The U.S. government stripped its embassy in Nicaragua down to bare-bone operations Monday after five days of deadly protests around the country, despite Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega's efforts to calm his tempestuous nation.
The State Department on Monday ordered nonessential employees and all embassy family members to leave Nicaragua.
In a public statement, the Department of State also warned travelers to "reconsider travel to Nicaragua due to crime and civil unrest."
"Demonstrations typically elicit a strong response that has in the past included the use of tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, and live ammunition against participants and occasionally have devolved into looting, vandalism, and acts of arson," officials said. "Violent crime, such as sexual assault and armed robbery, is common. Police presence and emergency response are extremely limited outside of major urban areas."
The Central American country has been wracked by violent demonstrations for most of the past week. As part of a rising tide of protests against Ortega's proposal to raise social security taxes, Ortega promised new negotiations with his opponents on the tax increase and a corresponding cut in pensions.
But the evacuation of U.S. Embassy personnel was an extraordinary sign that Washington sees the situation as dangerously unstable. Throughout the entire decade of the 1980s, when Nicaragua was embroiled in a civil war between Daniel Ortega's Sandinista government and an American-backed insurgent group known as the contras, embassy families were never withdrawn.
Though the government's death toll from the violence was nine people as of Monday, according to a report from Reuters, human rights groups say it's really in the dozens.
The most shocking death was of a journalist, Angel Gahona, who was reporting from outside Bluefields, the biggest city on Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast, when he was gunned down by an unknown assailant on Saturday. Gahona's death was seen live on Facebook after another video journalist captured the footage.
The violence grew so threatening that most stores in Managua, the city's capital, closed over the weekend. Many of them reopened on Monday, but shelves were sparse because of the lack of weekend deliveries.
Though the demonstrations were originally about the social security taxes, over the weekend they seemed to have expanded to a general protest against secrecy, corruption and cronyism in Ortega's government.
If travelers do decide to visit the nation, U.S. officials are warning people to: "Maintain adequate supplies of food, potable water, and fuel if sheltering in place; keep a low profile and do not display signs of wealth such as expensive watches or jewelry."
The crime and violence hit home for many Nicaraguans living in the South Florida community.
Carolina Castillo, a server at El Yambo Restaurant in Miami, told the Miami Herald her cousin was killed during a protest Saturday.
She said her daughters, who live in Managua, had to "bury him in secret without a proper funeral."
"My daughters have been locked inside their homes for almost a week and ran out of food and water. Today was the first day they got to tip-toe out and stock up with some essentials," Castillo said. "These aren't just things that are happening on Facebook and social media. It's affecting people, real people, right here and now, especially in Miami."