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Violence in Nicaragua: Government Militias Kill Hundreds as Opposition Calls for Daniel Ortega to Resign

After months of violent protests and at least 300 deaths, members of the international community are calling for dialogue in Nicaragua.

On Tuesday, pro-government forces streamed into the streets of the southern city of Masaya and began shooting at opposition members. The onslaught took place just one day after United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged the government of Nicaragua to stop using lethal force against its own people.

“It’s evident that there is a shocking number of deaths and a lethal use of force by entities tied to the state that is unacceptable,” Guterres said during a press conference from Costa Rica Monday. “It’s essential to immediately halt the violence and rebuild national political dialogue. Only a political solution is acceptable,” he added.

Hundreds of protesters also took to the streets in Nicaragua’s capital Managua Monday after 12 people were killed by government forces over the weekend.

The violence in Nicaragua began in April after President Daniel Ortega, a former Marxist guerilla, tried to cut pension benefits. The protests were so widespread that Ortega’s government dropped the plan, but only after significant violence had occurred, engendering further protests. Students and young people have played a central role in the protests, setting up roadblocks and calling for an end to authoritarian rule.

The ongoing violence has since led to hundreds of deaths over the past few months as pro-government police—and some pro-government gangs—attack government critics. Over the weekend, law enforcement officials stormed a university being occupied by student protesters. Another group of student protesters was trapped in a church as paramilitaries shot at the building. Reports described students and priests clinging to one another and caring for the wounded.

“President Ortega seems decided to end the protests in the country with a show of tremendous brutality,” Juan Pappier, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Newsweek. “The democratic leaders in the international community must condemn these egregious abuses as policemen and pro-government gangs cause a bloodbath in Nicaragua.”

Ortega regained power in Nicaragua in 2007. He abolished term limits in 2016 and was elected to another five-year term, leading to accusations of authoritarianism. It is an ironic outcome for a leader who once portrayed himself as an idealist.

The 72-year-old president has a long history in politics. He first became involved in student protests in the 1960s, challenging the rule of the dynastic, U.S.-backed former President Anastasio Somoza. He spent seven years imprisoned as a result of his activism.

After the left-wing Sandinista National Liberation Front overthrew Somoza in 1979, he became the country’s first Sandinista leader and ruled until 1990. He ran for president again in 1996 and in 2001, and but he only assumed office after winning elections by a small margin in 2006.  

Today, Ortega says he is willing to dialogue with the political opposition, and he called for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to come and inspect the human rights situation in his country. Still, some human rights defenders argue that the president is not sincere.

“The government of President Ortega’s pretense at engaging in dialogue remains part of its policy of repression, as demonstrated by the episodes of violence over the weekend. Nicaraguan families should not have to keep counting the dead day after day,” Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International, said in a statement.

“There is no doubt that the installation of the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI) of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights brings hope to the thousands of victims of state violence. The Nicaraguan authorities must ensure that the right conditions are in place for the GIEI’s work to contribute to the truth, justice and reparation to which the victims are entitled,” Guevara-Rosas continued.

The State Department has recalled all U.S. government staff from Nicaragua, and it has supported the opposition’s call for early elections.  

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