Armed "parapolice" groups have played a central role in the violent repression of opposition protesters in Nicaragua over the past several weeks, but it remains to be seen if these groups will evolve from political shock troops into criminal organizations engaged in activities like extortion and kidnapping.
Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets in Nicaragua in recent weeks to protest the government of President Daniel Ortega, which has responded to the demonstrations with deadly force.
In addition to state security forces, armed, pro-government groups described as "parapolice" have been implicated in the deaths of at least 150 and possibly more than 200 people since the start of the unrest, according to local non-governmental organizations.
Several police officers, pro-government activists and other citizens have also been killed during the unrest.
A police source told the investigative Nicaraguan news website Confidencial that these parapolice groups are made up of local gang members, plainclothes police officers and members of a pro-government organization known as the Sandinista Youth. The source said the government pays parapolice members between 300 and 500 córdobas (around $10 to $15) for a day's work.
Images of these groups show them wearing masks to cover their faces while entering communities in teams, usually armed with what appear to be small firearms and other weapons, though some appear to be using higher-caliber guns.
Opposition activists and independent researchers have accused the government of condoning and even aiding the brutality attributed to the parapolice -- including possible extrajudicial executions. The use of these groups makes it harder to attribute human rights abuses to state security forces, and also allows Ortega to distance himself in order to evade sanctions for human rights abuses.
Astrid Valencia, a researcher for Amnesty International who worked on a recent report about the violence in Nicaragua, told InSight Crime that the trajectory of the bullets and the location of the wounds in high-impact areas like the head, neck and chest suggest many victims were extrajudicially killed by police snipers and parapolice groups.
In addition to the killings, parapolice groups have also been accused of committing targeted kidnappings, robbing journalists, setting fire to a house that killed seven people including two children, as well as vandalism and looting of commercial establishments in order to discredit the opposition, at times in coordination with the national police.
InSight Crime Analysis
The parapolice groups utilized by the Nicaraguan government have undoubtedly shown their propensity for violence, and it’s possible that the current unrest could allow them to hone their criminal skills and delve further into other illicit activities like extortion and kidnapping.
The parapolice are already engaged in theft and kidnapping for political purposes, and it wouldn’t be much of a stretch for them to consider exploiting their experience with these activities for personal profit. Both kidnapping and extortion are lucrative illicit businesses elsewhere in the Americas.
This is not the first time that parapolice groups have been used by the government to quell the opposition, and no concrete evidence has yet emerged suggesting that these groups have branched out from political repression into purely criminal activities.
But President Ortega’s tight grip on power and his regime’s extreme lack of transparency has made it difficult to assess levels of criminality and whether or not parapolice groups may also be playing a role in other criminal activities.
Nicaragua national security expert Roberto Orozco told InSight Crime that the country’s parapolice groups “will be difficult to dismantle” because they are self-sufficient and “completely armed to the teeth with weapons provided to them by the state.”
Past rates of crime and victimization in Nicaragua have been very low in comparison to other countries throughout the region. But these rates have started to accelerate and increase as a result of the political crisis, and Orozco warns that this dynamic could have severe consequences for the generally low levels of crime and violence that Nicaragua has enjoyed in the past.
“These weapons will not be returned after the repression is over, and the increase in the number of these individuals with weapons in their possession could create a situation of greater insecurity with high levels of extortion, homicides and other crimes,” he said.
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The criminal development of similar pro-government groups in Venezuela offers a cautionary tale of what could happen over time to Nicaragua’s parapolice if the current unrest deepens.
According to David Smilde, a Venezuela expert at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), it is “highly likely over time, without continual monitoring and intervention,” that pro-government groups that are armed and organized will get involved in crime.
Indeed, pro-government groups in Venezuela known as colectivos were organized and supported -- including with weapons -- by the late President Hugo Chávez in the 2000s largely to help defend his government against attempts to unseat him.
Over time, however, the government's inadequate oversight of the colectivos allowed them to become stronger and more criminalized, engaging in illicit activities like extortion and small-scale drug dealing. In addition, they continue to aid state forces in controversial security operations and anti-opposition activities.
“The decentralized control of such groups is going to eventually breed an overlap with crime,” Smilde said.
While Nicaragua does not yet resemble a “mafia state” like Venezuela, the ongoing instability in the Central American nation has concerning implications for the future of its criminal landscape.