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

“They buried our democracy, and now they’re burying our people.”

by Toby Hill
Jun 28 2018, 5:57pm

MANAGUA, Nicaragua — 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.”

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.

The Pavon family home in Managua’s Carlos Marx neighborhood was burned down by "police and pro-government paramilitaries," locals told VICE News. The incident has sparked outrage across the country. Toby Hill for VICE News.

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 condemnation and 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.”

“I have a message for Daniel Ortega: Not one more death!”

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.

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

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.

Anti-government protestors are using roadblocks to retaliate against Daniel Ortega's government. This image shows a destroyed water truck that's been turned into a roadblock from the resistance movement in Managua’s Carlos Marx neighborhood. Toby Hill for VICE News.

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,” he 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.

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

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.

Mourners attend a funeral for the Pavon family, most of whom died in a fire believed to be started by police and pro-government paramilitaries. Their deaths have been widely condemned throughout the country and the Americas. Luis Almagro, secretary general of the Organization of American States, called it “a crime against humanity.” Toby Hill for VICE News.

“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.”

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Cover image: Student and protest leaders organize near a roadblock in Las Maderas two weeks before police and pro-government forces attacked it. Toby Hill for VICE News.

Toby Hill is a freelance journalist reporting on social and environmental issues in Latin America and the UK.