WORLD — In Nicaragua, blood, rage, and the looming threat of dictatorship

Byline: Melanie Schmitz, Luke Barnes

Fifteen-year-old Álvaro Conrado died of a gunshot wound to the throat on April 20.  His final words were, “It hurts to breathe.”

Álvaro had been embedded in the massive demonstrations taking place at the National University of Engineering (UNI) in Nicaragua’s capital city, Managua, and was tasked with passing water out to student protesters the day a police sniper shot and killed him.

“He wanted to help from a young age and died helping,” his grandmother told the BBC following his death.

“All this is unfair, he had dreams, we were preparing, he had already learned English, he was going to study law at UCA [Central American University] and then we were going to look for a scholarship abroad,” his father said.

Álvaro was one of thousands of students and workers who had descended on the capital city to protest the government’s response to devastating forest fires in a protected region of the country’s Indio Maiz Biological Reserve, as well as its decision to cut pensions and social security by 5 percent while simultaneously raising worker contributions by 0.75 percent.

The demonstrations — which later spread to cities like Masaya, Esteli, León, Matagalpa, and Bluefields — quickly turned bloody, as President Daniel Ortega’s Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) cracked down on the protests, killing several people, including a Nicaraguan journalist, who was shot in the head.

According to the Nicaraguan Association for the Protection of Human Rights (ANPDH), as of June 5, more than 100 people had been killed in the protests. (Other reports, including numbers released by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, claimed the number was as high as 127, although that figure could not immediately be verified.)

Álvaro’s father said that he had warned his son the protests might get dangerous, but that the 15-year-old gathered two friends and went to the demonstration anyway. After riots erupted between police and protesters, with the two sides launching Molotov cocktails and tear gas canisters at one another, Álvaro took on the responsibility of hauling water to those affected by the latter, making three trips to the northern side of the campus near the newly opened National Baseball Stadium before he was struck by a rubber bullet to the neck.

“A sniper shot him from the stadium,” his father said.

The rubber-coated steel bullet severely damaged Álvaro’s trachea and esophagus, according to the the hospital which issued his death certificate. According to the BBC, on the way to the hospital, he reportedly asked the people with him not to let him close his eyes, out of fear that he might not wake up.

He died minutes later.

Álvaro quickly became a symbol of the resistance against the FSLN. Nicaraguan singer and composer Carlos Mejía Godoy released a song memorializing the 15-year-old, titled “Soy Alvarito Conrado” (“I Am Alvarito Conrado”), which closed with the words, “I am Alvarito Conrado, my blood has not been in vain, a better future is coming.”

Activists praised the teen’s bravery. “He is Alvarito, our hero,” protester Jordana told ThinkProgress. (ThinkProgress has withheld Jordana’s last name for safety reasons.)

Álvaro’s father has since asked that protesters honor his son’s memory by demanding justice. “My son was a normal child and it really hurts me [to lose him],” he said, according to Nicaraguan weekly newspaper El Confidencial. “But I do not want [my son to be] a martyr, that does not work for me. What I ask for is justice.”

Protesters have fought to carry out that request.

“We’ll protect the university at all costs. I stayed behind the barricades all night,” Jordana said, referring to the UNI grounds where protesters had staged their demonstrations. She shared photos of herself sleeping on the concrete, a surgical mask over her face, using her bag as a pillow.

“The police have killed more than 80 people, mostly students,” she said. “Mothers are crying over their sons. Most of those who have died in this fight were young people between 19 and 25 years old. College students who’ve seen their dreams snatched away.”

Noting the lack of media attention the protests have received outside of the country, she added, “If [people] can help us, in any way, we would be grateful. Nicaragua should be free of this dictatorship.”

How it all started

The protests in Managua first began as a demonstration against Ortega’s inaction in the Indio Maiz reserve on April 16, and intensified after his administration announced on April 18 that it would cut pensions and social security benefits.

The demonstrations quickly grew violent, as Sandinista Youth members, a small group aligned with Ortega’s leftist Sandinista party (FSLN) that favors the measures, reportedly began attacking protesters, in a display of loyalty to the president.

According to human rights groups, police and military also began firing on demonstrators — some of whom had been throwing rocks or homemade Molotov cocktails — with rubber-coated steel bullets and tear gas canisters, according to Al Jazeera. A report by Amnesty International later claimed the Nicaraguan National Police were also using live ammunition and firing into the crowds indiscriminately.

“Although tear gas is banned, government paramilitaries use it to disperse protests,” Jordana said, sharing a photo of her face following one such tear gas attack, which appeared puffy and red. “I was in one of these protests…police were taking away people’s supplies so that they couldn’t take them to the [other protesters].”

She claimed that at least one protester had been held by pro-government forces and “beaten” in a “torture cell.”

“The government represses the marches, which are a constitutional right. Then they attack young people in the streets just for claiming that right,” she said.

Within the first five days of the demonstrations, at least 10 people were killed, according to official government numbers. The Nicaraguan Initiative of Human Rights Defenders and the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights put that number as high as 25, with hundreds more people injured or hit with tear gas, according to the Red Cross.

Fatalities weren’t confined to Managua: in Bluefields, located on the country’s Caribbean coast, at least one local reporter was killed while broadcasting sister protests there on Facebook Live. Ángel Gahona, a 42-year-old father of two who had previously reported on police abuse and drug trafficking, was describing damage to a nearby cash machine when a gunshot rang out, knocking him to the ground. Despite efforts to save him, Gahona died on his way to the hospital.

Public Ministry officials later identified two young men whom they accused of shooting Gahona with a homemade gun, parading them before the media. However, family members claimed the charges against the boys were false, telling reporters that police had not retrieved any weapons from their homes. Some believed that police had actually carried out the killing, blaming the boys to cover up their alleged crime.

“We believe the police killed Ángel to send us a message. To tell all the journalists here to shut up, to stop supporting or covering the protests,” local journalist Hayzel Zamora, 27, told The Guardian after witnessing the reporter’s death.

In the wake of the violence, Ortega abruptly reversed course, announcing on April 23 that his government would not go through with the planned benefit cuts. But the brutal crackdowns on protesters continued — rather than addressing the situation, Ortega criticized the protesters for the bloodshed, blaming them for acting like gangs, “killing each other.”

“We must reestablish order, we will not allow chaos, crime and looting to reign,” he said.

Ortega sidestepped criticism over his decision to censor certain media outlets reporting on the demonstrations. Days prior, on April 19, the president had ordered the Nicaraguan Institute of Telecommunications and Mail (TELCOR) to suspend the broadcast transmissions of channels 12, 23, and 51, as well as 100% News, a 24-hour live news network. 100% News executive Miguel Mora called the move a “clear violation of freedom of expression.”

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert issued a statement in response to the protests and government crackdown not long after, condemning the violence and “the excessive force used by police and others against civilians who are exercising their constitutional right to freedom of expression and assembly.”

“The United States calls for a broad-based dialogue involving all sectors of society to resolve the current conflict, restore respect for human rights, and achieve a better, more democratic future for all Nicaraguans,” she said. “We also call on the Nicaraguan government to allow journalists to operate freely and restore all television coverage to the air [and] urge the government to allow an independent investigation and to prosecute those responsible for the deaths.”

Experts unsure Ortega can be ousted

Despite the furious protests, experts remain skeptical as to whether activists can actually usurp Ortega. Part of the problem is the president’s legacy within the country.

Ortega was first a member of the Sandinista junta which took power in Nicaragua in 1979, before eventually serving as president from 1984 to 1990. He was re-elected president again in 2007, after which he amended the constitution to allow himself to run for a third term.

This legacy of power has allowed Ortega to cultivate, in classic autocratic style, a powerful inner circle which controls both the courts and security apparatus and is personally loyal to him. He created the Sandinista Youth wing, commonly referred to as “turbas,” who have been accused in the past of attacking protesters and political activists, sometimes fatally. He has also reformed the police to make them directly controlled by the executive branch.

Meanwhile, Ortega’s wife, Rosario Murillo, presents her own brand of corruption. Murillo is vice president (and was also previously head of social programs), while his children run an empire of PR and media companies for the family. According to Cresencio Arcos, a former U.S. ambassador to Honduras, Murillo represents another level of machinations behind Ortega.

“She’s allegedly corrupt, she misused a lot of money for social programs that she was supposed to do some good with,” Arcos told ThinkProgress. “I think her support is run by a bunch of devious characters, and the next thing they’re doing is plotting.”

But both Arcos and Caesar Sereseres, a professor of political science at University of California Irvine and expert on Latin America, agree that, for now, the protests lack a clear, cohesive political message. “I’m not seeing any galvanizing force,” Arcos said. “It seems sporadic. If you ask people what drives this, it might be Ortega or repression or the deals he made with the private sector, or negligence.”

Protesters in Managua hold a sign asking, "What if it was your son?" a reference to the many young boys and teens killed by police during the demonstrations. (CREDIT: JORDANA [Last name withheld])

“Part of the answer [to whether Ortega can sustain power] depends on how persistent the protests are and if the private sector accepts Ortega,” Sereseres told ThinkProgress. “So far I would argue that he hang on. He has the support of all three branches of government…the private sector appears to go along with his mandate, so I would say he has a good chance of sustaining power.”

“The splits of the [anti-government] factions that exist would say that Ortega is able to [grip on to power],” Sereseres added. “There is no alternate to him, no one who says ‘I can be president.’”

Arcos added that the United States needed to better understand the crisis in Nicaragua, or risk reacting with an overly-simplified policy that could do more harm than good, especially if emanates from more right-wing communities within the U.S..

“You have a glandular reaction from Right Wing Miami Cubans — topple Maduro and topple Ortega,” Arcos said. “You’re being driven by the right and it’s a very simple attitude — they’re all communists, get rid of them.”

“No tengo miedo”

At the ground level, protesters like Jordana are intent on ousting Ortega regardless of who — or what — might replace him.

“Nicaragua will be free,” she said. “We students will change this country and its systems.”

That long-simmering anger — initially centered around slashed pensions work and government mismanagement — has since morphed into outrage over the brutal human rights abuses of the Ortega administration, channeling civilians’ energy. The president must go, they argue, no matter the cost.

“We have seen how human rights have just continuously been violated from day one, when this protest began, as a way to demand that the pension reform not be passed. Today, it’s not about pension reform anymore. It is about human rights,” Xiomara Diaz, a restaurant owner in Granada, told NPR. “There’s definitely a lot of chaos, a lot of confusion. But it’s very clear to most Nicaraguans that this chaos has been generated by the government.”

Despite the bloodshed and concerns about police retaliation, the young people of Nicaragua in particular are intent on forcing change — and their message for Ortega is clear.

“If I could say something to the president I would say that we want justice for the deaths, the democratization of the country, free elections, and an end to this oppression,” Jordana said.

“No tengo miedo. I’m not afraid,” she added. “I will fight for my country.”

Nicaraguan embassy officials did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Original story at


Image credit: Protester Jordana [last name withheld for safety reasons]