and Jinotega. It also included an attack on the UNAN-Managua university campus, which was occupied by students and other youths. Operation Clean-up also included armed attacks on several marches in Managua and other cities, none as large as the estimated half a million in the Mother’s March. This third phase lasted from July to September 2018.
In the fourth phase, the selective imprisonment of civic movement leaders intensified, as did the persecution of journalists and the closing, searching and arbitrary confiscation of media and nongovernmental organizations and their equipment. Marches and other forms of protest were totally prohibited. The main objective of this phase, which lasted from October 2018 to January 2019, was to decapitate the civic movement by jailing its most recognized leaders and silencing the voices of denunciation.
These repressive actions were implemented by police forces and paramilitaries.
The characteristics of the fifth phase of repression were hounding, surveillance, harassment and intimidation against any expression of protest. There were also selective kidnappings, mainly conducted by the police. This phase covered the months of February to early June of this year, a period in which negotiations resumed between the government and the Civic Alliance and various groups of political prisoners were released from prison.
We are now in a sixth phase of repression, the purpose of which is to prevent any marches, mobilizations or other protest actions given that that the civic movement is showing signs of renewed energy following the release of most political prisoners. The objective is to keep the movement’s leaders, mainly those recently let out of prison, inactive and under siege. The most notable actions are:
• Extensive police deployment in cities and important urban centers to keep any civic protest activity such as marches or what have come to be known as “express pickets” from even gathering at the assigned point.
·• Police kidnappings of released prisoners and other citizens suspected of participating in civic activities. Those picked up are interrogated and threatened, but generally released the same day or a few of days later.
·• Constant surveillance, harassment and threats against former political prisoners and their families by police and paramilitary groups.
·• Reorganization of paramilitary groups in various cities. The newly organized structures mainly include former army and police personnel and fanaticized militants carefully chosen for their level of loyalty to the regime. These groups have focused on kidnapping and forcibly disappearing social leaders, using weapons of war as a form of intimidation and keeping social leaders under vigilance.
• Actions by paramilitary groups in rural zones, with police consent and the guarantee of impunity. These groups conduct the kidnappings and selective executions of local social leaders.
• ·Participation of paramilitary groups in simulated robberies, assaults and other criminal actions that appear to be common crimes but in reality are aimed at generating insecurity and fear among the population.
An increase in murders in rural areas has been observed since the last quarter of 2018, i.e. since the fourth phase of repression. The victims of a good number of these crimes are social and political leaders linked to the civic movement or to opposition political parties.
The media reported 29 such cases between October 2018 and mid-July 2019. Various common elements related to the murderers identified in these cases suggest a pattern. One is that the majority of cases (21) seem politically motivated, with only 8 linked in any way to common crime. The political linkage is either based on the victims all belonging to opposition political parties, the Nicaraguan Resistance (formerly known as Contras) or the civic movement, or because there is reason to assume that the killings were committed by paramilitary groups.
Moreover, while the circumstances of the killings simulate common crimes, witnesses or relatives fingered police or paramilitaries as the perpetrators. Most of the murders (at least 28) were committed with firearms, including assault weapons, with two or more persons participating in the shooting in 20 cases. The majority of yhe victims bore signs of malice, as they were shot at least twice. In some cases it was observed that the murders involved groups of even more than two people, who used motorcycles or trucks to get away, denoting a certain level of organization and premeditation.
Yet another characteristic is the high geographic concentration of the cases, which are all in the northern part of the country. The department of Jinotega had the highest number of cases (20) followed by Matagalpa (7).
There is no doubt that the increase in violence and insecurity throughout the country is a direct consequence of the crisis Nicaragua has been living through since April 2018. One of the main reasons is that the National Police has stopped its ordinary functions and missions to dedicate itself to repressive activities. Secondly, the government has encouraged and facilitated the creation, actions and impunity of the paramilitary groups of fanaticized sympathizers. And thirdly there is a clear policy of criminali¬zation, persecution, surveillance and aggression against social leaders, especially released political prisoners and those living in rural zones, who historically have tended to be more anti-Sandinista.
Elvira Cuadra Lira is a sociologist and security expert. The above is a preview of a broader investigation currently underway with the collaboration of Indira Mayorga.