|Central American University - UCA
Number 458 | Agosto 2019
The beginning of the April uprising…
Fifteen months after the April uprising,
the Ortega regime continues to insist
that it was an extremely violent coup d’état.
All official statements emphasize this version of events.
The regime has made documentaries they screen in schools
and has written a 300-page book to prove the coup
and the coup-mongers’ violence…
The non-violent beginnings of April’s events
were documented by the GIEI delegation,
to whom the regime provided neither
answers nor access to case files or evidence
from the cases corresponding to the period
examined by the GIEI (April 18–May 30, 2018).
This section of its report describes the characteristics,
primarily peaceful, of the actions of those
who began the protests.
Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI)
Regardless of the specific nature of all the events examined by the GIEI, the protests were at first peaceful.
Use of mortars
The marches, the gatherings at universities and their occupation, and even the roadblocks—begun as temporary measures and not as total, permanent barriers—were initially nonviolent scenarios.
Nevertheless, they were violently repressed from the beginning by the National Police and pro-government shock groups. This occurred in Managua, León, Masaya, Matagalpa and other places.
Gradually, some of the individuals participating in the protests started carrying mortars and rocks to defend themselves from the attacks that were happening, in the context of an escalated repression which, on April 19th and 20th, had already produced a large number of dead and injured protesters by gunshot wounds.
From then onwards, the protests became more heterogeneous. As a general rule, there was a large number of individuals participating without any kind of defensive or offensive instruments, along with some individuals who were bearing such items.
Although mortars have a festive purpose in cultural and religious celebrations in Nicaragua, they can also be loaded with marbles, little rocks, nails and broken glass, etc. In some cases, these artifacts can produce serious injuries, if fired from a short distance. In this regard, the case of police officer Damaris de Jesús Martínez Hernández is illustrative. She suffered wounds from mortars in the vicinity of UNI on April 20th, 2018, including serious burns in the legs and genitals, with loss of tissue and serious abrasions. According to the available information, however, including 25 autopsies and some investigation files to which the GIEI had access, there were no cases of deaths caused by mortars.
Use of firearms
While the violence of the repression increased, protesters started using, other than mortars, Molotov bombs, artisanal weapons and, in some cases, industrialized firearms. With regard to the latter, the abundant audiovisual material examined by the GIEI, corresponding to the whole period under its jurisdiction, indicates that the protesters carrying firearms did not amount to one dozen. In the videos that were examined, only one individual is seen shooting a firearm at the National Stadium during the March of the Mothers. This is not to say, obviously, that this was the unique case, it is merely the only one caught on camera.
The GIEI repeatedly requested from the State information about these incidents, and even asked for the video footage which—according to other videos—was recorded by police officers or related personnel. That evidence could provide more information about this topic. Many videos show images of members of the National Police or individuals presumaby linked to them video-recording the incidents during the repression of many protests, such as the ones in Masaya, Bluefields and Managua, at various times, including the March of the Mothers on May 30th. However, the GIEI did not receive any response.
Gunshots in La Trinidad, Estelí
Not with standing the absence of audiovisual recordings, there are other elements to infer that, during some of the events under examination, some individuals participating in the protests might have concretely used firearms against members of the National Police or the pro-government groups.
Even though it has not been possible to determine with certainty, it is possible to assert with a high degree of proba¬bility that, at least during the events which took place on May 30th in the La Trinidad Municipality (Department of Estelí), the individuals behind the roadblock or local residents who were supporting the former used firearms during the confrontation that took place with police forces and participants in the FSLN convoy which meant to break the roadblock and head towards Managua to participate in a pro-government ceremony that day, the same day at the same time as the March of the Mothers.
In fact, testimonies received by the GIEI indicate that the local residents were carrying firearms, which they effectively used to repel the attempt by the Police to dismantle the roadblock. One of our interviewees recounted.
“There were casualties among the paramilitary, because the locals are cowboys, they were all armed, with shotguns. On that day, a pro-government convoy was trying to get to Ortega’s ceremony in Managua, […] passing through the roadblock, the protesters would not let them pass. Commissioner Ruiz from Estelí showed up and gave them some time to free the passage, or else he would “eliminate them.” There were buses filled with ‘Sandinistas’ and a confrontation was inevitable. The local farmers joined the protesters and crossfire began, the farmers firing their shotguns, and the police their AK rifles.”
Other elements seem to confirm this version. Two out of the three individuals who died during this incident were members of the convoy heading towards Managua. They were Dariel Stiven Gutiérrez Ríos and Jairo Antonio Osorio Raudales, who, according to various news media, were young Sandinista activists who were in the convoy. The third dead victim was Darwin Alexander Salgado Vilchez. According to the press, he was a local resident who was returning home from work when he was shot.
According to the National Police, 11 police were hospitalized that day due to gunshot wounds during this confrontation. Some videos examined by the GIEI show individuals who were presumably at the roadblock celebrating the withdrawal of the police.
Others show images of the confrontation in which members of the convoy are running away, while shouting that they are firing at them. The National Police can be seen in some of those images. There is an ongoing judicial investigation about this, but the Government has not allowed the GIEI to have access to the files, despite the reiterated requests submitted.
A clear-cut case
There is also the case of José David Oviedo Martinez, who died from a gunshot wound. According to the information obtained by the GIEI, on May 25th, 2018, at around 9 pm, José David, who was a private security guard, arrived on a motorcycle at one of the roadblocks set up in the vicinity of UNAN, drew his gun and fired at the protesters. Then, he was shot in the chest by one of the individuals who was behind the barricade.
According to the available information, he received medical assistance at an improvised medical post on the UNAN campus, and was already dead when transferred to a hospital. The students at the roadblock confiscated his belongings, including his firearm, and later delivered them to a human rights organization as evidence.
Many cases in doubt
The National Police and other sources related to the Government (pro-government media or civil servants) have publicly attributed the responsibility for some deaths under the GIEI’s jurisdiction to participants in the protests. However, most of these accusations were generic, and typically used general language such as “delinquents,” “oppositionists” or “groups of individuals”, without concretely identifying the perpetrators or any other details that might make it possible to analyze their veracity.
In many of these cases, there are elements that cast doubts about the official version, whereas in others it has been proven that they are simply false. The doubtful incidents include, for instance, the public accusations by the mayor of Matagalpa regarding the deaths of Wilder David Reyes Hernández and José Alfredo Urroz Jirón, examined by the GIEI in the course of analyzing the events that took place on May 15 in Matagalpa. As previously mentioned, although the mayor publicly attributed responsibility to the protestors for their deaths, some versions heard by the GIEI indicate that the perpetrators may have been police officers or members of pro-government shock groups.
Other examples of cases regarding which there is insufficient evidence refer to Juana Francisca Aguilar Cano and Douglas José Mendiola Viales, members of the National Police who died from gunshot wounds supposedly perpetrated by protesters, according to the official public version.
Inspector Aguilar Cano was shot in the head near the Cristo Rei traffic circle, on April 21st, 2018. The pro-government media immediately reported that this death was caused by the protesters. However, it is curious to note that the National Police did not issue any official communication with its version about the circumstances of the event.
In the case of Mr. Mendiola Viales, who died from a head gunshot wound on May 28th, the Police specifically attributed responsibility for his death to groups of hooded individuals who were in the vicinity of Radio Ya when the building was set on fire, but the GIEI has not had access to any corroborating evidence.
These cases cast some doubts about the public accusations formulated against “groups of protesters.” What is worse, there are other cases in which—contrary to the official sources—it has been demonstrated that the perpetrators were actually police forces or members of shock groups.
In this regard, it is exemplary to mention the police’s version regarding the incidents surrounding the March of the Mothers, when the police publicly attributed responsibility for the death of many victims to “groups of delinquents” who allegedly attacked the participants of the pro-government parallel event. On the contrary, it has been confirmed that, at least three victims included in that communiqué were protesters against the government who died as a result of actions perpetrated by the National Police or pro-government shock groups. One of these victims is Francisco Javier Reyes Zapata, who was murdered during a violent attack directly perpetrated by police forces and civilians acting in coordination with the police.
Who killed them?
In addition to the aforementioned examples, in which the attribution of responsibility was generic and without details, there are other cases in which individuals were concretely charged in criminal proceedings for certain deaths. In most of these cases, despite several requests for information from the State, the lack of access to the records makes it difficult to draw conclusions about the perpetrators of these crimes regarding whether or not they can be properly attributed to protestors.
There are cases whose files or part of them were examined by the GIEI—through alternate sources—that had een publicized as examples of violence perpetrated by the protesters, but the available information is inconclusive as to whether those responsible for the deaths were participants in the protests.
One example is the case of Hilton Rafael Manzanares Alvarado, deputy inspector of the Direction of Special Operations of the National Police (DOEP), who was shot on April 19th, 2018, in the vicinity of UPOLI. The National Police immediately issued a press release attributing responsibility to “groups of vandals who came from the Polytechnic University (UPOLI)”, and the Vice President mentioned this victim, among other cases, in a statement on the same day of the event when she condemned the “hate crimes […] that had been perpetrated” on that date in the country.
A while later, the President of Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega, also mentioned this case, among others, in relation to the protests, as follows: “pay attention, they say that their struggle is legitimate; so, who killed Major Commissioner Luis Emilio López Bustos, from the National Police? Who killed Captain Hilton Rafael Man¬zanares Alvarado, from the National Police? Who killed […]?” and continued listing specific cases.
What did we finding judicial records?
Even if one disregards the possibility that—due to the angle of the shot and other pieces of evidence—the victim was killed by a gunshot (possibly accidental) coming from his own colleagues, the fact is that even a limited examination of the judicial records related to the defendant in this case is enough to discredit the public attribution of this death to oppositionist demonstrators.
As a matter of fact, on October 2nd, 2018, Carlos Alberto Bonilla López was convicted for this murder. Other than the serious deficiencies laid out about this case in another chapter (the investigation was plagued with irregularities, and the conviction was solely based on the testimonies of two police who accompanied Mr. Manzanares during the operation), the judgment noticeably does not mention at all that the defendant was participating in the protests against the government.
The judgment indicates that the group of police was trying to displace individuals who “were blocking traffic through roadblocks,” but it placed the defendant at a place other than the roadblock, and indicates that he attacked the police from the back precisely when they managed to force the protesters to retreat. On top of that, one of Mr. Bonilla’s neighbors—the only defense witness allowed during the trial—mentioned that he was a member of the Sandinista Youth Movement. His defense also presented a certificate granted to the defendant by District 7 of the Sandinista Council—“a political stamp of approval on behalf of the defendant,” according to the judgment. After his conviction, some media outlets divulged statements from individuals who allegedly were relatives of Mr. Bonilla, which claimed that he was convicted because he refused “to be paramilitary” and serve the government.
In a sum, without detriment to other aspects of this process that might be questioned, it is worth mentioning that not even the judgment issued by the judicial system of Nicaragua was able to attribute the victim’s death to a protester, contrary to the early public attempts.
They deny us information
Similarly, the circumstances of the death of Christian Emilio Cadenas at least cast some doubts about the official version, which was divulged by pro-government media and publicly attributed responsibility to students of León who were protesting against the government.
As indicated in a previous section, many young members of the 19 de abril Movement were charged with causing the fire at CUUN and also this victim’s death. The indictment included serious contradictions, and even the victim’s family members discredit that version.
0poWith regard to the events which took place at UPOLI, some of them also resulted in formal charges against individuals who were presumably participating in the protests against the government. In that regard, there is evidence that many violent events took place inside the university, including acts of torture against at least two individuals. The victims were protesters.
The GIEI received information which indicates that the students (—or most of them)—abandoned the premises precisely because of those incidents, since the groups who took control were unrelated to the protests
It is also worth mentioning the case of Pánfila Alvarado Urbina who, according to her family’s statement before the press, was being removed in an ambulance to José Nieborowski Hospital due to high blood pressure and cardiac failure, on May 24th, 2018. When the ambulance tried to pass through the roadblock at Empalme de Boaco (—on the road between Teustepe and Boaco)—protesters blocked the passage and assaulted the elderly woman and those who accompanied her.
According to her family, due to the foregoing she could not receive adequate medical assistance upon arriving at the hospital, and she died in the afternoon. The GIEI requested information about this case, as all others, and asked to interview her family, but the State denied the requests. Thus it is impossible to draw conclusions about the circumstances of her death.
Primarily peaceful protests
Lastly, the GIEI was able to document other types of violence actually perpetrated by the protesters. In this regard, it is worth mentioning the destruction of some “trees of life,” the various arson incidents at pro-government Radio Ya, and the fire at CARUNA Coop, which were previously examined in this report. The attack against El Comandito, at the Monimbó neighborhood in Masaya, was also already examined. Upon examining the incidents that took place in Matagalpa on May 15th, the GIEI also observed that the Comisionato premises were partially destroyed by fire after the police and shock groups tried to disperse the nearby roadblocks.
In a sum, it is clear that some expressions of violence were gradually observed during some of the protests. Also, they occurred in the context of violent repression against protests that were initially peaceful. As a general rule, those actions were perpetrated by certain individuals in the midst of massive crowds which included an immense majority of peaceful demonstrators.
Therefore, whatever specific nature of the protest, they were all composed of this nonuniform mixture and, although they gradually displayed violent actions as the repression became more violent, the protests always preserved a majority participation of individuals who were peacefully demonstrating.
It is also possible to assert that the violent actions perpetrated by individuals linked with the protests invariably occurred during the repression thereof or during incidents related to the repression—when marches were repressed, when occupied universities were invaded, or when there was an attempt to disperse the roadblocks.
It is revealing that the GIEI did not detect violent events against pro-government marches or ceremonies. In line with the foregoing, the GIEI notes that the violent actions perpetrated by protesters were not organized or planned. It is evident that even the arson incidents against Radio Ya or CARUNA Coop, or the destruction of Comandito (Monimbó) or of Comisariato (Matagalpa), were not planned actions or attacks against government property, but rather took place during scenarios of violence related to the repression of protests.
It was state-sponsored violence
Lastly, it must be noted that the violent actions launched by the National Police and the parapolice groups were not a response to the violent actions which were gradually perpetrated by certain individuals participating in the protests. On the contrary, the State-sponsored violence against the legitimate exercise of the right to protest was what triggered some violent actions by certain protesters.
Nevertheless, these violent actions must also be investigated and their perpetrators punished. To that end, there must be objective and impartial investigations and trials with due process of law.
Chapter 7 -B of the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts report presented in Washington, DC to the OAS on December 21, 2018. Subheadings and light editing by envío.