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Violent Land Invasions on Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast — 'Just Like the Spaniards'

In the past 10 years, approximately 100 people have been killed during confrontations between locals and settlers, according to a local human rights organization. Over half of the victims were killed in 2015.

by Ray Downs
Dec 8 2015, 8:50pm

Imagen por Ray Downs

As the June sun rose over Angloamérica — a tiny village of wooden shacks on the Grande de Matagalpa river on Nicaragua's southern Atlantic Coast — Pablo Francisco Moncado grabbed his gun. For several weeks, Moncado had woken up each morning expecting a gunfight. This morning, he would get one.

Moncado, a 46-year-old farmer and father of four, didn't know he was being watched as he climbed down the creaky ladder attached to his elevated home that was built on stilts to avoid the annual flooding from the nearby riverbank. As he made his way to the outhouse several men armed with rifles, and a few with knives, emerged from behind lush tropical forest trees. One of the men aimed and fired.

Moncado was hit. He screamed and fired back, getting off a few shots. Inside the house, his 21-year-old son Armando startled awake.

"The colonos are here," Armando remembers thinking in the version of the tragic events he retold to VICE News.

By colonos he meant the mixed-raced internal migrants who are increasingly seeking to settle along Nicaragua's lush and fertile Atlantic Coast where land is owned by indigenous and afro-descendent communities. The law — based on a 2001 landmark case — requires outsiders, including the national government, to get permission from local residents before they can buy land. Locals charge that some are not just ignoring that law but taking land at gun point.

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Armando — whose family has lived for four generations in Angloamérica — says that when he realized his home was being attacked he jumped out of bed to grab a gun himself, ran out of the house and fired away at the armed intruders. They shot back. He took took cover behind a tree and scanned the vicinity for his father. He saw him lying on the ground with a gun lying next to his body. Twenty feet away, one of the intruders was also sprawled on the dirt ground.

"We're going to come back for your father's head and burn down the house with everyone in it," Armando says the colonos hollered as they retreated.

When he was sure they had gone, Armando ran over to his father's body. Pablo was dead. Several bullets had torn apart his chest and torso. The man lying a few feet from him was also dead with bullet wounds in his chest.

Inside the house he says he found his mother wailing and José, the youngest of the brothers, with a shot to the head, though he wasn't dead.

Armando, about 5'8" with a slight frame, cradled his tall, lanky 16-year-old brother in his arms and raced as fast as he could to the steep and muddy riverbank. He placed José on the floorboard of the wooden panga, revved up the engine and set off for Rio Grande de la Cruz, the nearest village with a hospital that was still about an hour away.

As the boat sped down the calm, green river, Armando says he prayed for his unconscious brother. In that moment of reflection, the adrenaline subsided and the pain swooped in at once. Armando realized he had been shot, too — four times in his right shoulder area.

When Armando reached the hospital, the medical staff arranged for a helicopter to transport José to Nicaragua's capital city of Managua. The teenager who had dreamed of expanding the family farm held on for 21 days before he eventually succumbed to his wounds and died.

The assault on the Moncado family was not an isolated incident.

In the past 10 years, approximately 100 people — many of them leaders in their communities — have been killed during confrontations with colonos, according to CEJUDHCAN, a human rights organization based in the northeast city of Bilwi, the capital of the North Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region that is located near the Honduran border and also known as Puerto Cabezas. Over half of the victims — 54 — were killed in 2015.

"It's a form of genocide," says Dolene Miller, a member of the National Commission for Demarcation and Titling, which has been fighting for a more stringent method of keeping track of land titles for indigenous and afro-descendent people. "Just like the Spaniards came to this land hundreds of years ago and committed genocide against the natives, the mestizos are trying to get rid of us to colonize the land."

Reasons for the spike are unclear, but local activists blame the increase of settlers heading to the Atlantic Coast region on severe droughts in the west that has decimated farming and cattle ranching there. In 2014, the national government made international headlines when it told Nicaraguans to eat iguanas instead of beef due to limited water available to raise cattle.

Land in the rainy east is abundant, lush and perfect for large-scale farming and ranching. The attacks have been primarily concentrated in the northeast region and near the city of Bluefields in the south.

Map via Instituto Nicaraguense de Estudios Territoriales

"We can grow almost anything here and they can't grow much over there, so that's why they want to come and take the land," says Miller. "But they also want to control all the profits so all the wealth goes to the mestizos and the government. That's not right."

In addition to a rising death toll, people are being displaced from their communities. According to local news reports, armed bandits have stormed into several villages, forcing those residents to flee and seek safety in larger towns waiting until it's safe to return home.

"It's a human rights crisis," Lottie Cunningham, director of the Bilwi-based rights group CEJUDHCAN says of the nearly 1,000 displaced people currently living in tent camps in the city. "These people are living without sanitation and poor shelter. They can't keep going on like that and they just want to go home, but they don't know if it's safe to go to their own homes."

In nearby Waspam another several hundred displaced peoples are seeking security. Waspam, however, was also the site of the deadliest attack so far in which 10 people were killed and more injured on September 14.

According to Armstrong Wiggins, director of the Indian Law Resource Center, a drunken group of low level members of the ruling Sandinista party suddenly decided to attack the local headquarters of an opposition indigenous party called Yatama – Sons of Mother Earth in the Miskito language that is spoken by many of the indigenous people in the area.

He said they stormed the gates and shot indiscriminately, pummeling bullets into nine people. Among those shot was Mario Leman Muller, a prominent local leader, who had to be airlifted to Managua. He died on the plane ride there.

The massacre in Waspam fueled speculation in the region that the government is letting the invasions happen.

"Nobody wants a war. Nobody will win. But at the same time, we can't keep getting displaced and killed."

Some say the government of the National Sandinista Liberation Front is hoping to repopulate the Atlantic coastal area that was largely anti-Sandinista during the country's brutal civil war in the 1980s with the idea of getting easier access to the area's valuable natural resources — such as lumber and gold.

Another theory that gets tossed around by locals is that the value of land will greatly increase once (or at least if) the planned Chinese funded inter-oceanic canal gets built. With seaports and airports planned to spring up around the giant canal, the surrounding land should eventually be worth more.

"The colonos have a lot of weapons, including heavy arms like AK-47's, they have ammunition, and they have to be getting them from somewhere," said Miskito spokesman Carlos Rivas Thomas during an interview in Miami. "And the recent attack on our leaders by the mob [in Waspam] indicates that the government was behind the attack."

"Nobody wants a war. Nobody will win," Rivas added, "But at the same time, we can't keep getting displaced and killed."

Amid increased attention to the rising tension, as well as the accusations that the government is doing nothing to stop it or even fueling it, the authorities have started to acknowledge the seriousness of the situation.

On September 23, the country's Supreme Court suspended the law licenses of five attorneys suspected of selling titles to indigenous land. The lawyers have not been charged with any crimes, according to local news reports.

That same week President Daniel Ortega expressed sympathy for the indigenous groups and reaffirmed their claim to the land before announcing the findings from a commission that appeared to back local allegations that a massive land grab is under way.

The commission found that there have been 339 documented complaints reported to the police of settlers stealing indigenous lands in the northeast since 2010. It did not, however, investigate the charge that the police have done nothing to halt them.

Lenin Simon, the president of the Alwatara region, where Angloamérica is located, slams a 10-page report about alleged murders at the hands of colonos on his desk in his office in Bluefields.

"This shows who the killers are, their names, and their transgressions," says Simon, a burly, plain-spoken man in his 50's. "We've provided the national government with the information they need to make an arrest, but they still have yet to do anything. And people are in fear, myself included. It's possible that somebody goes after me because I have spoken out."

One of the transgressions listed in the report is the September, 2013 murder of Ronal Davis, an Alwatara leader from the village of Betania who was killed during a visit to Bluefields. Six colonos from the area near Davis' village were arrested for involvement in the slaying, but they were soon released. There have been no more arrests and the case has gone cold.

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In the village of Angloamérica, Pablo Moncado's house now lies empty.  In one room sunlight pours in through an array of bullet holes surrounding the window. This is where José was shot. In another room, a notebook lays in the corner. In it are hand-written prayers from a Sunday school class.

Outside, a wooden cross has been set into the muddy ground. This is where Pablo Moncado died, according to village leaders. Just a few feet away lies a shallow grave, identifiable only from the flattened down pile of mud that covers it. That's where the body of one of the invaders has been buried. The villagers in Anglo-America had to put his corpse somewhere, they say, so why not here. 

Days after Moncado was killed, the villagers demanded the national army come into the area and arrest the culprits. A group of leaders traveled by boat to Karawala, a larger village that serves as the capital of the Alwatara region and where, unlike Angloamérica, there is cell phone coverage.

The locals told the army they knew where the invaders were and claim that the army made a brief appearance but turned back after warning shorts were fired.

"They didn't want to be bothered with actually having to do something," says Celestino Almendárez, one of the village leaders. "I won't say they were scared. I just think they didn't care."

Residents of Angloamérica. (Photo by Ray Downs)

Since the attack on their family farm in June, the three remaining Moncado brothers are living in semi-hiding. They say they have received death threats from the colonos, relayed to them by their extended family in Angloamérica. 

Wearing dark shades and a baseball cap, Armando sinks into a chair towards the end of his story.

"I don't know when we will ever be able to go back," the 21-year-old says, after outlining the difficulties of finding places to stay and getting together enough money to feed himself and his brothers. "But we will. It's our family's land. And there's nowhere else for us to go."

Related: Garifuna People Are Risking Everything to Flee Their Ancestral Honduran Homelands

Follow Ray Downs on Twitter: @raydowns

Freelance foreign correspondent Ray Downs received a grant from the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) for his Nicaragua coverage.