By Toby Hill, Managua – Police officer Armando Reyes was at work when he first saw the footage on TV: a young man with a bullet hole in his head, falling off the back of a motorcycle. But it wasn’t until he watched it a second time, hours later, that he recognised who the man was: his son, 34-year-old Francisco Reyes Zapata.
“He was shot by a police sniper,” said Mr Reyes, who has worked as a police officer in Nicaragua for four decades. “All those years of service, and they kill my son like a dog,” he told The Telegraph.
Francisco spent his last day marching through Managua with tens of thousands of protesters, during a protest dedicated to the more than 80 mothers who had lost children since protests began, seven weeks earlier.
The protesters were demanding the resignation of president Daniel Ortega, the leftist former revolutionary hanging on to power.
A rebel uprising is threatening to topple the despot who fought with the Left-wing Sandinistas to free Nicaragua from the dictatorship in the 1970s but has since fallen out of favour over corruption under his increasingly authoritarian rule.
With every wave of demonstrations, his increasingly fragile grip on the country is loosening. And with each violent crackdown on protesters, more evidence is mounting that his administration is ordering the remaining loyal security forces of “executing” citizens with sniper fire.
On the day Francisco was killed, shooting broke out suddenly as the march reached the University of Central America. Thousands took refuge on campus. At least twelve people were killed and dozens more injured by the gunfire.
The Nicaraguan government denies that state forces attacked protesters, blaming the violence on “opposition groups with specific political agendas.” But Mr Reyes – who fought with Sandinista guerrillas in the seventies, before joining the newly formed police force in 1980 – is certain they are responsible.
Medics who treated casualties of the shooting agree. Ricardo Pineda also fought with Sandinistas, before retraining as a doctor during the war against the US-backed Contras. He now serves on the executive board of the Nicaraguan Medical Association.
“I saw cases of huge cranial damage caused by bullets fired from an elevated position, hundreds of metres from the target,” Mr Pineda told The Telegraph. He concludes that professional snipers, several armed with Dragunov rifles, ambushed the march, firing on protesters from Managua’s National Stadium.
“Only the police or army could have access to these weapons, or be able to fire with such precision,” Mr Pineda added.
Protests began in Nicaragua on April 18, after the government pushed through social security reforms that cut pensions and disability payments.
They were initially led by students, but the first wave of killings spurred many from poorer urban neighbourhoods, traditionally supportive of the government, to join the uprising.
“A lot of people didn’t support the students at first, but most have turned against the government,” said Otaniel Pavon, a construction worker from Niquinohomo. “There’s no going back now. Ortega has to go.”
As a Sandinista Commander in the 1970s, Ortega helped spearhead the Nicaraguan revolution against Dictator Anastasio Somoza.
x A masked protester shoots his homemade mortar in the Monimbo neighborhood Credit: AP Photo/Esteban Felix
He led Nicaragua through the eighties, as his Sandinista government resisted continual attacks by the Contras, the opposition insurgency funded through a secret US arms deal with Iran.
After losing elections in 1990, he spent 17 years in the political wilderness, before returning to power in 2007.
Since then, many accuse him of instituting an authoritarian regime that’s stifled opposition and dismantled Nicaragua’s democracy. As a result, they hold him directly responsible for the lethal violence that’s swept Nicaragua since protests began.
The Nicaraguan Centre for Human Rights (CENIDH) puts the death toll at 129. Most of these deaths resulted from gunshots to the head, chest or stomach.
“This is state terrorism,” said Vilma Nunez, President of CENIDH. “They want to generate so much fear that people don’t dare protest.”
The Mother’s Day march was not the first time the Nicaraguan state has been accused of using snipers to subdue these protests. Amnesty International describes “a strategy of lethal repression,” including “a high number of cases that could be considered extrajudicial executions”.
An investigation by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) also found evidence of “extrajudicial executions,” performed by “snipers in locations such as the National Stadium.”
The National Police has carried out most of the killings, according to Roberto Orozco, an expert on security and organised crime in Nicaragua. Snipers are trained in an elite unit, the Police Special Operations Directorate (DOEP).
The Ortega government has agreed to allow international experts into Nicaragua to investigate the violence. However, while they should have the independence to identify those responsible, they will only help bring people to justice if their evidence is admitted into Nicaragua’s courts.
“If Nicaragua refuses to do this, we could see a case brought at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights,” said Marcia Aguilez, a Central America expert at the Centre for Justice and International Law.
For now, the protests in Nicaragua will continue. And every time there’s more violence, the ranks of the protesters grow.
“It’s not just my son, they’ve killed so many innocent people,” said Armando Reyes. “This man has to go.”
Paramedics do not bring wounded protesters to public hospital, because state-employed doctors have been ordered not to treat them.
Medics who defy this rule risk losing their jobs.
Alexander Rodriguez, previously employed at Managua’s Military Hospital, volunteered to treat wounded protesters during his holiday: “I received a call from the hospital director saying they didn’t need my services anymore. He told me: ‘You know what you’re doing. This is a direct order from above.’”
Instead, doctors working unpaid at Managua’s biggest private hospitals, Vivian Pellas and Bautista, are tending to injured protesters.
One doctor, who withheld their name for security reasons, showed The Sunday Telegraph a dozen x-ray images of gunshot victims.
“Again and again, they target the lethal triangle of the head, neck and thorax,” the medic explained.
“They are not shooting to scare or subdue protesters. They are shooting to kill.”
Article originally appeared on The Telegraph