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US Senators Threaten Sanctions Against Nicaraguan Government Over Killings

A woman who asked not be identified points to bullet holes inside Jesús de la Divina Misericordia church in Managua, Oct. 8, 2018.
Lorne Matalon
A woman who asked not be identified points to bullet holes inside Jesús de la Divina Misericordia church in Managua, Oct. 8, 2018.

A humanitarian crisis is unfolding in the Central American nation of Nicaragua. Its government has received international condemnation for killing hundreds of people in the last six months.

In what seems a rare bipartisan move given the current political climate, Vermont Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy and Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz, two otherwise polar opposites politically, have been working together to shape U.S. sanctions against Nicaragua.

Since April, Amnesty International says at least 322 people have been killed, the vast majority by government police and their hooded paramilitary allies. Simmering discontent over corruption exploded in April when the government announced cuts to social security. An unarmed citizens movement led initially by students reacted with marches to show disdain for Nicaragua's president, Daniel Ortega.


Opponents say Ortega’s betrayed the egalitarian ideals of the 1979 Sandinista revolution he once led. That revolution overthrew a brutal U.S.-backed dictator, Anastasio Somoza. Ortega was previously in power 1984-1990 when he was defeated at the polls. He returned to power in 2007. In the last 11 years, Ortega has abolished presidential term limits, enriched his family and weeks ago, he made a protest of any kind illegal. However, protests continue where Nicaraguans chant "Ortega y Somoza Son La Misma Cosa." ("Ortega and Somoza are the same thing.")

"It's state terrorism," said Attorney Braulio Abarca at the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights, known by its Spanish acronym, CENIDH. In addition to killings, the government has imprisoned hundreds of political prisoners. Abarca and his colleagues are also investigating 89 cases of people who have disappeared.

“We’re living in fear,” he said.

The U.S. is set to impose sanctions on Nicaragua. Fabian Medina is the author of a new Ortega biography. He is also the editor of La Prensa, an independent daily.

“I applaud sanctions to punish these corrupt people,” Medina said.


Later, I met Byron, a civil engineering student who asked that his last name not be revealed for fear of retribution. He worked with neighbors to maintain a makeshift barricade to defend against attacks by the police.

He said he stays in a different safe house every day.

“If they catch us, they’ll kill us,” Byron said. We could only meet and talk inside a moving car with heavily tinted windows. Although Byron echoed many here who say they’re undeterred, chaos in Nicaragua is spurring flight. More than 30,000 have left, many to Costa Rica. Human rights workers in Managua say that approximately a thousand are asking for or planning to ask for asylum in the U.S.

“Nicaragua's future is leaving,” said Carlos Tunnermann, a former ambassador to Washington.”To be young and a student is a crime in the eyes of the government.”

Stephanie Leutert studies Central American migration as the leader of the Mexico Security Initiative at the University of Texas at Austin.

"It's a volatile situation and it could increase exponentially,” Leutert said. She explained that many Nicaraguans hunkered down in other countries want to go home. However, Leutert said that may change.

"If this grinds on, if it gets worse, you're going to have more people making the decision of, 'no I really want to resettle and so I'm going to head north through Mexico and try and reach the United States.’ "

Business sector leader Juan Sebastian Chamorro said violence has been a staple of modern Nicaraguan politics, but not on this scale. He recalled the 1959 killing of four students in León, the second largest city after Managua. Chamorro said those killings were the beginning of the end of the dictatorship that Daniel Ortega helped topple. The student killings of 1959 are still a frame of reference for modern-day Nicaraguans. Chamorro contrasted the event with what is unfolding in 2018.

"We have hundreds of people, hundreds of students, being assassinated. That gives you a perspective of what kind of tragedy we are living now," Chamorro said.

Willie Miranda took part in a street protest. He says intimidation by gov’t thugs followed. "Chasing us for the last three months, phone calls, you know, 'We're going to kill you, burn down your house, kill your sons."

The Nicaraguan regime does not appear to be listening to the multiple calls from governments, civil society and the Nicaraguan diaspora to restore peace.