By Gabriela Selser (dpa)
HAVANA TIMES – Hooded men lurking behind trees and jumping out, snipers on rooftops, homes burning down while children scream inside and people shot down in the middle of the street with a bullet to the head… These images all form part of Nicaragua’s new violent reality.
The country of lakes and volcanoes which the Government used to call “the safest in Central America” has become an extremely dangerous place in the past two months and thousands of Europeans and US tourists (eternal lovers of the tropics and surf) left in a stampede.
“Life changed overnight for us, like turning a sock inside out,” university professor Auxiliadora Martinez told dpa, when remembering the first student protest which led to this crisis on April 18th.
What started off as a small protest of young people against the government’s new social security reforms policy soon became an unstoppable civil uprising, as a result of the Police and riot squads’ violent actions against unarmed civilians. According to human rights organizations, the death toll currently stands at 215 fatalities and nearly 2000 people injured.
Universities and most of Managua’s high schools have suspended classes and are unsure of when they will start up again. Two universities, including the largest public one, are surrounded by barricades and are being occupied by students armed with stones and home-made bombs. On many evenings they are attacked by the heavily armed paramilitaries.
In Managua’s eastern neighborhoods, hooded men with war rifles in hand are carrying out raids. “They carry lists of the young people who are protesting,” a neighbor in the densely populated Schick neighborhood said afraid, whose two nephews have been kidnapped.
Chained to the entrance of El Chipote (a detention center where people are being held), dozens of women are waiting for their children or brothers to be released, every day. According to human rights organizations, over 70 young people are being held in these cells and still haven’t been charged.
Police raids have led to an exodus of Nicaragua’s youth. In front of Managua’s Immigration headquarters, lines are several blocks long. Many people are sleeping on the street and stand under the scorching sun so as to get their passports for the first time. The majority say they are traveling to Costa Rica, Panama and the United States.
“How awful these days have been: deaths after deaths, police leading hordes of paramilitaries, young people who have disappeared and been beaten!” poet Gioconda Belli wrote in a public letter to vice-president Rosario Murillo. Belli actively supported the Sandinista Revolution in the ‘80s.
Like in the most blood-chilling thriller, hooded men with assault rifles travel the highways and stop and search cars. Some seize mobile phones, while Health Ministry ambulances are used to transport heavily armed civilians.
Videos of hooded men who hold up rifles in a rural setting and threaten to enter the cities from “some place in the mountains” are taking over social media in the meantime, which is being stormed by “fake news”.
Parks, movie theaters and shopping centers remain empty due to the climate of anxiety. On Managua’s streets, accidents are sorted out between drivers involved as traffic police are absent and are now apparently being used only for military operations.
Employees at Metrocentro (a mall with over 200 businesses and a meeting point for residents in the capital) have been evacuated at least five times over the past month because of false alarms of armed attacks. Many stores have closed because of bankruptcy.
In her daily midday statements, vice-president Murillo insists on asking for “no more hate or violence”, claiming that her husband, president Daniel Ortega, “is making every effort to reestablish national peace.” Murillo talks about “evil spirits” who have stolen the country’s peace.
The Ortega family is currently living at their residence in El Carmen, to the west of Managua, somewhat entrenched and protected by a 500m security fence which is guarded by riot police and heavily armed members of the Army.
The Civic Alliance of students, businessmen and civil society, which have led protests, are accusing the Government and National Police of leading frightening paramilitary groups and “gangs” have set homes, offices and hotels on fire in the night.
“The world needs to know how serious and inhumane the situation is in Nicaragua right now: it isn’t a war (…) that is happening; this is an armed State murdering its unarmed citizens,” said Catholic bishop Silvio Baez, one of the dialogue’s mediators.
According to military expert Roberto Cajina, “Ortega is ruling a reign of terror. He hasn’t accepted leaving power as an option and has put State terrorism into action. It’s something that we’ve never seen before, not even during the time of (dictator Anastasio) Somoza,” who was overthrown by Ortega and the Sandinista Front in 1979.
According to Cajina’s statement to dpa, “vigilantes” (paramilitary or parapolice groups) have emerged from the Sandinista Party’s local structures, as well as from city halls and public entities too. And they will be “the Ortega era’s disastrous legacy: criminal groups acting with total immunity.”
Nobody knows how many there are, “but if 600 vigilantes entered (the city of) Masaya, there must be between 2,000-3,000 nationwide,” he claimed.
“We will be worse off than Honduras, El Salvador or Guatemala because we will witness a transmutation of today’s armed political violence to an armed criminal violence which will only be contained by UN peace forces (known as the “blue helmets”) like in Haiti, Lebanon or Mali,” he pointed out.
Nicaragua’s critical situation will now be assessed by missions from the UN, EU and the OAS’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, who will arrive in Nicaragua in the coming days, invited by the Government after much civic pressure to investigate deaths since April and to seek justice, according to agreements made with the Civic Alliance (students, civil society and business organizations) in the National Dialogue process.