Americas

Nicaragua university students under attack in political uprising against Ortega

File photo of university students taking part in a march against Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega in Managua, Nicaragua, on May 30, 2018.
File photo of university students taking part in a march against Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega in Managua, Nicaragua, on May 30, 2018. AP

University student Valeska Sandoval gingerly removed her sock to expose a bloody toe wrapped in gauze as she recounted a night of terror at the hands of a dozen armed men.

For hours, she said, the men tortured Sandoval, 20, and two of her classmates after ambushing them near the town of Tipitapa, roughly 15 miles north of Managua, where they were delivering food to protesters on Monday night. The men said they knew the students were protesters. They set the students' car on fire, stripped them naked and interrogated them at gunpoint. They groped Sandoval and a female classmate, threatening rape, as they beat a male companion. They ripped out Sandoval's toenail and used a stun gun on one of her classmates.

When the students finally made it back to Managua the next morning, they decided they couldn't go to the police. They believed some of the men who had taken them hostage were police officers, or at least working closely with them. So they went to the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua — the main public university and one of the centers of the violent political crisis that has gripped the country for two months — where students had taken over the campus. In a country where protesters are being shot by police and by armed men that many believe are operating at the government's behest, it was the only place the students felt safe.

"My family and my friends here, I thought I was never going to see them again," Sandoval said, as she sat on a couch in a geology building at UNAN, as the university is known. "The simple fact of being a student now makes you a target, a fixed target for these people."

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University student Valeska Sandoval pulls back her classmate Byron Miranda's hair to show bruises from armed men who kidnapped the students and tortured them for hours on the night of June 4, 2018. The next morning, the students recounted the kidnapping at the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua, where students had taken over the campus. Kyra Gurney kgurney@miamiherald.com

That's because Nicaragua's two-month-old political uprising started with student protests against unpopular changes to the country's social security system, which would have given retirees less and required workers to pay more. After armed forces began firing on protesters, the university students demanded the resignation of President Daniel Ortega and his wife and vice president, Rosario Murillo. Since protests first broke out in mid-April, at least 130 people have been killed, many of them teenagers and university students.

Now Nicaragua has become a dangerous place for young people. University students in Managua have left their homes to avoid putting their families at risk and taken over college campuses, turning them into fortresses. At UNAN, students guard the gates in shifts, sleeping only a few hours a night in hammocks near the entrances. Next to the entrance hangs a banner like the ones seen at airports under construction: "Pardon the inconvenience," it says. "We're changing the country for you."

Taking over the university wasn't something the UNAN students say they planned. It happened May 7 after students came to protest at the university and decided to stay, pressuring professors and administrators to leave and locking up the campus. By then, many of the students said they had watched police and pro-government gangs gun down and beat their classmates.

"I think you have to be psychologically prepared for these circumstances," said Odel Macías, 38, a math major who went back to school to get a second degree after nearly a decade struggling to find a job in Nicaragua's depressed economy. Macías saw two students die on April 20, shortly after the protests started, when police fired on protesters. "I saw so many people crying, hysterical," that day, he added.

But few could have been psychologically prepared for the violence the Ortega administration has unleashed on the protesters. The intensity of the demonstrations, and the response from government forces, have come as a surprise for many in Nicaragua, which in recent years has been a relatively safe, stable country. The Ortega administration has denied responsibility for the killings, blaming criminal groups and characterizing the protesters as right-wing gangs.

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Young men from the San Judas neighborhood near the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua visit the campus to rest after guarding roadblocks in streets surrounding the campus. They carry homemade mortars, which are tubes loaded with a projectile and explosive propellant. Kyra Gurney kgurney@miamiherald.com

"About a month ago, we were thinking about exams, homework, the books we had to read," said Levis Artola, 20, a law student at UNAN. "Now I've forgotten all of that. I don't even know where I left my notebook."

Despite their lack of preparation, however, the students have managed to keep their new bunker running smoothly. Each one of the roughly 900 students living at the university, which normally has about 40,000 students, has a specific task based on his or her major. The medical students run makeshift clinics. The law students document human rights violations and communicate with local human rights groups. The economics students administer the meager financial donations.

The chemistry students use their skills, too. They make Molotov cocktails, one of the few homemade weapons students have to defend themselves. (An orthodontics student, whose skills aren't in as much demand, has been designated the geology building's cook.)

Food and medical supplies are plentiful. Managua residents sympathetic to the students' cause donate supplies, sometimes delivering fully prepared meals.

But not every donation is designed to help the cause. The students have found ground glass in some of the donated food and poison in water bottles.

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On the streets of Managua, Nicaragua, vendors sell protest shirts calling for a "Free Nicaragua" on June 7, 2018. Kyra Gurney kgurney@miamiherald.com

A lucky few have been able to sneak home for short visits, lasting just 10 or 15 minutes, to hug their mothers and grab a change of clothes. Most have remained at the university for the past month, sleeping on thin mattresses in the hallways outside their old classrooms. That is, when they do sleep. The psychological stress and grueling security shifts are such that most get just two or three hours a night.

"I'm not tired. If I could go without sleeping, I wouldn't sleep, but my classmates would scold me," said Joselyn Urbina, 18, a chemistry student. "I'm so angry with this government. We're from the same country and they kill us ... they don't realize that we're the future of the country."

The students know that what they're doing is risky, that like Sandoval, they could be kidnapped and tortured, or vanish forever — known as being "disappeared." But they find a way to joke about the risks.

"My mom is the one I'm afraid of because she's going to hit me, she's going to ground me, she's going to block my phone number," Artola said. Then, his tone turned serious.

"She's angry because we decided to fight against the government, an unequal fight. It's a bit suicidal," he said.

Perhaps more than the students, their parents and grandparents understand the risks. They lived through the Sandinista revolution that overthrew the Somoza dictatorship in 1979 and through the civil war that raged throughout the 1980s.

Macías has two uncles who fought in the revolution and Artola's mother comes from a family once heavily involved in the Sandinista army. Urbina has an uncle who fought against the Ortega government in the 1980s as part of the rebel groups known as the "contras," who were secretly backed by the CIA.

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Joselyn Urbina, 18, a chemistry student at the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua, is among the protesters who have taken over the university campus as they call for the resignation of President Daniel Ortega. Kyra Gurney kgurney@miamiherald.com

"Many participated in the Sandinista army and they're in agreement with what we're doing here," said one medical student in charge of a clinic at the university, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "There's a feeling that the ideals of Sandinismo have been replaced by new ideals that are far from where it started, that patriotic feeling of fighting for Nicaragua and not for a political party."

The students say they're not motivated by political ideology. Their principal demands are that Ortega and Murillo resign and that the country return to democracy. After that, their vision for the future is not as clear, though many said they wanted to see far-reaching social reforms.

"We've already had more than 100 deaths. I think it would be painful for everyone if we stayed in the same situation with just electoral reforms and new elections," said Enrieth Martínez, a 24-year-old sociology student at the Central American University in Managua, who was among a handful of students representing protesters in stalled dialogues with the Ortega administration. "I want to see a wider dialogue with different sectors, with social movements, with the civil sector so they can arrive at a consensus on how to change the country," she said in an interview at a cafe in Managua, near a safe house where she was staying.

"It's not just about them leaving, but about how are we going to change Nicaragua afterward," she added, referring to the resistance movement as a "revolution."

For Macías, who graduated with an economics degree in 2007 and was unemployed for eight years, his vision for a new Nicaragua includes an economy where young people can find jobs "that pay a high enough salary to allow you to live with dignity." Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, according to the U.S. State Department.

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A sign outside an improvised medical clinic at the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua warns protesters not to enter the clinic carrying mortars. Kyra Gurney kgurney@miamiherald.com

Early on in the protests, the students formed an alliance with the country's business sector, which had until recently stayed out of politics. The students and executives don't always agree on how to get Ortega to resign — some of the students want a national strike, which the private sector has so far resisted — but they all agree that Ortega has to go.

The most important thing right now, the students said, is that police stop attacking them. That's a conviction shared by the young men of the San Judas neighborhood near UNAN, who guard a series of roadblocks set up in the streets surrounding the university.

On Tuesday afternoon, a group of the San Judas teens had come onto the campus to rest and talk with other protesters. They carried homemade mortars — tubes loaded with a projectile and explosive propellant that make a loud noise and can sometimes be deadly. The teens kept forgetting they carried the mortars as they stopped in and out of a preschool previously used for the children of university professors, now a medical clinic.

"No mortars inside!" one of the medical students shouted. A cardboard sign in the window reminded the teens that weapons had to stay outdoors.

The San Judas residents joined the protests, one of the teens said, "because [the government] is attacking the young people."

"We're also young people," he said.

Inside the clinic, which had no patients that afternoon, the medical students showed signs of exhaustion, but said they had to keep fighting. Their lives depended on forcing Ortega and Murillo to resign, they said.

"It's not a fight that's going to stop," said one of the medical students, who wanted to remain anonymous. "If we don't achieve the goal of them leaving power then those of us who have been fighting here will be in more danger, we'll be at greater risk."

Martinez, the student who participated in the dialogue, says she is already feeling the fear. She left her home weeks ago after a new security camera appeared outside facing the entrance. She now sleeps in safe houses in Managua.

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Enrieth Martínez, one of the Nicaraguan university students who represented protesters in dialogues with the government of Daniel Ortega, at a cafe in Managua on June 5, 2018. Kyra Gurney kgurney@miamiherald.com

Other students have been arrested. Police accused two young protesters, Katherine Ruiz, 18, and her boyfriend, Andrew Úbeda, 20, of organized crime and murder and locked them in Managua's El Chipote jail for days before informing their families. They were released on Tuesday, but Ruiz's mother told the Miami Herald on Thursday evening that her daughter was no longer able to leave the house because there were men outside in unmarked cars and on motorcycles with no license plates.

"I'm looking for help to get my daughter out of here, out of the country. I don't have much money but I have to find a way to do it," she said in a WhatsApp message.

And while political activist and opposition leader Félix Maradiaga visited Washington, D.C., Tuesday, Nicaraguan police back home accused him of belonging to a criminal group involved in drug trafficking and terrorism. He will most likely be arrested as soon as he sets foot in Nicaragua.

"It's a completely ridiculous, absurd accusation without any evidence, which I could ignore or even find funny if it weren't intended to intimidate me," he told the Miami Herald Tuesday.

"Whatever happens to me isn't going to stop the protests," he added. "Thousands of other Nicaraguans are willing to keep protesting and even sacrifice their lives."

The government crackdown on protests has sparked international outrage. This past week, Nicaraguan student leaders traveled to Washington and met with Republican Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas, and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, who have called for more sanctions against Nicaraguan officials. On Thursday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced new visa restrictions on several officials who the State Department said in a statement were "directing or overseeing violence against others exercising their rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression, thereby undermining Nicaragua's democracy."

But an end to the political crisis is nowhere in sight. On Thursday afternoon, Roman Catholic Church leaders met with Ortega and presented him with the items opposition groups want to discuss if the dialogue continues, which include democratization. Ortega asked for a few days to consider the proposals, church leaders said at a press conference Thursday evening.

Then, later that night, armed men attacked UNAN, shooting at students, according to the main student coalition. Nineteen-year-old Chester Javier Chavarría was shot in the rib cage and died at the hospital. Another student was shot in the arm and survived.

"They're killing us here," Artola told the Miami Herald Thursday in a WhatsApp message shortly after the attack occurred. "We feel we're alone."

Otrora un baluarte sandinista, Masaya se ha transformado en el centro de la revuelta política contra el gobierno del presidente nicaragüense Daniel Ortega.

Miami Herald staff writer Glenn Garvin contributed to this report
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