“The girl went out to buy something and never came back,” says Elba, a human rights defender who has dealt with several cases of disappearances of minors that come to the Red de Mujeres del Norte Ana Lucila, a community organization based in Estelí and neighboring departments.
Almost all the complaints that reach the Network begin like this, the defender explains to DIVERGENTES. Girls or adolescents who went to grocery stores and did not return. They went to school, but did not return home at the end of the day, or they went out to run errands and did not arrive at their destination.
The parents go to the Network because the National Police told them they had to wait three days for the girls to be reported missing.
They are not given an answer to their complaint or the agents suggest that their daughters “ran away with some man”, even if the disappearance is of a minor under 12 years of age.
Red de Mujeres del Norte registered 54 reports of disappearance in 2021 and 30 until mid-2022. In 2023 they did not have the resources to continue documenting cases.
Insensitive police with families’ distress
One of the many cases that occurred in 2023 was of a 13-year-old girl in a department in the north of the country, which the family prefers not to specify for safety. People in the community said that “a man had stolen her,” so the family filed a complaint.
However, the agents told the family that “it had been the girl’s decision to leave with her boyfriend”, totally ignoring the crime and the minor’s age.
According to articles 168 and 170 of the Penal Code, actions against the sexual freedom and integrity of girls and adolescents are established as crimes, being considered rape when they are under 14 years old and statutory rape when they are under 16 years old.
After the family’s persistence, the police finally filed a report, but reluctantly, Elba adds.
Finally, it was the family itself that found the girl’s whereabouts, almost three weeks after the disappearance. The police did not carry out investigations or capture the man accused of having kidnapped her, despite the fact that the parents alerted the agents where the child was possibly located.
“Police responses are very slow. Their protocol for dealing with disappearances takes too long, because they have to wait 72 hours for the families to formally report the disappearance. Then, a file is created to start the investigation and almost the entire process of evidence is requested from the families. There is no preparation or sensitivity to attend these cases with the urgency they deserve”, says Elba.
Families are the ones who look for their girls due to the lack of police interest
Almost always it is the parents who do all the investigation and mobilization work to find the minors, due to the lack of police action, said the defender.
One of the main problems of the police is that they are not trained in the use of digital tools such as social network investigations. Many of the aggressors contact minors through Facebook and other platforms. Through these messages, it is possible to identify who the captors are and where they can be found.
“The Police do not know how to do this type of investigation and it is up to the family to do all that process of searching for messages, conversations, investigating profiles and bringing the evidence. This is a very tiring situation and a very revictimizing process, since the families are the ones who are in charge of the process to find the whereabouts of the minors,” explains Elba.
Families with resources have advantages
Under these circumstances, families with greater resources, not only economic, but also in terms of mobilization, contact networks and information, are the most likely to find their children.
It is to the less privileged families that the Network supports, but, with the persecution and massive closure of civil organizations unleashed by the Ortega and Murillo regime, the Red de Mujeres del Norte has diminished its support for the mothers and fathers of families who come to ask for help.
“Mothers feel very lonely making the complaint process because the police do not allow them to go to women defenders. They come to us for guidance and we provide virtual and emotional counseling, since it is not possible to do so in person to avoid exposing them and us,” says Elba.
“This complicates the situation of vulnerability of women and girls because they are exposed to institutions that do not respond to their situations and increases male violence in the country due to impunity,” she adds.
Grupo Venancia, located in Matagalpa, has shared more than 46 cases in 2023 through its social media networks of reports made to the media or families, to which they are responsible for giving greater visibility.
Most of the reports are about minors, between 12 and 17, from different departments of the country. “Being a woman and being a minor are factors that make you vulnerable to a disappearance,” says Reyna, one of the Venancias, as people in the community call their members.
Social media are crucial in locating minors
Given the lack of institutional response, social media has been a fundamental tool to ask people for help, either to find the minors or the aggressors.
“There have been more reports on social networks. On the one hand, it is an increase in disappearances, and on the other, it is because people are deciding to make the cases more and more public,” Reyna explains.
The warning that there is an increase in disappearances is not specific to 2023, but to the last three years, the defenders point out. The total lack of protection that the State has maintained since 2018, the disappearance of women’s organizations, the increase in aggressors’ impunity, and the massive release of common prisoners, are some of the reasons for this increase, according to the defenders.
At least until 2022, some civil organizations maintained documentation and could follow up on the situation of disappearances. Currently, there is total silence about these tragedies and the State does not keep records either.
“The police have never kept a record of reports of disappearances, just as with any other type of crime against women. We women’s organizations can no longer keep records. We really have no idea how many girls and women disappear every day in this country. I don’t think we want to know either,” warns Reyna.
Human trafficking, a problem ignored by the regime
Another reason behind the disappearances is human trafficking in the country. The US State Department’s 2023 report on human trafficking in Nicaragua noted that Nicaragua “does not fully comply with minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, and is not making significant efforts to do so.”
According to the State Department, the Ortega-Murillo regime downplays the severity of the human trafficking problem in Nicaragua through unreliable reporting.
No shelters have been provided, no funds are allocated for specialized victim services, or negligible efforts are made to address the problem.
“The government reported no investigations, prosecutions or convictions of government employees complicit in trafficking crimes, despite endemic corruption and widespread official complicity,” the report highlights.
The latest official data from the Ortega-Murillo regime on human trafficking is a 2022 report from the Judiciary’s Technical Secretary for Gender. This reflects that between 2019 and 2020, 30 cases were investigated for the crime of trafficking, of which 70% corresponded to women and girls, and 30% of the victims were children.
According to the regime, 73 victims were rescued in that period: 13 were men and 60 were women. Ten were children, 28 adolescents and 35 adults, and 20 persons were arrested. There is no updated data from 2020. However, the U.S. State Department questions the veracity of these numbers.
Validity of regime data questioned
“Observers questioned the validity of government reports on human trafficking, including law enforcement statistics; some alleged that the government intentionally obscured or misclassified trafficking cases in order to minimize the statistics,” it states.
The migration crisis that Nicaragua faces, which has worsened since 2021, is a factor that has likely boosted trafficking and may explain the increase in disappearances in recent years, according to the defenders.
These cases are much more difficult for families, says Elba of Red de Mujeres del Norte. “When there is trafficking, it is much more complex because it is the families who set out to activate search networks in their neighborhoods and communities, to generate alerts and notices on social media,” she says.
“It is the families who have to go around asking for their daughters, while waiting for the police to do something. It is very revictimizing, because most of the time police reports end up as just another case,” she regrets.