An taxi strike in Granada that was infiltrated last week by political groups and escalated into a skirmish between rival gangs has underscored Nicaragua’s culture of machismo and its proclivity to violence, according to analysts.
After a peaceful eight-day work stoppage by Granada taxi drivers failed to elicit any response from the local government, Sandinista and Liberal thugs infiltrated the protest April 13 and turned it into a proxy battle between the two opposing political parties.
For 12 hours, a hired gang of hard-drinking Sandinista teenagers recruited from the unfortunately named Barrio Maldito (Neighborhood of the Damned) patrolled Central Park with bats, machetes and mortars, firing rocks and homemade explosives at a similar gang of Liberal teenagers who tried to encroach on their territory, which was marked off by police barricades a block away.
Another group of Sandinista exmunicipal employees stormed the municipal palace and forcibly took over the mayor’s office, while a third group hijacked the Malacatoya ferry and pocketed all the fares earned that day. The 10-hour siege of the municipal palace ended at 11 p.m. April 13, when the ex-workers abandoned the building without further incident.
Meanwhile, restaurants and shops near the Central Park were forced to close their doors for the day to avoid possible vandalism. Hotel managers tried to explain to guests what was happening in the normally lazy park.
“This is terrible. I’ve spent all day here in the doorway of the hotel explaining what’s happening to guests and trying to advise them what to do,” said María Isabel Cantón, manager of the regal Hotel Plaza Colon, which faces the park.
She added, “These men have been here all day shooting (homemade explosive projectiles) over the hotel. If a spark falls on the hotel it could burn. Plus we have a generator in the back with 110 gallons of diesel fuel, so this place would explode.”
By April 14, a tentative calm had returned to the city as Mayor Eulogio Mejía returned to his office and agreed to finally sit down with the taxi drivers to discuss a solution.
But the fact it took a day of street fighting and chaos to force a dialogue demonstrates the unhealthy dance between violence and democracy in Nicaragua, analysts say.
“The thinking here is that protests have to be violent because nothing happens unless there are injuries or deaths,” lamented psychologist Monica Zalaquett, director of the Center for the Prevention of Violence in Nicaragua.
She added, “Negotiation only occurs when the situation is pushed to the border of the abyss.”
Peaceful and Unsuccessful
On April 5, Granada’s three taxi cooperatives – totaling 208 taxicabs – went on strike to protest the municipal government’s decision to sell new taxi concessions. Cab drivers argue that the municipal government’s plan, approved earlier this month in a city council ordinance, calls for 240 new taxi licenses, which would more than double the number of cabs circulating in the city.
In addition to increasing traffic in an increasingly congested city, Granada taxi drivers argue that the increased competition among cabs on the streets would effectively halve their take-home income, making it much harder to earn a decent living.
“We can’t continue to put up with the mayor and the six Liberal Party city councilmen who have forced us out into the streets and are trying to force us into ruin,” said José Ramón Mejía, president of the Carlos Núñez Tellez taxi cooperative. Mejía accused the municipal government of violating Transportation Law 524 by approving new taxi concessions without first conducting a feasibility study to determine if new cabs are needed.
As it is, the taxi driver said, cabbies are earning a take-home pay of only $5 to $7 a day. “And with that, we aren’t eating well.” After eight days of work stoppage, the economic situation of many taxi drivers had become critical, he said.
“Our kids don’t have food anymore, so now we are in a desperate situation,” Mejía said April 13, the day of the violence.
Managua-zation of the Protest
Despite their desperation, the cab drivers insist their intention was never violent, and their cause was never political. The taxi drivers claim the violence started when a gang of thugs from the Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC) was hired by the mayor’s office to drive the protesters out of the Central Park with machetes, rocks and mortars – a claim the mayor denies.
“We were here peacefully and didn’t expect this type of thing. We are not here to fight with anyone,” said José Rigoberto González, president of the Gran Sultana taxi cooperative. “But for every action there is a reaction. They attacked us and we had to look for a way to defend ourselves the best we could.”
“This is the last recourse we have,” echoed another taxi driver. “We have to pressure the mayor because we can’t put up with hunger any longer.”
The cabbies denied they hired muscle to help their cause. They said the tough-looking men hanging around the park last week – many wearing masks and swinging bats, clutching rocks and holding homemade mortars on their shoulders – were “the people” who had come to their aid voluntarily.
But in reality, the defense legions weren’t as grass-roots or spontaneous as the taxi drivers made it seem.
A woman who identified herself as the head of a local Sandinista neighborhood organization known as a Citizen Power Council (CPC) told The Nica Times that her “gang” had been “contracted” to turn up the heat at the protest.
Identifying herself only by the sobriquet “Diabla” (Devil), the employee of the Environment and Natural Resources Ministry (MARENA), said she was “the boss of the gang from Barrio Maldito.”
She confirmed that she was a state government employee and said her gang – a group of several dozen teenagers armed with a variety of weapons and swilling cheap liquor from plastic bottles – was her neighborhood CPC.
Pressed on the motivation for her group’s participation in the taxi protest, “Diabla” said she wouldn’t comment because “the man who hired us doesn’t want us to talk to the media.”
The practice of political parties contracting gang members to do their street fighting was first exposed during the contentious and allegedly fraudulent municipal elections of 2008, when the streets of Managua were converted into a virtual gang warzone for nearly a week (NT, Nov. 14, 2008).
Throughout 2009 and into this year, the Sandinistas have continued the practice of hiring marginalized youth, or “paramilitaries,” as the opposition and rights groups call them, to intimidate and attack opposition protests, according to complaints filed by the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights.
But until last week, the practice of spicing up protests with hired thugs had never been employed in Granada.
Mayor Denies Hired Muscle
Mayor Eulogio Mejía this week denied that he or anyone in the municipal government hired PLC thugs to attack the taxi drivers. He said the alleged gangsters were “Granadino citizens who convoked a march to demand better transportation and show support for the municipal government.”
Despite the fact that a rowdy group of men was seen driving around Granada at 10 p.m. that night in the back of a municipal garbage truck, Mejía insists they were not hired thugs. “We have not contracted people (to protest), that is not our style,” the mayor told The Nica Times.
Apparently borrowing a line from the Ortega administration, the mayor dismissed all the accusations against him as part of a “campaign of disinformation, threats and blackmail.”
He also downplayed the notion that the taxi strike had become political, or was being used as an instrument for the Sandinistas to pressure his government or force his resignation, as some have speculated.
“This is a problem between taxi drivers and the municipal government. It has nothing to do with the party of government or the PLC,” he told The Nica Times. Mejía denied any knowledge of CPC involvement in the protest as a form of Sandinista pressure.
The mayor did, however, defend the municipal council’s order to sell new taxi concessions.
He said a feasibility study was conducted three years ago and found that Granada – which has not issued any new taxi concessions for more than a decade – needs 240 new cabs to meet current transportation demands. But to avoid problems with the cooperatives, the city council approved only 120 new concessions to be issued over the next three years, Mejía said.
The mayor said the ordinance for the new concessions is a done deal and is not something he will negotiate with the taxi cooperatives, who remained on strike at press time.
Culture of Violence
Although last week’s briefly violent protest surprised the normally quiet city of Granada, in general terms violence and machismo is becoming a more tolerated and acceptable form of expression in Nicaragua, Zalaquett said. The psychologist added that every level of society – from households, to communities, to cities to government institutions – violence is becoming a common form of conflict resolution.
Worse yet, Zalaquett said, “violence is becoming a form of fun” for many male youths.
It’s particularly worrisome, she said, when the nation’s top leaders also resort to violence as an acceptable form of addressing differences. Such was the case last week in the Supreme Court when ex-Magistrate Rafael Solís warned Liberal judges “if you’re looking for a fight, we’ll give you one.” Three days later, he fulfilled his word when a Sandinista mov imposed its will on the court (see separate story, N1).
The popular former mayor of Managua and Sandinista politico Nicho Marenco this week qualified as “very sad and very ugly” the latest crisis in the Supreme Court. He warned that it sends a dangerous message to others.
“If the judges in the top court are practically attacking one another with machetes, you can only imagine the lesson learned by the rest of the population,” Marenco told The Nica Times this week. “What happened in the court is horrible; it was completely savage and doesn’t do anything to improve the country.”
Marenco warned that when political tensions flare and dialogue falls apart, “things are resolved through force.”
“I hope it doesn’t come to that,” said Marenco, whom many are urging to run for president in 2011.
Zalaquett hopes he’s right.
“We need to create a culture of dialogue and a new image of masculinity,” she said. “But that’s hard when the government has no will to do so.”