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Masaya: Nicaragua’s Sandinista Stronghold is a city ‘at war’ with the president

Daniel Ortega makes yearly pilgrimages to Masaya. But in the cradle of Sandinismo, residents demand his exit

Anti-government demonstrators at an improvised barricade in the town of Masaya Photograph: Inti Ocon/AFP/Getty Images

The Guardian’s Tom Phillips in Masaya – The graffiti that covers signs and billboards on the road to the cradle of Sandinismo offer once unimaginable snubs to the movement’s most celebrated comandante: ‘Despot!’ ‘Murderer!’ ‘Get out Daniel!’ ‘Ortega you are dead!’

Masked rebels with homemade mortars guard more than a dozen roadblocks that now separate Nicaragua’s capital from Masaya, a storied revolutionary stronghold just 26km (16 miles) south, from which guerrillas launched their final assault on the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza in 1979.

Almost four decades on from that momentous triumph, and with Nicaragua seemingly in the midst of another epochal upheaval, Masaya now has Daniel Ortega in its crosshairs.

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“He’s been attacking the people, killing the people. Now the people want him out,” said one 20-year-old mutineer with a black mortar slung over his shoulder as he escorted the Guardian into the heart of the former Sandinista hotbed – now under almost total rebel control.

Masaya has long been a bastion of Sandinista rebellion and rule. Nicaragua’s septuagenarian president makes annual pilgrimages to the intensely symbolic town, where his brother, Camilo, died battling Somoza’s troops in 1978.

Today, Masaya is once again in full revolt – this time against the Sandinistas themselves.

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“Daniel must go,” insisted Rosa Caballero, a 48-year-old hotel manager who said she supported the uprising even though the eruption of violence had paralyzed the town and scared away all her guests.

“I don’t think there is any way out,” the mother-of-three added. “All this repression. This whole struggle. It cannot be in vain … I hope other cities join us so it is total pressure against the government.”

A masked protester shoots off his homemade mortar in the Monimbo neighborhood during clashes with police, in Masaya, Nicaragua. Photograph: Esteban Felix/AP

Unrest began to grip Masaya on 19 April after protests broke out in the capital in response to planned social security reforms – then swelled into a broader, nationwide insurrection against what many call Ortega’s increasingly authoritarian and corrupt rule.

But in recent days the violence – which has so far claimed almost 130 lives across the country – has escalated dramatically. At least 10 people were shot dead here over the weekend, allegedly by police and paramilitary gangs operating at the government’s behest.

“It was a bloodbath,” La Prensa, an opposition newspaper that has been documenting the carnage, reported of what it called two nights of terror. “Day and night, Masaya seems a city at war.”

In the wake of those killings, Masaya’s streets are tense and entirely devoid of any government presence.

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Dozens of barricades, cobbled together with tree trunks, concrete paving stones, metal signs and nail-studded planks, block the path into the heart of what was once a bustling tourist town famed for its artisan market.

Mortar-wielding combatientes stop, question and search passersby. Stencil artists have set upon homes and businesses with spray cans to pour more scorn on their president. “Go to hell Daniel, you murderer,” is one recurring motif.

Meanwhile, perhaps 50 police officers are said to be pinned down inside a local station.

“We have no more law,” said Father Edwin Román, a local priest whose church, San Miguel, has found itself at the eye of this rapidly intensifying storm.

People hide behind a barricade during clashes . Photograph: Bienvenido Velasco/EPA

Before the uprising, Father Román’s picturesque white church was a simple 40-minute drive from Managua. To reach it now, visitors must now sprint down a kind of sniper alley, down which demonstrators and church members claim security forces have been firing at demonstrators and civilians.

“Be careful,” one masked rebel warned as he prepared to make a dash for cover. “They don’t care what nationality you are. They’ll shoot you right here,” he added, pointing to his forehead with his right hand and then using it again to suggest the resultant exit wound on the back of his skull.

The conflict has transformed Román’s parish home into an unofficial field hospital. A statue of the Virgin Mary keeps watch over an improvised two-bed emergency room located next to what was once his sitting room. A volunteer force of medical students, paramedics and rescue workers camp out on its tiled floor, waiting for their next call.

Rebels in Masaya, Nicaragua. Photograph: Tom Phillips for the Guardian

“The confrontations have been getting more intense,” said a 22-year-old paramedic who asked not to be named. “At first it was teargas. Then they used rubber bullets. Now … they are using .22 calibre [rifle ammunition] or AKs and they are killing people.”

“On Saturday, four or five died. On Sunday, the same. Yesterday five died in Granada [a nearby tourist town],” he added. “They are so young – 14, 17. They are kids, they’re not even young people. It’s an outrage.”

“It’s a war zone,” said a 27-year-old fireman who is part of a team of “blue helmet” rescue workers responsible for collecting the dead and wounded from the streets and dragging them away for treatment or burial.

Like many local residents, the fireman said he backed the protests: “It’s the only way of making the government hear our voice.”

Nicaragua’s state-controlled media has blamed the mounting body count vaguely on “delinquents” and “criminal groups”. The foreign minister, Denis Moncada, recently alleged a rightwing “conspiracy” was under way designed to destroy Nicaragua’s international image and allow organised criminals to seize control.

Residents of the Monimbo indigenous neighbourhood of Masaya participate in a march. Photograph: Jorge Torres/EPA

As he prepared for his latest day on the front line, Father Román dismissed the idea that those now controlling Masaya’s streets were “vandals”. “All walks of life – kids, young people, entire families – are supporting this,” he said. “I think it’s impossible for things to go back to the way things were before.”

With no solution in sight, Father Román said he sought solace in the book of Isaiah.

“He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken,” he said, before adding: “This is the situation that we are going through. Nicaragua is crying. The mothers are crying … I too have cried.”

“I consider this to be like birth pangs. There is blood; the blood of the young people, the tears of the mothers. But it will not be in vain,” the priest insisted. “It will be the fertilizer for freedom.”

Article by Tom Phillips in Masaya, with aadditional reporting by Juan Diego Briceño, first appeared on The Guardian. Click here to read the original.

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