• Sheet of paper Report

Instilling terror: From lethal force to persecution in Nicaragua

October 18, 2018

Riot police clash with protesting engineering students in Managua on May 28, 2018. (Photo by INTI OCON / AFP) (Photo credit should read INTI OCON/AFP/Getty Images)

From the beginning of June, the government of President Daniel Ortega intensified its strategy for repression in a so-called “clean-up” operation, targeting protesters with arbitrary arrests, torture, and the widespread and indiscriminate use of lethal force by police and heavily armed pro-government groups, said Amnesty International today in a new report.

Released six months after a state crackdown began in response to public protests over social security reforms, Instilling terror: From lethal force to persecution in Nicaragua documents grave human rights violations and crimes under international law that the Nicaraguan authorities committed between 30 May and 18 September.

“Not only did President Ortega deploy police to arbitrarily arrest and torture demonstrators, he also used heavily armed pro-government groups to kill, wound and intimidate all those brave enough to stand up to his repressive strategy,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International. 

“The Nicaraguan authorities must immediately dismantle and disarm all pro-government armed groups and ensure that the police only use legitimate, proportional and necessary force during demonstrations, when appropriate. Instead of criminalizing protesters as ‘terrorists’ and ‘coup plotters’, President Ortega must guarantee people’s rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression.”

Following up on Amnesty International’s first report on the crisis from late May, the new research documents how the government maintained and intensified its deliberately lethal strategy for repression, with the intention of crushing the protests and punishing all those who take part in them. President Ortega and Vice-President Murillo have led this strategy, frequently demonizing the protesters to justify the violent crackdown and continuing to deny any human rights violations.

As of 24 August, at least 322 people had been killed, mostly by agents of the state, and more than 2,000 people had been injured. Twenty-one police officers were among the dead. According to local NGOs, the Nicaraguan authorities had brought charges against at least 300 people for participating in the protests as of 18 August. Amnesty International could not find evidence of a single person being charged for human rights violations or crimes under international law, like torture and extrajudicial executions.

Pro-government groups armed with weapons of war

State authorities have made increasingly extensive use of pro-government groups armed with military-grade weapons, often working in tandem with police to discourage protest, terrorize the population and destroy barricades set up by demonstrators. In the siege of the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua in Managua on 13 July, for example, heavily armed pro-government groups indiscriminately attacked the students defending the campus, killing two and injuring at least 16, while police blocked the exits, trapping more than 200 students inside.

Amnesty International has documented police and pro-government groups armed with AK-style rifles; Dragunov, Remington M24, and FN SPR sniper rifles; RPK and PKM machine guns; and even shoulder-launched PG-7 rocket-propelled grenades. Some of these are weapons of war that are prohibited for use in public security situations.

Although some protesters have used homemade mortars and a minority have reportedly resorted to using firearms such as shotguns and rifles, this does not justify the authorities’ widespread, disproportionate and mostly indiscriminate use of lethal force against all protestors, instead of responding with the minimum necessary force to restore public security.

The report documents six possible extrajudicial executions, which constitute crimes under international law. These include the killing of 16-year-old Leyting Chavarría, who was shot in the chest when police and pro-government armed groups attacked barricades in the city of Jinotega. Witnesses said a riot police officer killed Chavarría, who was only carrying a slingshot.

Torture and arbitrary arrests

Riot police also allegedly killed Faber López, one of their own officers. Although the government blamed “terrorist” gunmen for his death, his family said his body did not bear any gunshot wounds but did show signs of torture. On the eve of his death, López had called his family to say he was resigning and that if he didn’t contact them the next day it would be because his colleagues had killed him.

The report also highlights seven cases of probable arbitrary arrests, as well as violations of due process, which formed part of the government’s strategy to break up the protest movement. It also reveals how the authorities used torture to punish protesters, tamper with evidence and obtain information about the organization and leadership of demonstrations.

Amnesty International documents at least 12 cases of possible torture, including one instance of sexual torture against a young woman in an official detention centre. In several cases, the victims still bore physical injuries when interviewed more than a month after they were tortured.

Increasing numbers of victims of human rights violations have declined to file complaints with the Nicaraguan authorities due to fear of reprisal. Instead of conducting timely, impartial and exhaustive investigations into human rights violations, the authorities have often harassed and threatened victims and their relatives.

Internal displacement and forced migration 

The crisis has caused the internal displacement and forced migration of thousands of people. On 31 July, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced that almost 8,000 people from Nicaragua had requested asylum in Costa Rica, at a rate of 200 per day, while another 15,000 had made appointments to request asylum in the coming weeks.

“By adopting increasingly ruthless and sophisticated strategies to repress his own people, President Ortega has deepened Nicaragua’s worst human rights crisis in decades, forcing thousands to abandon their homes and seek safety in other parts of the country or in neighbouring Costa Rica. Ortega’s government must put an immediate end to the violent repression,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas.

The report is based on two research missions to Nicaragua and Costa Rica during July and September, respectively, where Amnesty International conducted 115 interviews and documented 25 cases of human rights violations. A team of experts also examined more than 80 pieces of audiovisual and photographic material to provide contextual analysis for the report.