World News

A Mother’s Day Protest in Nicaragua Ends With at Least 15 Dead

Posted May 31, 2018 8:24 p.m. EDT

At least 15 people were killed during protests this week in Nicaragua, raising the death toll of the nation’s six-week political uprising to about 100, human rights activists said Thursday.

The latest killings took place at a march Wednesday attended by hundreds of thousands of people on Nicaragua’s Mother’s Day. It was held to honor the mothers of students killed at previous rallies.

A leading Roman Catholic bishop called it a “massacre,” and the Episcopal Conference of Nicaragua, which had been mediating a national dialogue between the opposition and the government, abruptly ended the peace talks.

“How can you dialogue with your assassins?” said Gonzalo Carrión, a lawyer at the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights, who said police had opened fire on protesters. “This was the biggest rally yet. It was an homage to mothers who lost their sons at rallies in April and May, and they wound up adding 15 more mothers to that list.”

The Nicaraguan army said at least six police officers had been shot and wounded at the demonstration.

The protest Wednesday capped six weeks of what has been described as a national rebellion against the government of President Daniel Ortega. The government has denied responsibility for any of the deaths and insists it is the victim of a vast conspiracy.

The increasing violence underscores what little progress has been made to resolve the conflict since demonstrations began in April. Fake news reports intended to incite the public continue to circulate; government and opposition websites have been hacked; and dozens of roadblocks around the nation have paralyzed traffic.

The situation in Nicaragua appears increasingly uncertain.

Protesters called for more rallies and a national strike. In response, the leader of the National Assembly was seen in a widely circulated video telling union workers to “take back the streets” in support of the president. Many interpreted that as a call to arms against the protesters.

The shootings by police Wednesday prompted outrage.

“The demonstration was peaceful,” said Juan Sebastián Chamorro, a negotiator on the national dialogue committee. “There were children there. It was a peaceful manifestation that ended up with people shot in the head and killed deliberately by snipers.”

Guillerma Zapata, 63, said protesters had told her that the bullet that hit her son, Francisco Javier Reyes Zapata, 34, came from a sharpshooter perched on the top of the national baseball stadium. Reyes was struck in the eye and died, she said.

“They have to go,” Zapata said of the president and his wife, Rosario Murillo, who is also the vice president. “He is a murderer, and a murderer cannot continue to govern Nicaragua. They have to leave. I believe that dialogue is no longer an option. That’s sitting down to talk with the devil, who is killing the people.”

As the peace talks started two weeks ago, student protesters, in a televised spectacle, interrupted, chanting the names of the dead.

The talks stalled when the government insisted that roadblocks put up by demonstrators be taken down, which committee members took as a stalling tactic, Chamorro said.

The crisis began April 19 in Managua, the capital, when the government made changes to the social security system that would have raised workers’ contributions and cut retirees’ pensions. Students at universities in the capital picketed on their campuses, and were met by mobs of government supporters who attacked them.

The rallies morphed into protests against the government of Ortega and Murillo, who have been accused of systematically undercutting the nation’s democracy by manipulating the law, the Supreme Court, the constitution and the electoral council.

By the time the government withdrew the proposed social security changes a few days after the protests began, it was too late: The protests demanding the ouster of Ortega and Murillo had spread around the country.

Although the dialogue attempts calmed the protests considerably in May, each week more people were killed at rallies, until the toll reached 100, said Carrión, whose group is leading the count.

A report this week by Amnesty International accused the government of using “pro-government armed groups to carry out attacks, incite violence, increase their capacity for repression and operate outside the law.”

“This strategy enabled them to sow fear in the population, impede the identification of the attackers and generate a climate in which the government could evade responsibility,” Amnesty International said.

Antonia Urrejola, a commissioner for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, said the government agreed on Tuesday to allow her organization to send four impartial outside monitors to scrutinize the investigations, which had been criticized for a lack of autopsies.

“The situation is even more serious than we thought,” she said. “We are in the middle of an evolving crisis, and that’s a challenge.”

The government’s official website posted photos Thursday of its supporters who were injured. The National Police said that in all, 15 people had died, and 20 police officers had been hurt.

The government released a statement Thursday saying that the accusations against the police and the government were unsubstantiated.

“Strike forces and paramilitary groups supportive of the government do not exist, so we cannot accept that anyone try to accuse us of these painful and tragic events that we have not provoked, and would never provoke,” the statement said.