MANAGUA— Nicaragua’s top human rights defender says the Sandinista government’s brutal attack on protesting students last week was an act of “state terrorism.”
“This is a terrorist state,” said Vilma Núñez, president of the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH). “And this was definitely state terrorism.”
Núñez, who has led CENIDH for 28 years and won more than a dozen international awards for her work, told me on Wednesday afternoon that her organization has confirmed 30 dead, mostly students who were protesting the government. While we were talking, her assistant entered the room to report the confirmation of two more deaths, bringing CENIDH’s count to 32. On Thursday, it jumped again to 37.
A separate human Nicaraguan rights organization, CPDH, puts the number of dead at 63, with 15 students still missing. The situation is like the aftermath of a devastating earthquake: The country is still struggling to understand the extent of the damage, as it pulls bodies out from the rubble of Nicaragua’s democracy.
“This was practically a genocide,” Núñez charges. “It was an effort to eliminate young people. We’ve returned the time of the Somoza dictatorship when it was a crime to be a young person. Being a young person protesting here is a crime that’s punishable by death.”
Núñez knows what she’s talking about. She survived a student massacre in 1959 by former dictator Anastasio Somoza’s National Guard. She says the situation in Nicaragua right now reminds her of the darkest days of the former Somoza dictatorship, which she fought as a student leader 60 years ago.
Another worrisome narrative is starting to emerge. Students released from prison on Tuesday are telling CENIDH they were beaten and tortured behind the walls of “El Chipote,” Nicaragua’s most infamous prison.
Núñez says her team has testimony from one released student who says they were put in a lineup, stripped of their shoes and possessions, and then beaten by “experts in torture” in front of police cadets. “They would say to the cadets, “See, that’s how it’s done! This was a class in torture.”
Núñez says it’s still unclear how many students remain behind bars. She said the commanding police officer at El Chipote told her on Saturday that they had detained 200 protesters after the first three days of fighting, and had started to move people to La Modelo prison in Tipitapa because El Chipote was overflowing. Activists worry the number of detained could be much higher than CENIDH’s number.
The Minister of Health disputes rumors that there are unidentified bodies in the hospital morgues. Sandinista state media refutes claims of police repression, and has downplayed reports of violence and chaos in Nicaragua. President Ortega earlier blamed the violence on gangsters and foreign meddling, but hasn’t made any public appearances since agreeing to church-facilitated national dialogue on Sunday.
Calm after the storm, or eye of the hurricane?
As Nicaragua struggles to understand the extent of last week’s violent protests and brutal repression, many fear the situation could erupt again at any moment. Business and church leaders are calling for a national dialogue. President Ortega supports the call to talk, and some student groups appear to be leaning toward dialogue rather than more street fighting. Others, meanwhile, say there can only be a national dialogue if Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, leave office first.
On Thursday, Day No. 9 of the protest, it’s unclear which path Nicaragua will choose.
The Ortega government’s brutal crackdown against students started on April 19, when students from the major universities in Managua marched peacefully on the capital in protest of a presidential decree signed by Ortega to overhaul the country’s bankrupt social security system by levying new taxes on employees, employers, and pensioners.
The government’s Sandinista Youth, a group that acts like a paramilitary force, were sent to the street to clash with the students, who retreated to their various universities. Police and Sandinista Youth then attacked the various campuses in an effort to drive out the students, whose last stronghold is the Polytechnic University of Nicaragua (Upoli).
Scenes of brutal repression shared on social media sparked a general uprising across the country, including a massive march on Managua on Monday where some 300,000 Nicaraguans demanded Ortega’s ouster and a return to democracy and rule of law.
A recent college graduate, whom we’ll call “Salvador” to protect his real identity, told me he got trapped in the fighting on Friday night when he and friends went to Upoli campus to bring water, medicine and food, which the holed-up students were asking for help on Messenger.
“They wanted canned food because they were afraid of being poisoned,” he told me.
Street fighting was already underway between police and students, who threw rocks from behind paver-stone barricades. But Salvador and his friends circumvented the fighting and found a way into the campus. Then the police tightened the noose, and Salvador was trapped.
“They’re going to kill me here, I thought. What am I going to do?” Salvador said.
Salvador describes the following hours as fog of war. People running, shouting, fighting. Clouds of tear gas and and the sound of gunfire. Injured students retreating into the campus looking for medical attention, panicked co-eds looking for a place to hide on campus in the event police and Sandinista Youth breached the gates.
On Saturday, Salvador says he ventured out onto the street at one point to help the young people trying to repel the police by from behind the barricades.
“I threw rocks, but one of the rocks they threw back at me whizzed by my ear. I thought they were going to kill me, so I went back inside the campus to help others,” Salvador said. “I was scared, but others weren’t. They were yelling at the police: ‘I’ll kill you or you kill me’!”
Salvador says he didn’t see the moment when the police shot his cousin and dragged him off. But students who were there told him about it afterward.
“They say he got too close,” Salvador said. “He went outside the barricade and was shot in the leg. Then they dragged him off and threw him in a pick-up truck. Nobody knows anything about him since. His name isn’t on the list of dead.”
“The situation is terrible. It’s terrible,” CENIDH’s Núñez said. “And it’s not over.”