Nicaragua’s military chief has denied the presence of paramilitary groups in the embattled country, becoming the latest Central American country to do so despite clear evidence of their involvement in human rights abuses.
Speaking at an event to mark the 40th anniversary of the army’s foundation, Army Commander Julio César Avilés claimed there was no evidence of any paramilitary activity in Nicaragua, El Nuevo Diario reported.
“Under no circumstances do we accept the term paramilitary forces,” he said during the press conference, adding that the military had fallen victim to a smear campaign.
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His comments mark the first time that the army has discussed the issue of paramilitary presence in the country, according to Confidencial, after facing mounting criticism about the role of armed civilian groups in repressing anti-government protests following the outbreak of political unrest in April 2018.
However, the United Nations and other international organizations have documented and denounced the participation of pro-government armed groups in the repression of protests. These armed battalions have been implicated in the deaths of at least 150 people since the start of political unrest, according to EFE.
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The Nicaraguan military's efforts to distance itself from paramilitary activity is a sign of the army's continuing allegiance to the Ortega regime. For the embattled president, support from the military and pro-government armed groups is essential for fending off the civilian uprisings which threaten his grasp on power.
With Avilés' announcement, Nicaragua has become the latest Central American country to deny atrocities committed by paramilitary groups.
Guatemala, similarly to Nicaragua, has not faced up to its paramilitary death squads. A proven leader of one of these outfits, Kamilo Rivera, was until last year the country’s deputy interior minister. During Guatemala’s 36-year civil war between 1960 and 1996, the military created civilian militia groups known as Civil Defense Patrols (Patrullas de Autodefensa Civil – PAC), which were responsible for the majority of an estimated 20,000 deaths and disappearances during the conflict, as well as over one million displaced Guatemalans.
Neighboring El Salvador has also been reluctant to investigate allegations that senior officers of its national police created criminal networks engaging in extrajudicial killings, sexual assault and extortion.
In Honduras, the former national police director, Juan Carlos “El Tigre” Bonilla, allegedly linked to death squads, has not been found guilty of any crimes.
Throughout the region, governments on both sides of the political spectrum have used paramilitaries as a means of repressing and intimidating armed or civilian groups which challenge their authority. In other cases, paramilitary death squads have mutated out of state security forces and facilitated the killing of Central American gang members.
In Nicaragua, bands of hooded paramilitaries have allegedly been raiding towns, firing on unarmed protesters, burning homes and kidnapping opponents. The squads have additionally been accused of using military-grade weapons to attack protestors, alongside committing extrajudicial killings, kidnappings and callous forms of torture.