the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve
in late August. Credit: Local residents.
A paramilitary group brutally massacred more than a dozen Indigenous people inside a biosphere reserve in northern Nicaragua, according to human rights groups and local residents. The attack by some 30 heavily armed men occurred while the victims were mining gold at a sacred site within their ancestral territory.
The violence is the latest escalation in a nearly decade-long conflict between land invaders who are seeking to exploit natural resources and the Indigenous people who’ve inhabited the territory for centuries.
“It’s a fight for territory, an attempt to terrify [the Indigenous people] so that they are forcibly displaced,” Maria Acosta, coordinator of the Legal Assistance Center for Indigenous People in Nicaragua, told VICE World News. “It’s a fight to colonize these territories, to extract the gold that exists in those mines.”
Residents and activists say that since the first Indigenous land defender was murdered in 2013, inaction by the government has led to a culture of impunity that has emboldened the invaders and produced increasingly horrific acts of violence, including at least 40 murders over the last several years before the most recent attack in late August.
“Since the authorities don’t act according to the law, tomorrow there could be another massacre in another community,” said a local Indigenous leader who asked not to be named out of fear of retribution.
Government authorities have yet to make a public statement regarding the massacre, which is unusual given the scale of the violence in a country with one of the region’s lowest homicide rates.
But it is not without precedent. The authoritarian government of President Daniel Ortega, who is running for a fourth-consecutive term in this November’s general election, has a history of ignoring inconvenient truths, such as the number of deaths in Nicaragua caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In recent months, the government has jailed numerous political opponents, including everyone who might have posed a threat to Ortega in the coming election, as well as attacked independent press and non-governmental organizations.
After an attack in January 2020 in which a paramilitary group of roughly 80 ransacked an Indigenous community, burning homes, killing cattle and murdering four people, authorities denied that it had even happened. That changed when photographs of the victims began circulating on social media but only one suspect was arrested and later released.
Residents say that the same paramilitary group, known as the Kukalon, carried out last month’s attack. The invaders’ origin is unclear but they have allegedly terrorized the Indigenous people in the region for at least two years.
Both attacks occurred within the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve, recognized by UNESCO for its ecological importance and home to the Miskitu and Mayangna Indigenous peoples.
The massacre occurred in the late afternoon of August 23 while a group of Indigenous people were engaged in artisanal gold mining on a hill called Kiwakumbaih, a sacred place that was a traditional site for communal gatherings and ancestral rituals. in the past. An Indigenous leader told VICE World News that 15 people were killed and two women were raped, one who was murdered and had a leg cut off and another who was allowed to escape.
The victims were from both the Miskitu and Mayangna communities.
“It seems that the level of cruelty is going up,” said Acosta. The colonizers are seeking to take over land, most likely for mining in this case and in others to set up cattle ranches, African palm plantations or logging operations.
In the case of mining, the government might have an extra incentive to remain silent despite human rights abuses. “The law of mining makes the state a partner in mining, at least ten per cent of the shares go to the state,” said Acosta.
Large-scale mining operations are also particularly harmful to the environment, leading to deforestation, habitat loss and contamination of the Indigenous peoples’ water sources.
Despite the apparent indifference from the government, the Indigenous people are determined to fight to defend their ancestral land rights.
The Indigenous leader said: “We hope that the [aggressors] are brought to justice because they can’t keep killing our people.”