Nicaragua took another dangerous step towards civil unrest last weekend when hundreds of masked supporters of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), armed with machetes, sticks and mortars, closed off all entrances to the northern city of León to prevent an announced march against the government of President Daniel Ortega.
While police stood by watching, the masked “Orteguistas” – or pro-Ortega – squads stopped traffic to search vehicles for antigovernment protesters, who were prevented from entering the city.
The Orteguistas – most wearing FSLN hats and T-shirts and chanting revolutionary slogans – threw metal jacks under the tires of stopped vehicles suspected of carrying antigovernment protestors to puncture their tires if they didn’t turn back toward Managua.
The tense situation grew inevitably violent when several left-wing political leaders from the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) – a group of Sandinista dissidents whom Ortega has labeled “traitors” and “sell outs” – approached the entrance to the city. Several of the MRS leaders had requested police protection in anticipation of violence.
Yet even the police presence wasn’t enough to stop the Orteguistas from burning the vehicle of MRS president Enrique Sáenz, the previous candidate for mayor of Managua until the Sandinista-controlled Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) canceled the MRS’ legal status in July.
When anti-riot police were eventually called in, the Orteguistas – allegedly members of the controversial Councils of Citizen Power (CPCs), led by Sandinista mayoral candidate for León, Manuel Calderón – attacked the police line with sticks and rocks, forcing police to respond with tear gas to disperse the pro-government rioters.
In all, five people were injured but no one was killed.
Left-wing opposition leaders such as historic guerrilla leader Doria Maria Téllez said the violence was another example of the fear the “dictatorial” Ortega government has of the opposition, but one that sets a “very dangerous” precedent.
“This was pure fascism because Ortega used everything he had,” Téllez told The Nica Times. “This is his strategy to crush the opposition, civil society and the other political parties and to instill fear in the people – all so he can stay in power.”
The NicaraguanCenter for Human Rights (CENIDH) strongly denounced the violence as a violation of the right of Nicaraguans to protest civically. The rights group rested full blame on the FSLN and the CPCs, which were created and controlled by Ortega and First Lady Rosario Murillo.
The pro-government TV media outlet Multinoticias hailed Saturday’s violence as a victory for León for defending their city against the “right-wing oligarchs” who were trying to “provoke” and “confuse” the people of León.
Human-rights leaders say Saturday’s violence sets a dangerous new precedent illustrating the government’s “exclusionary and authoritarian character.”
“Not only has the government closed electoral spaces, but also the constitutional right to protest,” CENIDH said in a statement.
CENIDH also called on the National Police to respect public security. The police – who have come under increased criticism in recent weeks – have promised a full investigation, although so far no one has been arrested.
The opposition is scheduling similar protests in the coming weeks.