Death toll in Nicaragua rises as anti-government protests grow

At least 38 people were killed Sunday in anti-government protests covering much of Nicaragua, human rights officials said this week — the single deadliest day since the protests began back in April.

The Nicaraguan Centre for Human Rights (Cenidh) told BBC Mundo Tuesday that 35 people were killed in Diriamba and Jinotepe, just south of the capital city of Managua, and three others were killed in the northern city of Matagalpa. Thirty-one anti-government and three pro-government protesters were among those killed. Four police officers also died in the clashes.

According to the BBC, Cenidh President Vilma Núñez said most of the deceased had been killed “in clashes between anti-government protesters manning roadblocks and police and pro-government groups attempting to clear the barricades.”

In Diriamba and Jinotepe, pro-government gangs also entered two Catholic churches where anti-government protesters had been hiding, attacking clergy as they tried to reach the protesters. According to Bishop Silvio Báez, church leaders were ultimately able to keep them out.

The latest update brings the overall death toll in the protests to more than 300.

As ThinkProgress previously reported, the protests first began as a demonstration against Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s slow response to a series of devastating forest fires in the country’s Indio Maiz Biological Reserve and expanded in late April, after Ortega announced he would cut government pensions and social security by 5 percent while simultaneously raising worker contributions by 0.75 percent. Though Ortega later reversed that decision, protests continued, as police began cracking down on demonstrators using brutal crowd-control methods.

Human rights groups became incensed after protesters began reporting police were using live ammunition to deter activists, many of whom were teens and young adults. The government came under heavy scrutiny in the days and weeks that followed, as authorities began shooting to kill.

“The police have killed more than 80 people, mostly students,” one protester based in Managua told ThinkProgress in June. “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.”

Several teens and young adults — one of whom was only 15 years old — were shot by police snipers stationed around the National University of Engineering (UNI) and in the town of Masaya, southeast of Managua. Some were killed at the hands of pro-government gangs, including the Sandinista Youth, also referred to as “turbas,” who have pledged loyalty to Ortega’s Sandinista regime and have a history of violence against anti-government protesters.

In Bluefields, located on the country’s Caribbean coast, a Nicaraguan reporter was killed while broadcasting the protests on Facebook Live. According to local activists, though Ortega claimed the killing had been carried out by young men with makeshift weapons, the reporter, Ángel Gahona, a 42-year-old father of two, had been shot by a police sniper.

Ortega — who came to power in the early 1980s, after the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) toppled the ruthless, decades-long Somoza family dynasty  — was criticized for quashing media coverage of the protests early on. As ThinkProgress previously noted:

…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.”

The U.S. State Department has issued several statements condemning the government-led crackdowns in the weeks since the protests first began. On May 25, the department decried the “recent violence perpetrated by government-controlled thugs,” adding that it was “extremely concerned by the lack of progress on the national dialogue due to the government’s failure to credibly engage on democratization.”

On June 18, State Department officials issued another statement, calling for Ortega to consider holding early elections as a “constructive way forward,” and on July 5, spokeswoman Heather Nauert announced Trump administration was sanctioning three individuals — Francisco Javier Diaz Madriz, a deputy for the National Police; Fidel Antonio Moreno Briones, an official in the Managua mayor’s office who “directed acts of violence committed by the Sandinista Youth”; and FSLN Treasurer Jose Francisco Lopez Centeno — for their respective roles in the government crackdown.

State Department pleas notwithstanding, it’s unlikely that Ortega — who served as president from 1984 to 1990 and was re-elected in 2007 — will agree to host early elections. In 2014, the Nicaraguan president amended the country’s constitution to allow himself to run for a third term, which he secured in 2016, paving the way for further autocratic moves down the road.

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