MANAGUA, Nicaragua – Nearly seven weeks after a violent crackdown on student protesters ignited a movement to oust the president of Nicaragua, daily life has become difficult and dangerous for a population increasingly in open rebellion against the government.
At least 113 people have been killed, more than 1,000 injured and hundreds arrested sincethe political uprising began in mid-April, according to human rights groups. Dozens of others have disappeared.
In what was until recently one of the safest countries in Latin America, families are now afraid to leave their homes after dark. Barricades set up by protesters block highways, public transportation is scarce and business in some parts of the country has ground to a halt.
In the capital city of Managua, the signs of a growing resistance are unmistakable. Street vendors sell T-shirts proclaiming “Let your momma surrender,” alluding to an old Sandinista war slogan. Scrawled across one of the city’s main rotundas in spray paint is a bold message: “The state did it,” a reference to the killings that protesters, human rights groups and U.S. officials have largely blamed on police and government-controlled gangs.
On social media and the messaging service WhatsApp, calls to action and videos of attacks on protesters spread quickly. Massive networks of friends and family share safety tips — one includes a diagram showing how to attach a pocket mirror to a baseball cap to keep snipers from taking aim. Another urges anyone captured by police or pro-government gangs to scream out their full name so that, at the very least, “the people will know who they’re taking.”
“At this moment, we are in a real crisis situation in terms of human rights,” said Vilma Núñez, president of the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights, which has documented the deaths and arrests. Instead of stopping the violence after the first protests, she said, President Daniel Ortega “has turned it into a massacre.”
The center has received reports of hospitals refusing to treat injured protesters, and some university students have been released from jail with signs of severe beatings, said Núñez, who is also the former vice president of the first supreme court convened by the Sandinistas in 1979. A doctor at a public hospital in Managua, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told the Miami Herald that the Ministry of Health has instructed the hospital not to treat injured protesters, even if they come in with gunshot wounds.
Neither the Ortega administration nor the national police responded to questions about the violence. The government has denied responsibility for the killings, blaming criminal groups and characterizing the protesters as right-wing gangs.
On Monday, in a speech to the General Assembly, Nicaragua’s representative to the Organization of American States said the Ortega administration is committed to democracy and peace. “Law enforcement is trying to help families,” said Luis Ezequiel Alvarado Ramírez, adding that the government has pledged to investigate the killings.
But outside Managua’s El Chipote jail, where families clutched photographs of their loved ones Monday afternoon and waited desperately for any news on their whereabouts, no one thought the police were trying to help. Some of the families hadn’t seen their sons and daughters for days and believed they were inside the jail, which until recently was best known as the place where the right-wing dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza tortured prisoners in the 1960s and ’70s.
As guards opened the front gate to let priest Eberto López Álvarez out, the families gathered around him clamoring for information, asking if he’d seen their children. López Álvarez said he’d spoken with four human rights workers detained by police last week in the town of Rivas and that they’d told him they hadn’t been harmed. He said he hadn’t seen the other prisoners.
Corina Duarte Molina, the aunt of one of the human rights workers, was relieved to learn that her nephew, William Efraín Picado Duarte, hadn’t been beaten by police — but she still had no idea when he would be released.
“It’s sad, as mothers, what we’ve seen” over the past few weeks, she said. “We’ve suffered two wars but nothing like this. This is catastrophic.”
Standing a few feet away, Verónica López still had no information about the condition of her 18-year-old daughter, Katherine Ruiz López, a university student who disappeared in Managua last month. Ruiz López left the house with her boyfriend, Andrew Úbeda, 20, on May 24 to buy a birthday cake for Úbeda’s mother and never came back, López said. For a week, the families went to local hospitals and police stations, but couldn’t get any information about what had happened to their children. Both had participated in the recent protests.
Then, on May 31, the police issued a statement saying that Ruiz López and Úbeda had been arrested and were under investigation for organized crime, murder and a host of other crimes. The families say police told them the couple was being held at El Chipote. Veronica López has waited outside every day since, but hasn’t been able to speak with her daughter. She worries about the reports that prisoners at El Chipote are being mistreated.
“That’s what makes me feel sick,” she said, fighting back tears. “I can’t sleep in peace.”
López said the idea that her daughter had anything to do with organized crime was ludicrous. The families of both teens believe they were targeted after police spotted them at protests. “It’s a complete injustice,” López said.
Nearby, at the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights, other families had come to report the murders of their loved ones.
Arelis Guevara sat at a table holding her brother’s death certificate. She had just finished telling a human rights worker how Edgard Guevara, a 38-year-old taxi driver and father of three, had been killed on May 30 by armed men she described as paramilitaries.
Edgard had stayed home with his mother during a massive march held on Mother’s Day in Nicaragua while Arelis had gone to the protest with her sister and brother-in-law. When Edgard saw on television that protesters were under attack, he rushed out of the house unarmed and sped toward the march on his motorcycle, according to the family. As he tried to keep a group of armed men from approaching the protest, where children were walking alongside their mothers, Edgard was shot three times in the chest, Arelis said.
He was taken to a private hospital where, shortly after Arelis and her family arrived, paramilitary groups surrounded the building. Edgard died that evening, but it wasn’t until 5 a.m. the next morning that the family was able to safely leave the hospital with his body.
Arelis said she blamed Ortega and his wife and vice president, Rosario Murillo, for her brother’s death.
“We’re looking for justice so that my brother’s death doesn’t go unpunished, and none of the other deaths, either, because we know who the murderers are,” she said. “I think the only way there can be justice is if he leaves power,” she added, referring to Ortega.
Yet despite the growing unrest, Ortega’s departure appears unlikely. One of the leaders of the Marxist Sandinista revolution that overthrew the Somoza dictatorship in 1979, Ortega ruled the country until 1990, when he lost the election. He was re-elected in 2007 and has since solidified his power, reforming the country’s electoral system to ensure he stays in office.
The intensity of the protests, which first broke out on April 18 in response to unpopular social security reforms, has come as a surprise to many Nicaraguans. In response to political repression and what the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has condemned as the “excessive use of force” by state security forces, the opposition’s demands have since grown to include the resignations of Ortega and Murillo.
In May, the Roman Catholic Church was able to briefly defuse the crisis by mediating dialogues between the Ortega administration and various opposition and civic groups, including university students and business interests, but the talks broke down on May 23.
Nicaraguans have largely been frustrated with the international response. The Organization of American States announced Friday that it was sending a delegation to negotiate electoral reforms with the Ortega administration and would present a proposal in January of 2019, but many say the country can’t wait that long for a solution to the crisis.
“By January of 2019, Nicaragua will no longer exist,” said one Managua businessman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared reprisal. “We can’t wait six months. These are decisions that need to be made immediately with actions that need to be taken immediately.”
In the meantime, there are growing calls for a national strike, which does not yet have the support of business groups and other members of the opposition coalition.
But despite resistance from the private sector, the Managua businessman said he doesn’t think the opposition has many options left. “Although the private companies and all of the business people have tried to avoid it, I don’t see how we can continue maintaining the situation like it is now without a national strike,” he said. “We don’t have weapons, so what else do we have left? Keep protesting, keep showing our faces and keep suffering the casualties?”
As the violence has grown in Nicaragua, so has resistance to the government’s political repression.
After five people, including a 15-year-old boy, were killed during clashes between protesters and pro-government forces in the town of Masaya on Saturday night, opposition groups used social media to organize a massive food drive for residents. The besieged town, 15 miles southeast of the capital, has become the center of the resistance movement. Roadblocks installed by protesters to keep out government forces have isolated its inhabitants.
Throughout the day on Sunday, a stream of supporters quietly brought donations to a grassy field hidden behind one of Managua’s main cathedrals. By 2 p.m. that afternoon, a volunteer overseeing the supplies estimated that 500 people had donated food and medicine. Dozens of volunteers loaded one pickup truck after another with bags of rice and cases of bottled water.
“They’re without food, they’re without medicine, they’re without any help at all practically,” said the volunteer overseeing the food drive, a doctor who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared for his safety. In Masaya, he added, “there are places where people are without a morsel because the police have taken it upon themselves to seize the food.”
Michael Gómez, 25, and Gloria Pozo, 26, arrived with a shopping cart full of water, coffee, milk and toilet paper. The friends had carefully weighed the risk of dropping off supplies before coming to the cathedral, Gómez said. The last time opposition groups used the cathedral as a donation site, police surrounded the block and seized supplies before they could get to the church, videos posted to social media show.
“We were motivated by the desire to help, but we were afraid,” Gómez said.
“They’ve kidnapped the country,” he added, referring to Ortega and Murillo. “We want them to leave and to leave soon.”
The only bright spot in the past few weeks, Pozo said, was that so many people were trying to assist, even in small ways, the political uprising. When Gómez and Pozo bought their supplies at a grocery store a 10-minute walk from the cathedral, they told a supermarket employee what they planned to do with the food. The young man insisted on pushing the shopping cart all the way to the cathedral.
“If anything has come out of this, it’s the solidarity of the people,” Pozo said.
Miami Herald staff writers Jacqueline Charles and Glenn Garvin contributed to this report
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