Nicaragua's revolutionary town now a war zone defended by teenagers armed with rocks

A group of young protesters defends a roadblock in Masaya, Nicaragua on June 6, 2018.
A group of young protesters defends a roadblock in Masaya, Nicaragua on June 6, 2018. Special to the Miami Herald

For a few brief moments on Wednesday afternoon, the young men of Masaya went back to being teenagers.

Their faces hidden behind handkerchiefs and improvised ski masks, they joked as they showed off a mortar positioned in front of a barricade built from stacks of paving blocks. They'd christened the homemade weapon "El Niño," the child, and painted the name on one side in pink block letters.

A few feet away, one of the teens slept in the branches of a fallen tree slung across the road to keep cars from passing through. He dozed peacefully, his face uncovered in the afternoon sun.

Then, three gunshots rang out. Pop, pop, pop.

"Get down! Get down!" the young men shouted, diving behind the barricade. Families crossing the street scattered and ran for cover. In an instant, the terror that has gripped Masaya for nearly two months — since protests against President Daniel Ortega first broke out in mid-April — returned.

A group of protesters defend a barricade in the Fatima neighborhood in Masaya, Nicaragua, on June 6, 2018. Diana Ulloa Special to the Miami Herald

As calls for Ortega's resignation grow, Masaya has emerged as the center of Nicaragua's increasingly bloody political uprising, which has so far claimed roughly 130 lives and wounded more than 1,000 people. Once the stronghold of the Sandinista revolution that overthrew the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza in 1979, Masaya has in recent weeks become a symbol of the resistance against the government of Ortega and his wife and vice president, Rosario Murillo.

Between June 1 and June 4, the town fought off an attack by riot police and pro-government gangs, who laid siege to a church and shot protesters who, according to human rights activists, were armed only with rocks and homemade mortars — tubes loaded with a projectile and explosive propellant that make a loud noise and can in some cases be deadly, though they're typically used as a deterrent. At least 10 people died and dozens more were injured.

The clashes claimed at least one more victim on Wednesday — a 26-year-old man shot in the back by a police sniper, the Nicaraguan Association for Protection of Human Rights said.

Their faces hidden behind handkerchiefs and improvised ski masks, they joked as they showed off a mortar positioned in front of a barricade built from stacks of paving blocks. They'd christened the homemade weapon "El Niño," the child.

For the young men guarding the "El Niño" barricade, and those defending countless other roadblocks throughout the area, the gunshots were a reminder that in this town, there are no teenagers left. There are only desperate citizens locked in a lopsided battle against government forces.

"This is an insurrection, a civil insurrection," said Father Edwin Román, the priest at the San Miguel church besieged by riot police over the weekend. Román was a high school student in Masaya in the late 1970s when Sandinista guerrillas and government troops battled in the town. But this fight, he said, is different. During the revolution, both sides were armed. Now, "It's the government against an unarmed population and young people and children are dying," he said.

The facade of San Miguel church in Masaya on June 6, 2018. Over the weekend, the church was surrounded by riot police and pro-government gangs during clashes with protesters. Diana Ulloa Special to the Miami Herald

Masaya was until recently a vibrant place popular with tourists for its handicraft market. But on Wednesday, even before the shooting started, it looked like a ghost town. The only noise on the streets was the occasional sound of a mortar firing a warning shot toward the local police station where the last remaining police officers were barricaded inside.

Nowhere was the town's transformation more evident than at the San Miguel church, which now looked like a crime scene. The plaster walls were pockmarked with bullet holes and the windows boarded up. At one corner near the church, a small shrine with dead flowers marked the place where 26-year-old Donald López had been shot point blank during the battle. In front of the nearby handicraft market, 15-year-old Junior Gaitán, who nickname was Pollito, or "little chicken," had been shot in the chest and killed after getting down on his knees and begging for his life, according to town residents.

Now, the church bells that used to call the townspeople to mass serve as a warning system.

Aurisol Gutierrez, 23, sprints from the parish house to the top of the church to ring the bells whenever she hears gunshots or spots riot police. She ducks down after every clang to avoid snipers.

Gutierrez, an agricultural engineer, has also had to learn to clean wounds and administer injections. The town's recently formed team of volunteer paramedics, operating out of the parish house, is woefully understaffed.

A shrine marks the place where 26-year-old Donald López was killed by a police officer in Masaya, Nicaragua, during clashes between protesters and government forces on June 2, 2018. Diana Ulloa Special to the Miami Herald

"Any help we can get is welcome," said Adrian Villarreal, 19, a medical student who forms part of the team.

On Wednesday morning, Villarreal was treating Alberto Armijo, 48, who had been injured the previous week as he tried to defend one of the town's barricades. Armijo said he had turned to grab a rock when he saw blood splatter onto his arms and realized that a bullet had grazed his chin. He had come to the parish house for treatment because the wound was infected.

Armijo, a taxi driver, had joined the resistance movement, he said, "because of the slaughter of the young people and because the the repression."

"I want there to be peace and no more violence," he added. "I want there to be elections and for the country to be in good hands."

Armijo was praying for a solution to the violence. With the streets blocked, there was no work and he was running out of food and money. But he hadn't gone hungry yet. In his neighborhood, everyone shared the few supplies they had left.

Alberto Armijo, right, visits the makeshift medical clinic at a parish house in Masaya, Nicaragua, along with his neighbor on June 6, 2018. Diana Ulloa Special to the Miami Herald

That's how things work in Masaya now that it is, as residents said with pride, "tierra libre," or liberated territory. Everyone pitches in to defend against the police and support their neighbors. There are also rules: residents must present an ID card to pass through the barricades and looting is prohibited, although townspeople said pro-government gangs had ransacked some of the stores.

"First they send in the riot police and then the gangs come after to loot," said José Rizo, 46, who worked as a door-to-door salesman before the protests started.

"They've stolen so much from us that they've even stolen our fear," he added.

Rizo has become a courier for the resistance movement. Because of his work as a salesman, he knows people throughout the area so he is able to get through the barricades stretching toward the capital city of Managua, each controlled by a group of locals. He receives frequent calls on several different cellphones with reports from the barricades and recently changed his ringtone to "Vivirás, Monimbó," an old Sandinista war song about the legendary resistance of a neighborhood in Masaya.

Rizo was proud of his town for resisting the police attacks. "Our courage is more powerful than their weapons," he said. Ortega, he added, likes to say that the streets belong to the people. "And now we're showing him that they do belong to the people because now we're in charge," he said.

Edwin Roman, parish priest of the San Miguel church, and Danilo Martinez, a member of the Nicaraguan Association for Protection of Human Rights (ANPDH), transport a police officer captured by protesters to the local police station in Masaya, Nicaragua, on June 6, 2018. Álvaro Leiva Sánchez, executive director of the association, walks out front holding a "Human Rights" flag. Diana Ulloa Special to the Miami Herald

But there is a difference between how the townspeople run Masaya and what government forces did, said Álvaro Leiva, executive director of the Nicaraguan Association for Protection of Human Rights, which has been documenting the violence in Masaya.

Although some police have been killed in the clashes, nationwide the vast majority of the victims have been young protesters shot in the head or chest by "expert snipers," he said. Both sides have captured prisoners, but when protesters apprehend police officers, the protesters turn them over to human rights groups or to Román unharmed, Leiva said. "When the police capture citizens, we know from their accounts that they've suffered inhumane and cruel treatment and torture," he said. "In other cases there have been executions."

The human rights organization had, by Wednesday, facilitated the liberation of 67 captives, both police officers captured by protesters and protesters captured by government forces.

Earlier in the day, Leiva, Román, and other human rights workers returned a police officer captured at a barricade in a nearby town to the Masaya police station.

Protesters at the Ticuantepe roadblock in Managua, Nicaragua, on June 6, 2018. Barricades set up by protesters prevent cars from traveling between Managua and Masaya. Diana Ulloa Special to the Miami Herald

Leiva walked in front, holding a white flag, while Román and local human rights delegate Danilo Martínez gripped the police officer's arms and hurried him through the streets to the police station.

But there was only so much Leiva and his team could do in Masaya that day. Other cities were also under attack. Later in the afternoon, Leiva traveled to the city of Granada, where two people had been killed the day before and the city hall had been set on fire.

"For the human right to protest civilly and peacefully, in return the young people have received repression, death, bloodshed, and we have sadly lost peace in our country," he said.

Miami Herald staff writer Glenn Garvin contributed to this report