Political kidnappings carried out by pro-government paramilitary groups are going unreported by officials in Nicaragua, revealing another way President Daniel Ortega has masked insecurity and clamped down on his opposition.
Since widespread protests erupted in April 2018, politically motivated kidnappings have skyrocketed, according to figures from civil society and human rights groups. Government statistics, meanwhile, ignore this trend, according to local news organization La Lupa.
In past years, kidnappings in Nicaragua were relatively few and mostly carried out with the goal of extorting victims. The highest number of such kidnappings in the last five years came in 2017 with six cases. Five cases were recorded in 2013 and 2015, while 2016 saw just four, according to police data cited by La Lupa.
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But data collected by civil society and human rights groups over the past two years of unrest in Nicaragua shows kidnappings have spiked exponentially.
In one four month period last year, a report from the Political Prisoners Committee found that 10 political kidnappings were taking place every day, according to local media reports. Victims are often arbitrarily thrown into clandestine jails or, in the worst cases, later found dead.
Between April and September 2018 alone, the Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights (Asociación Nicaragüense Pro-Derechos Humanos – ANPDH) recorded at least 512 deaths and 1,428 kidnappings. It's unclear exactly how many more kidnappings have occurred since the report was released.
The advocacy group also noted the possible presence of clandestine graves.
InSight Crime Analysis
As InSight Crime warned in 2018, it appears that Nicaragua’s paramilitary groups have evolved from “political shock troops” violently repressing the opposition to criminal syndicates carrying out coordinated kidnappings at the orders of political elites. And the government appears to be hiding the scale of their criminality.
Nicaragua has long been considered much safer than its neighbors in Central America. Kidnappings were few and tended to be aimed at small-scale extortion. But today political kidnappings executed by groups of pro-government paramilitary forces armed with high-caliber weapons have become the norm, according to La Lupa’s interview with Nicaragua national security expert Elvira Cuadra.
“Paramilitary groups are one of the most serious threats to security in Nicaragua, especially since they have been encouraged by the government and enjoy impunity,” Cuadra told La Lupa. “That affects all citizens and makes them potential victims of these groups, either for political reasons or for common crimes.”
High-ranking members of the Nicaraguan military have denied the existence or presence of paramilitary groups, despite well-documented evidence of their role in everything from torture to forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings.
Though the number of recorded homicides in Nicaragua has decreased, violence aimed at the opposition continues unabated. Dissenters still face arrest or assault from pro-government activists.
The ongoing abuses carried out by paramilitary groups and the government itself suggests that the country's security situation is dire, even if a product of its own making.