By John Perry – Jul 2, 2020
A report issued at the end of May repeats allegations of government repression in Nicaragua during violent protests in 2018. It was commissioned by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), a body of the Organization of American States (OAS), and revives arguments that the Sandinista government is systematically violating human rights. It purports to provide new evidence, but in reality the facts are more complicated than the report suggests. They warrant careful examination to ensure that the international community is getting the full, unadulterated story.
In April 2018, violence erupted in Nicaragua as opposition groups began an unsuccessful attempt to force Daniel Ortega’s government out of office. One of the emblematic events of a traumatic three-month period was the so-called “March of the Mothers” on May 30. It is also one of the most contentious, and remains so to this day. The march took place in the capital, Managua, at the height of the opposition’s influence – many Nicaraguans then still believed false reports that hundreds of students had been killed by police in the preceding weeks, and they were yet to experience the worst of the violence linked to the roadblocks set up across the country by the opposition. Although the main march was largely peaceful, numerous violent clashes afterwards led to eight people being shot and killed with more than 90 injured, including 20 police officers.
Why, two years later, is this still important? The internal threat to Nicaragua’s elected Sandinista government may have abated, with opinion polls showing that most Nicaraguans reject any return to the violence and the damage to daily life brought by the opposition’s tactics in 2018. But the external threat remains severe: the US and its allies have imposed sanctions and continue to turn the screws on Nicaragua’s economy and its access to outside aid, even denying resources needed to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. The US is also increasingly able to isolate Nicaragua within the OAS, where it has more allies among the member nations after regime change in Bolivia and the installation of a fake “representative” from Venezuela. On June 24, there was yet another attempt to get member states to agree that Nicaragua is violating the OAS’s Democratic Charter. Although it was again unsuccessful, it inevitably leads to further investigations and threats of expulsion, which could provide the pretext for more direct US intervention. Nicaragua is falsely portrayed as a pariah state, while gross violations of democratic principles are overlooked elsewhere – for example in Honduras and Bolivia, whose current governments are strong US allies.
Focusing on human rights is a key way of putting pressure on Nicaragua, since evidence of supposed systematic violations encourages other countries to maintain sanctions or impose new ones (invariably, in the case of European governments and regional allies such as Canada, following in the footsteps of the US). Whatever measures are taken by the Nicaraguan government to reassert its commitment to human rights (e.g. amnesties for so-called “political” prisoners, welcoming back those who sought asylum in Costa Rica in 2018, permitting a virulently anti-government media to operate freely), are never enough to meet US expectations. The political opposition in Nicaragua is alive to this, continuously feeding the media with stories of alleged abuses.
In the IACHR, the OAS of course has its own mechanism “to promote and protect human rights.” It, too, has been totally unbalanced in its assessments of Nicaragua since the violence of 2018 and has regularly provided the OAS with biased reports. Among the worst of these was the work of a six-month mission by a group of “independent” experts which led to a 468-page report, produced for IACHR by GIEI-Nicaragua (Grupo Interdisciplinario de Expertos Independientes). It looked specifically at alleged human rights violations in Nicaragua during the period April–May 2018, culminating with the “March of the Mothers.”
GIEI’s work was notable at the time for its almost exclusive focus on victims of violence allegedly committed by police, paying scant attention to or dismissing evidence that many Sandinistas, bystanders, and indeed police officers were killed or injured during those violent weeks. Many attempts were made by the government to persuade the GIEI investigating team to properly consider the evidence of opposition violence, including attacks on the police on May 30 2018. Nevertheless the GIEI, reviewing events that day, implied that the injuries suffered by police might have been faked.
Their elaborate and detailed report perhaps had insufficient impact when it was published in December 2018, because GIEI was recalled recently to revisit some of the evidence, focusing on the “March of the Mothers,” and publishing a new report this year to coincide with the anniversary of that violent day two years ago. This time, the GIEI brought in expert consultants. The Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF), from Buenos Aires, had worked previously in unraveling the history of the “dirty war” in Argentina and other projects. SITU Research, based in New York, had done videos reconstructing other violent events, including in Ukraine. However, rather than (as might be hoped) looking with fresh eyes and in greater depth at a confused and confusing sequence of violent incidents, the project continues the practice of highly selective use of the facts and incomplete reporting that characterized GIEI’s earlier work. What could have been a genuinely neutral attempt to “forensically” examine the events, turns instead into another propaganda exercise which concludes that the events were “part of the systematic repression of civilian demonstrations.” The rest of this article shows why this conclusion is justified.
“March of the Mothers” ends in violence
Most of the violence in Managua on May 30, 2018 occurred in the late afternoon, on the north side of the city centre, near to the newly built national baseball stadium. Several groups of protesters, instead of proceeding to the march’s agreed destination (the UCA – University of Central America) headed north towards the stadium. One of these groups approached along the Avenida Universitaria, where they began to fire at police using homemade mortars and, visual evidence suggests, might also have used conventional weapons. They then retreated slightly to set up two roadblocks. Around 45 minutes later, at 5:25pm that afternoon, three marchers —Jonathan Eduardo Morazán Meza, Francisco Javier Reyes Zapata and Daniel Josias Reyes Rivera—were shot and later died.
Rather than examine the general violence in the stadium area, the new “reconstruction” focuses solely on the incident including these three deaths. The presentation by SITU/EAAF consists of a seven-minute video and two reports by firearms experts – one analyzing some of the gunshots and where they came from, and the other looking at the lethality or otherwise of the homemade weapons (mortars and bombs) used by the protesters. In addition, a website built in 2018 by SITU/EAAF for the GIEI with maps, photographs and other videos, serves as an “archive” for the reconstruction.
Inevitably it is the seven-minute video which has received most attention. Because of its use of architectonic graphics to supplement and embellish the photographic material, it gives the appearance of a professional, “forensic” examination of the events surrounding the three deaths, although in fact it contains little or no new material. It begins by showing the march and its route, lending an air of authenticity by using phrases such as “videos support testimony that…” to describe completely undisputed facts such as that the march started peacefully. It then describes the making of the roadblocks on the Avenida Universitaria, the positions of the police which it links to the incident, the trajectory of the bullets, and how the three victims were carried away to hospital.
The new evidence is not in the video, but in the report of a US firearms expert called Michael Knox, submitted a year ago. Knox analyses the sounds of shooting captured on different videos filmed at the roadblocks. He concludes that the bulk of the gunfire aimed at the marchers comes from the north, parallel with the Avenida Universitaria and from a distance of 200-300 meters. He says there were also shots from “a few hundred meters distant” and “sounds of a firearm being discharged near the camera.” This “could be either a semiautomatic handgun or rifle,” and its shots are distinct from those of hand-held mortars which the demonstrators were also firing towards the police.
Knox’s report is clear, but it only examines where the shooters were positioned, making no assessment of who they were. SITU/EAAF, however, says Knox was “analyzing the weapons of police” and in their video claim to reveal that the shooters were armed police gathered precisely at the mid-point of the distance indicated by Knox as being the likely range of the shots: 250 meters from where the victims were standing. However, as the map and box below explain in more detail, the video is either in error or has been manipulated to show the police as being 250 meters from the victims when in fact they were considerably closer and, according to Knox’s evidence, could not have fired the shots that hit people at the roadblock. Knox was asked to comment on this anomaly by the writer of this article but replied, “I was not involved in the production of any maps, drawings, or measurements beyond the two camera-to-firearm distance measurements I calculated based on the audio signals from two of the recorded shots. I believe you will need to address your concerns with the folks at SITU Research.”
Mistakes in the SITU-EAAF video and map showing the range of the gunshots
In the video the commentator says (at 03’10” in the English version) that police were stationed approximately 250 meters north of the roadblock where the demonstrators were taking cover. A photo shows the police “holding firearms,” although in fact the officer shown circled appears clearly to be holding a shotgun used to fire rubber bullets. Later, at 05’40”, the video has a map showing the position of these police officers (see screenshot), putting them halfway across a red band which marks radii of 200 meters and 300 meters respectively from the main roadblock (shown in blue). Their position appears to tie in exactly with the video’s assertion that they were 250 meters from the three victims, at the midpoint of the range of the gunfire as calculated by Knox.
The photograph of police at 03’10” in the video shows them to be at a road junction, correctly shown on the map. But this road junction is only about 175 meters (measured on Google Maps) from the position of the roadblock. A map of the same events shown on the “archive” website shows the police even closer to the roadblock. The reason that the red band shows them as being 250 meters from the victims is because it is incorrectly drawn: while supposedly it shows radii of 200-300 meters, in fact the radii measure only approximately 145-215 meters on the ground. This is verified by simple math using Google Maps.
For the red band to show true radii of 200-300 meters, it would have to be significantly larger in diameter and hence further from the roadblock. Drawn with the correct dimensions, it would no longer include the spot where the police motorcycles are shown clustered in the photo at 03’10” in the video.
If Knox is correct, the only way these police officers could have been the shooters is if they had retreated rapidly northwards in the two minutes before the shooting began, leaving the road where it bends and entering the property to the west of it to maintain the same line of fire.
Another possible explanation offered by Knox is that the deaths resulted from shots from further away, i.e. those “a few hundred meters distant.” The video commentator says at 05’11” that police agents were “reported” to be on the Lomas de Tiscapa (some 650 meters from the roadblock). However, this and other possible explanations are not examined by SITU/EAAF, nor is any proof offered that there were shooters in that location, much less that any such shooters were police officers. SITU/EAAF concluded that their analysis “strongly suggests that [the victims] were killed by police and/or parapolice forces firing at protesters.” But in fact the combination of Knox’s evidence and the photos shown in the video are, at best, inconclusive and at worst could indicate that it was someone else who was doing the shooting.
Use of firearms by opposition demonstrators is discounted
There is another notable gap between Knox’s evidence and the video, in a different respect. Knox’s evidence of “a firearm being discharged near the camera” is not pursued. Yet the GIEI’s own 468-page report, which included an examination of the same incident, had admitted “the presence of four armed persons among the demonstrators”[my emphasis]. That this earlier evidence seems to be confirmed by Knox is clearly crucial. Yet it is ignored by the GIEI report.
Picture the scene as it very likely developed that afternoon. A group of about a dozen police officers, sharing motorcycles and carrying weapons including shotguns for firing rubber bullets, face a roadblock 170 meters away, made from piles of ripped-up paving stones, which had shielded several hundred protesters for 45 minutes. Many protesters were firing mortars (as shown in the photograph below, a still from the video). Among these are also bomb-throwers and (according to Knox) at least one person armed with and shooting “either a semiautomatic handgun or rifle.” While the mortars are said to have a range of only 60 meters, the improvised shrapnel or incendiary material they typically launch can clearly do a lot of damage to anyone approaching within that distance. Their noise and smoke would also provide cover for any conventional gunfire (and indeed in one of the videos on the archive website, police appear to be crouching to shield themselves from such gunfire). In this confusing conflict, the evidence of what happened is far from clear and certainly does not support the GIEI conclusion that this was an “arbitrary and disproportionate use of force” on the part of the government.
Wider events on May 30 2018 are ignored
A much bigger weakness of the SITU-EAAF video is that it completely ignores the wider context for the events, without which any interpretation of the incident that resulted in three deaths is meaningless. Many opposition leaders, in the weeks before May 30, had spoken openly of the need for lives to be lost in the interest of their cause; they turned out to be prescient. On the same day, there was another large, pro-government demonstration taking place in Managua. While those attending the “March of the Mothers” arrived without incident, one of the caravans of vehicles bringing people to the Sandinista march that morning was halted and attacked by gunfire south of the city of Estelí, with one person among the Sandinista supporters killed and 22 injured (one of whom subsequently died of his injuries).
Much later that day, after the demonstrations in Managua, two more Sandinista supporters – Kevin Antonio Coffin Reyes and Heriberto Maudiel Pérez Díaz – were both shot in the chest in a confrontation with opposition demonstrators only 600 meters to the north-west of the incidents the GIEI describes on the Avenida Universitaria, at a similar time in the late afternoon. GIEI, in their report [p.173], acknowledge that they died but accuse the police of “conspiring against the clarification of these two deaths,” simply because in their preliminary report the next day the police bracketed them with other deaths and injuries that occurred around the same period of time.
The routes of the two marches were planned so as to keep them more than 2 kilometres apart, to avoid inevitable conflict if the two sides met. Until the time when the opposition march concluded, it had passed without violence. When they deviated from the planned route, the leaders of the group in the Avenida Universitaria must have known they were heading towards the police lines that had been put in place earlier in the day to prevent them from reaching further north. While the video implies they were the only group to break away from the main march, in fact various groups headed north to attack the police and to close in on Sandinista supporters.
In part they appeared to respond to rumors (fed by commentators from opposition Radio Corporación) that there were sharpshooters stationed in the national baseball stadium, which sits between Avenida Universitaria and Paseo Tiscapa to the east, and whose boundary appears in the SITU/EAAF “reconstruction.” This became the scene of most of the day’s violence. Examples are shown in a different video analysis made in 2019 by Juventud Presidente (a Sandinista-aligned group). Clips from the stadium’s security cameras show the stadium building initially deserted except for its usual security guards. But as early as 4:10pm, a video clip shows fights between opposition groups taking place in front of the stadium. Soon, opposition members arrive from the Paseo Tiscapa, some carrying conventional firearms. None of these protesters are shot at from the stadium building, where supposedly the sharpshooters were hidden.
At about the same time, well before the incident examined by SITU/EAAF, demonstrators are filmed confronting police in the Avenida Universitaria, north of the point where roadblocks were built at 4:40pm. The different clips, some from opposition Radio Corporación, show how opposition groups were firing mortars or throwing Molotov cocktails but also that several had pistols or high caliber firearms. They gained temporary control of the whole stadium area, sacking the stadium offices and firing at police. Another video even shows armed protesters firing at other opposition marchers who respond with shouts of “we’re the same.”
Over the period between 4:30 and 5:30pm no less than 20 police officers were injured trying to retain control of the stadium area, many receiving serious gunshot wounds. It is unconscionable that the so-called “forensic” analysis of the shooting of the three marchers at 5:25pm by SITU/EAAF ignores the wider violence in the same area. In doing so, it ignores plausible explanations either that the police fired the lethal shots but were themselves under attack, or that the lethal shots were “false flag” shots by opposition gunmen coming from the stadium area to the Avenida Universitaria. The deaths and injuries of police and demonstrators are listed in the preliminary police report on the following day, still available on the Policía Nacional website and of course accessible to SITU/EAAF. The confused nature of the violence, and the fact that much of it was perpetrated by opposition marchers, was made clear in an eye-witness report published 24 hours after the events by Italian journalist Giorgio Trucchi.
Why the new video has been released
Roll forward two years, to May 30, 2020, when the SITU/EAAF video is released. Local right-wing media report that “a video reconstruction shows how Daniel Ortega’s police killed at least three people” (100%Noticias) and that “new forensic evidence” shows the government was responsible for the “massacre” (Confidencial). These reports contradict each other. 100% Noticias said that the three marchers whose deaths were examined were killed by paramilitaries stationed only 150 meters away from them; Confidencial, on the other hand, claimed the shots were fired “at least 300 metres” from the roadblock where the protesters were killed. As we saw, the confusion may well have resulted from the contradictions in the evidence from the “reconstruction” itself.
By publishing the video on the anniversary of the march, at an online event featuring mothers of the victims, GIEI clearly aims to revive its message that the Sandinista government is murdering innocent Nicaraguans who protest against it. This article has shown that the new evidence is incomplete, misleading, and does not support the conclusions reached. Fair-minded investigations of both violence by state actors and by demonstrators is critical to assessing accountability, but the investigations themselves appear to be so politicized as to undermine such an endeavor.
The SITU/EAAF video was reported internationally by several different media, including El País and BBC Mundo. For both, it was clear where the blame must lie. El País emphasized the video’s “forensic” methods, saying that it “reconstructed the horror of the Daniel Ortega regime” while the BBC concluded that the analysis “appeared to leave no doubt” that police or auxiliary police were responsible for the deaths.
In reality, the SITU/EAAF video itself shows nothing new. As we have seen, the firearms analysis, which could have been released a year earlier, is much more revealing and supports none of the video’s categoric conclusions, repeated and amplified in the local and international media. The video clips and photos it uses were readily available, as are others that were never used. SITU/EAAF appear to have ignored or discounted any material that contradicted their preformed opinion. But their very slick video with its contrived “reconstruction” has done its job, which was to revive the argument that Daniel Ortega’s government is not only repressing the Nicaraguan people, but killing them.
This leaves one wondering why a body of such consequence as the IACHR did not take the time to conduct an objective analysis of the facts. Could it be that the once independent Commission has fallen to the same political bias as the rest of the OAS? Equally disturbing is how the international media, rather than inspecting the evidence, or calling for an authentically independent investigation, merely parroted the self-serving reporting of the Nicaraguan opposition press.
Featured image: Pro-government marchers at Mother’s Day March in Managua, May 30, 2018. Photo credit: El 19 Digital