Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega is following the playbook of the socialist regime in Venezuela to violently crush the opposition, observers say.
Since anti-government protests broke out in April, some 450 Nicaraguans have been killed as Ortega follows the Venezuelan strategy of deploying armed paramilitary gangs to enforce political control.
“Both Ortega and (Venezuelan President Nicolas) Maduro have branded opposition protesters as ‘terrorists’ and ‘vandals’ in an effort to further criminalize their movements. They have also utilized armed pro-government groups … to violently repress those in the opposition, at times with deadly force,” Parker Asmann, an analyst writing for InsightCrime, which covers criminal networks in the region, said last week.
The protests in Nicaragua “were sparked by a proposal, which has since been canceled, to cut government social welfare programs. The demonstrations have morphed into a direct challenge to Ortega’s authoritarian rule and corruption in a government in which his wife, Rosario Murillo, serves as vice president,” Martin Arostegui wrote in an analysis for The Washington Times.
Defense intelligence analysts reported that members of Ortega’s civilian paramilitary gangs were using Russian weaponry, including the latest-generation AK-103 automatic rifles, Draganov sniper rifles and RPG-7 rockets, according to Arostegui’s report.
In the town of Masaya, hooded gunmen backed by police stormed the town, invaded homes, churches, schools and hospitals and rounded up suspected government opponents. Eyewitnesses said many people were shot and some were kidnapped and said that Catholic priests trying to protect dissidents were beaten.
International human rights organizations said they are investigating reports that activist leaders are being thrown into secret prisons to be tortured or killed.
“It’s surprising that Ortega was able to put together such a sophisticated paramilitary apparatus, designed to establish plausible deniability for the government’s brutal repression, so quickly,” said Douglas Farah, an analyst in terrorism who has consulted for the Pentagon. “These parallel para-state repressive forces, operating in conjunction with the state, are a specialty of regimes in Venezuela and Cuba.”
In a speech to supporters in Managua last month, Ortega vowed to “fortify the self-defense groups” protecting his “Sandinista revolution.” He described opposition parties as “satanic sects” and called for their “exorcism.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, told The Washington Times that “As Nicaragua follows Venezuela’s dangerous path, the U.S. should be prepared to take further action with our regional allies to address the threat of these regimes.”