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Dangerous drug lord or academic? Nicaraguan opposition leader fights charges by Ortega

Nicaraguan academician Felix Maradiaga has been accused by the Ortega government of running a gang of assassins and narcotraffickers.
Nicaraguan academician Felix Maradiaga has been accused by the Ortega government of running a gang of assassins and narcotraffickers. Courtesy Felix Maradiaga

If you sit down to chat with Felix Maradiaga, he sounds pretty much like the mild-mannered academic almost everybody has always thought he was: a guy with a master's degree from Harvard who spends most of his time at a computer writing papers with titles like "International Migration and Nationhood: Balancing Concerns From A Liberal Perspective." There is little apparent trace of the man Nicaragua's government says he is: The gangland boss of a gun-running, narcotrafficking band of professional killers, so dangerous he must be tried in secret and not allowed to see the names or faces of the witnesses against him.

"This is so ludicrous," said the bemused Maradiaga, executive director of Nicaragua's Institute of Strategic Studies and Public Policies. "I've never even owned a gun. I've certainly never killed anybody."

The criminal charges against Maradiaga are among the more bizarre bits of political fallout from Nicaragua, where a broad-based coalition of students, farmers and the urban middle class is trying to topple President Daniel Ortega's government. More than 160 people have died in the two months of protests against Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo.

Nicaragua Dialogue.JPG
File photo of Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega, right, and Vice President and first lady Rosario Murillo attending the opening of a national dialogue in Managua, Nicaragua, on Wednesday, May 16, 2018. Ortega sat down to formally talk with opposition and civic groups for the first time since he returned to power in 2007. Alfredo Zuniga AP

Maradiaga, one of the better-known leaders of the anti-Ortega movement (many of its activists wear masks to protect their identities), was in Washington earlier this month, lobbying the Organization of American States for a resolution condemning the Nicaraguan president, when the charges were announced.

In a televised press conference in Managua, police officials accused Maradiaga of heading a group called Viper "dedicated to organized crime, narcotrafficking, terrorism, murder and other connected crimes." The reaction among diplomats and academics in Nicaragua ranged from mirth to outrage. The U.S. State Department, the American embassy in Managua and the Nicaraguan American Chamber of Commerce all tweeted their support for Maradiaga.

Maradiaga himself was stupefied. "I knew they knew who I was — I was carrying medical supplies in and out of the [Catholic] cathedral where injured students were being treated after demonstrations," he said. "But I didn't do anything criminal, not even close.

"For the government to charge anyone in the opposition with murder is to say that we're killing ourselves. We're the ones who are suffering all the casualties."

He thinks the government expected his reaction to the charges would be to ask for political asylum in the United States as part of a dismantling of all institutional resistance to Ortega inside Nicaragua.

"He's intent on demolishing the institutions of civil society," Maradiaga said of Ortega. "He's already destroyed the political parties by manipulating the electoral laws; no real opposition party was allowed to compete in the last election. With the parties gone, that has forced academic institutions to assume an opposition role. And now he's coming after us."

If Ortega was indeed hoping he would ask for asylum and stay in the United States, Maradiaga is determined to make sure it doesn't work. He's been in the Miami area for several days, raising money and rallying political support for a return to Managua next week.

A return would be fraught with risks. The charges against Maradiaga were filed under an extraordinarily stiff Nicaraguan anti-terrrorism law that allows the government to try him in secret and withhold the identity of witnesses. After arrest, the government can hold him incommunicado for 48 hours while deciding whether to proceed with the charges.

That arrest will almost certainly be made the moment Maradiaga steps off an airplane in Managua. When rumors of his return swept Nicaragua last week, the government flooded the airport with police.

"That's why I'm talking to reporters," Maradiaga said bluntly. "It will raise the political price Ortega must pay for my arrest, and it will make it more difficult for them to make me disappear inside a prison."

Maradiaga's prospective role as a political prisoner seems, in some ways, almost as unlikely as the image of him as a master criminal and assassin. Born to working-class parents in the northeastern Nicaraguan city of Esteli, he was only 12 when he fled the country on foot to get away from the civil war that wracked the country throughout most of the 1980s.

"I traveled with some other people, but none of them were my family members," he recalls. "We didn't have any official sponsor or help or anything. We just went up to Mexico and headed for the Texas border, a bunch of mojados [wetbacks]."

After crossing into the United States, Maradiaga made his way to South Florida, where he stayed with a Nicaraguan foster family in Coral Gables. He lived there for two years, attending Ponce de Leon and George Washington Carver middle schools, and falling wildly in love with America.

"There was such generosity here," he says. "I remember once I didn't have any money, and I was really hungry. I went over to the Miracle Center [mall in Coral Gables] just to walk around and take my mind off it. But I saw this lady making pizza and I just couldn't take my eyes off it. I watched and I watched and finally the lady said, 'Would you like some?' That was the most delicious pizza I've ever eaten in my life."

He liked his schools, too, learning to speak perfect English. He returned to Nicaragua after the war ended in 1990 and, once he graduated from high school, attended the American-owned University of Mobile branch in Nicaragua. After adding a master's in public administration from Harvard, he held a series of posts — including assistant minister of defense — in the government of Enrique Bolaños, the last Nicaraguan president before Ortega came to power in 2007.

Maradiaga does not think the political crisis in Nicaragua will be easily resolved. The opposition is demanding nothing less than Ortega's resignation; the president is adamant that he will not quit. And the president has some compelling personal reasons to cling to office, Maradiaga says.

"He knows if he resigns, he's likely to face criminal prosecution for many of the students who've been killed," Maradiaga said. "And he won't be able to protect his financial assets — the next government will go after them."

It's widely believed among anti-Ortega forces that more than $3.5 billion in aid to Nicaragua from the leftist government of Venezuela is missing and that Ortega is holding the lion's share.

"His strategy right now is increase the human cost to the opposition — the lost money and lives — until it's unwilling to continue," Maradiaga said. "Each side has costs. His — the political cost — has already been paid. Once you're accused of 70 killings, what's the difference in killing 20 or 40 or 60 more? Nothing. Everybody who's going to hate you already does.

"Now he's trying to raise the cost to the opposition by inflicting emotional exhaustion. Basically, he's hold Nicaragua in a hostage situation."