After the death of 317 protesters, 200 disappeared, and thousands wounded in Nicaragua, mostly at the hands of the Ortega regime and allied paramilitary forces, it is more difficult than ever for the dictator to hide his links with these illegal groups, despite his constant public denials.
Despite his attempt to present an official position on the subject, he has had several public stumbles. For example, in an interview with Euronews, Ortega referred to the paramilitary groups as “voluntary police.”
This statement reflects what has been seen in the streets. Hours after the police took the Monimbo neighborhood in the southern city of Masaya, recordings appeared of masked men raising a red and black flag with the letters FSLN (Sandinista National Liberation Front), a group which was led by Ortega in his time as a guerrilla. The uprising in Masaya is considered a particularly symbolic blow by the international press, since it was long an FSLN bastion.
“Sandino lives! The fight continues!” and “long live the Sandinista Front!,” shouted the armed paramilitaries, raising their left fists and rifles to the sky, while waving the red and black flag of Marxist Sandinista guerrillas.
Ortega reduces death toll
According to the government, since the April protests began, 197 people have died, including 22 policemen. The impetus for the widespread unrest was budgetary reforms that would have required increased financial contributions on the part of workers.
However, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), which operates under the auspices of the OAS, totaled 317 casualties, and the Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights (ANPDH) estimates 450.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said in June that almost all the deaths were “at the hands of police forces and armed pro-government groups.”
In June, we asked whether these groups have the potential to turn criminal. Read more here: https://t.co/hzreXWCJ6V
— InSight Crime (@InSightCrime) August 14, 2018
Although Ortega and the vice president, his wife, deny the link between paramilitary groups and the government, witnesses and several experts argue otherwise.
Elvira Cuadra, a partner and former director of the Nicaragua-based Institute for Strategic Studies and Public Policy (IEEPP), said it is “evident” that there is a “close and direct” relationship between the Ortega regime and “the pro-government armed groups.”
Its main objectives are “to scare the population, kidnap young people who are then taken to police jails [and] carry out armed actions with high-caliber weapons of war,” he said.
“They have become a great danger and a risk to the rest of the population in Managua and other important cities of the country,” he says.
In addition, he maintains that the aid provided by the government to these groups is both logistical and material, since the paramilitary groups have access to weapons and vehicles to transfer the kidnapped youths in Toyota Hilux SUVs.
According to Antonia Urrejola, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights for Nicaragua, there is testimony of numerous arrests carried out by paramilitary groups that deliver the demonstrators to the police.
At the moment, it is estimated that 2,000 arrests have been made since the protests began, and that 400 are still in prison. Among those released are those who gave testimony to the Associated Press, who stated that during the police interrogations members of Sandinista paramilitaries were present.
They told stories of torture and even of an induced abortion, in the case of a 21-year-old girl who was detained for five days. After warning them about her pregnancy, she was beaten on the stomach and kicked on the floor.
But the repression is not limited to what happened in the streets and prisons. The executive secretary of the IACHR, Paulo Abrao, explained that at the end of July, Nicaragua had entered into a third phase of the repression. He calls it “bureaucratic repression”, since “he is using the penal and justice systems to detain people.”
Weapons for war
Roberto Orozco, a security expert, explains that since the Sandinista triumph in 1979, the party has maintained a constant army until their electoral defeat in 1990. In 2007, when they again triumphed at the polls, the army made a reappearance.
Originally, they had smaller caliber weapons. In contrast, since the beginning of the riots, the local press reports that paramilitaries display weapons exclusively used by the Nicaraguan Army, such as AK-47s, RPG-7 rocket launchers, and Dragunov sniper rifles.
It also indicates that the paramilitaries constitute a small group that is loyal to Sandinismo and therefore to Ortega, and that they are the most orthodox and fanatical. It alleges that the rest receive incentives for their work, both economic and legal, to obtain impunity in criminal acts.
Ortega himself, in an interview with Fox News, said that the paramilitary groups were financed by drug trafficking.
The Nicaraguan opposition argues that the paramilitaries receive payments of 300 to 500 córdobas (USD $9 to $16 dollars) daily, as well as fuel coupons for their motorcycles and vans. The same sources link ex-policemen, gang members, and municipal employees to the repression.
The low cost of these “incentives” is an indicator in itself of the economic, political, and ideological situation in Nicaragua. It is cheap and easy for Ortega to buy mercenaries to deprive the people of not merely their liberty, but their life as well.