‘We’re going to kill you’: Nicaragua’s brutal crackdown on press freedom

First published in the Guardian

Nicaraguan TV journalist Miguel Mora was driving home from work when he was pulled over by armed police.

“They ordered me take off my glasses and put a hood over my head,” says Mora, who directs the 100% Noticias news channel. “Then they took me by the neck and forced me into a pickup, where an officer told me: ‘You’re responsible for the death of police. If you keep fucking around, we’re going to kill you and your whole family.’”

It was the sixth time Mora had been detained by police in the space of a week. He also faces criminal charges of “inciting hate”, while drones have filmed his house and armed men on motorbikes track his movements.

Such intimidation is part of an escalating assault on press freedoms in Nicaragua, unleashed in the wake of the civil revolt that paralysed the country earlier in the year.

Journalists have been beatenarrested and robbed; radio stations raided by police. Last week, both the UN and the IACHR condemned the intensifying harassment.

“This government has banned protest, captured opposition leaders, and now the only thing preventing a totalitarian dictatorship is the independent media,” says Mora. “This is the stage where they try to silence us.”

Anti-government protests broke out in April, sparked by the mismanagement of fires in a protected reserve and fuelled by fiscal reforms that slashed social security. They spread after police used live ammunition on demonstrators, killing dozens.

As the crisis worsened, 100% Noticias beamed police and paramilitary violence into homes across the country. Newspapers exposed the state’s lethal tactics: one investigation drew on radiographic evidence to show that many of the deaths were the result of a single gunshot to the head, neck or chest – proof that state forces were shooting to kill.

From the start of the unrest, the government tried to control coverage, pressuring media bosses to self-censor. Journalists at Channel 10 – owned by the Mexican tycoon Remigio Ángel González – were initially barred from reporting on demonstrations.

“It was absurd: historic events were unfolding and we were ignoring them,” says Mauricio Madrigal, the station’s news editor. He and others threatened to resign, and the prohibition was dropped.

After that approach failed, officials turned to more direct tactics. Twelve members of Madrigal’s team have since quit, fearing for their family’s safety. Two 100% Noticias journalists have fled the country; on Saturday, a cameraman was seized by gunmen in civilian clothes as he left the channel’s headquarters, and thrown in jail.

“Every independent journalist has received death threats,” says Gerall Chávez, a reporter with VosTV, whose house was vandalised in August. One journalist has been killed during the violence; in total, more than 490 violations of press freedom have been documented in the course of the crisis.

Now, having regained control of the streets, the government is determined to impose control over the narrative. In doing so, it aims to ensure impunity for the state forces that slaughtered hundreds of protesters.

“It’s an Orwellian strategy, to falsify the reality of the repression,” says Sofía Montenegro, a journalist and former Sandinista guerrilla who fought alongside President Daniel Ortega in the 1970s.

The official version of events is disseminated through a media empire built by Rosario Murillo, Nicaragua’s first lady and, since 2017, vice-president.

In 2007, shortly after her husband returned to power, Murillo published an ominous communication strategy, outlining plans to prevent critical media“contaminating” public perception of his administration.

Through the next decade, Murillo spent millions of dollars of Venezuelan cooperation funds – ostensibly destined for poverty reduction – on buying up Nicaragua’s media.

TV channels 4, 8, 9 and 13 are now owned by her children; also under the family’s control are Radio Ya, Radio Nicaragua and Radio Sandino, state broadcaster Channel 6, and the online news service El 19 Digital.

From April, this media apparatus worked to whitewash the government’s deadly response to the protests.

“We presented an alternative reality, where protesters were rightwing extremists killing Sandinistas,” says Carlos Mikel Espinoza, who was editor of El 19 Digital when protests broke out. “It was fascistic, an attempt to infuse hatred into government supporters and police.” Espinoza quit and fled to Costa Rica in June, after police and militants burned alive a family of six in their own home.

Murillo’s strategy has failed. Polls show that just one in five Nicaraguans believe the official line that “those who participated in roadblocks and marches are terrorists”. But this hasn’t stopped the Ortega-controlled courts prosecuting protesters as if they were the violent extremists government propaganda claims.

“We challenge this fantasy reality every day,” Miguel Mora concludes. “The logical next step – which I fully expect them to take – is to send their paramilitaries to close us down altogether.

“That would leave only their version of events: a pure, uncontaminated discourse.”

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US sanctions hit Rosario Murillo’s dynastic ambitions in protest-scarred Nicaragua

First published in the Daily Telegraph

Nicaragua’s Vice-President Rosario Murillo has always had a facility with words. In the 1970s, as Sandinista guerrillas fought to bring down the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza, she penned dozens of poems celebrating the rebels’ struggle. They caught the attention of a guerrilla leader, Daniel Ortega, then languishing in a Nicaraguan jail.

Now, Ms Murillo is married to Ortega and the two govern Nicaragua. But in recent years, she’s put her linguistic flare to darker purposes.

When anti-government protests broke out in April, she spat venom at demonstrators, calling them bloodsuckers, vampires, terrorists, vandals, criminals and fascists. Simultaneously, she coordinated the first stages of a brutal crackdown which, over the next six months, would cost hundreds of lives.

On Tuesday, the United States made its firmest response yet to these abuses, imposing sanctions on Ms Murillo and one of her closest advisers.

“The sanctions are politically very significant,” says Marcia Aguiluz, regional director at the Centre for Justice and International Law. “They make Murillo visible as one of the people directly responsible for grave human rights violations.”

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Murillo came to prominence in Ortega’s public affairs in 1998. That year, her daughter from a previous marriage accused Ortega of sexually abusing her from the age of 11. Ortega seemed ruined – but Murillo stood by him, dismissing her daughter as driven by “a sickly love of power.”

Many who knew Murillo read this as a case of projection.

“After what Rosario did with her daughter, it was clear there were no scruples, no principles checking her ambition,” says Sofia Montenegro, a journalist and former Sandinista guerrilla.

When Mr Ortega regained power in 2007, Ms Murillo set to work consolidating her position. Using Venezuelan funds, she built a propaganda empire, taking over TV channels and radio stations. She appears on them daily, outlining the priorities of the state while decked in bright fabrics and precious stones.

“She has an incredible capacity for work, coordinating everything through a top-down hierarchy,” says Carlos Mikel Espinoza, who edited government news portal El 19 Digital until he fled the country in June.

She then stamped her superstitions across Managua, erecting dozens of flamboyantly coloured, bulb-studded metal trees – said to be inspired by the trees in Genesis. On a roundabout in the heart of the densest thicket rises a giant portrait of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, whose spirit – along with God and Mother Earth – Murillo frequently invokes in her speeches.  Many were torn down as protests proliferated – though the image of Chavez survived.

More ominously, she built up neighbourhood groups such as the Sandinista Youth to act as shock forces, working with police to stifle dissent. “She is always identified as the link between the police and these civil structures of social control,” says Elvira Cuadras, a security expert.

As unrest stirred in April, members of the Sandinista Youth – dressed in t-shirts emblazoned with Murillo’s characteristic messages of peace and love – punched and kicked retirees protesting pension cuts, piling fuel onto the spreading rebellion.

SY at rally

Murillo was appointed vice-President in 2017, amid fears she aimed to install a dynastic dictatorship.

Ms Murillo’s former comrades have tried to reach her, as she orbits the highest reaches of Nicaraguan politics. In June, Gioconda Belli – the best-known poet to emerge from the ranks of the Sandinistas – published an open letter in Nicaraguan weekly Confidencial.

“I admit I never thought power would destroy so absolutely the poetry of the woman to whom I once gave refuge,” Belli wrote. “With your calligraphy, with which you have marked all Nicaragua, you have written the blackest page in Sandinista history.”

Now, Nicaraguans hope international pressure can clear a path out of the dark place their country has come to.

“The government has closed all possible avenues for change,” says Ms Aguiluz. “The sanctions send a clear message that Ortega and Murillo must permit a democratic space.”

Cathedral protests highlight Ortega’s broken alliance with Nicaraguan church

First published in the Guardian

As mass concluded in Managua’s Metropolitan Cathedral, chants of “Liberty!” and “Justice!” broke out among the congregation. Outside, protesters unfurled a giant Nicaraguan flag – a prohibited symbol of the country’s recent uprising – from the building’s roof. In the church grounds below, others planted wooden crosses, each inscribed with the name of someone killed in the past six months of rebellion and repression.

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Protest is outlawed in Nicaragua, as President Daniel Ortega seeks to stamp out any trace of the civil revolt that threatened to bring down his government earlier this year.

Street demonstrations are brutally quashedMore than 550 protesters languish in jail. Human rights groups have documented widespread use of torture.

Facing such repression, protesters have retreated to the one place where police and paramilitary forces won’t pursue them.

“The church has become the last space where citizens can freely express themselves, and demand their rights,” said lawyer Martha Molina.

The Catholic church has provided sanctuary since the earliest days of the crisis, in which hundreds have been killed.

Protests began in April, triggered by welfare cuts but rooted in deeper anger over Ortega’s growing authoritarianism.

On 21 April, with the death toll already climbing, bishops rescued students besieged by police and militants in the Metropolitan Cathedral. “I want to thank you in the name of the church, because you are our country’s moral reserve,” the auxiliary bishop of Managua, Silvio Báez, told them.

As the uprising spread, Nicaragua’s Episcopal Conference persuaded Ortega to let it mediate talks. But negotiations repeatedly collapsed. In July – after a church harbouring students was riddled with gunfire – bishops accused state representatives of “distorting” the process.

Days later, on the 39th anniversary of the Sandinista revolution, Ortega turned on the church. “The bishops are committed to the coup-mongers,” the former guerrilla leader told supporters, accusing clerics of stockpiling weapons.

This rhetorical assault marked the end of Ortega’s efforts to maintain ties with the church, an alliance that was key to his return to power in 2007.

In 2006, as elections approached, the one-time revolutionary rebranded himself a reverent Catholic. Weeks before the vote, legislation imposing a total ban on abortion passed the national assembly – thanks to the unanimous support of Ortega’s FSLN delegates.

Now, however, Ortega has turned on his former allies. “The bishops have been extraordinary in defence of human rights, and the government wants to silence that voice,” said Ana Margarita Vigil, a prominent feminist and opposition activist.

The most virulent abuse has been directed at Báez, who studied scripture in Rome for 30 years before returning to Nicaragua in 2009. His arrival reoriented the church towards a more critical stance, culminating in a prescient letter, published in 2014, warning that the erosion of democracy endangered Nicaragua’s future “in a very alarming way”.

“Báez is an intellectual, the most qualified bishop in Nicaragua,” said Israel González, the Nicaragua correspondent for Catholic news service Religión Digital. “His return was a measure taken to strengthen the church, at a time when an authoritarian government was appropriating the symbolic force of Catholic piety for its own ends.”

At the end of October, state media targeted Báez with fresh accusations. Secret recordings purported to catch him plotting against the government. Reports described him as a “terrorist” and “fascist”, insisting he should “leave Nicaragua”.

Báez – already granted protective measures by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights – dismissed the recordings as “manipulated”. (Independent analysis supports this.) But the smear campaign was followed by a barrage of death threats.

The threats carried particular resonance, coming just days after the canonisation of the Salvadoran archbishop Óscar Romero, gunned down while celebrating mass in a hospital chapel in 1980 for speaking out against the country’s dictatorship.

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The assault on the church has had an effect. Báez has lowered his profile, giving his homilies in a secluded seminary on the outskirts of Managua – though he continues to condemn the “disgrace” of authoritarian power, and told the Guardian he would stay in Nicaragua.

In the Metropolitan Cathedral, too, priests have sought to pull back from the frontline of the crisis. During a recent Sunday mass, the church’s rector, Luis Herrera, told worshippers: “temples are for praying, not protesting”.

But protesters – many of whom have seen friends and relatives killed or jailed by Ortega’s forces – are reluctant to comply.

“We have to raise our voices for justice for those killed and freedom for the hundreds in prison,” said Karla Villalta, 49, standing among the wooden crosses. “The revolution was something beautiful, but Ortega and his wife have buried it.”

 

Kidnap, torture and jail: Nicaraguan dissidents endure wave of ferocious repression

First published in the Daily Telegraph

The dawn silence was broken at Jaime Navarrete’s home in a quiet neighbourhood of Managua, Nicaragua, when government thugs crashed through his door, beat him to the ground and looted his house.

A stone’s throw from the site of fierce clashes between anti-government protesters and forces loyal to President Daniel Ortega, Mr Navarrete, 30, was paying for his attendance at mass marches that swept the country earlier this year.

After his thrashing he was bundled into a white pick-up truck and delivered to the police. Over the next few days, he was tortured in El Chipote prison, a now infamous jail for protesters and dissenters locked up in arbitrary detention during the six-month civil movement that threatened – but ultimately failed – to bring down Nicaragua’s government.

Between April and June, hundreds of thousands marched in cities across Nicaragua, while others established roadblocks in an attempt to force expedited elections and topple an increasingly autocratic government.

The response – detailed in a new Amnesty International report published on Thursday – was brutally efficient.

In a process nicknamed ‘Operation Clean-Up’, the government unleashed squadrons of masked gunmen – the same forces that kidnapped Mr Navarrete – who worked with police to clear the barricades and kill hundreds that stood in their way.

Since regaining control of the country for the government, the same goon squads have pursued a nationwide hunt for protest leaders. Mr Navarrete was caught in the net, as was his wife who was sexually assaulted when their home was raided.

“When I saw him, his neck and back were covered in burns, and his body bruised by beatings,” Mr Navarrete’s mother, Margine Blandon, told The Telegraph, after visiting her son in prison.

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A report launched on Thursday by Amnesty International, Instilling Terror, shows that Mr Navarrete’s experience is far from isolated.

“Torture is being used not solely as an instrument of punishment, but as a means of dissuading others from protesting,” says Carolina Jimenez, Americas deputy director for research at the rights charity. “It is one element in a strategy of lethal repression intended to terrorise the population.”

Amnesty researchers documented 12 further examples of torture, involving rape and electrocution, as well as five extrajudicial killings. Earlier this year the UN documented more grueling examples of torture, including prisoners being raped with rifles.

The report also covers the criminalisation of protesters, more than 400 of whom are currently languishing in Nicaragua’s prisons. Many are being tried under hasty anti-terror laws passed in July by the government-controlled National Assembly.

“We’ve known for years that there is a grave problem with the lack of independence in the Nicaraguan justice system,” explains Jimenez. “Now we are seeing it deployed as a weapon of repression, to criminalise all dissidents that demand change.”

The largely peaceful anti-government protests that broke out in April this year were sparked by fiscal reforms cutting pensions and disability payments. Activists, however, highlight a decade of growing authoritarianism under president Daniel Ortega as the deeper cause.

“We’ve witnessed the destruction of Nicaragua’s democracy,” says Azahalea Solis, a member of the opposition Blue and White Alliance. “From the army and police, to the trade unions, the prosecution service, the supreme court and electoral council, all have been brought under Ortega’s control.”

On Tuesday, a group of three student leaders were jailed for 17 years each on terrorism charges.

“It is absurd that Nicaragua has gone from being the safest country in Central America to having more than 300 terrorists in jail – many of them students,” their lawyer, Julio Montenegro, told the Telegraph.

Despite the ferocious repression, activists are determined to keep resisting.

“The civil struggle will continue,” Ms Solis says. “We’re far beyond the point of no return.”

Nicaragua’s government is brutally cracking down on its people, but protests are spreading

First published in Vice News

Cinthia Lopez woke to gunfire and hammering on the front door of her family home in Managua’s Carlos Marx neighborhood. Outside, assailants threw explosives into the building’s ground floor, which doubled as a display room for her parents’ mattress business.

Flames consumed the fabric and roared upward.

“My cousin forced open a door to the balcony and we threw ourselves off,” Lopez told VICE News, her clothes still streaked with ash. “There were hooded men shooting and we ran down the street.”

pavon house closer better

Lopez escaped with her cousins, Javier and Maribel Pavon. But the rest of her family couldn’t get out. Suffocated by the smoke, they died in the blaze: her parents, Oscar Pavon and Martiza Lopez; her brother, Alfredo Lopez, and his wife, Mercedes; and the young couple’s infant children, Mathias and Dariyeli.

The Nicaraguan government blamed “criminal gangs” for the arson. But human rights groups, eyewitnesses, and CCTV evidence all put police and pro-government paramilitaries at the scene of the crime.

“Police and paramilitary kept shooting while the house was burning, so no one could come out to help,” local construction worker Juan Romero told VICE News.

The incident has stoked outrage across Nicaragua and much of the Americas. Luis Almagro, secretary general of the Organization of American States, called it “a crime against humanity.” But it’s far from an isolated incident in Nicaragua’s spiraling political crisis.

At least 212 people have been killed since anti-government protests broke out on April 18, according to the most recent figures published by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR). That figure is nearly three times the total reported just a month earlier, and it might still be on the low end; another Nicaraguan human rights group recently put the figure at 285.

The death toll is largely the result of an increasingly violent crackdown on protesters from President Daniel Ortega’s government, analysts and activists told VICE News. And it reflects a growing sense of desperation on Ortega’s part, they said, as his grip on power falters in the face of international condemnationand hardening opposition within Nicaragua.

“They buried our democracy, and now they’re burying our people,” said Ramona Mondragon, a tradeswoman in her 60s, sitting on the steps to the blackened house. “We’re going to get justice for all these killings.”

student and campesino leaders visit las maderas roadblock 2 weeks before attack

Nicaraguans first took to the streets in mid-April to protest fiscal reforms slashing pensions and disability payments. Led by students, the protests drew on years of suppressed anger at Ortega’s rule. But the lethal police response — opening fire on peaceful demonstrators — sent shockwaves through Nicaraguan society. Within a week, the student protests transformed into a nationwide movement demanding Ortega’s resignation.

With tensions on a knife-edge, Catholic leaders — for a decade close allies of the Ortega administration — offered to mediate negotiations. But the gulf between the two sides quickly proved unbridgeable. Negotiations broke down completely at the end of May, after snipers ambushed a peaceful protest in Managua. By the start of June, the government unleashed a wave of terror, inflicted by riot police, snipers, and paramilitary gunmen. The government denies that police work with plainclothes gunmen, but Nicaraguans have shared dozens of videos on social media that prove otherwise.

 

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And the intensification in state-sanctioned violence has spread across the country. People who erect roadblocks — an increasingly popular method used by protesters to disrupt the economy and subsequently Ortega’s government — have been especially targeted.

“We’re on the Pan-American Highway, so we have trucks from the whole of Central America passing us,” said Socorro Bello, a childcare worker from the town of Las Maderas, where police have responded violently to protests and roadblocks.

“We wanted to make everyone understand what’s happening here, the violence and killings of this government,” she said.

The roadblock in Las Maderas lasted a month before riot police and paramilitary members organized an assault against it, on June 10.

Similar assaults on roadblocks and protests have left a trail of dead bodies across Nicaragua: from Estelí in the north to Bilwi, located in indigenous territory on the Caribbean coast. Last Thursday, a desperate intervention by Catholic leaders prevented further armed attacks in Masaya, an opposition stronghold that has endured some of the government’s fiercest attacks.

“I have a message for Daniel Ortega: Not one more death!” cried Silvio Baez, auxiliary bishop of Managua, to a crowd in the city.

The use of plainclothes gunmen and paramilitary forces loyal to Ortega has been central to the government’s strategy, Elvira Cuadras, a security expert in Nicaragua, told VICE News.

“They’re made up of people very close to the Ortega-Murillo group, and receive their orders from the highest levels of the government,” Cuadras said. “They’re often ex-military or ex-police, but there are also younger militants.”

But Ortega’s increasing reliance on them indicates that he is weakening, Cuadras said, citing multiple reports of police disobeying orders to repress protesters.

 

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“Many police have backed away from repressing, even if they don’t say so publicly,” Cuadras said. “The government has been left with the only forces still at its service: a diminishing police force, and paramilitary.”

Rachel Gaitan, a barrister specializing in criminal law, offered a similar observation.

“Some police have told me their families are being threatened for refusing to repress protesters,” she said. “Others have been imprisoned.”

Earlier this month, hooded gunmen burned Gaitan’s house to the ground, an attack she describes as yet another example of state terrorism targeting protesters. The government has since accused Gaitan of providing food and weapons to “criminals maintaining barricades.”

Yet despite the recent wave of violence, protesters see a glimmer of hope. Those who’ve known Ortega say the escalation in state violence is a clear indication of his diminshing power.

“It’s a strategy he’s used before: He wants to provoke violence, so he can say both sides are guilty and negotiate an amnesty,” said Sofia Montenegro, a former Sandinista guerrilla and journalist.

“He knows he’s already gone too far, and is seeking his own impunity.”

How Nicaragua’s revolutionaries turned their guns on their own people

First published in the Sunday Telegraph

che and fire and nic flag

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 had worked as a police officer in Nicaragua for four decades. “All those years of service, and they kill my son like a dog.”

Francisco spent his last day marching through Managua with tens of thousands of other protesters. The march, held on Nicaraguan Mother’s Day,  was dedicated to the more than 80 mothers who have lost children since anti-government protests began, seven weeks earlier.

Since then, Ortega has unleashed a brutal crackdown on dissent. Now he stands accused of using police snipers to execute peaceful protesters.

On the day Francisco was killed, shooting had broken out suddenly as the march reached its end-point at the University of Central America. Thousands took refuge on campus. At least thirteen protesters 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 Francisco’s father 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 the Sandinista rebels, 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.

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Protests erupted in Nicaragua on 18 April, 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.

He led Nicaragua through the eighties, as his Sandinista government battled a brutal insurgency fought by the Contras, the right-wing guerrillas 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.”

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“They’re using the health system as a weapon of repression” – Vilma Nunez, CENIDH

Paramedics in Nicaragua do not bring injured protesters to public hospitals, 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 care for wounded protesters during a 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 at Managua’s biggest private hospitals, Vivian Pellas and Bautista, have formed voluntary brigades to tend 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.”

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At least 13 dead as police and militants open fire on peaceful protesters in Nicaragua

First published in the Daily Telegraph

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At least 13 people were killed and dozens injured as government forces opened fire on peaceful protesters in two cities in Nicaragua as anti-government demonstrations threatening to bring down the president continued.

Hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans had marched through the capital of Managua on Wednesday, many dressed in black to mourn the more than 80 people killed since protests began.

As marchers gathered around the end-point at the University of Central America (UCA), shots rang out a few hundred metres away. Families with children desperately fled the scene. The rector of UCA said thousands of people took refuge on its campus.

Demonstrators reported shooting from both snipers in plain clothes firing from surrounding buildings, and riot police on foot.

Katherine Martinez, 22,  a stay-at-home mum, was with her husband outside the nearby University of Engineering when the shooting began.

“Riot police started advancing towards us, then suddenly shots came down from above,” she said. “I saw the man in front of me hit in the head.”

Protests first broke out on April 18, after the Nicaraguan government, led by former Sandinista revolutionary Daniel Ortega, pushed through reforms cutting pensions and disability payments.

The demonstrations were initially spearheaded by pensioners and students. But they quickly escalated into calls for Mr Ortega’s resignation after police and gangs shooting at protesters caused dozens of deaths.

Poorer urban neighbourhoods that were traditionally bastions of Sandinista support have turned against the president. Fierce street fighting took place in the indigenous borough of Monimbo, which in 1978 was the first civilian population to rise alongside Sandinista guerrillas against dictator Anastasio Somoza.

The welfare reforms were really “social explosives” that ignited pre-existing anger at government authoritarianism, said Monica Lopez, a Nicaraguan human rights lawyer.

“For years the Ortega government has imposed its decisions and used violence to suppress any protest,” she said. “They’ve established total control over state institutions, to the extent that there is no access to justice for ordinary people, with all the seriousness that implies.

“These protests are the result of all Nicaraguan society, rural and urban, saying we have to dismantle this apparatus of repression.”

The head of the Organization of American States on Thursday condemned killings in Nicaragua by “repressive forces and the armed forces,” and called on the government President Daniel Ortega to stop the violence.

The appeal by Luis Almagro, secretary general of the regional security organization, followed the bloody clashes Wednesday.

“We condemn the killings carried out by the repressive forces and the armed forces and we express our solidarity with the families of the victims,” Almagro said. “We call on the state to stop the violence by these repressive factions.”

A deadly crackdown is only fuelling more protests against Nicaragua’s President

First published in Vice

On a dusty back street in the city of Masaya, masked protesters take shelter behind a barricade built of paving stones. Two blocks away, police and pro-government paramilitary are shooting at demonstrators from the city’s main square. Mainly they fire a mix of non-lethal bullets and tear gas. But mixed in is live ammunition, responsible for most of the more than 50 deaths that have occurred during 25 days of anti-government protests in Nicaragua.

Salesman Fernando Diaz has found himself on the frontline after joining protests for the first time that morning. The fighting stirs old memories. He was 12 when the Nicaraguan revolution against dictator Anastasio Somoza broke out in 1978.

“That started the same way,” Diaz recalls. “Somoza’s guards had guns and all the people had were stones and mortars.”

Demonstrations calling for the resignation of President Daniel Ortega intensified across Nicaragua over the weekend, fuelled by the deaths of several protesters. Masaya, a city of 200,000 people 40km south of Managua, experienced the fiercest clashes. By midnight, the city hall was in flames and two more protesters had been shot dead.

Masaya makes an unlikely rebel heartland for the anti-Ortega uprising. It was a revolutionary stronghold in 1978 and maintained close ties with Ortega’s Sandinista National Liberation Front (FLSN) through subsequent decades.

Some Masaya residents remain loyal. “We had security, jobs, but these vandals are destroying it,” says Roberto Gutierrez Leyton, a business administrator. “I get abuse for saying this. It’s become a crime to be a Sandinista.”

But many former supporters have broken with the Nicaraguan President since protests began in April.

“We’ve seen a rupture with the government in the Sandinista base, in cities where they had hegemony, like Leon, Masaya, Matagalpa and Estelí,” says Sofia Montenegro, a sociologist who fought with Sandinista guerrillas against Somoza.

One of the fiercest centres of resistance is the indigenous neighbourhood of Monimbó, in the south of Masaya. This is a revolt that carries symbolic potency. In 1978, Monimbó residents were the first civilians to rise against Somoza. Among those killed in the ensuing street battles was the younger brother of then-Sandinista Commander Daniel Ortega.

Today, a memorial by Monimbó’s San Sebastian Church commemorates the thirteen Masaya residents killed during a protest on 19 April 2018. One of the dead was Alvaro Gomez, who voted for Ortega in 2016. His father, also Alvaro Gomez, says his son joined the protests “spontaneously”, angered by student deaths in Managua the previous day.

“People here are proud of the part they played in the revolution,” says Gomez, who lost a leg in the struggle against US-backed Contras in the 1980s. “Before these protests, some of us disagreed with the government, but most maintained their support for the President. Now nearly everyone is against them. They’re killing the sons of those who fought in the eighties.”

Demonstrations began on 18 April, sparked by cuts to pensions and disability allowances. State security forces responded with lethal force. Combined with simmering anger at state authoritarianism and corruption, this repression transformed the protests into “a civic insurrection on a nationwide level,” according to Montenegro.

“There is a long list of abuses, censorship, killings in the countryside by the army, Orwellian control from city hall at a local level, unrestrained corruption, consecutive electoral frauds in national, legislative and regional elections, repression and abuse of students, persecution of NGOs,” says Montenegro. “What we’ve seen in these protests is the materialisation of an alliance between the countryside and the city: between campesinos and students and the urban population.”

On Wednesday 9 May, 200,000 protesters marched through the streets of Managua. The next evening, renewed gun attacks by pro-government paramilitary on students occupying universities in Managua killed two protesters at the Polytechnic University. The following morning, eighteen students were hospitalised by donated food that had been laced with poison.

The attacks, occurring immediately after Wednesday’s march, helped trigger the angry protests that swept the country over the following two days. By nightfall on Saturday, the town hall ablaze and roadblocks being erected across the city, Masaya seemed close to full-blown insurrection. The release of 24 protesters just before midnight calmed the situation. On Sunday, a solidarity march from Managua to Masaya passed peacefully, while protests and roadblocks continued across Nicaragua, resulting in one more death.

Hopes for a permanent resolution to the crisis centre on a dialogue mediated by the Catholic Church. In a letter to the government on Friday, the Episcopal Conference of Nicaragua (CEN) outlined four conditions it must meet for this dialogue to begin. At first, Ortega responded to “their high religious authority” with generalities about the need to “end violence, intimidation and aggression,” but he did not address the specifics of these conditions. Then, on Monday, the government met the Bishops’ first condition and invited the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights into Nicaragua to investigate human rights abuses. It was the government’s first real concession since protests began.

“Ortega will have to reflect radically on his politics if the dialogue is to make progress,” says Ricardo Antonio de Leon Borges, a political analyst in Managua. While this doesn’t seem likely, neither is all-out war, Borges adds: there is no equivalent to the Communist powers who funded Sandinista fighters through the seventies and eighties.

“If the army backs the government, it will be able to maintain power,” he says. Alternatively, “we could see a coup by those same armed forces, as the FSLN loses its grip on power.”

Announcements by the army on Saturday did nothing to clarify their position. On the one hand, they affirmed they had “no reason to repress protesters.” On the other, they said “we back the efforts of the government of Nicaragua” to find a peaceful solution.

For Fernando Diaz, the more situation is much more clear-cut.

“We’re going to keep resisting until this government resigns,” he says, as smoke and tear gas mingle in the Masaya air.

“We’re fed up”: Meet the protesters dying for change on the streets of Nicaragua

First published in Vice

MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Tens of thousands of Nicaraguans flooded the streets of Managua on Monday, as demonstrations against pension reforms escalated into mass calls for the resignation of President Daniel Ortega.

Protesters carried flags and photos of those killed by security forces in recent days, chanting “President out!” as they moved through the city.

“We want Ortega out of the country and a return to a democratic system with a free media and the right to protest,” said Leina Garcia, a journalist with El Nuevo Diario.

Demonstrations began peacefully last Wednesday in opposition to Ortega’s proposed reforms to Nicaragua’s crisis-hit National Social Security Institute (INSS). The president sought a 5 percent tax to pensions and disability living allowances, and an increase to contributions paid by employees and employers.

For many Nicaraguans, Ortega’s latest demand was yet another example of government overstep, though not entirely surprising. But the level of violence exhibited in the government’s response jolted many who hadn’t joined the original protests out onto the streets, generating a nationwide movement against Ortega’s 12-year corrupt and authoritarian rule. Students played a lead role, occupying university buildings and resisting eviction by building barricades and defending them with homemade weapons.

At Polytechnic University of Nicaragua (UPOLI) still protestors occupy campus buildings even after a series of clashes with the police over the weekend left several students dead. The violence there has made UPOLI a symbol of resistance to government repression.

Reynaldo, an 18-year-old engineering student, was on the front line as police advanced on Sunday night.

“We set up barriers and confront them with stones, Molotovs, and homemade firearms,” he said. “They throw teargas and shoot at us, sometimes with rubber bullets, sometimes live ammunition.”

Doctors volunteering inside the Polytechnic University told VICE News that 30 students had died in clashes with security forces since the occupation began Thursday, although this could not be independently confirmed. The Nicaraguan Centre for Human Rights (CENIDH) has identified 26 deaths across the country since violence broke out, mostly the result of government security forces firing on demonstrators.

“We can say 26 with certainty, but there are undoubtedly more,” said Vilma Nunez, founder and president of CENIDH. “This is an atypical situation because it’s not just police repression; the government also deploys gangs of young men, usually armed with clubs or bats. We have evidence that these gangs have been ordered to loot shops and justify the government’s repression of legitimate protesters.” Footage shows members of one such group, the Sandinista Youth, assaulting protesters while police look on.

The true death toll from the weekend of violence remains unknown, but accounts across the country tell a vivid story of shocking state violence. With the government cracking down on media coverage of the protests, Nicaraguans are sharing evidence of abuses on social media using the #sosnicaragua hashtag.

On Thursday, a 15-year-old was shot in the throat at a demonstration near a shopping mall in Managua. In the city of Bluefields, on the country’s Caribbean coast, a journalist was shot dead while live-streaming protests. A father of two children was shot while protesting by members of the Sandinista Youth. Two UPOLI students were killed as they fought alongside Reynaldo on Sunday night.

In addition to deaths, human rights groups have documented 428 injuries and more than 100 arrests or disappearances since the protests began. Shops have been looted and public buildings burned to the ground, including part of the National University in Leon and the city hall in Granada. The government has also cut the signal on critical media channels and intensified censorship elsewhere, leading to the resignation of six journalists.

 

His attempts at reconciliation proved too little too late.

“People began by protesting corruption and wasted resources in the INSS,” said Nunez. “But now the movement has picked up the force of all the rage accumulated by people who for years have been repressed, who haven’t been able to protest or speak out against the government.”

Ortega, a commander during the Sandinista Revolution, has been in power since 2006. In that time, he’s centralized power over key institutions and made his wife vice president.

“There’s no independent judicial power. The supreme electoral council doesn’t function,” said Nunez. “Combined with control over the police and the army, this leaves people with no access to justice. There’s huge impunity. This creates the conditions for systematic human rights violations, for the repression and deaths we’re seeing right now.”

In 2009, the Supreme Court, controlled by Ortega’s party, overturned a constitutional ban on the president serving two consecutive terms. Since then, Ortega has gutted opposition parties and hounded prominent critics, including several former Sandinista leaders. A 2014 reform put him in direct control of the police and neutralized a second constitutional safeguard preventing the president from using the army for domestic security.

On Monday, ex–Sandinista Chief of Staff Joaquin Cuadra Lacayo used anewspaper interview to warn Ortega that having the army repress protesters “would be a historic error.”

Protesters voiced mixed views on what will happen next, some insisting they’ll stay on the streets until Ortega resigns, others demanding action on transparency and accountability to ensure free elections in two years’ time. But it’s clear that years of simmering anger are not going to be easily suppressed.

“We need elections to choose a new leader and overhaul our congress, which hasn’t even opened its mouth during this crisis,” said bank cashier Ronnie Obando.

“We’re fed up with phantom elections, phantom salaries, phantom consultants, the fact you can’t get good work unless you have connections with the right people,” said Belem, a doctor volunteering on the UPOLI campus who withheld her last name for security purposes. “Everyone knows this, but no one’s been able to say it, because we’d lost the right to have an opinion. Until now.”

U.S.-Backed Honduran Government Wants to Use Facebook to Crackdown on Journalists

First published in Vice

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — In August 2016, reporter Dina Meza was leaked a list of names given by the Honduran government to its elite police intelligence unit, SERCAA. She was on it.

A week later, Meza went home for lunch and found an armed stranger lingering in the doorway of her family home. Over the following months, her tires were punctured, her internet was cut off, and other unknown men were spotted around her house.

By October, the situation had become unbearable. “I was afraid they’d break inside and attack me and my children,” Meza said. With the support of international NGOs, she and her family gathered their possessions and abandoned the house. It was the sixth time they’d been forced to move in just five years.

Meza was being harassed because of her reporting on human rights and corruption in Honduras, one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists. Despite winning awards from Amnesty International and Oxfam for her work, Meza is blackballed from the country’s mainstream press — another consequence of her defiant reporting — so she’s relied on social media to get her work to Hondurans. That recipe proved powerful during the disputed elections in November. It also provided most of the coverage of the human rights crisis that followed, which saw 38 people killed in protests against widely suspected electoral fraud.

Now, activists warn that the Honduran government is trying to crush reporting like Meza’s and the social media platforms like Facebook that Hondurans rely on. The country’s lawmakers have introduced legislation that gives the government sweeping powers to censor social media, and muzzle dissenting digital news sites. Specifically, legislation being discussed in the country’s congress aims to create a “cybersecurity commission,” able to order users to delete tweets and Facebook posts, or face fines of up to $50,000.

The deputies proposing the law argue it’s necessary to stem a tide of online abuse that has flooded Honduras in the wake of the November vote. Butcritics say hate speech is covered by existing laws, and the new bill is really about suppressing critical coverage of the government.

“Social media provided the main forum for opposition views before the election and a key mechanism for the protest movement afterward,” said Edy Tábora, director of the Honduran Committee for Free Expression (C-Libre). “Now the government wants to create an organ of censorship that will bring this space under its control.”

During the election, Honduras’ traditional press fell into line behind conservative incumbent Juan Orlando Hernandez. The EU’s monitoring mission reported a “significant imbalance” in his favor, including a state media that “openly discriminated” against the main opposition candidate, Salvador Nasralla. Hernandez benefited from 64 percent of paid electoral propaganda, while Nasralla obtained just 15 percent, the commission found.

The election ended with a narrow victory for Hernandez, but it was quickly marred by accusations of fraud. With 57 percent of the vote counted, the opposition held an “irreversible” five-point lead. Then the data transmission system crashed. The OAS’s observation team noted numerous irregularities which, combined with the “extreme statistical improbability” of the shift in voting patterns once the system came back online, led them to call for new elections.

But the body’s firepower was defused just a few days later, after the U.S.-backed Hernandez’s victory.

Protests erupted across Honduras. State security forces, bolstered by millions in U.S. aid, responded brutally. Over the ensuing months, besides 38 killings, human rights groups documented 76 cases of torture and 400 serious injuries. A report from human rights observatory COFADEH described five assassinations of protest leaders “with paramilitary characteristics,” intended to “generate terror among the political opposition.” Twenty-six political prisoners remain in jail, according to activists, who describe “huge violations of the rule of law and due process in nearly all cases.”

But such news is rarely covered by mainstream press, which has minimized reports of the killings at the same time it’s emphasised the government line linking protesters to organized crime.

Increasingly, social media has become the primary source for publicizing government abuses. On Facebook and Twitter, videos of the military firing at and killing protesters circulated widely. One story on Meza’s Pasos de Animal Grande site that outlined rights violations and included a petition for Hernandez to be tried at the International Criminal Court was read 70,000 times, with traffic driven through Facebook.

The power of social media for journalists in Honduras can’t be overstated, said Meza. “Working in digital media frees me from the censorship that’s everywhere here,” she said. “This made a big difference during the elections, when we saw a surge in visitor numbers. Lots of new people came to us through Facebook and Twitter.”

But the new law, if passed, could cripple sites like Meza’s and further bolster fears that Honduras under Hernandez is sliding into a dictatorship.

The law avoids targeting Facebook or Twitter specifically, as neither publishes anything directly and they’re clearly beyond the reach of the Honduran government. Instead, fines would be levied against media companies and individuals within Honduras.

“The commission would give a media outlet 24 hours to take down a post, for example, a tweet sharing one of its stories,” Tábora explains. “And, facing a $50,000 fine if they refuse, what will the site do? They’ll take it down.”

While the law doesn’t require Facebook itself to take any action, a spokesperson emphasized that “free expression is fundamental” to the platform.

“We have a set of clear rules that determine what type of sharing is allowed, and what type of content may be reported to us and removed,” they said.

For Hondurans, the danger goes far beyond abstract concerns over freedom of speech.

“Nearly everyone here suffers from corruption, nepotism, abuses of authority and impunity,” Tábora notes. “Social media has become an essential space for denouncing and exposing these issues and behaviours. This law could take that away.”

The government’s turn to social media follows previous legislation targeting the traditional press, threatening to extend an entrenched culture of self-censorship into digital journalism.

Laws menacing the mainstream media include Article 335-B, under which journalists can be sentenced to eight years in prison for “defending, justifying, or glorifying” terrorism. While it hasn’t yet been used to prosecute anyone, Meza calls it a “strong latent threat that they will make us prisoners.”

“It has generated lots of self-censorship,” she said. “Journalists are afraid. They tell me they’d rather be quiet, stick to the program, than risk passing three years in prison.”

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has warned the bill could be used to “sanction the work of human rights defenders.”

Also criticized by international observers is the 2014 Official Secrets Act, which prohibits the publication of information relating to “security, defence or the attainment of national objectives.” As with article 335-B, the IACHR warns that such ambiguous language leaves journalists unclear on what will and won’t constitute criminal language.

Even more chilling, a Guardian investigation found that Honduras had bought £300,000 of sophisticated surveillance equipment from the U.K. government just before the November election. Meza said she has seen this equipment firsthand when arriving at commitments to find someone already there, watching her.

Assaults have taken more direct forms, too, with journalists beaten by policewhile attempting to cover protests. On March 25, a reporter with the digital news site Mega Red Nacional was punched, electrocuted, and forced to delete his material during a demonstration in the northern city of Choloma.

In February, Cesar Silva, a presenter with the opposition-aligned UNE TV, narrowly evaded a knife attack live on air.

“I almost found myself narrating my own death,” Silva said. He believes his assailant had mental health problems, but adds that he was likely stirred up byrhetoric used to delegitimize the political opposition.

“He called me a gangster and a defender of delinquency, which is exactly what the government says about us,” Silva said. “It shows how much they really [don’t] care about hate speech.”