Central America / Violence

Nicaragua’s Broken Generation

Fred Ramos
Fred Ramos

Monday, April 15, 2024
Carlos Dada

This chronicle is part two in “2018, An Uprising Crushed”: a series on the birth of the ongoing repression in Nicaragua. It first appeared in El Faro in Spanish on July 25, 2018. Read parts one and three.

Tigrillo doesn’t pick up the phone. An answering machine invites me to leave a message.

The day of the attack, like most other days, he was on the campus of the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua (UNAN). He is slender and young, boney and sour-faced. He has jet-black hair, short-cut with no frills. And at 22 years old, he has a special talent for telling anyone who encourages him to compromise with President Daniel Ortega to go to hell.

Two months ago, Tigrillo decided to barricade himself inside the UNAN, joining what he calls “the resistance” to the regime of Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo. Two months ago as of Friday, July 13, after fifteen hours fending off an armed siege by police and paramilitaries firing live rounds at students. This was what it took for the Ortegistas to dislodge the atrincherados — “the entrenched.” Two people were killed, dozens wounded. And all of them were left without their commune of resistance — a temporary autonomous zone in which the best way to cope with uncertainty had been to focus on the day-to-day. Where do you live? On the UNAN campus. And tomorrow? I’ll let you when today is over. That’s how it was there, for everyone. No one knew how long it would last. They were the last bastion of resistance in Managua. And that day, they were left without a home. By then, Tigrillo was already becoming an expert on the dead.

The Rigoberto López Pérez traffic circle, located near the UNAN-Managua campus, became a battleground for police and student protestors long before the July 13 eviction. Managua, June 30, 2018. Photo Fred Ramos
The Rigoberto López Pérez traffic circle, located near the UNAN-Managua campus, became a battleground for police and student protestors long before the July 13 eviction. Managua, June 30, 2018. Photo Fred Ramos

Before April, Tigrillo had never seen a dead body. The closest he had come was witnessing a traffic accident; there were several badly injured victims, but he thinks they were all alive when the ambulance took them away. He saw them gasping for breath. He told me about the crash three weeks before the attack, behind one of the main gates to the University, which had been barricaded with sandbags, metal plates, and paving stones. We sat down to talk near the fortified entrance, joined by other students armed with mortars or lying around in hammocks that they had managed to hang between the trees that line the street leading into campus. Some passed the time telling jokes or chatting. But not Tigrillo. He is very serious — although that, too, he told me, is something new. He used to be more chill. More easygoing. That’s what he told me. Before April, Tigrillo had never seen a dead person — now, who knows how many he’s counted. That day, he told me he had already seen six compañeros fall by his side. Dead. He had to carry two of them in his own arms.

He had also never seen a gun up close, other than in the hands of a police officer. That, too, has changed. Since the end of April, Tigrillo has dodged bullets from weapons he can now easily identify: shotgun, AK-47, 9mm, Dragonov rifle... Knowledge and experience gained over the course of just three months. A traumatic metamorphosis in the life of an entire generation, in what was once one of the safest cities in Latin America: Managua. Now he is probably hiding out in a safehouse somewhere, like so many of his comrades.

The attack on the UNAN was one of several major operations in a campaign the government called Operación Limpieza (“Operation Cleansing”), aimed at dismantling the street occupations, barricades, and road blockades that had erupted across the country. Hilux pickup trucks loaded with paramilitaries battled with the so-called autoconvocados —autonomous, self-organized protest groups— who defended road blockades in Jinotega, Matagalpa, Chontales, Diriamba, Masaya, Jinotepe, and León. The UNAN was the last stronghold of resistance still standing in the capital.

In early May, around 300 young people occupied the Managua campus demanding university autonomy, the removal of authorities loyal to the Ortega government, and the dismantling of the national student union, which the regime used to exert control over the universities. Students set up barricades along the campus perimeter and reinforced the entrance gates. They organized themselves into different teams: food, medical care, medical supplies, security, logistics. They also took turns guarding the barricades and gates. Armed with mortars and a handful of firearms that they barely knew how to handle, the rebels lived together in a kind of commune, on constant alert, while a small group chosen by everyone was in charge of deciding political strategy and negotiating with different student organization involved in the national dialogue, as well as with other sectors of society.

From time to time, trucks filled with paramilitaries would drive by, firing live rounds at the barricades. By July 13, four students had already been killed. The paramilitaries appeared at random, at unpredictable times, which heightened tensions and kept the atrincherados in a constant state of alert. When the final attack came, the students were already exhausted.

The “cleansing” was sudden and violent. Dozens of Hilux trucks loaded with armed men in ski masks —the encapuchados, hooded paramilitaries— fanned out to attack different access points along the campus perimeter; behind them, police patrols shut down the streets and set up a security zone so that the paramilitaries could carry out the operation without distractions. More than 15 hours of violence featuring the full arsenal that Tigrillo had learned to identify in the months prior, barely reciprocated by the students with their Chinese-made mortars and meager collection of firearms – literally four pistols and two shotguns against hundreds of assault rifles and trained snipers.

A clandestine medic who came to the aid of the atrincherados, identified by pseudonym as “K-9,” entered the campus from the back shortly after noon. A few minutes later, he was treating four students who had been shot in the legs and another whose hand had been exploded by a sniper round. Defeat was imminent, so they began evacuating the wounded and surviving students to an area nearby, escaping through the only exit not under siege.

The wounded were moved to the Church of the Divine Mercy at the other end of the same small street onto which the students had exited campus. K-9 continued suturing and dressing gunshot wounds. The fighting followed them to the vicinity of the church, where they dug in to defend their last barricade. As evening fell, besieged on all sides, the students who were still on the street tried to reach the church. They were trapped. The paramilitaries had them surrounded on all sides and were firing non-stop. Making a desperate dash for the church, two of the students were hit, the bullets shattering their skulls.

The first to fall was a young man named Gerald Vázquez. “When they brought him in, he was already unconscious. The bullet entered his skull but never came out,” K-9 says.

We’re speaking by phone, because now, K-9 is holed up at a safehouse. He sends me a video documenting his attempts to save Gerald Vázquez, who lies face down on a table. The back of the boy’s head is bathed in blood, darkening like a black hole where the bullet broke through the skull. K-9 asks to intervene, but the other medics just look at each other. Gerald Vázquez is practically dead already. After he was shot, he was left lying on the street, the bullet still lodged in his skull, because the shooting prevented his evacuation. When the students finally managed to move him to the church, he still had a pulse, but his brain was no longer functioning. “His body was already stiff,” says K-9. “We could’ve saved him if he’d been taken away in an ambulance right away.” But the police blocked the ambulances from accessing the scene, and Gerald Vázquez died.

The second victim, Francisco Flores, had managed to make it to the last barricade. Right next to the church. The bullet split the top of his skull. “We tried to save him, but he’d already lost too much blood. His veins weren’t returning.” Then, the paramilitaries started shooting at the church.

By mid-morning on July 14, K-9 managed to leave the Divine Mercy along with 220 students and two journalists who, thanks to an intervention by the Episcopal Conference, were evacuated to the Managua Cathedral. Then K-9 disappeared into the city. In the chaos of the attack on the UNAN, K-9 says he doesn’t remember anyone named Tigrillo. He saw Tigre, but that’s a different person.

K-9 is not a student. He is in his early thirties, and coordinates an underground cadre of medics called Brigada K, or K Brigade. Several of the group’s members, including K-9 himself, work formal jobs during the day, in fields completely unrelated to medicine, and at night, take turns making rounds wherever they are needed. In the past two weeks, he has treated dozens of wounded in every part of the city where police and paramilitaries are carrying out Operación Limpieza.

Like Tigrillo, K-9 had never seen a dead person before April 18. “I used to be afraid of needles, and my only experience with wounds was little scrapes and cuts in the kitchen,” he says.

I met him on April 23 at the Polytechnical University (Upoli) in Managua, which had been occupied by students in the early days of the uprising and soon became the main symbol of the anti-Ortega student movement. He had yet to find the time to think of a nom de guerre, and introduced himself with his real name. He was already wearing a balaclava to hide his face, but you could still tell that he was always smiling. Even when he cried, which was a lot, in those early days. “I’m a family man and I work for a company. Everything I know about medicine, I learned this week,” he told me at the time. He showed up to volunteer when the uprisings started and, since no one had assumed responsibility for medical supplies and emergency care, that role was left to him. The first day, he used 16 stitches to sew up a bullet wound on a man’s arm. Two days later, he was in charge of coordinating the small field hospital they had set up; the medical staff, consisting of one real doctor and several young volunteers (marketing and communications students from other universities); and the organization of medical supplies and the pharmacy. He was also the chief medic.

A few days later, I met K-9 at a demonstration at the Jean Paul Genie traffic circle. Those were the days when thousands of people were taking to the streets of Managua to topple chayopalos —large metal tree sculptures installed throughout the city in 2013, considered symbols of the Ortega-Murillo regime— and to demand justice for the deaths of a dozen young people (at the time, only a dozen had died). Those were the days when, guided by the student revolt, thousands of Nicaraguans lost their fear of the government and were full of hope — hope that, through peaceful protest, Ortega and his wife, Murillo, would soon be ousted from office. Those were the early days.

Young protestors mourn the victims of government violence at the Jean Paul Genie traffic circle on April 25, 2018, during the early days of the demonstrations in Managua. In the first four days of protests, roughly 70 people were killed. Photo Fred Ramos
Young protestors mourn the victims of government violence at the Jean Paul Genie traffic circle on April 25, 2018, during the early days of the demonstrations in Managua. In the first four days of protests, roughly 70 people were killed. Photo Fred Ramos

In the thick of the protest, among the people lighting candles and singing the national anthem while planting crosses in the places where the chayopalos once stood, I spotted K-9. He wasn’t wearing a mask. I identified him by his smile, which grew in tandem with his flushed face upon realizing he had been recognized.

Following some internal disputes and several attacks by paramilitaries, in May, the atrincherados decided to leave the Upoli campus, and K-9, by then a battle-hardened street medic, teamed up with fellow movement veterans to form the K Brigade. “In our group, we believe that the only way to support our people is to stop them from dying. Some choose to support with mortars. We use stitches.” Since joining the uprising, he has seen 22 people die, and says he has already lost count of how many wounded he has treated. But his mission is far from over.

* * *

In the three months since the start of this political crisis, more than 300 Nicaraguans have been killed, with more than two thousand wounded and hundreds more disappeared. The Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights estimates that today, in Nicaragua, the Ortega-Murillo regime is holding between 400 and 500 political prisoners. Arrested for expressing their opposition to the government, tortured, imprisoned without due process. With each passing week, Nicaragua is becoming a darker and more hopeless place.

The situation, which was already critical, has only worsened since Operación Limpieza. To avoid being mistaken for hooded resistance fighters, the paramilitaries now take to the streets wearing T-shirts of the same color —light blue for the operation in Masaya; green for the one in Jinotega— and they meet up at police stations. First, they demolish the road blockades and arrest any protestors on site. Then, using information provided by state intelligence, local Sandinista committees, or obtained through torture and threats against detainees, they go house-to-house with names and addresses in hand, arresting “terrorists.” Dozens of masked paramilitaries stay to guard the places they’ve attacked, to prevent resurgences and maintain control of the streets.

In Masaya, for example, paramilitaries are stationed at the entrances to the city and downtown, accompanied by police. Residents go about their business in the mornings —shopping, visiting friends and family, running errands— and in the afternoon, they lock themselves inside their homes.

“It’s a repressive environment,” says Father Edwin Román, pastor of the San Miguel de Masaya Church. “What a shame that the National Police are involved in this repression. They’re not cleansing the country of barricades; they’re cleansing it of young people. In Nicaragua, it’s a crime to be young.”

A similar situation is playing out in Jinotega, a small town located two and a half hours north of Managua. For two months, armed men, identified by local residents as campesinos recruited by the mayor and police chief, have been sleeping in tents along the city’s main streets and in the vicinity of City Hall. The multiple road blockades set up by residents, especially in the militant neighborhoods Sandino and 19 de Julio, were dismantled at the beginning of Operación Limpieza; then, the paramilitaries went hunting house by house. A lot of young people fled to other cities, or hid out in the surrounding hills.

A barricade in the municipality of Jinotega, one of more than 50 such blockades erected by residents. Now, hardly any of the blockades remain in place. Pro-Ortega mobs and police evicted the Jinotega rebels in mid-July. Photo Fred Ramos
A barricade in the municipality of Jinotega, one of more than 50 such blockades erected by residents. Now, hardly any of the blockades remain in place. Pro-Ortega mobs and police evicted the Jinotega rebels in mid-July. Photo Fred Ramos

Two small barricades were left standing in Barrio Sandino, blocking the main access road into the neighborhood — a steep street that goes straight up the hill. “They would drive by every day shooting at us, then one day, they hit a little boy,” one of the leaders of the resistance, a young man named Conejo (“Rabbit”) tells me. “So we decided to set up two more barricades to stop them from shooting.” That was last Monday, July 23, around midday.

A few hours later, President Daniel Ortega gave a live interview on Fox News in which he denied that the paramilitaries had any relationship with state security forces. As he spoke, a caravan of death was on its way to destroy the barricades in Barrio Sandino. Hundreds of encapuchados dressed in green and accompanied by police entered the neighborhood, guns blazing. The attack lasted nearly until midnight. Three youths were killed and dozens wounded. Many others fled the city. “The wounded are still there,” reports Conejo, from somewhere in the surrounding hills where he’s been hiding. “There are about 15 wounded whom they won’t let us evacuate to any hospital. They captured almost 20 more.”

Since the start of Operación Limpieza, nearly 300 people, according to estimates by two leaders of the Jinotega resistance, have fled the city. Not all have participated in protests; not all are armed with mortar launchers.

That same day, on the afternoon of the 23rd, I received a call from a woman I had met in Jinotega two weeks earlier, who asked to be identified as “La Fugitiva” (The Fugitive). She fled her home, along with her husband and children, to evade an arrest warrant. The state accuses her of terrorism, because on more than one occasion she delivered food to the young men at one of the road blockades. Terrorism. For taking two plates of beans to some unarmed kids in balaclavas, she could spend twenty years in prison. That is what the public terror stems from.

Nicaraguan Special Forces on patrol following clashes with anti-government protesters in the Sandino neighborhood in Jinotega, Nicaragua, July 24, 2018. Photo Marvin Recinos/AFP
Nicaraguan Special Forces on patrol following clashes with anti-government protesters in the Sandino neighborhood in Jinotega, Nicaragua, July 24, 2018. Photo Marvin Recinos/AFP

Her case is not exceptional. In Nicaragua, thanks to legislation passed two weeks ago by the Sandinista-controlled Congress, protest is now considered terrorism. And how do you fight terrorism? With squads of hooded men, coordinated by the National Police, who kidnap anyone deemed suspicious.

This is why Ortega’s message, delivered via Fox News, seemed so strange to international viewers. Because in Nicaragua —as the UNAN attacks in Jinotega or the hooded men patrolling Masaya with their Sandinista Front bandanas made clear— coordination between paramilitaries and police is open, visible, natural. It has even been justified by Sandinista leaders. And Ortega, according to another law passed by his party in 2014, is the Supreme Chief of Police. Many of the people detained by paramilitaries are taken directly to the police and subsequently transferred to the El Chipote prison in Managua.

El Chipote is a complex of subterranean cells that served as a torture center during the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza, and that managed to survive the years of revolution to become what it is today: a reception center for detainees. A dark, underground dungeon.

Outside, in front of the main entrance, dozens of mothers, wives, and children wait every day for news of their detained or disappeared relatives. They bring them food, and only those fortunate enough to speak to their loved ones or secure their release will know if they received the food left for them at the entrance kiosk, in plastic-wrapped plates marked with the prisoner’s name.

“Everyone who has entered El Chipote comes out tortured,” says Vilma Núñez, director of the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH). “Beatings, electric shocks, they pull out their fingernails, they hit them in the face.”

A group of people wait outside El Chipote prison on the afternoon of June 26, 2018, hoping for any information about their detained loved ones. Photo Fred Ramos
A group of people wait outside El Chipote prison on the afternoon of June 26, 2018, hoping for any information about their detained loved ones. Photo Fred Ramos

These days, the offices of the CENIDH are filled with victims, or the family members of the disappeared, who wait patiently for their turn to file a complaint. They come here because they don’t trust the judicial system. No other institution in Nicaragua has received so many testimonies from the tortured. These testimonies tell of a tropical Abu Ghraib, from which not a single photo has emerged. “The testimonies are all very similar: they put hoods over their heads, they force them to get naked, they line them up, they beat them. We’ve already documented one case of rape. They keep them naked, in dark cells. They have put up to 100 people in those cells,” Núñez says.

Núñez knows the cells of El Chipote well because she was herself a victim of torture under the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza. She was a rebel with the Sandinista Front of National Liberation (FSLN), who would later face threats and vilification from the presidential couple for defending Murillo’s daughter, Zoilamérica Narváez, in her case against Daniel Ortega, whom she has accused of sexually abusing her as a child.

“I came to idealize the leaders of the revolution so much that I would get furious whenever anyone criticized them,” confesses Núñez. “But that all ended when I took on Zoilamérica’s case. That shattered all my previous assumptions. Rosario [Murillo] came here to beg me to drop the case. They’ll never forgive me for that.” Even today, Núñez holds on to some of her revolutionary tendencies. “I’m still a revolutionary,” she says, right before getting a call. Her ringtone: “Hasta Siempre, Comandante,” the Celso Piña song about Che Guevara.

After becoming one of the many disaffected comrades to leave the ranks of the FSLN, Núñez founded the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights, one of the most prestigious human rights defense groups in the country and, during the current crisis, the organization responsible for compiling and publishing daily reports on the dead, detained, disappeared, arrested, wounded, tortured…

These records, viewed in retrospect and on a timeline, allow us to observe certain patterns. The demographics of those killed, for example, have changed over time. At the beginning, during the first phase of demonstrations centered around the student movement and in the cities of Managua and León, victims were mostly students or young civilians.

During the second stage, when the revolt expanded from demonstrations to roadblocks and from the capital to the population centers in the provinces, the victims also changed: campesinos, local townspeople, youth from the villages.

“Now adults are turning up dead inside their homes. There’s a pattern of persecution, of terror. It’s no longer just about repressing street protests; they’re killing grassroots leaders, and this will continue to escalate,” says Núñez. And they do it using local intelligence.

The Citizen Power Councils are community assemblies, inherited from the revolution, that have a presence in every neighborhood. They also conduct spying and surveillance and are the subject of numerous complaints alleging that council members are the ones assisting police and paramilitary forces in identifying, locating, and arresting protest participants.

The demographics of those detained have also changed. One only need speak with the people waiting outside the gates of El Chipote to notice.

Jorge Huéscar Montenegro. Age 50. Cab driver. On the last Sunday in June, armed paramilitaries showed up at his house and took him away. Darlin Gutiérrez, his wife, says that eleven armed men entered the house and held her children at gunpoint. They held her at gunpoint too, then locked her in her room. They took her husband, along with his cab. “He had participated in the demonstrations and was on television denouncing the violence of this regime,” she says.

Eduardo Correa Leiva. 30 years old. Courier. His wife is pregnant. She says that on June 24 her husband was chatting with a friend outside their house when two Hilux pickups full of encapuchados came and took them away. She has already received confirmation from the police that her husband is being held in El Chipote, but they have not told her what he is accused of.

Guillermo Sovalbar, 23. Chef. Arrested on June 15. Authorities accuse him of breaking into the house of a police commissioner with the intent to commit robbery. But the robbery was perpetrated one day after his arrest. His mother was allowed to see him in detention. A brief ten-minute visit. He had been beaten.

Juan José Sevilla. Retired colonel. Arrested on June 26 in Tipitapa, a suburb of Managua, accused of storing weapons in his home. His family has not been able to see him.

And so on and so forth for hundreds more.

But not all of them make it this far. Others disappear. Nothing is known about them. Later, their bodies turn up in some morgue, with visible signs of torture.

Others get lucky and are released before being processed. They are left with only the memory of the horror. Gretchel Miranda was one of the first to be kidnapped by paramilitaries. The 21-year-old was one of the atrincherados at the UNAN. At the beginning of June, she left the campus occupation in a vehicle, along with one female and two male classmates, to deliver supplies to the barricades in Masaya. As she tells it, the students were at a gas station when three Hilux pickups drove up and surrounded them. “One of the trucks was green, the others were gray and white. There were hooded men inside. They blocked us in, got out of their trucks and held us at gunpoint, and the driver who was with us took off running,” she says. “They pushed the rest of us down in the gutter, beat us, then put us into the trucks, face down. They were all hooded, dressed in civilian clothes. They took us somewhere far away and stripped us naked in the bed of a Hilux. They took me and my compañera out of the truck, both of us totally naked. They interrogated us. They gave me an electric shock on my leg and kicked us in the ribs. It was about ten o’clock at night. They stripped our other friend naked too, and beat him even harder. They took us to the lake, near a place called La Cuesta del Plomo. There was garbage everywhere. They forced us to get in the lake and they took pictures of us naked, hugging each other, and then kneeling in the lake. Then they left. We were badly beaten, but we found pieces of plastic among the garbage and used them to cover ourselves up. We knocked on a house and they gave us some clothes, and with that, we kept walking. A truck driver gave us a ride, he lent us his phone, but I don’t know any numbers by memory. My friend got on Facebook and told someone at the U. They came and got us at three in the morning.”

Nicaragua, which for the past two decades appeared to have escaped the spiral of violence that had dominated and destroyed social relations in neighboring countries, has suffered, in the span of just three months, a national decomposition that will go on to affect national life in unforeseen ways. But definitive ones. Even if the crisis were to end today. If anything can be learned from the experiences of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, it is that traumatic, violent episodes in the social life of a country sow pain and anger that do not disappear with agreements made at negotiation tables. And the damage in Nicaragua is of such a magnitude and speed that it now seems irreversible.

“This polarization and hatred will be perpetuated for a generation, at least,” says Vilma Núñez. At least. Because the pain is so great, and so is the rage. And it is multiplied with every funeral.

Among the dead are also policemen and young Sandinistas and private security guards. Almost no age group or political or social sector has been spared from the violence. Men, women, the elderly, and babies. Babies like Teyler Leonardo Lorio, 14 months old.

* * *

Nelson Gabriel Lorio sits on the edge of a grave, smoking. His right hand, half fallen, lacking energy, holds a cigarette. His eyes are two large black irises, surrounded by bands of white already thick with red from hours of sleeplessness and sobbing. They are soft eyes, barely looking out to the world. They gaze over the horizon, but are submerged, searching for answers in an elusive darkness. This 33-year-old man, an employee at a supermarket, couldn’t muster the energy to participate in the funeral. He witnessed it without being able to move, until someone invited him to say his goodbyes and he walked, like a zombie, until he saw the coffin and touched it in grief. And then watched as it was lowered into the ground and covered with hot, dry earth.

Nelson Gabriel Lorio during the funeral for his son Teyler Lorio on June 24, 2018. Nelson was carrying his son in his arms when the child was shot. Photo Fred Ramos
Nelson Gabriel Lorio during the funeral for his son Teyler Lorio on June 24, 2018. Nelson was carrying his son in his arms when the child was shot. Photo Fred Ramos

Today he is sunken. Gone. He speaks to no one. But the day before, crying as he stood watch over his son, he managed to speak to the cameras of the local Channel 12 news. “I was going to drop him off at his foster grandparents, like we do every day. We were on our way to work, to drop him off as usual. I was with my wife, with the boy, and with my little girl. When we were walking, a shot rang out. The only people around were the police. When I heard the first shot, I ran for safety. The second one hit my son in the head with a single shot...”

The mother, Karina Alejandra Navarrete, a 27-year-old domestic employee, agrees that the shots came from the police: hooded men with black pants and black shirts and rifles. She was the one who took the boy to the hospital, on a motorcycle driven by a neighbor. That is where he died.

Teyler Leonardo Lorio joined the list of Nicaragua’s dead. More than 300 people have been killed since the end of April. Most of them young, some killed in anti-government demonstrations, some guarding the so-called tranques (road blockades); others are opposition students and members of the Sandinista youth. Dead two months after his first birthday, Teyler Lorio is not even the youngest to be killed.

A family member holds the hand of 14-month-old Teyler Leonardo Lorio Navarrete during his funeral on June 24, 2018. Lorio died the day before, after being shot in the head by police or pro-Ortega mobs attacking the Las Américas neighborhood in Managua. Photo Fred Ramos
A family member holds the hand of 14-month-old Teyler Leonardo Lorio Navarrete during his funeral on June 24, 2018. Lorio died the day before, after being shot in the head by police or pro-Ortega mobs attacking the Las Américas neighborhood in Managua. Photo Fred Ramos

Alemán Nicaragüense, a public hospital, confirmed Teyler’s death shortly after admitting him. The body was sent to the medical examiner’s office for autopsy. According to official records obtained by El Faro, forensic doctors reported the cause of death as a suspected suicide. That is, they suspected that a 14-month-old child with a bullet lodged in his skull had committed suicide.

This is not the first time since April, when the political crisis erupted and engulfed the country in chaos, that a public hospital has registered an injured or deceased victim as something else. A recent investigation by Nicaraguan news outlet Confidencial revealed that patients admitted to public hospitals with gunshot wounds have been registered as wounded by rocks, or of having died from other causes. The investigation also showed, based on an analysis of bullet trajectories, that some of those wounded or killed during the crisis had been shot by snipers.

The day of the murder, Nelson Gabriel’s brother, Jaime Lorio, was at one of the tranques blockading the entrance to the Villa Austria neighborhood in northeast Managua. Thin, with dark-brown skin, short-cropped hair, and eyes injected with rage, he grits his teeth. “Dogs. Fucking dogs,” he calls the police and paramilitaries whom he blames for murdering his nephew. He says that just one hour before the shooting, around six in the morning, drones had been flying over the neighborhood “to locate the places we had barricaded.” Then, the caravans of death arrived. “Snipers, police, and paramilitaries came in. We didn’t have any weapons. But my brother was somewhere else. Where he was walking, there weren’t any protestors. He was with his wife, his daughter, and he was carrying his little boy in his arms. The shot was precise. It came from a sniper,” he says. And his nephew, little Teyler Leonardo, killed at 14 months old, is not even the youngest of the victims.

Matías Pavón was burned to death on June 16. He had just turned 5 months old. A mob set fire to the house where he was staying, in a working-class neighborhood of Managua. He died along with his two-year-old sister, Dayerli Velázquez, his parents, and his grandparents. The police blamed “vandals.” The neighbors say that Ortega’s mobs, accompanied by police, set fire to the home after its owners refused to allow access to a sniper who had intended to take up position on the roof of the three-story dwelling.

A survivor, who managed to escape the burning house, also accuses the police of committing the crime. But now she is in hiding. Under threat. She lost her entire family, and now fears for her life.

* * *

Three months have been enough for the violence to transform the social fabric of the nation. A new generation has emerged into public life, masked and hooded, in pain, indignant, and with mortar launchers in hand. What this generation has experienced in recent months is as decisive for them as it is for the whole country.

This is why the UNAN occupation was so emblematic. The atrincherados believed they were building the future; they had assumed a role in the history of their country. They came there as a gesture of solidarity, or of revolutionary commitment, or perhaps because it was their first opportunity to do something truly important in life. Along the way, violence transformed them, and they became adults the Central American way: through violent blows.

“Today a psychologist asked me if I was afraid,” Tigrillo told me at the UNAN. “I told her that what I fear is not being able to do enough. That’s what I’m afraid of.” Tigrillo was grazed by a bullet, so close that it burst his blood vessels. They had to stitch up the wound on the top of his skull. Still, his only fear is not doing enough.

On the night of June 7, Tigrillo was on shift at one of the barricades. Two pickup trucks filled with paramilitaries drove by shooting, and wounded 19-year-old Shester Chavarría. “I was with him that night,” Tigrillo remembers. “We heard eight or nine shots and ran out. I saw that one guy had been shot in the arm, and he told me that there was another one who was worse. I went to help him. We lifted him by the legs and pulled him out. I saw he had several puncture wounds. We stopped a vehicle and got him out of there.” That night, across from the traffic circle where Shester was shot, Tigrillo’s cousin, Chela, was at “the command,” a cluster of small cabins designed for children’s activities that the atrincherados had modified into dormitories, and that later, during the eviction, would be burned to the ground by paramilitaries. Chela always wore jeans and a T-shirt, draped in a camouflage jacket, and never let anyone take her picture without her balaclava. “We heard the shots and took cover in the command. I started hearing shouts that someone had been wounded. When I came out, I knew it was him. I found him lying on the ground. I threw myself on him crying. I beat on him so he wouldn’t fall asleep. I was so desperate that they wouldn’t let me get in the car that took him away. Later, I found out that he had died,” Chela, only 20 years old, told me between tears. “He was like my brother. Mi cómplice. My partner in crime.”

When Shester died, Chela got a tattoo on her left arm. It’s a phrase attributed to the poet Leonel Rugamas that became the battle cry of the Sandinista revolutionaries, and now that of the resistance to Ortega: Que se rinda tu madre — literally, “Let your mother surrender,” but more like saying, “Fuck you, you surrender!” Now she is in hiding, like all the others.

Chela, a member of the student resistance movement, shows the tattoo she got the day that her cousin, Shester, was killed by police and paramilitaries attacking the UNAN occupation, on June 7, 2018. Photo Fred Ramos
Chela, a member of the student resistance movement, shows the tattoo she got the day that her cousin, Shester, was killed by police and paramilitaries attacking the UNAN occupation, on June 7, 2018. Photo Fred Ramos

We speak briefly over the phone. Her voice, compared to the days when she lived at the UNAN, seems subdued.

“These days, no one is in their homes. We’ve changed phones, and a lot of people don’t even use them anymore. Since the eviction, they’ve caught more than 20 of us. It just isn’t a good idea [to have a phone], you know what I mean? Tigrillo isn’t answering calls, and I don't know anything about him. I thought I saw him from a distance at a march, but I’m not sure.”

During this period of hiding, K-9 continues to clean wounds and treat the injuries of UNAN students. But now he only does home visits, attending patients in the safehouses where they have sought refuge. His new life is a clandestine one.

I ask Chela if this dispersion means the end of her struggle, and her voice lights up again: “Jamás! Esta lucha sigue! Never! This struggle continues!” But she doesn’t know how.

This chronicle, translated by Max Granger, is the second leg of a three-part series on the birth in 2018 of the ongoing repression in Nicaragua. Read parts one and three.

Support Independent Journalism in Central America
For the price of a coffee per month, help fund independent Central American journalism that monitors the powerful, exposes wrongdoing, and explains the most complex social phenomena, with the goal of building a better-informed public square.
Support Central American journalism.Cancel anytime.

Edificio Centro Colón, 5to Piso, Oficina 5-7, San José, Costa Rica.
El Faro is supported by:
FUNDACIÓN PERIÓDICA (San José, Costa Rica). All rights reserved. Copyright © 1998 - 2023. Founded on April 25, 1998.