The recent capture of a ragtag band of men accused of authoring Nicaragua’s worst civilian massacre in 25 years has unnerved residents in the northern countryside and sullied the nation’s proud reputation as an oasis of peace in Central America.
Nicaraguan police have collared eight suspects linked to a deadly midnight ambush that claimed five lives and injured 24 others when roadside assailants indiscriminately sprayed a Sandinista bus caravan with gunfire on July 19. Police also nabbed three other alleged collaborators who reportedly aided the gunmen by throwing rocks at the buses to slow their progress along the darkened highway. Another gunman, thought to be the principal shooter, remains at large.
Police Chief Aminta Granera paraded the handcuffed suspects before the press last week and patted her officers on the back for “clarifying” the case “in record time.” But the crime remains far from resolved in the court of public opinion. That’s because police have refused to identify any motive for the deadly attack. And the cops’ ruthless roundup of suspects — masked agents working with Sandinista snitches dragged suspects from their beds in the dark hours of morning — didn’t do much to assuage the public’s disquietude.
The release of the men’s identities — an ex-con, a U.S. deportee, a former opposition politician, several Sandinista party members, and an alleged affiliate of Mexico’s notoriously violent Zetas drug cartel — offers no clues about who these guys are as a collective. Nicaraguan pundits have tried to explain the mysterious group with unconfirmed theories ranging from rearmed contras, to drug cartels, or even a shadowy false-flag paramilitary group.
Alleged spokesmen of rearmed contra groups have distanced themselves from the attack, and leaders of the political opposition denounced the ambush as a “terrorist act.”
For members of Nicaragua’s political opposition in northern countryside, the aftermath of the bus attacks was nearly as frightening as the ambushes themselves. Opposition politico and former contra combatant Carlos Garcia (aka Comandante Chaparro) was gunned down in broad daylight in Jinotega a week after the attack. To date, no one has been arrested and police won’t confirm whether or not they’re even investigating.
Then the joint military-police crackdown began; more than a dozen men were reportedly dragged from their beds in the small hours of the morning by masked security agents who kicked down doors and entered homes without warrants. The masked troopers were reportedly working alongside unidentified civilians who are thought to be members of Sandinista neighborhood groups known as CPCs.
By early August, Nicaragua’s Permanent Commission on Human Rights (CENIDH) was referring to the detained men as “disappeared,” a politically charged term that has not been used since the days of dictatorship in Latin America.
“It’s like the Sandinistas are trying to apply the U.S. PATRIOT Act,” CENIDH lawyer Gonzalo Carrion told The Nicaragua Dispatch on Aug. 1. “The men were taken illegally and held for more than 48 hours without being processed. That’s kidnapping — they’re disappeared.”
Five days later, the “disappeared” reappeared as the primary suspects in the police’s investigation. Several other men were released without charges. Police Chief Granera denied that anyone had been “disappeared,” and said police had respect for due process.
But the whole incident has left the people of Ciudad Dario “confused” and rattled, says opposition congressmen Pedro Joaquin Treminio. The lawmaker says he knows several of the men who were arrested from his town —one, he says, is a failed opposition politician, another is a construction worker, and a third worked as an assistant in a local church. But the congressman says he’s stumped as to what these men had in common, or why they would allegedly commit such a horrible crime.
“We’ll have to wait and see what proof the prosecutors present,” Treminio told The Nicaragua Dispatch. The problem, he said, is that no one really trusts Nicaragua’s legal system. “The laws are often manipulated in Nicaragua,” he lamented.
Police’s refusal to clarify a motive has resulted in a creative offering of wild speculations about the who and why — everything from rearmed rebels and narco revenge killings, to the insanely far-fetched theory about Panamanian agents provocateurs conspiring to thwart Nicaragua’s canal plans.
Former contra leader Óscar Sobalvarro, known as “Comandante Rubén,” has another theory: the assailants were disgruntled Sandinistas.
“I think this was carried out by Sandinistas who are resentful of the government because they have been forgotten; there are a lot of ex-Sandinista combatants and militants who fought against Somoza and the contras, and are now relegated. Meanwhile, others who were not part of the historic struggle are now in positions of power in the Sandinista government,” Sobalvarro told The Nicaragua Dispatch in a phone interview.
Sobalvarro says the men who were collared by the police are not former contras (“I would have known them”), and insists none of the rearmed contra groups operating in Nicaragua “have the capacity to do something like this.”
Plus, the former contra commander says, if the assault was carried out by some organized criminal group, police would have clarified the motive and taken credit for disbanding them. But if the attack were carried out by disgruntled Sandinistas, the police would try to cover it up, he says.
“The most dangerous possibility is that this was done by their own people,” Sobalvarro said.
Granera, meanwhile, dodged journalists’ questions again this week about the motive behind the massacre. When pressed by reporters, the top cop said she’s already made herself clear on that point, adding “the person who doesn’t want to understand is because they don’t want to understand.”
But perhaps the person who wants to understand, but doesn’t, doesn’t understand that others don’t want them to understand, because they don’t.