Nicaragua: What have we learnt about the conflict of April-July 2018?
By Dick Nichols
February 12, 2022 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — This coming April four years will have passed since the protests in Nicaragua against proposed changes to the country’s social security system led to three months of social turmoil. The death toll from April 19 (date of the first fatalities) to July 17 (date of the final elimination of protester barricades) was somewhere between 251 and 328.
The first figure is of the Nicaraguan National Assembly’s Truth, Justice and Peace Commission (CVJP) and the second of the Special Monitoring Mechanism for Nicaragua (MESENI) of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) [in English]. The fact that a common list of the dead due to the conflict has never been agreed is one more sign of how polarising it continues to be, with the government of President Daniel Ortega and Vice-President Rosario Murillo claiming from the outset that they faced a coup attempt.
On the intuition that the events following the April 18, 2018 protest would become an acid test for all of us on the left and that it was critical to determine what had happened, I spent the 2018 European summer investigating the events, from the initial protests to the July 17 elimination of barricades (tranques) in the former Sandinista stronghold of Monimbó (near Masaya).
I read everything I could find on the internet that had been published by the Nicaraguan authorities and those supporting its viewpoint, comparing their version of events with all other available accounts, incident by incident, fatality by fatality.
The conclusion I reached (see Right-wing coup or popular revolt? The April 2018 Nicaraguan uprising examined) was that the view of the April-July 2018 events as an attempted coup was not supported by the evidence then available. Rather, in the absence of further corroboration of the Nicaraguan government’s position, it would
become increasingly difficult to avoid the conclusion that the events of April were a peaceful protest that state repression transformed into a citizen rebellion against the repression itself and for the democratic replacement of the government implementing it. If this shortfall of corroborating evidence continues, the initial decision of the Nicaraguan government to repress the protests, finalised by the "clean-up" (limpieza) carried out in June and July, would make its view of the protests as a coup instigated by the Nicaraguan right and the United States indispensable for it—not as any description of reality but as justification of its own choice to crush dissent with lethal force.
The research also included an Annex commenting on Monopolising death: Or how to frame a government by inflating a list of the dead, an analysis by Nicaraguan lawyer Enrique Hendrix that aimed to expose alleged bias and shortcomings in the reports of the Nicaraguan Human Rights Centre (CENIDH), the Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights (ANPDH) and the IACHR [in English] on fatalities in the conflict. Hendrix claimed that fatalities due to government and opposition forces were nearly the same (59 to 60).
However, irrespective of the potential errors in these and other reports by human rights agencies (such as that by Amnesty International, criticised here and here), a fatality by fatality comparison showed that the cause of death given by Hendrix could be reasonably questioned in over 100 of 293 cases occurring between April 19 and June 25 (the relevant document is available here). When family, close neighbour and eyewitness views on fatalities were accounted for, those attributable to the police and pro-government paramilitary groups doubled or even possibly tripled those due to the opposition (see Tables 4 and 5 of the Annex for summary of data).
Room for doubt
At the time of publication, this research left open the possibility that evidence might still emerge to corroborate the Nicaraguan government’s viewpoint, for example, via the discovery of incriminating communications between US agencies and/or local anti-government forces and the leaders of the university student protests. Such communications, if they existed, might give the lie to the claim of the protesters, who initially were university students, that the protests were “self-convened” (autoconvocados) via social networks. The limitations involved in doing research from afar also counselled caution.
But no such decisive evidence surfaced. In the months after the conflict ended, the evidence ran the other way—in favour of the case that the April-July 2018 uprising was the result of the violent repression of the initial protests.
Support for this interpretation came from:
- A November 19, 2018 Confidencial interview [here, in English] with Ligia Gómez, the former secretary of the Sandinista Leadership Council (FSLN branch) in the Central Bank of Nicaragua and manager of its Economic Research Division, as well as her written statement [in English] to the US Congress’s Tom Lantos Human Rights Committee revealing that the strategy of repression was decided at the highest levels of the Ortega-Murillo government. In the words of Managua City Council general secretary Félix Moreno: “We’re going in with everything we’ve got, we’re not going to let them steal the revolution from us”.
- An October 23, 2018 interview on Confidencial TV with Carlos Mikel Espinosa, former journalist with pro-government TV channel El 19 Digital, who left the station after the deaths of six members of a family in a fire in the Karl Marx neighbourhood. Espinosa revealed that the looting of supermarkets in Managua on April 22 was probably organised by pro-government forces. Pro-government media were in place to report on the looting before it even began.
- The January 8, 2019 resignation of Supreme Court judge Rafael Solís Cerda from all his positions and from FSLN membership. A former close supporter of Ortega’s who in 2009 had voted to support a constitutional change removing the two-term limit on his standing for president, Solís wrote in his public resignation letter (to Daniel Ortega, Rosario Murillo and National Assembly speaker Gustavo Porras):
Apart from the number of deaths that I feel so keenly on behalf of their mothers and other relatives, and which could be the approximately 325 indicated and belonging in their great majority to the sector opposed to the government and in circumstances that in some cases could be murders (according to the IACHR and GIEI [Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts, see next section]); apart from the more than 500 prisoners considered to be political by the opposition and in their great majority by me too, the truth is that I always considered that common sense and sanity could prevail with you and that political negotiation could take place that would allow early elections and some of the other points proposed by the opposition.
However, reality has shown the exact opposite: you have imposed a real Reign of Terror with the excessive use of military grade weapons by para-police forces or even by the police themselves, you have sown fear in our country and now no legal right exists that is respected, with the inevitable consequence of the installation and consolidation of what is at the least a dictatorship with the characteristics of an absolute monarchy of two kings. It has dissolved all Powers of State, leaving the Judicial Power to which I belong reduced to its most minimal expression.
Solís Cerda told Radio France International on January 11, 2019 that “I do not believe that there was an attempt at coup d’etat”.
Report of the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI)
Further confirmation came in the report on the events of 2018 by the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI in its Spanish initials). Released on December 21, 2018, it was the result of a May 30 agreement between the General Secretariat of the Organisation of American States (GS/OAS), the IACHR and the Nicaraguan government, which had accepted the recommendation of the IACHR report to set up an international commission to “ensure the right to truth and duly identify those responsible”.
Based on a more detailed investigation of events between April 18 and May 30, 2018, the GIEI report reached the same conclusions as the previous reports of the IACHR and the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). It stated:
The GIEI also verified that, although the demonstrations were essentially peaceful, their violent repression by the police and pro-government armed groups prompted a violent response by some protesters against the government, which resulted in deaths, injuries and attacks against private property. The GIEI found no evidence that these violent acts were coordinated or somehow planned (page 357)
Among the GIEI’s other findings were (pages 356-357):
- [T]he State resorted to abusive and indiscriminate use of force to repress peaceful demonstrations of protest […] State forces used cartridges filled with lead bullets, the arms used were of varied calibre, among which were war assault rifles.
- Most murders and serious injuries were caused by the National Police, whose agents acted directly and also in coordination with armed para-police groups…
- The State detained hundreds of persons during police raids during the protests. The detained persons were left under the exclusive authority of the National Police and suffered various forms of mistreatment and abuses...
- [E]vidence regarding the discrimination with which injured protesters were treated upon arriving at public hospitals, in an array of situations that include the denial or medical assistance, despite critical conditions, and cases of inadequate attention or mistreatment of family members…
- The State of Nicaragua violated its obligation of due diligence regarding the investigation of the violent deaths […] Out of 109 violent deaths registered by the GIEI, only nine have been criminally prosecuted…
- With regard to the nine deaths that have been judicially prosecuted, six of them relate to victims who are somewhat linked to the State of the governing party. These investigations were also plagued by serious deficiencies. The prosecution did not act objectively or impartially, did not exhaust all lines of investigation, and indicted persons who may be innocent, some of whom have already been convicted…
- [T]here have been no prosecutions against State security forces, despite all the evidence pointing to their probable responsibility.
- The criminal justice system, comprised of the Office of the Public Prosecutor and the Judiciary, has played an additional role in the scheme of human rights violations observed in Nicaragua, through the criminalisation of civilians who participated in the protests. These judicial processes improperly charged students, rural and social leaders with crimes such as terrorism and organised crime…
- All these processes reveal serious violations of personal liberty, including arbitrary detention orders and the generalised use of pre-trial detention…
- [T]he public nature of these trials and the right to an adequate defence have been restricted.
The GIEI’s overall conclusion was that the “numerous crimes committed in the context of the repression against the demonstrations constitute crimes against humanity.”
Nicaraguan government response to GIEI report
The response of the Nicaraguan government was to “temporarily suspend” the presence of the GIEI, the IACHR and MESENI in the country (it had already asked the OHCHR mission to leave on August 30 after it delivered its report). A December 19, 2018 letter from foreign minister Denis Moncada to Luis Almagro, Secretary-General of the OAS and Paulo Abrao, executive secretary of the IACHR (see English translation below Spanish text, but with the last part of paragraph 34, paragraphs 35 and 36 and first part of paragraph 37 missing), did not comment in detail on the GIEI’s findings, as had been the case with the IACHR and the OHCHR reports. Its defence was that the GIEI had violated its protocol by talking direct to affected families, in contravention of Nicaraguan law:
[A]ll actions related to criminal investigations are the exclusive competence of the Public Prosecutor and the National Police, and in this instance the actions of the GIEI contravene our Political Constitutions, the Nicaraguan Penal Procedural Code and the organic laws of the Office of the Public Prosecutor and National Police. (paragraph 27)
According to Moncada, the GIEI had carried out its investigations in Nicaragua without ever having reached an agreement with his government on a Protocol for Action to cover its work in the country. Drafts of such a protocol had gone back and forth between the ministry and the OAS and IACHR, but it had never received a reply to its last proposal, made on July 9, 2018.
On December 20, Moncada told the Channel 4 program “Revista en Vivo” that the GIEI was aiming “to establish, precisely, its “interfering, interventionist mode of behaviour, almost as if saying, we’ve come to substitute the Police, we’ve come to substitute the Attorney-General, the Prosecutor-General’s Office, and we’ve come to substitute the Courts.”
Against this should be set the GIEI’s version (pages 28-33) of its relations with the Nicaraguan authorities. On the failure to achieve agreement on a Protocol for Action, it says:
On this matter, it must be stressed that this lack of cooperation can be strictly explained by the decision of the State to abandon the tripartite interchange process (IACHR-GIEI-Nicaragua) from the beginning of July; and, later, by the necessity of a formal mechanism to access the investigations which, as the GIEI insisted, had to be established by the Government (page 29)
The GIEI’s attempts to obtain collaboration from the Nicaraguan authorities included two fruitless efforts to get the CVJP to agree to a joint meeting, as described by in this video statement by GIEI member Claudia Paz y Paz (with subtitling available in English).
I thought that if we could work with the Prosecutor-General’s Office, and if we could clarify one case and convict one of the perpetrators, we could rapidly stop this spiral of violence […] This is not what happened. The Prosecutor-General’s Office is not part of the solution but, sadly, part of the problem.
The National Police, too, were part of the problem for the GIEI. Its report on police deaths and injuries up to May 30 has little to say because, as the GIEI recorded in an October 26 media release:
The GIEI continues fulfilling its mandate without the support of the Nicaraguan State, which has not provided access to official information that has been requested and, worse than that, has imposed obstacles and prohibitions regarding entry into public institutions, which violate the agreement signed between the parties. The State has also not responded to the request from the GIEI for interviews with the families of police officers who have been killed or with those injured (page 30)
From this point onwards, the Nicaraguan government abandoned any attempt at answering the content of IACHR, MESENI and GIEI reports, portraying these bodies as agents of the OAS and US, and bent on encouraging the overthrow of the Nicaraguan, Venezuelan and Cuban governments. Moncada’s letter stated:
[This] explains the behaviour of the IACR, MESENI, GIEI and OHCHR, all of which have constituted a platform for the disclosure of false information against Nicaragua, seeking to promote sanctions against our country in the international arena... (paragraph 34)
The conspiracy against Nicaragua now included the OHCHR. The last response from the Nicaraguan authorities to a OHCHR report on the human rights situation in the country was its September 2, 2019 Annex on the OHCHR’s report to the September 2019 (42nd) session of the UN Human Rights Council. From June 12, 2020, it ceased to answer OHCHR communications.
The support for the Nicaraguan government position
The only detailed rebuttals of the GIEI report’s accounts of specific incidents that I have been able to locate are articles in a July 2020 briefing prepared for the Alliance for Global Justice (US) and the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign Working Group (UK). Entitled “Nicaragua, the OAS and its Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts—Bad faith human rights reporting at its worst”, it contains three pieces: “Revisiting 2018 March of the Mothers in Nicaragua: New Report Repeats Old Bias”, by Masaya-based writer John Perry, “The Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team and Nicaragua—Science or Injustice”, by Jorge Capelán, and “Nicaragua—Virtual reality and human rights”, by Esteli-based writer Stephen Sefton.
Perry’s article, which is the main contribution, dissects a GIEI video reconstruction of the events surrounding the death of the three demonstrators at the May 30, 2018 March of the Mothers. The reconstruction was done in May 2020 by the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF in its Spanish initials) with the help of SITU Research, New York-based specialist in reconstructing cases of conflict in urban contexts. The briefing also contains an open letter from the Alliance for Global Justice and the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign Working Group to the IACHR, to the individual members of the GIEI, and to EAAF and SITU.
The only other substantive critique of the GIEI’s work I could find were chapters in the CVJP’s Third Report (III Informe) and Fourth Report (IV Informe) on the role of social networks in the conflict. All these criticisms are discussed below.
As the battle for hearts and minds over the April events spread throughout the left in Latin America and internationally, the hypothesis about April 18 as a soft coup became for defenders of the Nicaraguan government’s actions a test of anti-imperialist credentials: dissent was taken as proof of mental confusion or even membership of what was called the “imperial left”. This viewpoint has been argued most persistently in the two downloadable books published by the Alliance for Global Justice, Live From Nicaragua: Uprising or Coup? and The Revolution Will Not Be Stopped. These build on its earlier critique of Amnesty International’s stance on events in Nicaragua.
These two texts:
- Explain Nicaragua’s past and present as imperialism-oppressed nation, victim of direct US invasion, US-backed dictatorship and US-funded counterrevolutionary dirty war, and raise the necessary and obvious question: weren’t the events following April 18 just one more example of US aggression towards popular movements and progressive governments in its “own backyard”?
- Detail the financial and political ties between US agencies like the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and USAID and the opposition forces in Nicaragua and the links between various forces and personalities of the Nicaraguan opposition, including some self-selected student leaders, and far-right Republican politicians. They stress the efforts of the US to “lay the foundations for democracy” by training Nicaraguan students in courses in communication and social activism.
- Detail the role of the Organisation of American States (OAS) in backing the coups in Latin America, most recently the role of its secretary, Luis Almagro, in delegitimising the October 2019 Bolivian election that led to the winner, incumbent president Evo Morales, being forced from office by the military and police.
- Cover social and economic gains that have taken place under the Nicaraguan government, which have gone largely unreported in mainstream media internationally. These explain why the Ortega-Murillo administration maintains support, especially in the countryside and among poorer Nicaraguans, and why, until recently, Nicaraguans formed a very small part of the “migrant caravan” from Central America towards Mexico and the US.
- Stress the class differences between the opposition and the FSLN support base backing the government. The opposition is in part composed of the traditional elite, the Catholic Church and the middle class sending their children to private schools and universities and imbued with anti-Sandinism. The social base of the FSLN is largely the working poor in the city and countryside.
- Analyse the at times distorted and interested coverage of Nicaraguan politics in international media.
- Seek to expose the apparent rightward evolution of dissident Sandinista forces, chiefly the Movement for Sandinista Renewal (MRS), to the point that they are today portrayed as direct agents of US policy.
For anti-imperialists, such realities and claims must always be kept in mind and addressed, but they are not relevant to the core question demanding an answer. This still cries out for clarification and sets the context in which all other issues must be tackled. How did the conflict start? Who bears the ultimate responsibility for igniting the spiral of violence and death?
Once violent clashes got under way, all political tendencies and social interests got sucked into the conflict and sought, in the old Spanish expression, “to fish in troubled waters”. This included a Catholic Church hierarchy that was supposed to be a neutral arbiter but elements of which backed the opposition. Atrocities look certain to have been committed on both sides, as well as attacks on government and FSLN property, with possible involvement of criminal gangs.
However, once again, none of these events have a bearing on the key question: how did it all start? Here, in the absence of incontrovertible evidence, the “soft coup” viewpoint remains only a hypothesis—a scenario—which the concerned observer will find more or less plausible.
Anyone looking for evidence in support of this position should consult at least three texts published in Live From Nicaragua: Uprising or Coup? Required reading is “What Really Happened in Nicaragua in 2018: Myth and Fact”, by Barbara Larcom, “How Nicaragua defeated a right-wing US-Backed coup”, by Max Blumenthal and Nils McCune, and “Nicaragua 2018—Events and Their Context”, by Nan McCurdy and Stephen Sefton. Does the evidence they present refute the key findings of the IACHR, OHCHR and GIEI reports?
Those with Spanish will also watch Juventud Presidente’s video series 180 Grados: Claves de la Verdad (180 Degrees: Keys to the Truth), which presents the pro-government version of key events in the three months of conflict. The video that seeks to discredit the report of the IACHR is Capítulo V - Engaño Reincidhente, while those with relevance to how the conflict started are Capítulo X1 - Nos Están Atacando!!! – Secuestro de la UPOLI and Capítulo III - Mafias al Descubierto. The video Capítulo VI: 30 de Mayo en Nicaragua - ¿Un plan para sumar? deals with an alleged opposition attempt to kill people on its own side at the May 30, 2018 March of the Mothers in order to incriminate the Nicaraguan government. Other videos, which cover tragic and controversial events in the four months of conflict, are not considered here because they have no bearing on how the conflict started.
Those with Spanish will also read the CVJP’s Third Report and Fourth Report and ask whether they provide conclusive evidence in support of its eleven findings (see pages 154-155 of Fourth Report). These are, most importantly, that “the Government maintained and defended Constitutional order in the face of the failed attempt at Coup d’Etat” (Finding 1) and “the reports of Human Right organisms, national and international, were erected on the basis of unverified information, lacking in objectivity and impartiality (Finding 3).
Three critical moments
Is that true? Here I review the three most critical questions bearing on the origins of the conflict: the impact of a false report of a student death on April 18, the National Police decision to use live ammunition, and the claim that the occupied Politechnic University (UPOLI) housed a coup command structure set up by well-known opposition leaders in collaboration with criminal elements.
1. What was the impact of the false report of a student death on April 18?
On the key issue of what sparked the revolt, none of the sources referred to provide a rebuttal of the GIEI report’s affirmation (see page 62) that it was not detonated by a false report of a student being killed at the National Engineering University (UNI) on April 18, as maintained by Rosario Murillo in an April 19 broadcast and repeated in official replies to the IACHR and OHCHR reports and by the CVJP’s Fourth Report (page 142).
The GIEI found that the false report of the death was denied almost immediately by individual students and on the protest movement’s Twitter channel #SOSINSS and retweeted only 143 times. Yet without providing evidence that would contradict this finding both articles repeat that the false death report “fanned the flames of violence as it went viral on social media” (words of McCurdy and Sefton).
What did go viral via the social networks on April 19 was not this piece of fake news, but coverage of what had actually happened on April 18: of Sandinista Youth attacks on pensioner protesters and the media in Managua and of a pensioners’ protest march in León being assaulted by groups of Sandinista Youth while the National Police stood by. The footnotes to the GIEI report provide links to a lot of this material, which is available on the GIEI Nicaragua YouTube channel.
Annex 7 of the report (pages 461-490) analyses the impact of social media in key moments of the conflict, done for the GIEI by Mexican firm NarrativeTech. According to its investigation the incidence of retweets in reaction to these events was more intense than that set off by the previous focus of student anger and protest, the alleged neglect by the government to the April 3-13 fire in the Indio-Maíz Biological Reserve (page 481).
In interviews done with students who emerged as leaders of the protests the report of a student death does not figure. Asked about their motivation for protesting, the students mention first of all the violent police response to the initial protests, especially the attacks on elderly demonstrators, and the threat to deprive students at public universities of their scholarships if they did not join a counter-mobilisation in support of the government (in this interview with two women students from León).
At the time, the Socialist Party of Central America (PSOCA) read what was happening as a Nicaraguan-style May 1968—see its downloadable book “Nicaragua: Revolution of the ‘tranques’ and unarmed insurrection” (Nicaragua: Revolución de los “tranques” e insurrection desarmada):
We are facing a massive phenomenon of youth and student rebellion, that reflects the enormous popular discontent that has built up over 12 years of the Daniel Ortega government. These two issues do not have a direct bearing on the specific situation of students, but we should not lose sight of the fact that the youth are those who most feel the the effects of economic stagnation and lack of jobs and opportunities. Just as happened in the struggle against the Somoza dictatorship, young people have returned to being the vanguard detachment in the struggle against the Bonapartist regime of Daniel Ortega (page 59)
The Juventud Presidente video Nos Están Atacando!!! – Secuestro de la UPOLI repeats the viewpoint that the demonstrations were detonated by the false report of a student death (minute 2.35 to minute 2.57) but does not mention the attacks on demonstrators protesting the INSS reforms and on the media covering the protests.
Evidence has still to emerge that would disprove the GIEI’s conclusion about this critical moment:
Even though the State’s response to the events of April 18 was similar to its pattern of conduct in the last few years, that is to say, sympathisers of the government assaulted and robbed protesters, while the security forces took a passive stance, this time the reaction of society was entirely different.
A number of individuals interviewed by the GIEI explained that, on one hand, the people were fed up with the restriction of spaces for political participation and, on the other hand, the images of elderly individuals beaten up – which were divulged by means of communication and social media – were intolerable for many individuals who, from that day onwards, decided to join the protests. Likewise, the violent events at the main gate of UCA [the Central American University], the entrance of one counter protester and the destruction of the security checkpoints were perceived as a violation of academic autonomy.
Forcing students to participate in counter protests or attacks against citizens also had a huge impact among young students of public universities.
The fact is that the violence which took place on this day, although not lethal, ignited the protests, which became more massive and expanded to various regions of Nicaragua (page 86)
The account in this video of how the protest began in Masaya, told a year later by a woman student leader who went into exile in Costa Rica, provides further confirmation of this interpretation.
2. When did the National Police decide to use live ammunition?
Next, there is nothing in these three sources on the critical issue of when the National Police decided to use live ammunition to quell the protests, a decision which guaranteed that its violence would provoke a nationwide wave of outrage and a violent counterreaction.
The National Police began to use live ammunition on April 19 after its attempts to quell the protests with its standard methods of crowd control (tear gas, rubber bullets, sound and flash bombs) had failed. Here is how McCurdy and Sefton describe the events of April 19, the first day with fatalities:
The following day, Thursday the 19th, many students continued to protest, but by this time they were infiltrated by armed opposition supporters and paid criminals who killed police officer Hilton Manzanares Alvarado. Two other young men were also killed: 1) Richard Antonio Pavón Hernandez, 17-year-old Sandinista Youth member who was shot in the abdomen near the Mayor’s Office in Tipitapa. His parents are historic combatants. 2) Twenty-nine-year-old supermarket worker Darwin Manuel Urbina Urbina who was shot near the UPOLI [Politechnic University] on his way home from work by someone with a shotgun, most likely part of or paid by the opposition. He was not on any side so the person who shot him was not specifically going after him but killing in order to have deaths to assign to the government (pages 79-80).
This account, which does not mention the role of the police, contradicts that of the GIEI, based on interviews with the students involved in clashes at the occupied UPOLI that day (see pages 125-134 of GIEI report).
In the case of Darwin Urbina, an eyewitness who tried to help him said he died from the direct impact on his neck artery of a light and sound bomb, thrown by a policeman, while his mother believed he was killed by a shotgun blast from the police. People in plain clothes (presumably police) at the Forensic Medicine Institute threatened not to release his body to the family unless they signed a document attributing his death to machete blows by the students. According to the GIEI report, “the intimidation continued during his wake, when police officers threatened the family and threw tear gas bombs. They also received threats from members of the Committees of Citizenship Power” (See Chapter 14, Victims of Violent Deaths, page 366).
In the Juventud Presidente video Nos Están Atacando!!! – Secuestro de la UPOLI (minute 4.04 to minute 5.10), Dr Oscar Flores, who conducted the autopsy on Urbina, explains that the wound that killed him was not due to shotgun pellets or a bullet, but to an explosive device, a bomb. The video commentary concludes that this would have been a home-made bomb, without mentioning the possibility that it could have been a police-issue light and sound bomb.
In the case of inspector Hilton Manzanares of the National Police’s Special Operations Unit (DOEP), alleged by Sefton and McCurdy to have been killed by “armed opposition supporters and paid criminals”, the GIEI report notes the following discrepancies: the National Police media statement on his death said it was due to “groups of vandals that came out of UPOLI, disturbing the peace, setting up roadblocks in public thoroughfares, raising barricades and attacking bystanders and families from nearby neighbourhoods”, but the indictment for the crime only named one person, defendant Carlos Alberto Bonilla López, and did not explain what he was doing at the time of the crime and why; the autopsy showed the Manzanares had been killed by a bullet that left his body at a higher point than that of entry, while the evidence presented to the trial by a police inspector was that Manzanares had been shot from above. In addition:
This inquiry did not explore other lines of investigation, nor was an alternate version formulated. The projectile recovered from the body of the victim was not compared with the weapons assigned to other DOEP police officers participating in the operation that night. It was necessary to do so, with regard to all police officers who were armed that night. Neither were samples taken from the police to determine if there was gunshot residue indicating that they had shot their firearms (page 252).
In the case of Richard Pavón, shot near the mayoral office in Tipitapa, and described by Sefton and McCurdy as a son of “historic combatants”, the GIEI report says:
According to the autopsy report, the bullet entry wounds were in his back and were fired from a shotgun. The available information indicates that the shots might have been fired by the Mayor’s Office personal protection forces (CPF)…At first, the National Police and several media outlets reported that Richard was a young Sandinista militant, and attributed responsibility for his death to “groups of vandals who were trying to reach the Mayor’s Office.” Vice-President Rosario Murillo even mentioned his case in a speech. However, his family publicly denied those assertions and rejected some money that was offered to them by the government (page 366).
In summary, McCurdy and Sefton’s account of the events of April 19 is a narrative whose key claims (“infiltration by armed opposition supporters and paid criminals”, “most likely part of or paid by the opposition”, “killing in order to have deaths to assign to the government”) remain uncorroborated.
The Juventud Presidente video series does not cover the issue of when the National Police turned to using live ammunition. The CVJP’s Fourth Report does not deal with the issue either, nor with the three deaths of April 19, but maintains that the action of the National Police “complied with international standards” as set out in national and United Nations texts and was justified by the level of aggression police officers were facing as well as by the threat to social peace:
The National Police was obliged to take on the responsibility of reestablishing public order, within the framework of the constitution and with the lawful instruments at its disposal, including the Voluntary Police. In this framework, no evidence exists that the National Police relied on the support of paramilitary groups to reestablish public order (pages 40-41)
3. Was the UPOLI occupation the centre for a command structure for continuing the “coup” made up of well-known opposition figures and criminal elements?
Barbara Larcom and the other sources cited repeat as good coin the June 6, 2018 confession of Christian Mendoza (known as “Viper”), that he operated a criminal network of the same name out of the occupied UPOLI and that this network, in the words of National Police Legal Support Branch chief Luis Alberto Pérez Olivas in presenting this information on television, was engaged in “hiring killers to carry out murders, trafficking in drugs, weapons and ammunition as well as media terrorism”. “Viper” also stated that it coordinated this work with Félix Maradiaga, the director of the Institute for Strategic Studies and Public Policies (IEEPP), Luciano Garcia, president of Hagamos Democracia (Let’s Make Democracy, a network of reporters and activists), Hugo Tórres, retired army general and MRS leader, and Moisés Hassan Morales, former mayor of Managua and member of the five-member Junta of National Reconstruction that governed Nicaragua after the overthrow of dictator Anastasio Somoza. That is, his claims incriminated several main trends in the opposition to the Ortega-Murillo government.
Barbara Larcom does not consider the possibility that “Viper’s” confession was a police frame-up, elaborated to demonstrate that a command centre for the alleged coup had been located and could be dramatically presented over the pro-government media (as it was, with normal programming interrupted). In her text there is no mention, for example, of this declaration by Kenneth Romero Alberto, in which he says he was forced by the National Police to sign a declaration incriminating Maradiaga. Nor that “Viper” was thrown out of the occupied UPOLI by the students for violent behaviour and on suspicion of being an informer for the police and/or the Sandinista Youth.
Larcom’s other evidence is a press conference by representatives of the pro-government National Union of Students of Nicaragua (UNEN), claiming a takeover of UPOLI by non-students including MRS leaders, and a July 20 video statement by Dania Valeska, student at the National Autonomous University (UNAN), in which she gives details of supposed gang occupation of that university, but which she later retracted. Valeska was quoted by Daily Beast writer Charles Davis in an October 4, 2018 article as saying “I say those things because I was threatened. Before they took me to record the video I was beaten, I was tortured psychologically, there were a lot of obscene comments and among them there were also comments about how they were going to kill me.” Barbara Larcom’s comment is: “Please observe Valeska’s demeanour during her testimony to police. She does not appear threatened in any way, even though she later claimed the police were pointing guns at her.”
“Viper” was later convicted of murder on the say-so of a member of his own gang. During the trial a Nicaraguan intelligence officer (“Officer Code 5”), who had initially not been listed as a witness, gave evidence that was not relevant to the case itself, namely that Félix Maradiaga was to be the election candidate of Colombian and Mexican drug rings who had suffered loss of earnings ever since Daniel Ortega clamped down on drug trafficking upon his return to office in 2007. This was widely reported on pro-government media, while other media was not allowed access to the trial (see GIEI report, page 261).
The commentary to the Juventud Presidente video Nos Están Atacando!!! – Secuestro de la UPOLI repeats this message, stating (minute 6.20 to minute 7.10) that opposition leader Félix Maradiaga and others who were not the students “set up a command structure within UPOLI. These were not students but opposition groupings and well-known delinquents from the surrounding neighbourhoods.” The head of the structure was “Viper”.
The video’s message that the eventual expulsion of “Viper” and his people was not the work of the students but of a rival criminal gang depends critically on the statements of an anonymous witness with voice distortion (minutes 16.43 to 17.36, 17.58 to 19.08 and 22.08 to 22.43).
Other interviews in the video affirm that there were arms inside UPOLI (and not just home-made mortars) and that the occupation enjoyed financing from outside. There is also audio (minute 19.55 to minute 21.36) that apparently records someone being tortured inside the UPOLI occupation.
The video offers no account of why the students occupied UPOLI in the first place, whether they came under attack from National Police and paramilitaries (they had, see GIEI report pages 125-134), whether they were concerned their occupation had been infiltrated, and the reasons for ending it (on June 9).
Another account of the UPOLI occupation along lines similar to the Juventud Presidente video is to be found in a two-part video series by Dick and Miriam Emanuelsson. The first part is an interview with Leonel Morales, president of the UPOLI branch of the pro-government National Union of Students of Nicaragua (UNEN), apparently kidnapped, shot and left for dead by criminals who were later released as part of the partial amnesty conceded by the government on June 8, 2019. The second part tells the story of the alleged ties between opponents of Ortega-Murillo, criminal networks and the “men of the [US] embassy”.
The GIEI report says of the UPOLI occupation, which ended on June 9, after GIEI’s mandate had finished:
With regard to the events which took place at UPOLI, some of them also resulted in formal charges against individuals who were presumably participating in the protests against the government. In that regard, there is evidence that many violent events took place inside the university, including acts of torture against at least two individuals. The victims were protesters. The GIEI received information which indicates that the students – or most of them – abandoned the premises precisely because of those incidents, since the groups who took control were unrelated to the protests (page 218).
The occupied UPOLI was obviously a scene of violence and conflict. The students’ declaration announcing their decision to leave said that they had resisted lethal attacks, uncovered infiltrated government agents, been described by the government as criminals and been the object of propaganda frame-ups so that people would stop supporting them. The communiqué said:
We know that it has been a strategy of the Ortega-Murillo regime to infiltrate people alien to the student community to delegitimise our struggle. We have received denunciations from our comrades about the presence of these groups alien to the student community who, sent by the presidential couple’s political operators, have taken it upon themselves to sew chaos in our beloved university.
The GIEI and pro-government sources agreed that criminal activity and violence took place in UPOLI, but whereas the pro-government sources put names to suspects and asserted their links with the opposition, the GIEI was careful not to specify individuals.
In the absence of independent corroboration what credence can be given to any of the material implying that an opposition-criminal alliance operated out of UPOLI? Little, as matters stand, not the least because after Christian Mendoza (“Viper”) was released from jail on June 11, 2019 as part of the partial amnesty, he stated in an interview with La Prensa that his interrogators had forced him to pronounce the script incriminating the opposition leaders.
They began to mention the names of my family members to me, they knew things about my childhood. It was a threat. They were wanting me to learn the speech that would finger the leaders of the opposition to the government, among them Félix Maradiaga, Moisés Hassan, Hugo Tórres, Pio Arellano. They prepared a script for me to memorise. It is all a lie.
The Juventud Presidente video presenting the “keys to the truth” about the UPOLI occupation makes no reference to this interview, which took place a month before its video was released on July 10, 2019.
From student protest to mass uprising
These three central pillars of the soft coup hypothesis continue to lack decisive corroboration, but that does not mean that it has been conclusively disproven—achieving certainty would require an independent investigation with unrestricted access to all relevant information. Most importantly for the real development of the conflict, however, the repressive response to the initial protests turned them into a mass rejection of the government which all trends in the opposition, from revolutionary left PSOCA to neoliberal right Citizens for Freedom (CxL), sought to build with the goal of forcing Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo to resign and face an early election.
Every social force had to appear to get on side with the students, most of all the institution that had collaborated most closely with Daniel Ortega since his re-election in 2006—the Nicaraguan big business umbrella, the Superior Council for Private Enterprise (COSEP). While the demand for Ortega to step down did not feature in the initial April 25 media conference of the April 19 University Student Movement (MU19A), it soon became the call that united most opposition forces, including the five university student groupings that eventually emerged.
A March 2019 study by the Nicaraguan Foundation for Economic and Social Development (Funides) put numbers to the extent of the social explosion that followed April 18 (see page 8 of study). While the monthly average of protests in Nicaragua between January 2016 and March 2018 was 21, for the six months between April and September 2018 it reached 339, peaking at 776 protests in June. These figures cover both anti- and pro-government demonstrations, but they show the depth of the disaffection with the Ortega-Murillo administration that had accumulated and whose methods of handling dissent and protest were consequently put to their severest test since Ortega’s re-election in December 2006.
The protest that began on April 18 and the protest marches that followed provided an outlet for the hitherto repressed frustration and anger of sectors of society alienated from the government. These included indigenous communities from the Atlantic Coast, whose legal control of their lands has been violated by incursions of settlers and miners; peasant farmers and indigenous communities threatened by the project of Chinese corporation HKND to build a transoceanic canal between the Caribbean and the Pacific; the women’s rights and feminist movement whose disaffection with Ortega-Murillo began with their 1998 denial of the denunciation by step-daughter Zoilamérica Naváez of a history of sexual abuse [subtitled in English] by Ortega beginning when she was nine. That divide became a gulf when Ortega accepted a ban on therapeutic abortion [in English] as the price of the Catholic Church hierarchy’s neutrality or implicit support in the 2006 election.
Behind these specific conflicts lay the model of “Sandinista Revolution 2.0” that Ortega and Murillo were constructing, centred on constructing an economic alliance with COSEP, bringing key institutions like the judiciary and the Supreme Electoral Commission (CSE) under FSLN control, converting the FSLN itself into an instrument of their rule and creating “mass organisations” through which to exercise clientelist control of the population, all in the name of a project called “Christian, socialist and solidarity-based”. At the same time key figures in the administration, such as former CSE head Roberto Rivas were free to become immensely rich and the members of the Ortega-Murillo family scored important posts in public administration and the media [in English].
From 2007 to 2017, this strategy yielded steady economic growth, reduction in poverty levels and infrastructure, mainly road, development, not the least because of $US4.5 billion in Venezuelan cooperation funding. However, the successful repression of protests, combined with the gradual reduction in democratic space and rising suspicion that elections were being rigged ensured that tensions kept rising within the pressure cooker that Ortega-Murillo politics was creating. This was especially the case because potentially threatening political alternatives got deregistered before they could pose too great a problem (the MRS in 2008 and former minister Eduardo Montealegre as head of the Independent Liberal Party (PLI) in 2016).
An indicator of the rising tension was a May 2014 open letter of the Catholic bishops of the Nicaraguan Episcopal Conference (CEN), which listed the accumulated discontents of major sectors of society and proposed two measures to forestall a social explosion—the creation of a National Dialogue and a reform of the CSE to ensure its independence from government. Daniel Ortega never replied to the CEN letter.
This long-accumulated discontent is what explains the mass character of the April-July revolt. Beginning with an April 23 march called by COSEP, the wave of mobilisation to force an early election culminated in the massive May 30 Managua March of the Mothers, to remember those who had died in the conflict to that point. The march, in which somewhere between half a million and a million took part, was the biggest popular mobilisation in Nicaragua since the July 19, 1979 victory of the Sandinistas over the Somoza dictatorship.
What happened at the March of the Mothers?
The GIEI report presents a lot of evidence to support its conclusion that the vast majority of the 109 deaths it investigated in the period from April 19 to May 30 were the work of the National Police and paramilitary forces, but it does not explain a key reality clearly—that the repression of the initial protests sparked a mass revolt to force the resignation of Ortega and Murillo and that this took the form of an uprising—of protest marches combined with university occupations and Nicaragua’s traditional technique of popular revolt, the tranque built of paving stones.
A situation of dual power was created, with the opposition trying to force new elections by stopping freight transport across the country. However, given the spontaneous, decentralised character of this protest-turning-into-insurrection, it had no hope of defeating the core repressive institutions of the Nicaraguan state—the National Police backed by paramilitaries, and the armed forces. Indeed, although there have been rumours and assertions by dissident former Sandinista Army members of the army giving background logistical support, it never had to be directly committed to the repressive effort—the task of limpieza could be handled by the police and their paramilitary supporters, armed with assault and sniper rifles and machine guns (see page 181 of GIEI report for detail of weaponry used).
In his introduction to “Nicaragua: Revolution of the ‘tranques’ and unarmed insurrection”, PSOCA leader Victoriano Sánchez described the situation as it unfolded:
The great weakness of the present insurrectional process is that it lacks a clear centralised leadership at the national level. It is the sum of local processes of struggle that have their own local improvised leaderships, who are carrying out a struggle against the Police and the FSLN party that acts against them in super-centralised fashion. The insurgent popular masses are like a blind giant that strikes hard but advances gropingly, without a clear, predetermined orientation (page 3).
This was the context in which the May 30 March of the Mothers took place, called as a peaceful protest but always with the possibility of clashes between oppositionists and FSLN supporters who had been called to attend a counter-mobilisation (a “cantata to the mothers of Nicaragua”) on the same day.
The GIEI’s report’s conclusions about the events of May 30 in Managua are as follows. They were dominated by the eight deaths, six at the March of the Mothers and two, both FSLN supporters, in circumstances that remain to be clarified (see pages 155-174 for full analysis).
It is proven that at least one of the armed attacks was directly perpetrated by the National Police and civilians who were operating in coordination with the police forces. Three of the dead victims were murdered during this raid, and two of them were shot in the head. There is no indication that the police forces previously tried any other less damaging means which might have been more adequate for a legitimate purpose. The evidence shows that police officers and civilians directly shot at the crowd of protesters during the event.
All of the aforementioned took place in a context of confrontation and violence created around the march by the highest governmental authorities. As a result, on the day following the event, the National Police issued a manifestly false press release, in an apparent attempt to cover up its responsibility for the incidents.
Two more individuals, who allegedly were FSLN militants, died that day under circumstances that could be related to these events. The misinformation fostered by the Police also hinders the clarification of these cases, as does the lack of response from the State to the requests submitted by the GIEI about interviews with their family members and for audio-visual material recorded that day by the National Police (page 174).
In his article “Revisiting 2018 March of the Mothers in Nicaragua: New Report Repeats Old Bias” John Perry rejects this finding as typical of the GIEI’s distortions. Alleging a “practice of highly selective use of the facts and incomplete reporting”, Perry states of the GIEI report:
GIEI’s work was notable at the time for its almost exclusive focus on victims of violence allegedly committed by police, paying scant attention to or dismissing evidence that many Sandinistas, bystanders, and indeed police officers were killed or injured during those violent weeks. Many attempts were made by the government to persuade the GIEI investigating team to properly consider the evidence of opposition violence, including attacks on the police on May 30, 2018. Nevertheless, the GIEI, reviewing events that day, implied that the injuries suffered by police might have been faked.
To grasp Perry’s case against the GIEI-EAAF-SITU video reconstruction of the three deaths on May 30 it helps to compare it with this contrary reconstruction (The myth of the alleged massacre on May 30th 2018 in Managua), done by Juventud Presidente. The essence of its divergence from the GIEI account lies in the importance given to armed oppositionists who could have been shooting at police (with rifles and not just home-made mortars) and could have provoked their retaliation.
In such a context, according to Perry, the GIEI-EAAF-SITU video does not irrefutably establish that the lethal shots that killed the three victims came from a group of police situated 200-250 metres away from the barricade where they were killed: the shots could have come from elsewhere and been fired by others. This is particularly the case because of a contradiction Perry finds between the GIEI’s account of the position of the police alleged to have done the shooting and ballistic evidence provided by expert firm Michael Knox and Associates. After noting that “the noise and smoke [from the firing of home-made mortars] would also provide cover for any conventional gunfire” Perry concludes:
[T]he combination of Knox’s evidence and the photos shown in the video are, at best, inconclusive and at worst could indicate that it was someone else who was doing the shooting…
Worse still for Perry is the treatment of the deaths of the three demonstrators in isolation from the context of clashes between armed oppositionists, FSLN supporters and the police in the area surrounding the Dennis Martínez National Stadium.
[W]ell before the incident examined by SITU/EAAF, demonstrators are filmed confronting police in the Avenida Universitaria, north of the point where roadblocks were built at 4:40pm. The different clips, some from opposition Radio Corporación, show how opposition groups were firing mortars or throwing Molotov cocktails but also that several had pistols or high calibre firearms. They gained temporary control of the whole stadium area, sacking the stadium offices, and firing at police. Over the period between 4:30 and 5:30pm no less than twenty police officers were injured trying to retain control of the stadium area, many receiving serious gunshot wounds. It is unconscionable that the so-called “forensic” analysis of the shooting of the three marchers at 5:25pm by SITU/EAAF ignores the wider violence in the same area (link in original).
However, if the GIEI’s alleged ignoring of the wider violence in the area around the stadium is “unconscionable”, how to describe Perry’s omitting to mention that this could have been triggered by the shooting at around 4pm in front of the stadium of 15-year-old Orlando Aguirre (see GIEI report, pages 159 and 411)? This was the first lethal moment in nearly three hours of violent clashes.
In this clip taken just after Aguirre was hit (see minute 2.38) a fellow demonstrator says the shots are coming from the stadium. These shots were not what Perry calls “rumours (fed by commentators from opposition Radio Corporación) that there were sharpshooters stationed in the national baseball stadium” but actual shots, which witnesses in four videos examined by the GIEI said came from the stadium and from hills at the top of the road running past it.
One part of Knox and Associates testimony that Perry does mention is that the shots that in all probability killed the three victims were fired along the street crossed by the barricade. If this was so, it reduces the possibility that the shots could have been fired by armed elements of the opposition, because there is no evidence that there were any present in the direction from which they came.
Juventud Presidente’s video “The myth of the alleged massacre on May 30th 2018 in Managua” makes no specific mention of the time and place of Aguirre’s shooting but simply adds him to its list of victims on the day. Once the circumstances and time of his death is left out and the presence of snipers is portrayed as a “rumour” the message of the video can become that the opposition were always seeking a confrontation with the pro-government forces and occupied the area around the stadium as part of this plan.
Perry also criticises the GIEI’s description of the National Police’s media release as false “simply because in their preliminary account of the day the police bracketed them [two FSLN supporters, Kevin Antonio Coffin Reyes and Heriberto Pérez Díaz] with other deaths and injuries that occurred around the same time.”
However, this bracketing of deaths was not the only or main problem with a “preliminary” National Police statement that has never been updated. The GIEI report notes not only that this account starts an hour and a half after Orlando Aguirre’s death (at 1731, not at “around the same time”), but that it contains impossible contradictions.
Firstly, it states that “a group of delinquents used firearms and mortars to attack individuals who were participating in the [pro-government] cantata in honour of Nicaraguan Mothers” and that this attack took place near Dennis Martínez National Stadium. But this building is two kilometres away from where the cantata was finishing.
Secondly, the GIEI report notes that this supposed attack took place
at this exact time and place police and individuals in civilian clothes perpetrated the violent armed attack against the protesters who were trying to shield themselves behind barricades.
The official version included, in addition to this fake scenario, some victims whose deaths occurred in different circumstances than those indicated in the press release, and other individuals who died under circumstances which have yet to be clarified. In this regard, and contrary to what happened, it attributed responsibility to this group of “criminals” for the death of Mr. Reyes Zapata who, as indicated, was murdered during the attack perpetrated by police officers – precisely at the same time and place.
Finally, the police media release placed pro-government victims Kevin Antonio Coffin Reyes and Heriberto Pérez Díaz in the same scene, but their autopsy reports, done at the nearby Military Hospital, stated that they were already dead when admitted at 1730.
The afternoon of violence ended with demonstrators burning down the buildings housing the pro-government radio station Radio Ya, from the roof of which demonstrators claimed that snipers were operating, and the local branch of the National Rural Credit Union (CARUNA). But what had started the chain of events that ended in these acts?
‘Supressed and excluded evidence’?
In his article “Nicaragua—Virtual reality and human rights”, Stephen Sefton writes:
Both the video documentary and the GIEI reports systematically exclude or suppress references to audio-visual material available here and here, documentary evidence, witness testimony and press reports here, here, here, here, and here, and an on-the-spot report by a veteran independent journalist, all of which challenge their version of events. Nicaragua's case is a text-book example of how genuine human rights research has been subverted so as to produce highly biased reports from organisations like the EAAF and SITU Research, supporting the political agenda of neocolonial institutions like the Organisation of American States (links in original).
Of these eight examples of apparently suppressed references, one is the National Police media release dissected by the GIEI (pages 162, 171-172) and one is a May 29, 2018 National Police media release with arguably marginal relevance to the events of May 30 (it deals with clashes between the police and opposition militants in the same area two days previously).
Next, two videos cited by Sefton as excluded or suppressed are in fact referenced and discussed in the GIEI report (see footnote 28, page 162 and footnote 32, page 163). The report says:
Two more videos, which were broadly disseminated by pro-government media as a way to demonstrate violence allegedly perpetrated by the protesters, show scenes that relatively coincide in time and place with those of the previously mentioned video [in which protesters say they are coming under sniper fire and there are already people wounded]. The first one actually shows two individuals participating in the march who are carrying firearms, but it also shows a group of youths at the intersection between the avenues entering UNI [National Engineering University] and the Stadium who seem to be dodging from a possible bullet trajectory coming from the Stadium. There are also voices speaking about the presence of snipers and saying sentences that would coincide with that version: “let’s get out of here, come on, come on”, or “bend down, get further down.”
Another video shows individuals running towards the Stadium as they throw rocks, and one individual is seen firing a weapon towards that building. The angle of the shot (seemingly towards the upper levels of the Stadium – and not against the protesters, as portrayed by some pro-government media) coincides with the versions about the presence of snipers at that place. The same picture shows members of these groups indicating that there were individuals hidden inside the Stadium, which reinforces this possibility (pages 162-163.)
Material from these videos and from pro-government channel TN8 (which is cited by the GIEI, see footnote 28, page 162) comprise the fifth reference that Sefton claims the GIEI suppressed: this is a compilation of clips implying that the massacre was the work of the opposition so as to be able to incriminate the Ortega-Murillo government. The sixth alleged exclusion is the Juventud Presidente video “The myth of the alleged massacre on May 30th 2018 in Managua”. It was released on June 19, 2019, six months after the GIEI had been expelled from Nicaragua and had released its report.
The only new material in this video that could be regarded as evidence is footage taken by the stadium’s security cameras. It shows no activity inside the stadium, then apparent clashes among some demonstrators, people (one armed) walking past the stadium and a group of youths ransacking the stadium’s offices.
The Juventud Presidente video’s claim that this footage confirms conclusively that there were no snipers operating from the stadium on May 30 is not proven by showing an empty stadium interior with a few security guards and people walking past the stadium in apparently normal fashion. Apart from the consideration that a sniper would take care to avoid getting caught on security camera, the video’s claim has still to be reconciled with the death of Orlando Aguirre and the other evidence of demonstrators wounded by gunfire. Once again, only an independent inquiry with access to all relevant evidence could definitively settle the issue.
As for the “on-the-spot report by a veteran independent journalist” (Italian Giorgio Trucchi), his piece does not mention the death of Orlando Aguirre, nor snipers, nor any of the six demonstrator victims. Instead, it paints the episode as an attack by armed opposition supporters on the police guarding the stadium and aimed at provoking a retaliation that would allow the international corporate media to incriminate the Ortega government. It is not evidence but an anticipation of the false flag interpretation later to be advanced by Juventud Presidente.
The last two references Sefton charges the GIEI with suppressing are pro-government TV station 19 Digital’s coverage of the deaths of Kevin Antonio Coffin Reyes and Heriberto Pérez Díaz and its coverage of injuries to six of the twenty police that the National Police media release stated had suffered injuries on the day.
The first of these items adds nothing to the police statement on these deaths, while regarding the second (a story on the wounds suffered by six police officers), the GIEI sought clarification of all circumstances in which the police officers were killed or wounded but never received a response from the authorities (see page 172). The contradiction between this statement and John Perry’s claim that “many attempts were made by the government to persuade the GIEI investigating team to properly consider the evidence of opposition violence, including attacks on the police on May 30, 2018” would be one that an independent inquiry would have to address.
Sefton’s charge that the GIEI suppressed or excluded evidence is not sustained. In fact, the GIEI report sources pro-government material not mentioned by Sefton. In the case of Kevin Antonio Coffin Reyes, it refers to three different TV reports of his death and funeral. The problem, however, is that these sources disagree with each other and the police media statement as to the circumstances of his death. Was it “while trying to get to the celebration in honour of Nicaraguan mothers” (Channel 4)? Or “after participating in the demonstration in honour of Nicaraguan mothers” (Channel 13)? And where was it? The GIEI concluded that “the only certain thing about these cases [the deaths of the two FSLN sympathisers] is that they did not occur the way the National Police described” (page 172).
Here, in one example, is the essence of what is at stake: when all the evidence is in—including the time and circumstances of shooting of Orlando Aguirre that John Perry and Stephen Sefton neglect to mention—what does it show? That (parts of) the opposition were always going to use the March of the Mothers to unleash violence and broke off from the main march to start it? Or that the government was so threatened by the size of the opposition mobilisation that it decided to break up the crowd with sniper fire? Or some combination of both?
Most immediately, how does the material alleged to have been suppressed by GIEI-EAAF-SITU prove that their audio-visual reconstruction of the three deaths is false? The only relevant evidence is the contradiction Perry alleges exists between Knox’s ballistic evidence and the position of the police alleged to have done the shooting. Perry says that Knox told him that he would have to take that apparent contradiction up with SITU Research. Perry does not say whether he did this and, if he got a response, what it was.
Once again, only an independent inquiry with access to all relevant material can settle the issue. One witness such an inquiry would want to cross-examine is former Supreme Court magistrate Rafael Solís. In an April 19, 2021 interview from exile in Costa Rica he told the media:
I read all the findings [on causes of death] before my resignation and what most struck me was the snipers shooting directly at three points. It was at the head, that part containing the brain, at the nape or, if they were shooting from the front, they would fire at the neck or the heart. The great number of findings by [the Institute of] Legal Medicine—to which I had access, because obviously I was a magistrate and could ask for them, and neither the IACHR nor the GIEI had access to most of them—[show this]. That [the GIEI] established the kind of method that tells you that there was an order to murder those boys, that it was not, say, a normal clash at a barricade where one side shoots and the other shoots, of the kind we had in the insurrection, when we were fighting against the [National] Guard (minute 58.00 to minute 59.22)
‘A vile manoeuvre against the Nicaraguan people’?
For Jorge Capelán, who accepts John Perry’s critique of the GIEI- EAAF-SITU video as exposing the endemic bias of the GIEI’s investigation, the main problem is the EAAF: it has “lent itself to a vile manoeuvre against the Nicaraguan people by endorsing a video on behalf of a network of false human rights operators in the service of NATO”. What in Perry is strong scepticism about whether the GIEI-EAAF-SITU video conclusively proved that the three victims were shot by the police becomes in Capelán collaboration “with a body known to be completely biased in favour of the opposition coup attempt in Nicaragua, namely the OAS Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI)…”
In the three articles discussed here the impression is given that the EAAF was involved only in the video reconstruction (“This time, the GIEI brought in expert consultants”, writes Perry), but the EAAF played a key role in the GIEI investigation from early on: it was charged with carrying out forensic studies of victims of the violence and its findings were published with the GIEI report as Annex 5 (pages 431-452). The EAAF’s main conclusions, after being able to study the autopsies of only 24 of the 109 deaths investigated by the GIEI, were:
- The Institute of Legal Medicine (IML, the Nicaraguan system of coroners) did not take part in the removal of any corpse from the location of death, contrary to its governing regulation
- The practice of families signing a waiver of autopsy as price of recovering the body of the deceased was confirmed in at least two cases and is contrary to Nicaraguan and international law
- The presence of National Police members at autopsies was not documented as required but could be inferred from their receiving ballistic and other evidence
- In the 22 instances of death by firearm, projectiles were recovered in fifteen cases, but the EAAF could not access these as they were sent to the National Police (charged along with the Prosecutor-General’s Office with investigating homicides)
- In fourteen of the 22 cases of death by firearm, the projectile causing death had been fired from a distance
- In some cases, the description of projectiles was contradictory or inaccurate, making it impossible to determine the type of firearm used
- While the cause and manner of death was adequately established in general terms, “the shortcomings observed had a notably negative impact on adequate valuation of the circumstantial particularities connected with the deaths, which have special relevance in cases of possible human rights violations” (pages 450-452).
The EAAF report ends with a recommendation that the police not investigate instances where they are suspected of breaches of human rights but that a special investigating agency be set up to cover such cases.
It is hard to see how such a recommendation—based on an investigation that no-one has challenged as far as I am aware—represents “collaboration with a network of false human rights operators at the service of NATO”.
The reputation of the EAAF as forensic anthropologists is at stake in every investigation it undertakes and is built upon achievements like unmasking the official version of the cause of death of the 42 Mexican students in Ayotzinapa and identifying the mortal remains of Che Guevara and victims of the Argentinian military junta. Of course, that is not conclusive proof of the accuracy of the video in which it is participated with the GIEI and SITU Research. However, it is difficult to imagine that EAAF would lend its name to such a reconstruction without carefully checking that other scenarios did not better explain the three deaths behind the tranque in Managua on May 30, 2018.
‘Bad faith human rights reporting at its worst’?
The GIEI report had been out for 18 months when the video reconstruction criticised by Perry, Sefton and Capelán was issued. In that time, the report and its findings seem to have attracted little or no comment from these writers, or from any other defendant of the Nicaraguan government’s version of events. There seem to have been no reasoned denials or detailed dissection of its findings, no critical review of its work. Live From Nicaragua: Uprising or Coup? only mentions the GIEI’s formation (page 101) while The Revolution Will Not Be Stopped only reprints the Briefing as a resource (pages 254-256).
As for the CVJP, which might be expected to engage with the GIEI’s reading of the same material that it was tasked to investigate, its work after the release of the GIEI’s report was restricted to registering its different statistic for deaths due to the conflict between April 19 and May 30 (GIEI 109, CVJP 95), and criticising the GIEI’s supposed downplaying of the role of social networks in generating what it now maintained was a coup (see Fourth Report, pages 133-135). (Note: In its First and Second Reports the CVJP did not describe the events around April 18 as a coup—that term, although used from the outset by the government, only became part of the CVJP’s terminology with its Third Report.)
However, with the arrival of the GIEI-EAAF-SITU video, and John Perry’s apparent discovery that it does not conclusively prove that the deaths of the three victims at the March of the Mothers were the work of the police and/or paramilitaries, an opportunity was presented to question the overall quality of the GIEI report, which was done in the Open Letter from the Alliance for Global Justice and the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign Working Group.
Sefton and Perry state in their introduction to the Briefing that contains the Open Letter:
[T]he work of the GIEI does not even meet generally accepted basic requirements of reporting and documentation. The GIEI has systematically suppressed or excluded from its account of the 2018 crisis in Nicaragua witness testimony, documentary evidence and audio-visual material contradicting its account. This is demonstrably and egregiously so in its reporting of every one of the four incidents it has prioritised in the internet presentation of its reporting on Nicaragua.
No evidence for this claim is provided other than that presented in Sefton’s article claiming suppression and exclusion of evidence in the case of the Mother’s March killings, the inadequacy of which has already been demonstrated. Next:
The GIEI falsely pretend that during the crisis the Nicaraguan authorities did not face deliberate, extremely violent attacks by hundreds of often well-armed opposition activists, when in fact this was very much the case.
The authors do not refer to any specific incidents that the reader could check to confirm if the GIEI did deliberately neglect such attacks. It must be borne in mind that the GIEI’s agreed brief covered the period April 18 to May 30, that deaths from the conflict continued at least until the end of Operación Limpieza on July 17 and that “seriously violent events” (GIEI report, page 141) took place during this period as the police and paramilitaries sought to reassert control by dismantling the tranques.
However, for the period of its brief here is what the GIEI report finds in its conclusions to Chapter VII (“Characterisation of the Violence”):
Faced with the failure of [its] traditional type of oppression and the intensification of protests, the State launched a more severe repressive strategy, beginning on April 19 and 20, which consisted of the disproportionate and indiscriminate use of weapons against the civilian population as a general pattern, particularly firearms, but also weapons of war. This could be verified in different scenarios where civilians gathered to protest: marches or street gatherings, occupied university campuses, and roadblocks or street barricades (page 177).
The report also discusses the nature of the violence deployed by the protesters (pages 213-219).
While the violence of the repression increased, protesters started using, other than mortars, Molotov bombs, artisanal weapons and, in some cases, industrialised firearms. With regard to the latter, the abundant audio-visual material examined by the GIEI, corresponding to the whole period under its jurisdiction, indicates that the protesters carrying firearms did not amount to one dozen. In the videos that were examined, only one individual is seen shooting a firearm at the National Stadium during the March of the Mothers. This is not to say, obviously, that this was the unique case, it is merely the only one caught on camera. The GIEI repeatedly requested from the State information about these incidents, and even asked for the video footage which – according to other videos – was recorded by police officers or related personnel. That evidence could provide more information about this topic. However, the GIEI did not receive any response (page 213-214)
The GIEI report covers the following examples of probable opposition violence that took place during its mandate. In all cases the GIEI asked for information from the National Police but received no reply. These incidents were:
- The shooting on May 30 at a roadblock in La Trinidad municipality (Department of Esteli) to try to stop a convoy of government supporters reaching the cantata for the mothers of Nicaragua in Managua. This clash resulted in the deaths of two government supporters (page 214)
- The May 25 shooting of private security guard David Oviedo Martínez after he had fired at protesters at a roadblock outside the Autonomous University of Nicaragua (page 215)
- The violent events at UPOLI, which have already been mentioned (page 218), and
- The May 24 death of 80-year-old Pánfila Alvarado Urbina, who was being transferred to hospital in an ambulance that was stopped at a tranque at Empalme de Boaco (Boaco Department) (page 218).
The GIEI report expresses doubt about the other violent incidents which the National Police ascribed to “groups of protesters”—the shooting of DOEP inspector Hilton Manzanares and the April 20 death in a fire in León of Christian Emilio Cardenas—asserting irregularities in the trials of those charged with these murders (pages 250-252 and 258-260).
What “deliberate, extremely violent attacks by hundreds of often well-armed opposition activists” in the 43-day period between April 18 and May 30 did the GIEI then neglect?
Who killed whom? And according to whom?
Sefton and Perry next state that:
The GIEI claims that almost all the victims of the violence were peaceful protesters but omitted, without investigation, well founded reports that over 400 police officers suffered gunshot wounds, 23 officers were killed, a total of over 60 Sandinista supporters were killed and many hundreds injured, as well as over 100 people not directly involved in the conflict being killed and many hundreds more bystanders injured as a direct result of opposition violence.
To what period do these numbers refer? From what source are they drawn?
Presumably, the “over 400 police officers [who] suffered gunshot wounds” is drawn from the CVJP’s Fourth Report, which lists “418 injured members of the National Police” in its Annex 2, with date of injury ranging from April 18, 2018 to September 18, 2018 (that is, for five months as opposed to under a month and a half for the GIEI’s brief). For civilians injured the CVJP gives a total of 1846, but without specifying the date, type or cause of injury.
For police injuries, the Fourth Report Annex 2 does list date and type of injury. However, not all these injuries were caused by gunshot, as claimed by Perry and Sefton. In 207 cases only type of injury but not cause is listed, while “firearm, bullet or projectile” is specified as cause in 121 cases. The other listed injuries are due to the firing of home-made mortars resulting in fractures, lacerations, bruises and burns (57), the impact of rocks and “blunt instruments” (40), shotguns (2) and petrol burns (1). So, the statement that “over 400 police officers suffered gunshot wounds” is a big exaggeration, even on the assumption that some of the 207 cases with no cause of injury specified were due to gunshots.
Sefton and Perry’s figure of 23 police officers killed seems to have been drawn from MESENI’s Fatal Victims Registry, which lists occupation of the deceased for a total of 355 deaths, with the bulk of these (328) taking place between April 19 and July 17. The 23 names also occur on the CVJP’s list of 251 fatalities for the period April 19, 2018 to September 23, 2018, but their occupation is not given. In the six weeks covered by the GIEI’s brief it investigated 109 deaths, of which only three were police officers (Hilton Rafael Manzanares Alvarado, Juana Francisca Aguilar Cano and Douglas José Mendiola Viales), listings for the period that both the CVJP and MESENI agree on.
Perry and Sefton do not specify a source for their figure of over 60 Sandinista supporters killed. Apart from the CVJP’s Third Report, none of the human rights organisations that have investigated the conflict describe victims by political affiliation or sympathy. The CVJP’s Third Report gave this breakdown for the 253 fatalities it ascribed to the conflict as of February 5, 2019: National Police 22, alleged Sandinista affiliation 48, 19 April Movement autoconvocados, 31, No information 152 (page 8). However, accepting that this classification is accurate, it does not provide a figure for fatalities on either side of the conflict, a number that can only be deduced from investigating the circumstances of each case.
In addition, what does it mean to classify someone a “Sandinista supporter” in this conflict? For example, of the 109 victims investigated case-by-case by the GIEI (see pages 362-420), I have been able to identify nineteen who could be called “Sandinista supporters”, i.e., members or sympathisers of the FSLN or Sandinista Youth (including the three police officers who died). However, five of these were reported as critical of the repression of the protests or even as directly supporting them. Of these five, four died in circumstances suggesting prima facie that they were victims of pro-government forces—see the cases of Marlon Manases Martínez Ramírez (page 370), Alvaro Alberto Gómez Montalván (page 378), Eduardo Antonio Sánchez Flores (page 384) and Cruz Alberto Obregón López (page 418). Another Sandinista Youth member died in circumstances that suggested he was possibly a victim of a Sandinista Youth attack—see the case of Carlos Antonio Flores Ríos (page 392).
Two who died were probably unintended victims of actions they were taking against the opposition—see the cases of Apolonio Ezequiel Díaz Delgadillo (page 376) and Jimmy Jaime Paiz Barahona (page 377). Four died in circumstances in which the GIEI expressed doubts about the court verdict in these cases-- see Hilton Rafael Manzanares Alvarado (page 367), Cristhian Emilio Cadenas (page 376), Keller Esteven Pérez Duarte (page 404) and Jorge Gaston Palacios Vargas (page 408). The deaths of three took place in circumstances that have still to be clarified—see the cases of Juana Francisca Aguilar Cano (page 383), Kevin Antonio Coffin Reyes (page 414) and Heriberto Maudiel Pérez Díaz (page 414).
Only five were prima facie victims of anti-government protesters—see the cases of Holman Eliezer Zeledon (page 399), Douglas José Mendiola Viales (page 409), Marvin José Melendez Núñez (page 415), Dariel Stiven Gutiérrez Ríos (page 417) and Jairo Antonio Osorio Raudales (page 417)
The GIEI made a case-by-case study of 109 fatalities from April 18 to May 30 and in any case where there was doubt about responsibility, asked the National Police for further information. Again, none was ever forthcoming.
A check of these cases yields the calculation that of the 109 deaths, the GIEI confidently assigned responsibility to the National Police and pro-government forces in 31 cases (28%) and to the opposition in two cases (2%); indicated there was circumstantial evidence of pro-government force responsibility in 36 cases (33%) and of opposition force responsibility in twelve cases (11%); and insufficient evidence to decide in 28 cases (26%).
That is, 61% of deaths between April 18 and May 30 were definitely or prima facie due to the action of the National Police, FSLN-run municipalities, pro-government para-police and the Sandinista Youth. Moreover, of these 109 deaths, 95 were due to gunshot wounds to the thorax, neck and head (see page 76), a pattern that the CVJP also registered. In its Third Report, it stated that the IML had carried out 109 autopsies on the 253 fatalities it listed and that 102 of these were due to firearms (page 12).
How many dead were not involved in the conflict?
Next, Perry and Sefton’s statement that “over 100 people not directly involved in the conflict [were] killed” needs to be treated with caution, because the judgement as to involvement changes according to whom is being asked: the National Police at times gave quite divergent responses to those of the family and neighbours of victims, and of eyewitnesses.
This difference emerges clearly from analysis of Enrique Hendrix’s critique of the human rights’ organisations’ reports on the extent and causes of fatalities, a document invoked by many writers who support the view of April 18 as the beginning of a coup. However, Hendrix’s own critique lacks rigour (again, see here for analysis and here for the case-by-case reclassification of Hendrix’s assignments of fatalities).
Firstly, once the opinion of family members, neighbours and eyewitnesses as to the cause of death for the 293 fatalities covered are accounted for, the total in Hendrix’s categories “deaths not directly related to protests”, “people murdered by the opposition”, “bystanders” and “names with insufficient data to determine the cause of death” falls by 51 while his category “protesters (protesters, opponents, opposition activists operating roadblocks…)” increases by the same figure.
As a result, “protester” deaths more than double that of “people murdered by the opposition”, 110 to 51.
When fatalities with unclear or disputed accounts of death are reassigned to the category “insufficient data to determine the cause of death”, these numbers fall to 108 for “protesters” and 34 for “murdered by the opposition”.
Even when the opinion of family members, neighbours and witnesses is disregarded in the case of a National Police declaration to the contrary, the fatalities attributable to government supporters are more than twice those attributable to opposition supporters, 66 to 30.
Hendrix mainly gets his result with two devices: by assigning to the categories “bystander deaths” and “deaths not directly related to the protests” fatalities where there is a prima facie case of National Police and paramilitary responsibility or fatalities where the cause of death is unclear, and by classifying all victims with an FSLN or Sandinista Youth connection as victims of the opposition when, as has already been shown in the case of the GIEI investigation, the cause of death was unknown or could even have been due to pro-government forces.
CVJP omits cause of death of individual fatalities
The CVJP’s likewise does not give a figure for deaths accruing to the two sides in the conflict. Its Third Report classifies fatalities by region, age, circumstance, time of death and occupation, with its category of deaths “as a consequence of the tranques” allowing pro-government and opposition fatalities to be counted together. Deaths “as a consequence of the tranques” account for 140 of the CVJP’s list of 253 fatalities.
But how, most importantly, did these deaths happen? Even if Perry and Sefton’s figure of 60 Sandinista deaths is accepted and added to the 23 National Police deaths, that leaves between 168 and 245 unattributed fatalities for the April 19-July 17 period (251-83 using CVJP numbers and 328-83 using MESENI numbers).
The CVJP’s “Confirmed and Verified List of 251 Fatalities” in Annex 2 of its Fourth Report does not specify cause of death for each fatality, even though its Third Report reported that the ILM had found that 102 out of 109 victims had been killed by firearm wounds to the thorax, head and throat. The MESENI list of 355 (328 to July 17) gives the type and location of the fatal injury for each victim: for the total of 249 firearm victims, 107 were shot in the thorax, ten in the neck, 82 in the cranium, two in the eye, two in a limb, five in the body, while 41 did not specify a location.
Of these 249 firearms victims, nineteen were police officers. Even if we assume that all 60 of the Sandinista supporter fatalities cited by Perry and Sefton were due to firearms, that leaves 170 firearms victims still to be accounted for, 68% of the total.
Moreover, 201 victims died from shots to the head (including eyes), neck and thorax, the locations at which, according to Solís, the snipers were aiming. 19 police officers died from such wounds. Even on the extremely unrealistic assumption that all 60 Sandinista supporters also died in this way, we are left with the 122 deaths caused by gunshots to these locations.
As already noted, the CVJP had access to the coronial reports of the ILM and stated in its Third Report that it had found that 102 of 109 victims had died from gunshot wounds to the head, neck and thorax. An unanswered question, then, is why none of the versions of its official list of fatalities includes the cause of death with each individual case.
Was the Nicaraguan government falsely accused?
Sefton and Perry summarise the case against the GIEI’s work in these words:
[T]he IACHR, its parent body the Organisation of American States and its subsidiary body the GIEI have all falsely accused Nicaragua's government by
∙ basing their accusations almost exclusively on reports and testimony from supporters and members of Nicaragua's US -government funded political opposition and their associated organisations and media
∙ systematically failing to secure genuinely independent corroboration of those accusations
∙ negligently failing to investigate credible reports and testimony contradicting those false accusations
∙ deliberately suppressing evidence presented by the Nicaraguan authorities contradicting those false accusations
∙ evading their duty to explain why they discount or dismiss competing rival versions of the events on which they are reporting.
The accusation underlying all five points made here is that the GIEI had access, or could have had access, to information that would have disproved or strongly qualified its case against the Nicaraguan government, yet deliberately chose not to pursue lines of investigation that would have undermined its preferred interpretation of events.
However, no evidence for this accusation is given except that offered in the three articles on the deaths at the March of the Mothers. No other “credible reports and testimony” that the GIEI failed to investigate, no other “evidence presented by the Nicaraguan authorities” that it deliberately suppressed, are cited.
Perry and Sefton also make no reference to the lack of collaboration and obstruction the GIEI experienced at the hands of the Nicaraguan institutions, to the point of being prevented from attending trials. Readers doubtful about the GIEI’s efforts to obtain evidence should read pages 28-34 of its report and ask themselves what information relevant to its brief (“to ensure the right to truth and to duly identify the persons responsible”) the GIEI failed to seek.
The accusation of the GIEI’s “basing their accusations almost exclusively on reports and testimony from members of Nicaragua’s US-government funded political opposition” omits a key aspect of its approach, which was to interview survivors of the conflict and family members of victims, within Nicaragua and in exile (see “Methodology”, page 40). The GIEI also
invited several organs of the State of Nicaragua to an informative meeting in order to present the contents that would be included in the process of consultation with victims and their families, as well as with civil society. However, the State did not respond to this invitation or attend the meeting (page 299)
The GIEI analysed a large number of documents, including videos, photographs, news articles and material from social media, many of which were by participants in the protests. If one considers only audio-visual material, more than ten thousand archives were reviewed and analysed, which posed methodological challenges and led to the incorporation of new innovative tools of investigation and specialists in the subject.
The GIEI used due diligence in evaluating the credibility and trustworthiness of these sources, compared the information gathered to confirm its legitimacy, including by juxtaposing it with official information that it obtained from various sources (page 41).
As already noted, the GIEI investigated 109 deaths and wrote a summary of its conclusions regarding each fatality (pages 366-420). In their accusation Sefton and Perry do not contest any of these accounts apart from those regarding five of the eight deaths after the March of the Mothers.
As for the GIEI’s “systematically failing to secure genuinely independent corroboration”, the question posed is where in the polarised context produced by the conflict such independent corroboration was—and still is—to be found. Having ruled out any US-funded organisation such as, for example, the CENIDH, it is hard to envisage what sources of objective corroboration Sefton and Perry are referring to. That is, given that CENIDH and media like Confidential are viewed as contaminated as providers of objective corroboration, what sources supportive of neither government nor opposition did the GIEI ignore?
As for GIEI supposedly failing in its duty to “explain why they discount or dismiss competing rival versions” of events, this is not the case regarding the causes of each fatality and moment of violence where rival versions existed. Indeed, where it was convinced that it had sufficient evidence, the GIEI’s explicitly contested the official version of events (as, for example, in the National Police version of the deaths at the March of the Mothers and the official attribution of the expansion of the protests on April 19 to a false death report). In each case where there was a conflict between a family and National Police version of a cause of death, the GIEI asked the Nicaraguan authorities, usually the National Police, to provide relevant information supporting their account, which was never forthcoming.
The GIEI also questioned the Nicaraguan courts’ verdicts in the seven trials that were held covering fatalities in the April 19-May 30 period (see pages 237-285 of the report). Here is its conclusion as to the validity in law of the Nicaraguan legal system’s version of the events:
The examination of judicial files obtained by the GIEI from unofficial sources has led to the conclusion that criminal law has been misused in processes of criminalisation of protesters, where the congruence between the facts and the alleged crimes is non-existent. Moreover, the State has illegitimately applied the crimes of terrorism and organised crime, among others, to prosecute and punish legitimate acts of opposition against the government in a democratic society. All these criminal processes are plagued with serious violations of personal liberty, including arbitrary detentions, the excessive use of pre-trial detention, without the necessary reasoning, and non-compliance with the terms for judicial review of the legality of deprivations of liberty. The rights to an adequate defence and to public hearings and trials have also been violated, including cases in which the defendants were not assisted by legal counsel during crucial hearings. Finally, the writ of habeas corpus (or personal exhibition appeal) has been absolutely ineffective (page 282).
The only specific event cited by Stephen Sefton as an example of the GIEI’s discounting and dismissing a competing version of an event regards the deaths after the March of the Mothers. He asks why these could not have been the result of an operation done by the opposition to incriminate the Ortega-Murillo government, along the lines of the 2014 sniper killings in Kiev’s Maidan Square. Many hold this to have been a successful false flag operation carried out against the pro-Russian Ukrainian government of Viktor Yanukovich (a BBC radio documentary on the event is available here).
The obvious reply to this accusation is that the GIEI saw nothing in the evidence it had at hand to warrant such a prima facie interpretation of the events of May 30, 2018, especially given that its requests for information from the National Police were met with silence. Moreover, at the time of its investigations Nicaraguan pro-government media only attributed the deaths to “well-armed, hooded delinquents” attacking people who had attended the cantata for Nicaraguan mothers, while only Italian correspondent Giorgio Trucchi raised the possibility of its being a planned operation to incriminate the government. As far as I have been able to establish, the first Nicaraguan interpretation of the fatalities as the result of a false flag operation—although the term itself isn’t used—was the July 2019 Juventud Presidente video on the March of the Mothers, 30 de Mayo en Nicaragua - ¿Un plan para sumar? As already explained, its only addition to the evidence originally consulted by the GIEI is the inconclusive security camera footage from the Denis Martínez National Stadium.
Questions truly seeking answers?
The Open Letter sent to IACHR, GIEI members, EAAF and SITU contains fifteen questions aimed at exposing their audio-visual reconstruction of three deaths at the March of the Mothers as biased, and as involving deliberate suppression of relevant material.
Without going through these questions one by one—which would involve repeating what has already been written here—they fall into six categories.
1. Three questions are based on the false assertion that the video documentary claims that “the opposition protesters were unarmed and peaceful”. The video in fact shows (see minute 2.40) opposition protesters armed with home-made mortars behind the barricade at which the three victims were shot. It adds that these mortars have a range of around 60 metres and are rarely lethal. In addition, the GIEI report deals with the issue of armed opposition protesters, as already noted (see page 163).
2. Four questions regard the GIEI’s view on questions not shown in the video or mentioned in its commentary, but which could have been located in its original report and supporting video material (examples: the wounding of police, police using firearms, oppositionists bearing firearms and the version of the May 30 event given in pro-government media).
3. Three questions imply answers that, irrespective of content, would be irrelevant to the purpose of the video, which was to establish the most likely cause of death of the three victims who could be identified in video footage and photographs taken on the day (examples: the fact that people behind the barricade were also shooting and some were possibly using firearms and not just home-made mortars, the fact that there had been a clash between oppositionists and police in the area two days previously, and the fact that clashes were also taking place on the other side of the stadium).
4. Four questions allege contradictions between the Knox Associates ballistics report and the video and its commentary.
5. One question implies deliberate omission of a plausible alternative explanation of the deaths (“a false flag attack similar to that at Puente Llaguno in Caracas during the failed coup attack in Venezuela in 2002”).
6. One question insinuates that corporate funding of SITU and EAAF “suggest a strong ideological component in the production of this video”.
The motivation for this public interrogation of the IACHR, GIEI, SITU Research and EAAF is not that of seeking clarifications and allaying doubts—that purpose would have been best served via correspondence specifying points of concern that were not settled by the GIEI’s report—but to use the alleged shortcomings of the GIEI-EAAF-SITU audio-visual reconstruction to discredit the GIEI’s work as a whole, especially given that it would be safe to assume most people on the left have not read its 500-page report.
Hence the form of the Open Letter, its salvo of accusatory questions followed by a list of endorsing signatories to lend it authority. Its real target is not the addressees but the left which is troubled by the actions of the Ortega-Murillo government.
In his article Perry concludes that:
In this confusing conflict, the evidence of what happened is far from clear and certainly does not support the GIEI conclusion that this was an “arbitrary and disproportionate use of force” on the part of the government (link in original).
This statement gives the impression that the GIEI’s conclusion regarding the Nicaraguan government’s “arbitrary and disproportionate use of force” depends critically on its account of the violence after the March of the Mothers, when it was in fact drawn on the basis of all its investigations of the period April 18-May 30. Even if the GIEI’s account of the violence at the March of the Mothers were found to be inadequate, invalidating its finding would require point-by-point rebuttal of the GIEI’s treatment of the bulk of the fatalities and acts of violence it studied—a task unaddressed by the Nicaraguan government and its supporters.
The role of social networks
The CVJP’s criticism, in its Third and Fourth Reports, of the GIEI report concentrates exclusively on the GIEI’s assessment that the overall impact of the intense social network activity during the critical moments of the conflict was basically positive, because it acted as a counter to official versions of events. The CVJP says that the GIEI report “renders invisible the misinformation, manipulation, hate, depreciation, incitement to violence, aspects that they didn’t only not address, but which they manifestly covered up.” The CVJP says it is the first to try to measure the level of pyscho-social trauma generated by the social networks in the months of the conflict.
It is the CVJP’s experience, together with the judgement of experts in the subject of communication it consulted and that support the conclusions of this Commission, that the social networks definitely played a fundamental role in organising demonstrations that encouraged destabilisation, violence and the committing of hate crimes and the overthrow of the government of the day (Fourth Report, page 134).
The reader, however, will look in vain in the CVJP’s analysis for more than one concrete example of these ills. In the Third Report (page 44), the only example given of intentionally perverse use of the social networks to spread fake news, is that of the false story of the death of a student at the Central American University (UCA), immediately denied and the impact of which was minimal, as already discussed. The rest of the report is a survey of the literature on the role of social networks and fake news campaigns in conflicts in other countries. The other Nicaraguan example given (page 38) is the hashtag #OcupaINSS, an imitation of #OccupyWallStreet which was used in the 2013 campaign to pressure the government to honour its promise to reintroduce a basic, non-contributory, pension.
The Fourth Report asserts that “social networks were an effective tool to increase the spiral of violence and hatred during the socio-political conflict of 2018”:
The negative news that was published in a permanent way with regard to cases of administration inefficiency, corruption, lack of transparency and biased investigations, imperceptibly began to undermine the trust of some sections of the population, despite the high level of popularity President Daniel Ortega’s leadership of his government enjoyed.
In addition to news in a negative tone, some of the cases we have experienced have involved the use of falsehoods related to conjunctural events. Specific groupings, making use of social networks whose pages, groups and fake profiles would broadcast images, videos or spread rumours that connected with the emotions and sentiments of citizens in a matter of seconds, triggered their involvement in a passionate but uninformed way (page 141).
What is the only example the Fourth Report gives of such a falsehood? Once again, it is the false news of the death of a student at UCA (page 142). Much more likely to have triggered the passionate involvement of citizens via social networks—and not in an uninformed way—was the correct news that fellow demonstrators were being shot.
Conclusion: time for an independent investigation
My present conviction, after reading all these attempts by supporters of the Ortega-Murillo administration to discredit the GIEI’s findings in the name of the “soft coup” hypothesis, is that they have succeeded only in making it more implausible.
This assessment is based on what has been demonstrated here: the repetition of the unsubstantiated claim that the protests were spread by a fake news report of a student death; the failure to even mention the impact of the decision to use live ammunition; and the absence of key pieces of evidence such as “Viper’s” statement that his confession about the opposition-criminal link in UPOLI was a pack of lies; the omission of the time of death of the first fatality after the May 30 March of the Mothers; and ex-Supreme Court judge Rafael Solís’s revelation that the vast majority of the coronial reports he consulted indicated a government policy of deliberate murder via sniper fire.
Add to these failings the gaps in the CVJP reports as to the cause of death of individual victims, the false claims that the GIEI suppressed evidence and did not consult pro-government sources and the failure to address any of the GIEI’s many specific findings. These include the refusal of hospitals to accept wounded protesters, the fact that in at least eleven of the 109 cases investigated the family of the deceased had to sign a waiver absolving the state from having to determine the causes of death, and the arbitrary detention of protesters and the blatant misuse of criminal law against them (“where the congruence between the facts and the alleged crimes is non-existent”).
In general, the absence of any detailed critique of the GIEI report—with its specific findings cited and contested with evidence—can only increase scepticism about the soft coup version of events: without such argumentation it increasingly takes on the character of a mantra.
To these disqualifying contradictions should be added the hyperbolic claims such as the one that the investigation represented “collaboration with a network of false human rights operators at the service of NATO”. The question arises as to why this observation applies to GIEI Nicaragua but not to other GIEIs, such as the research into the disappearance of the Mexican students and GIEI Bolivia’s investigation into the violence of September-December 2019 following a real, verified, coup (against former president Evo Morales). Bolivian president Luis Arce has undertaken to fully implement the recommendations of the GIEI Bolivia report [in English], which was also initiated by the IACHR.
How to advance beyond the present point of entrenched conflict over what really happened in Nicaragua on and after April 18, 2018? The criticisms that each side makes of the other indicate a pressing need for independent investigation. John Perry says:
Fair-minded investigations of both violence by state actors and by demonstrators is critical to assessing accountability, but the investigations themselves appear to be so politicised as to undermine such an endeavour.
If the Ortega-Murillo government has nothing to hide, it would welcome—indeed propose—a depoliticised investigation, done by experts agreed by both sides to be of an unimpeachable objectivity. That would offer the Nicaraguan authorities an invaluable opportunity to expose the GIEI’s alleged bias and misdemeanours.
Would Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo allow such an investigation? It would be very good to be proven wrong, but my instinct tells me that there is as much chance of that happening as of Stalin having allowed an independent review of the Moscow Trials.
As Nicaraguan sociologist and former FSLN member Silvio Prado told Spanish public television in June 2018: “We are facing a regime that believes that social protest is a military conflict. Ergo, they look on those who are protesting as their military enemies, and they look to repress them with all possible means.”
Dick Nichols is European correspondent of Green Left and Links—International Journal of Socialist Renewal. This article is written in a personal capacity.