A former top police official in Nicaragua says civilian squads that brutally repressed anti-government protesters were composed of police officers under the command of the government, raising questions about the viability of the country’s security apparatus.
Former First Police Commissioner Francisco Díaz told the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet that so-called parapolice groups were not just civilian pro-government sympathizers, but an organized force operating within the national police. The squads had a central command and were directed by the governing Sandinista National Liberation Front (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional – FSLN), including Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, Confidencial reported.
These forces were a “parallel army” created by Ortega and formed by regular police officers who operated undercover, which violates Nicaraguan law and the Central American nation’s constitution, according to Díaz.
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What’s more, Ortega also allegedly ordered experienced criminal investigators within the police to hunt down and “eliminate” opposition leaders, according to another former police officer who served on the force for 20 years and is now exiled in Mexico, Confidencial reported separately.
The order was reportedly clear: officers were to infiltrate protests and identify potential opposition leaders whose names, addresses and movements were to be recorded. This information was delivered to police chiefs and then passed on to the national police’s intelligence directorate, which formed “commandos” responsible for hunting down these individuals, according to the exiled police officer.
(Video c/o Confidencial)
Protesters took to the streets in mid-April against Ortega over social security reforms and other concerns that had been boiling for years. The demonstrations erupted into a full-blown crisis and opposition members were violently repressed. Hundreds were killed and thousands more were disappeared, largely at the hands of armed government-backed parapolice groups.
InSight Crime Analysis
The direct involvement of a head of state in ordering and approving the murders of targeted protesters is reminiscent of the darkest days of Central American authoritarianism. While InSight Crime has not independently verified the claims made by Díaz, they are in line with numerous accounts from protesters who have fled the country.
Last August, the United Nations called on Ortega to halt the "persecution of protesters." Such warnings appear to have gone unheeded by Ortega and Rosario Murillo, his wife and Nicaragua's vice president. This year Nicaragua passed a "Law of National Reconciliation." But it appears to be little more than a smokescreen to protect those responsible for the violence, as it provides no channel for victims to speak out and makes no plans to investigate what happened, according to a number of domestic and international human rights groups.
The confirmation that parapolice groups acted as an illegal force under orders from the government casts severe doubt on the integrity and viability of Nicaragua's security forces, especially in taking on transnational organized crime.
As InSight Crime previously reported, there was little doubt about who was predominantly responsible for Nicaragua’s bloodshed. Several police officers were indeed killed during the unrest. But scenes like the 15-hour assault carried out by heavily armed parapolice on a church in July 2018 -- an attack that killed 10 people and injured many others -- made the co-opting of police abundantly clear.
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Nicaragua’s national police had in the past been one of the more trusted security forces in Latin America. However, members of the force have come under fire for committing severe human rights abuses and allegedly colluding with international drug traffickers in recent years.
Despite claims that cartels have been kept out of the country, past cases show that sophisticated drug traffickers do in fact operate there, utilizing the Caribbean coast to traffic cocaine.
The confirmation of the police's criminal role during the recent repression combined with a known history of their collaborating with traffickers suggests that criminals could easily capitalize on the country's unrest, putting in doubt its future security.