Five years of the police state in Nicaragua, where free thought became a crime

On September 28, 2018, the regime of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo declared all protests illegal. Since then, a police state has been imposed that has extended against its own Sandinista sympathizers, critical posts on social media and the Catholic Church. “The dictatorship has removed its mask,” says human rights defender Pablo Cuevas, on the crimes and the suspension of citizens’ rights that the regime has committed since then. “All this control is explained by the fear they have of another rebellion,” says human rights specialist Uriel Pineda

  On August 19, a video was released showing some people burning a flag of the Sandinista Front party, at the Centroamérica highway crossing in Managua, a key point in the capital. The video lasts only 25 seconds and is filmed from a distance. Minutes later, a group of unidentified university students claimed responsibility for the protest against the confiscation of the private universities, Universidad Centroamericana (UCA) and Universidad Juan Pablo II, where they were allegedly studied. 

The scene portrays the only way in which citizens can express their discontent in Nicaragua: quickly, in complete anonymity and without prior notice. Demands have been made in this way for five years, on September 28, 2018, when the Ortega-Murillo regime declared all protests illegal and imposed a police state in the country. 

Five years after banning physical demonstrations through a Police memo, citizens have seen how even virtual spaces have been censored: criticism against the Ortega-Murillo regime on social media is punishable by imprisonment and banishment. The last report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) pointed out that there is “a paralyzing effect on Nicaraguan society”, because “anyone who criticizes the government is punished”.

After Ortega imposed a state of emergency, in which he does not allow any space for the opposition without detentions, threats, siege and harassment, he prepared a series of legal locks that allowed him to perpetuate himself in power. 

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Between November 2020 and February 2021, he approved a triad of repressive laws: Foreign Agents, Cybercrimes and Sovereignty. In addition, he made some reforms to Law 1060, of the Criminal Procedural Code, which extended the detention period for those imprisoned, which was 48 hours and now is, “not less than 15 days and not more than 90 days”. 

The Foreign Agents Law created a legal framework to declare any citizen critical of the country as a “traitor to the homeland”, while the Cybercrime Law has been used to capture and prosecute opponents for expressing their opinions on social media. One of the most emblematic cases was that of sports journalist Miguel Mendoza, who was sentenced to nine years in prison for allegedly committing “conspiracy to undermine national integrity”. In his trial, more than 30 publications in social networks (Twitter and Facebook) that “caused anxiety” were presented as evidence. Mendoza was finally released in February of this year, after more than 600 days in jail for exercising his right to freedom of expression.

The executive director of the Nicaraguan Human Rights Defense Office (Dndh), Pablo Cuevas, considers that in Nicaragua exists “a police state of terror which is not only aimed at opponents, but also at sympathizers of the Sandinista Front, government officials and state workers”. 

Cuevas is one of the victims of the Ortega-Murillo regime. In March 2022, the veteran human rights defender fled Nicaragua with his family due to threats from Sandinista operatives. After a 40-day journey through Central America and Mexico, they arrived irregularly in the United States, where they currently live. There, Cuevas collaborated in the founding of the new human rights organization. As an act of retaliation, the regime included him on a list of 94 people, stripping them of their Nicaraguan nationality and confiscating their assets.

“The dictatorship removed its mask in 2018,” says Cuevas. He explains that before the rebellion, the regime tried to silence critics through economic blackmail, threats and even death, but underhandedly. “”It would seem that in Nicaragua there is a state of emergency, with which all rights were suspended,” says Cuevas.

Five years of the police state in Nicaragua, where free thought became a crime
This is the press release of the National Police, with which it declared protests illegal. Taken from the National Police website.

In the notice of September 28, 2018, the Police held responsible the people and organizations that “have called and are calling for these rallies and illegal public mobilizations for the alterations to public order, for the offensive and criminal actions, and for the aggressions that disrespect the right to work, security and the life of Nicaraguan families”. 

The prohibition came one day before a new civic protest march, called “March of rebellion, we have no president”, was called. The Police warned that “the organizers are responsible and will answer to justice for threats, criminal actions and aggressions that may occur during the development of these activities”. 

The last march in the country was on September 23, 2018, when paramilitaries shot – according to photographs and witness accounts – at demonstrators and caused the death of Matt Romero, a 16-year-old teenager who was participating in the march.

A sociologist and independent researcher said that since the Ortega-Murillo regime executed Operation Cleanup in June 2018, “it was determined to impose a police state on Nicaraguan society.” Operation Cleanup was an operation in which police combined with paramilitaries to dismantle roadblocks installed by protesters as a form of pressure. This action caused the death of dozens of citizens. 

Last September 11, Ortega acknowledged that in 2018 he ordered “Operation Cleanup”. “There was a moment when order had to be reestablished, peace had to be restored. The Police went and with the volunteer policemen, we dismantled the famous “tranques de la muerte (death roadblocks)”,” said the president.

In these five years of police state, the regime has carried out a series of outlandish acts with the goal of eliminating any kind of protest. In 2018 the blue and white colors were the symbols of the self-convened movement against the Ortega-Murillo. Then, the Police imprisoned citizens who carried them and persecuted some merchants who sold them. Videos were also shared in which police appeared to burst blue and white balloons that were thrown into the streets as an act of protest. 

Another of the most unusual repressive acts was against Santos Camilo Bellorín Lira, a farmer from the north of the country, sentenced to 11 years in prison for allegedly committing “cyber crimes”. Bellorín, a farmer who can barely read, had never had social media or owned a computer or smartphone. However, in the trial he was profiled as a “digital agitator”.

The researcher explains that police states are regimes that use state institutions and the Police to exercise a strong level of control over citizens. Precisely, one of the first actions taken by the regime, aimed at the imposition of the police state, was to prevent the right to mobilization of citizens and peaceful protest.

Oposición Nicaragua
In these five years of police state, the regime has carried out a series of outlandish acts with the goal of eliminating any type of protest, such as deflating blue and white balloons. Photo Archive

 “From then on, demonstrations and marches were restricted, first, by means of lethal violence with firearms, and then, with this decree of prohibiting marches and demonstrations,” he added. 

Uriel Pineda, a human rights specialist, was also included in the list of 94 Nicaraguans banished and confiscated by the dictatorship. Pineda considers that this prohibition of the right to protest has elements to be considered a crime against humanity, “since there is a police state that represses any demonstration”. 

The expert says that if a person has been imprisoned for participating in a demonstration, “we are in the presence of elements to accredit it as a crime against humanity for the persecution and imprisonment of opponents”.

Pineda points out that the increase in repression is explained “by the fear that the Ortega-Murillo regime has of a new social outburst like the one in 2018”.

State employees: “criticizing the government is the worst crime”

Five years of the police state in Nicaragua, where free thought became a crime
State workers accuse political secretaries in each institution of harassment. Photo: Archive

It is not only the opposition that has been victimized. Repression and espionage has worsened in recent years against their own Sandinista sympathizers. Two workers from public institutions, from the General Directorate of Customs (DGA) and the Judicial Branch, spoke to DIVERGENTES describing the harassment and surveillance that exists in their workplaces by the political secretaries in charge (each institution has an FSLN political secretary who carries out the party’s orders; on many occasions this operator has more power than the director of the institution themselves). 

The DGA worker says he is sure that his cell phone is bugged. “That’s why I don’t like sending messages on Whatsapp about politics or that mention the (Ortega-Murillo) family,” says the state worker.

 “I know of cases of people who are taken to jail for some post or some conversation in which they criticized the government,” he says, in an in-person interview to avoid using cell phones. “These cases are not reported because they are not opponents, but party sympathizers, and their families are afraid,” he continues. 

The public worker says that in Nicaragua “we live in a prison”. This man says that “you can commit any crime and the punishment is not as strong” as it is when you criticize the government. “To speak (criticize) or say anything against the (presidential) family is the worst crime you can commit,” he adds. 

The country for prison that state workers live in was reflected in an investigation by DIVERGENTES, which exposed several cases of public employees who were not allowed to leave the country. 

There is total control over their vacation requests and departures from the country. Once again, it is the political secretaries who are in charge of following the steps of public employees who have sensitive information and the “desire” to leave Nicaragua.

The blockade also extends against those “close to the government”. In November 2021, immigration authorities prevented the departure of Álvaro Baltodano Monroy, son of retired General Álvaro Baltodano Cantarero, Presidential Delegate for Investment Promotion. Another person prevented from leaving was Leonardo Torres, president of the Nicaraguan Council of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (Conimipyme), whose legal status was cancelled last year by the National Assembly.

On November 23 of the same year, Daniel Rosales, son of the deceased Supreme Court of Justice (CSJ) magistrate Francisco ‘Chicón’ Rosales, was sentenced to ” country imprisonment”. According to a Government source, he tried to travel to the United States, but was sent back home. Rosales claimed that he was traveling for medical reasons, but was denied departure.

The Judicial Branch worker says that “there is terror” among the same supporters because “espionage is everywhere”. This source assures that foreign intelligence agencies are collaborating in this espionage work, especially from Cuba and Russia, two of the international allies that support the Ortega-Murillo regime. 

During the ceremony of the 44th anniversary of the founding of the National Police of Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega confessed that the Secretary of State and deputy director of the federal troops of the Russian National Guard, Oleg Anatolyievich Plokhoi, is in Nicaragua “to better confront coup plotters, terrorists”, the nicknames used by the president to refer to opponents since the political crisis of 2018. “We are defending peace”, justified the dictator last September 11.

The Judiciary worker says that these intelligence agencies “are in charge of keeping informed” the party leadership about any insurrection movement, because they know that the level of discontent that currently exists is very high. “We Nicaraguans are being spied on by foreign agencies, our country is at those levels”, he points out.

Repression of religious freedom

Five years of the police state in Nicaragua, where free thought became a crime
Police surround the church of San Jeronimo in Masaya. EFE.

The outrages of the regime transcend the political sphere. In the last two years, the Catholic Church has been a target to be dismantled.

 A study titled “Nicaragua: a persecuted Church?”, prepared by Martha Patricia Molina, a specialist in religious issues, recorded 529 aggressions against the Church since 2018, the year the crisis broke out in the country. Only in the first three months of this year, 90 attacks were recorded. In addition, at least 85 religious have fled the country due to persecution, according to Molina, who documents these aggressions. 

Currently, the dictatorship holds eight priests as political prisoners, among them the bishop of Matagalpa, Rolando Álvarez, who was sentenced to 26 years in prison in a maximum security cell in the Jorge Navarro Penitentiary System, known as La Modelo.

 This prompted Pope Francis to say, in March of this year, that the couple in power in Nicaragua “has an imbalance” and it seems that they want to “install the communist dictatorship of 1917 or the Hitlerian dictatorship of 1935”. 

As part of this revenge, since August of this year, the regime has carried out an onslaught against the Jesuit order in Nicaragua. The dictatorship confiscated Central American University (UCA) because it allegedly “functioned as a center of terrorism”. A week later, it approved the cancellation of the legal status of the Jesuit order and ordered the confiscation of its real estate. 

However, the onslaught extends to church members. Catholic processions are prohibited in Nicaragua. For example, this year the processions of San Jerónimo, the patron saint of Masaya, will not take place either, by Police decision. Since 2018, this festivity has not been celebrated, first because of the political crisis; then because of the pandemic, and in the last two years because of the Sandinista regime’s decision not to grant permission for the religious manifestation to take place. 

Ortega justifies these attacks against the Church because the religious hierarchs led the “coup attempt” in 2018. In February of this year, the president said that the Catholic Church was an “organized mafia from the Vatican”, and two months later he called Nicaraguan priests “coup plotters”. 

The sociologist and researcher considers that the level of radicalization of the regime is expressed in this annulment of the right to manifest beliefs and express religious faith. ” Repression went from the political sphere to prevent any type of religious expression, which has nothing to do with politics, but with the beliefs of the people, of professing a religious creed,” he said.

The information we publish in DIVERGENTES comes from contrasted sources. Due to the situation in the region, many times, we are forced to protect them under pseudonymity or anonymity. Unfortunately, some governments in the region, including the Nicaraguan regime, do not provide information or censor independent media. For this reason, despite requesting it, we cannot rely on official, authorized versions. We resort to data analysis, anonymous internal sources, or limited information from the official media. These are the conditions under which we exercise a profession that, in many cases, costs us our safety and our lives. We will continue to report.