“But April in Nicaragua is the month of death.” These words were true when Nicaraguan poet and priest Ernesto Cardenal wrote them in 1960’s Hora 0, and they are true now. Following the peaceful protests of civilians speaking out against the government’s inaction in controlling the fire at the Reserva Biológica Indio Maíz and President Daniel Ortega’s proposed pension reforms, April 2018 became the month of death.
A year has passed since the beginning of the popular civic uprising, but for Nicaraguans it’s as though April 2018 never ended. Their lives remain under threat as the Ortega regime continues to punish and suppress those who speak out.
What the country is living through today has led many to make a connection to the past and the cycle of eternal violence that has defined Nicaragua for generations. History may repeat itself, but time moves forward, creating new experiences that we need to read, understand, and learn from.
On the one-year anniversary since the beginning of the insurrection, we look back at 12 events that have marked the ongoing crisis in Nicaragua.
Editor’s Note: This piece was published under a pseudonym due to fear of political persecution in Nicaragua.
April 10, 2018
On April 10, 2018, 300 people gathered near Universidad Centroamericana (UCA) to protest the forest fire at the Reserva Biológica Indio Maíz. The fire burned more than 5,000 hectares of land, and instead of accepting help from neighboring Costa Rica to control the fire, the government was negligent. It ignored the problem.
While the protest was small, it was a spark. In big cities, people began calling on the government to do something. At the same time, we began to see the police and Juventud Sandinista work together to control protesters. They held counter-protests and marches in the same locations. The regime used riot police to control spontaneous caravans and demonstrators at the center of Managua.
April 18, 2018
A week later, the Indio Maíz fire was under control, but the government passed a unilateral social reform law that sparked anger throughout the nation. Following several rallies and protests for the biological reserve, people knew they couldn’t be quiet.
In Leon, Sandinistas punched retirees, who were just marching for their rights. In Managua, two rallies took shape – one in the Camino de Oriente shopping plaza and the other at Universidad Centroamericana. This time, the government didn’t just send riot police for traffic control. First, it sent turbas – civilians on motorbikes, who attacked people with clubs, pipes, and chains. They also kicked and pushed people, used broken bottles, stole TV cameras, and tried to take over the protest. At the Universidad Centroamericana, Juventud Sandinista – formed by teens and students in their 20s – threw stones and followed the protest inside the university’s campus. Meanwhile in Camino de Oriente, people continued protesting, eventually causing a massive traffic jam. When the riot police arrived, it arrested demonstrators.
By the next morning, protests erupted in public universities and several cities, including Esteli, Leon, Carazo, and Monimbo – an Indigenous community in Masaya. All of them were Sandinista strongholds.
April 19, 2018
Richard Pavón Bermúdez, a 17-year-old musician and student from Tipitapa, was one of the first killed as a result of his activism. Shot in the back several times, he died moments later. What we didn’t know at the time was that the government told paramilitary groups not to quell the protests by any means necessary – meaning using firearms, setting radio stations on fire, and more. On April 19, three people were murdered.
April 20, 2018
Álvaro Conrado dies. At just 15 years old, Alvarito was trying to help university students by delivering water to them. A sniper shot him, and when he was moved to a local hospital, the staff refused to help him on orders of the Ministerio de Salud. When he finally received medical attention, it was already too late.
Alvarito became a symbol and inspired protesters to keep fighting for justice. Days (and dozens of victims) later, Daniel Ortega withdrew the social security reform.
May 16, 2018
On this day, everything in Nicaragua stopped. Dialogue between Ortega’s government and students, private businesses, campesinos, and more groups began. Daniel denied that anyone had died in the month-long protests.
At this meeting, Ortega’s power and authority was challenged for the first time. Lesther Alemán and Madelaine Caracas challenged Ortega and Murillo and their personas – his as the larger-than-life comandante and her as the mother of all Nicaraguans. Though the two continued to deny the death count, Lesther and Madelaine didn’t back off. Lesther demanded that Daniel put a stop to all the violence and Madelaine brought a list of the 63 victims to the table.
This was the last time they attended any of the dialogues.
May 30, 2018
On Mother’s Day, nearly 500,000 people (in a country of six million) marched in Nicaragua in honor of the victims and their mothers. When the march almost reached UCA and Universidad Nacional de Ingeniería, snipers began to fire. Protesters began to build barricades, but the gunshots were able to penetrate through. On a day meant to celebrate our mothers, about 20 were killed and 199 were injured.
As the coordinated attack happened, Daniel Ortega was just a short distance away giving a speech about peace and love.
June 16, 2018
A month after the dialogue began, the government wanted to use the Pavón’s house for the paramilitary. The family refused, and eye witnesses later saw police launching molotov cocktails inside. Most of the family, which included two children, died. Video captured the police surrounding the house and keeping the voluntary firefighters from rescuing the Pavón family.
June 20, 2018
Masaya, located about 19 miles southeast of Managua, declared independence from the government. The city organized a self-sufficient local government, which stopped lootings and prevented the police from entering or leaving the city with barricades. Masaya declared itself free and said it didn’t recognize Ortega as the country’s legitimate president.
The only way the government could take down the barricade was with excessive force of the paramilitary, which used long-range weapons, rocket-propelled grenades, and more.
July 13, 2018
On May 7, Nicaragua’s largest university – Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Nicaragua – opened for a new semester. Students began protesting and speaking out against the government. Before authorities could respond, they occupied the campus until July 13 when paramilitary forces went after them more aggressively.
Part of the reason was because of “Operation Clean Up” – where paramilitary destroyed roadblocks and barricades, while leaving a trail of death across the country. The government wanted to get rid of all barricades by July 19 – the anniversary of the 1979 revolution – so it used even more force. For about 19 hours, the police surrounded UNAN, forcing students to find refuge at the Jesús de la Divina Misericordia church.
The Catholic church negotiated their release. But following that, the police began to find them at safe houses and other locations; one by one, they imprisoned them on terrorism charges.
August 28, 2018
With the end of “Operation Clean Up,” came a new phase of repression. The police and judicial branch kidnapped more than 800 political prisoners, who faced unfair trials.
Brandon Lovo and Glenn Slate from the Bluefields, a mostly Black and Indigenous city on Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast, were the first put on trial. It took place behind closed doors – going against Nicaragua’s set rules – and the state had 36 witnesses. None of them were able to place them at the scene of the crime, but they sentenced them in the death of journalist Ángel Gahona was murdered. (Ángel’s family has spoken out against the decision.) And yet, on August 28, they were each sentenced to more than 20 years in prison. Dozens more were sentenced, including Medardo Mairena, who was sentenced to 216 years in prison.
December 21, 2018
Pablo Parenti, an Argentine lawyer with expertise in state terrorism, came to Nicaragua as part of an independent group of experts (GIEI Nicaragua) investigating the events of 2018. Before presenting the results of the group’s investigation, the government expelled the experts. Still, the GIEI revealed that the protests were spontaneous and uncoordinated, but that the government’s response was anything but.
On December 21, the GIEI presented its final report, which stated that the Nicaraguan government committed crimes against humanity. It also found no evidence for a coup d’etat – something Ortega has claimed several times.
February 12, 2019
The Cruz brothers’ story has angered and saddened many. In October 2018, police raided Ometepe, arresting Max Cruz and his wife, Marbi Salazar. Cruz was shot in the leg several times and was hospitalized until his health improved, which is when he was translated to a prison. During the same raid, his brother, José Ivan, fled and hid out with relatives in Managua, but he couldn’t go home to see his family because it would put him at risk. José Ivan died by suicide on February 12. His brother was not able to attend the funeral.
A month later, the police moved Max and Marbi back to Ometepe, where they’re under house arrest.