World News

Violence in Nicaragua Undermines Peace Talks 2 Months Into Uprising

Posted June 20, 2018 10:58 a.m. EDT

MASAYA, Nicaragua — It is the most irregular of armies.

Armed only with homemade mortars, their features hidden behind scarves and ski masks, the fighters of Masaya crouched behind the barricades they built to protect the streets of their rebellious city.

Shots rang out, answered by the dull thud of improvised explosives, as the volunteers tried Tuesday to hold off the advance of paramilitary forces and police officers toward the city center. As the assailants broke through each barricade, the defenders sprinted back through the empty streets, past families watching from doorways, poised to bolt inside at the first sign of danger.

But in the end, the resistance was no match for the firepower and men sent by the government of President Daniel Ortega on Tuesday to rescue the police commander who had been assigned to quell Masaya, only to be held hostage for weeks at police headquarters.

A day that began to the ringing of church bells, sounded to alert Masaya’s citizens, ended with at least four dead and more than 30 injured, but the town remained defiant.

“That they reached the city does not mean that we are surrendering,” said Yubrank Suazo, spokesman in the city for the insurrection known as the April 19 Movement.

It has been two months since Nicaraguans rose up in an enormous wave to demand the end of Ortega’s leadership, a repudiation of the man who has dominated the country’s political life for nearly 40 years. The early power of those protests, when it seemed as if the sheer rage on the street would topple a hero of the 1979 revolution, has given way to the realization that Ortega and his vice president and wife, Rosario Murillo, are holding fast.

What is emerging instead is a campaign of terror by government-backed paramilitary forces, often accompanied by anti-riot police, that appears to be calculated to cow citizens into resignation.

At the same time, the government is engaged in negotiations with an unwieldy alliance of opposing groups, including the students who first began the protest movement, along with business and farmers’ organizations.

On the streets, many people say they want the presidential couple to leave now. But the Roman Catholic Church, which is mediating the dialogue, has proposed holding early elections by March.

This week, the State Department said that “early elections represent a constructive way forward.” And Carlos Trujillo, the U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States, arrived in the capital, Managua, on Tuesday to meet with government and opposition groups.

Jaime Wheelock — who, with Ortega, was among the nine revolutionary commanders of the Sandinista National Liberation Front in the 1970s — said dialogue was the only route out of the current political crisis.

“I am worried about a slow climb in violence that could turn into low-intensity armed conflict,” warned Wheelock, who left politics after the Sandinistas lost the 1990 election. “The international community doesn’t appear to understand the seriousness of the situation, and while they don’t, the Nicaraguan population is defenseless.”

The church’s agenda envisions rolling back the iron control Ortega has established over the Legislature, the judiciary and electoral authorities since he returned to power in 2006, and guaranteeing political parties the freedom to compete fairly in elections. The president has not responded clearly to the proposal, but he has not rejected it.

Both sides agreed on the first step: an invitation to international rights organizations to investigate the violence that has killed more than 180 people in two months. The government has yet to present letters of invitation, though, and the opposition alliance temporarily suspended talks Tuesday.

“You cannot be in a dialogue on the one hand and killing and murdering on the other,” Álvaro Leiva Sánchez, secretary of the Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights, said after the violence in Masaya. “It’s not possible.” The intimidation takes different forms. Masked men bang down doors in the early morning and haul off suspects, snipers shoot to kill at protest marches and paramilitaries dismantle the barricades protesters have built with paving stones pried from the streets.

In an attack that horrified Nicaraguans, six members of the Velásquez Pavón family, including a baby and a toddler, died Saturday when masked men set fire to the three-story building that housed their mattress store and living quarters.

A daughter who jumped from a balcony and survived told local news outlets that paramilitary forces had demanded that the family allow a sniper to take a position on their roof. When the family refused, the gunmen lit the fire and barred the family from escaping.

The government has argued that the protesters are vandals and terrorists, a position that Murillo repeated in one of her regular noon speeches Tuesday.

“Our Comandante Daniel” she said, was committed to stopping “hate crimes, kidnappings, the burning of houses” and “atrocities without limits.”

Whether the violence against the government’s opponents will succeed in suppressing their protests or will instead strengthen their resolve is unclear.

The mass demonstrations in Managua in the early weeks of unrest stopped after gunmen fired at a march May 30, Nicaragua’s Mother’s Day, killing 15 people. This week, a few dozen protesters gathered at a traffic circle marked with crosses for those killed in the violence, waving flags at passing motorists.

“We’re here to take back the street,” declared Edwin Carcache, 27, one of the leaders of the student movement. He had a warning for Ortega: “If the people put you there, the people can also remove you. Citizens are beginning to claim their true rights.” Sara Maritza Oporto, 47, saw the crackdown up close when her son, Guillermo Sobalvarro, 23, was arrested while on his way to a market Friday. Four days later, all she knew was that he was in the Managua jail known as El Chipote and she waited outside the gates with other mothers, passing food and soap through its bars to a police officer.

“I will be honest,” she said. “We have participated in the protest marches and we will continue to do so because it is not a crime.”

She said that she planned to send her son to Costa Rica once he was released, but that she would stay. “I want a free country where it’s not a crime to be young.”