President Daniel Ortega’s conciliatory moves in late April and May had raised hopes that tensions in Nicaragua would simmer down.
Following several days of violent protests that began on April 18, Ortega called for the establishment of a roundtable dialogue to be mediated by Catholic bishops, a move initially accepted by the business sector and other opposition forces.
Ortega also withdrew his social security reforms, the initial trigger for the protests.
From April 23 onwards, police forces were ordered off the streets and confined to their barracks in response to fake media accounts of police involvement in the “massacring” of students.
However, the government’s conciliatory policy has been met with an unprecedented escalation of violence.
Armed gangs have destroyed the premises of several ministries in the city of Leon. The Radio Yapublic radio station has been torched, as well as two other independent radio stations. The iconic Craft Market of Masaya was also burnt down.
Scores of municipal offices and police stations have been attacked, and armed gangs have threatened health workers and hijacked and destroyed ambulances. A number of of people have died as a result of ambulances being prevented from getting to victims or to hospitals.
Around the country, more than 100 small businesses and supermarkets have been looted and 23 schools have been ransacked or destroyed.
Roadblocks maintained by armed youth have paralysed the country.
From an estimated 20-30 dead and 200 injured at the end of April (a majority of the injured being police officers), the number of casualties has soared to more than 110 dead and 1100 injured since the police withdrawal. The majority of casualties have been supporters of Ortega’s Sandinista government.
Meanwhile, dialogue has stalled since mid May, with the opposition blaming “Sandinista violence” for the talks’ failure.
Initially, the bishops sought to revise the terms of the dialogue by imposing stringent conditions on the government, all of which were met.
This was followed by a period of confusion over who would represent the opposition. Nicaragua’s main business federation, COSEP, has split over the question of dialogue, with some members deciding to withdraw while others continued with the dialogue at the same time as imposing more preconditions on the government.
The bishops have divided along similar lines.
While the opposition and foreign media blame the government for the violence, the excesses of the armed gangs, in many cases paid by the opposition, is making it increasingly difficult to maintain this line.
News outlets, such as Reuters, have begun publishing photos of demonstrators carrying homemade mortars, handguns and assault rifles as it becomes more dangerous for journalists to approach roadblocks.
A long-time English resident in Nicaragua who runs an adult education and music school in Estelí summed up the situation that many Nicaraguans are facing: “Family after family have come forward denouncing opposition media lies and manipulation of their loved one's deaths.
“The opposition media film attacks by their gangs and then publish that material as if it were attacks by Sandinistas; they fake non-existent attacks against themselves; they film fake footage of interviews with ‘peaceful protesters’ at roadblocks when almost all the roadblocks are operated by criminal gangs, often masked and always with arms of one kind or another to intimidate people.
“Here in Estelí, at night-time the armed opposition thugs openly patrol the Central Park because the police have been told to stay in their stations. Insecurity is the order of the day.
“We sleep three or four hours a night because we are alert and prepared for attacks from the opposition gangs who have attacked and burnt or ransacked 23 schools across the country.
“Eventually, [Ortega] will order the police to impose order, but everyone is getting very worn down while we wait for that to happen.”
[Warwick Fry is a long-time Latin America solidarity activist and regular Green Left Weekly contributer. He is currently based in San Salvador, El Salvador.]