The situation in Nicaragua seems to worsen with every day, and the framing of the conflict in international media has worsened with it. Despite overwhelming evidence of violence and intimidation being employed by opposition groups, articles in the Miami Herald, The Atlantic, the BBC and elsewhere continue to talk about protesters as if all were non-violent students under the gun by a thuggish government. The only violence discussed is then blamed on the government - mostly through alleged support for para-police forces. The goal here is not to deny that the government has at times engaged in violent tactics. But this is far from the whole story.
Certainly the worst day since the original demonstrations in April was May 30, when someone opened fire on the Mother's Day March in Managua. In that attack and other conflicts Masaya, Esteli, and Chinandega 16 people were killed. In an article that appeared on The Atlantic's website, the author claimed the police opened fire indiscriminately on the march and that "government snipers went headhunting."
But there is no evidence that the police fired “indiscriminately” at protesters - no one I've read other than this author has claimed this. Some people at the scene blamed “turbas Sandinistas,” or Sandinista mobs, for the conflict that erupted when people leaving a Sandinista rally ran into the Mother’s Day March. However, no one knows who was doing the shooting. One theory is that pro-government/para-police forces fired on the crowd, a competing narrative is that it was armed groups affiliated with the political opposition. No one - including the Amnesty International statement that was presented as “evidence” of this claim - is able to say “government snipers” went “headhunting.”
Sixteen people were killed that day - but throughout the country. In Managua the death toll was 8. Other people who died included Sandinistas who were killed in Esteli when a caravan trying to get to Managua for a peace rally was attacked. Of course, the political affiliation of many of the people who died that day is actually unknown. They were, however, all men - which strongly suggests that no-one was firing “indiscriminately” but, to the contrary, quite purposefully. The point is that even on this day, the violence was coming from multiple directions.
Two-Weeks of Violence
During the two-week period since the collapse of the National Dialogue on May 23, nearly 60 people have died in Nicaragua - bringing the death toll since the original demonstrations were launched on April 16 to 139. I reviewed local press reports of 41 of the deaths during this two week period and there are a few discernable patterns. Firstly, in only one case was a police officer directly implicated. A witness reported that a police officer shot someone twice, killing him during conflicts in Masaya on the night of June 2 that left 5 people dead. The rest of the deaths in Masaya that night were attributed to fighting between pro and anti-government gangs. This is the case for most of the deaths reported in the last two weeks.
Secondly, this speaks to a larger pattern in which many deaths have occurred in conflicts in and around the “tranques,” or blockades that have been set up throughout the country by opposition groups. Who is responsible for these deaths is not clear. There is a pattern of armed gangs riding around on motorcycles and in pickup trucks, firing into groups at tranques. This is a tactic that has been blamed on government supporters by some local human rights groups - though the latest victim, Marcos González Briceño, was a police officer, killed on June 10. It is also becoming increasingly evident that organized criminal gangs are involved in staffing the tranques in some areas.
Thirdly, while many of the people killed are of traditional age for students, many are not, suggesting that many are not students at all. Of the 19 reports of deaths during this two week period where ages were given, 11 people were 25 or older, and 8 of those were over 30 years old. In addition, the people who are dying are not all simply anti-government protesters. Indeed, a gang attacked the police station in Mulukuku Monday morning (June 10), killing two more police officers. Police have died (three officers killed in one day). Sandinista activists have been killed. And people associated with local government have been killed and beaten. Some people have been killed just for being near a tranque when guns were fired.
It seems obvious that the violence is coming from multiple directions - and not simply state-supported. It is hard to find such discussion in international media accounts.
When the Mother’s Day March on May 30 broke up, some of the “non-violent” protesters in Managua tried to burn down Radio Ya, a Sandinista affiliated radio station, while people were still inside (arsonists finished the job the next night, burning what was left of the station to the ground). They also burned the offices of the ALBA Caruna near the University of Central America. These points are missing from IACHR report on that day’s events, though they do mention an attack with rocks on opposition media outlet, 100% Noticias.
Arson has become a tool of opposition groups throughout the country. Just a few examples from the past two weeks include: gangs burned the municipal offices in Granada, burned a high school and family courthouse in Masaya, burned down the Radio Nicaragua station, threw molotov cocktails in the national revenue building in Masaya, burned down a tax office in Esteli, and have set fire to numerous private homes of people affiliated with the Sandinista government. These attacks never register in international media accounts.
Of course, if there is a strategy that will come to define this historical moment, it is the “tranques,” or roadblocks. Setting up a roadblock as part of a protest is not a violent act. Setting up dozens of blockades in just one city, stifling commerce, causing food shortages, making it difficult, if not impossible, for people to receive medical assistance, stopping people at the point of a gun (or home-made mortar) to ask for papers, and then beating and or humiliating people suspected of being pro-Sandinista, on the other hand, has passed the bounds of nonviolence.
The tranques are no longer just roadblocks to disrupt inter-city travel, but have been set up within towns in increasing numbers - over a hundred in Masaya alone - with growing numbers in Managua, Esteli, Leon, and Chinandega. El Nuevo Diario reported Sunday that 4,000 trucks are now halted at the borders with Honduras and Costa Rica because they cannot travel through the country - tranques are not just impacting the domestic economy, but also intra-regional trade.
On Monday, June 11 the government began taking some tranques down in Managua. Though the police were accused of mobilizing alongside “turbas” in some neighborhoods, and of firing guns, no one in was reported to be seriously injured. Certainly in parts of Managua the process of taking down the tranques and cleaning the streets went smoothly.
To raise such points is to be dismissed as an Ortega apologist or some unreconstructed leftist who missed the memo on the neo-liberalization of the Sandinista Party. Meanwhile people who have consistently served the interests of opposition parties throughout the years are read as objective, and their ideas repeated by international media outlets unchallenged. To be clear, whether Ortega ultimately stays or goes is not my concern. My concern is that the simplistic, and ultimately false, narrative resounding in international outlets is feeding the violence. It gives cover to the opposition to continue to employ these tactics, which in turn is making any effort to restart a process of dialogue nearly impossible; unless, of course, Ortega meets opposition demands and pre-emptively agrees to step down.
At this point, the government has agreed to adopt recommendations by the Inter-American Human Rights Commission and establish the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts to investigate the violence. The Organization of American States received testimony last week after which it issued a resolution calling on “all political actors” to stop the use of violence. On Friday, Bishops in Nicaragua delivered a letter to Ortega giving their conditions for re-starting the National Dialogue. As I am writing on Tuesday afternoon, everyone is waiting for his response. There seems to be a small window of opportunity here before the situation blows up completely.
In the end, where the government has committed human rights abuses, the people responsible should be held to account. Non-state actors responsible for the majority of the killing, must also be held to account. However, by presenting such a one-sided narrative, the international media is undermining any chance that either of these things will happen. That should concern everybody interested in the truth and in reconciliation, whatever one thinks of Ortega.
UPDATE, June 13, 2018
After publishing this I read that 10 more people were killed yesterday in Nicaragua. El Nuevo Diario covered the deaths in relationship to the mobilization of the police and “fuerzas de choques” (shock troops) to attack blockades in Managua and several other cities. However, the details, as much as are available, make clear that more was going on.
Of the four people killed in Managua: one was murdered while driving to work by armed men in a truck (not at a blockade), another was a man accused of being one of the “choques,” and the two other deaths are unclear (may or may not be related to the protests). In Carazo two more so called “choques” were shot in the head. In Jinotega a member of the Sandinista Youth was shot and killed. A young man was killed during fighting in front of the police station in Diriamba - story does not indicate how he died. In the community of La Bodega on the Atlantic Coast another man was killed in a drive by shooting. An unidentified body was also found in Jinotega. All of this is surely tragic - and yet cannot all be laid at the feet of the government.