“Throw them in jail, take their cell phones!” yelled Nicaraguan riot police in a Managua office building complex last Thursday morning as they chased down reporters from international and local outlets.
The press had arrived to cover an illegal raid on the joint office building of independent news outlets Confidencial, Esta Semana, and Esta Noche, where the prominent transparency and human rights organization known as the Violeta Barrios Foundation had worked prior to shutting down on February 5. Minutes earlier, riot police almost shattered the glass front doors as they demanded entry into the facilities where, one officer said, “the coup mongers meet and work.” Police briefly arrested two reporters and illegally confiscated internal documents, personal possessions, and professional equipment.
On the same day as the newsroom raids, prosecutors opened an investigation into money laundering against the former head of the Violeta Barrios Foundation and current presidential primary candidate Cristiana Chamorro, part of the opposition movement Alianza Ciudadana. The government also imposed house arrest on presidential candidates Felix Maradiaga and Juan Sebastián Chamorro to prevent them from attending protests against last week’s crackdown, revealed reporter Wilfredo Miranda, who reports for the startup outlet Divergentes and the Spanish newspaper El País.
— Wilfredo Miranda (@PiruloAr) May 20, 2021
— Wilfredo Miranda (@PiruloAr) May 21, 2021
The Ortega-Murillo offensive against the press and political opposition is intensifying six months before the November 7 presidential elections. In recent weeks, the Sandinista-controlled legislature and courts passed reforms to obstruct the electoral participation of the political opposition, such as prohibitions on candidates involved in mass 2018 protests which the government has branded as acts of terrorism.
On May 18, the Supreme Electoral Council invalidated the legal standing of the political party from the opposition movement known as the Blue and White National Coalition. The National Coalition is one of two rival opposition movements which last week failed to negotiate a united electoral front in time for a new registration deadline imposed by the Sandinista legislature.
After three years marked by bloody government repression and incarceration of critics and dissidents, the elections will mark a crucial test for the ongoing resiliency of the authoritarianism of Daniel Ortega, who returned to power in 2007.
This is the second illegal raid on the facilities of Confidencial. In December of 2018, police looted their joint newsroom, and have illegally occupied it ever since. On February 23, 2021, the Ortega-Murillo regime consummated the occupation by converting the facility into a Ministry of Health maternity ward run.
The government is also making work, and mere existence, difficult for civil society organizations. On January 29, the legislature approved a law requiring any NGO receiving international financial support to register with the government as a foreign agent. Confidencial refused, as well as the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation, which suspended operations on February 5.
“This is obvious manipulation designed to paralyze the activities of organizations that the government considers out of line,” Anelisa Martínez, the foundation’s director, said in a February 5 livestream announcing their refusal to register as a foreign agent. Since it’s taken effect, courts have been unwilling to process lawsuits against the new law, which Martínez described as a “clear violation of universal human rights, free thought, democracy, and the rule of law.”
The Ortega government’s moves last week are leading Nicaragua “astray from… the possibility of an electoral process which respects human rights,” responded Alberto Brunori, Central America representative for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.
— OACNUDH (@OACNUDH) May 21, 2021
A range of other international figures including Pedro Vaca, the special rapporteur for freedom of expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price, similarly denounced the moves. There’s no evidence that the condemnations from an expected chorus of international voices have in any way slowed the Nicaraguan government’s advances.
Actions against @chamorrocris and the Violeta Barrios Foundation as well as the arrests of journalists are another alarming step away from democracy in Nicaragua. Free and fair elections are undermined when independent media are under siege and opposition leaders can't run.
— Ned Price (@StateDeptSpox) May 21, 2021
Cover Fire for Guatemala
As if the governments of northern Central America operated in concert, last Wednesday Guatemalan police arrested leading figures in the prosecution of dozens of corruption cases over the past decade, and in particular, the monumental 2015 case against a smuggling ring reaching the highest levels of the Guatemalan state and private sector which sent retired general and former president Otto Pérez Molina to prison.
The two highest-profile arrests last week were made against former prosecutor Juan Solórzano Foppa, who as former secretary of the Guatemalan tax authority oversaw the prosecution of various tax evasion cases against major corporations; and Aníbal Argüello, an expert witness in the case against Pérez Molina who worked for the now-defunct International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG).
The two are joined by 13 other defendants in facing charges for allegedly falsifying documents in the creation of a political party. “The corrupt use “justice” to exact their revenge. The citizenry must respond!” wrote former CICIG commissioner Iván Velásquez, in response to the arrests.
Solidaridad con Aníbal Argüello y Juan Francisco Solórzano, quienes son perseguidos en Guatemala por lo que han significado en la lucha contra la corrupción. Los corruptos utilizan la "justicia" para satisfacer su venganza. La ciudadanía tiene que reaccionar!
— Iván Velásquez Gómez (@Ivan_Velasquez_) May 19, 2021
Initially after their arrest, Foppa and Argüello were held in a common cell block, where they received death threats. Over the weekend they were transferred to isolated cells in Mariscal Zavala, a former military barracks-turned-prison that holds high-profile detainees. Meanwhile, a Guatemalan court announced last week it would drop an outstanding corruption case against Pérez Molina, who remains in prison. The judge who announced the dropped charges was Erika Aifán, well known for her work against corruption.
The arrests and dropped charges both came last Wednesday, the same day that Vice President Kamala Harris met in Washington with four high-profile female judges who have fled Guatemala over recent years due to their work on high-profile corruption cases.
Injustice is a root cause of migration. Today, I met with Guatemalan justice leaders to discuss the need for transparent and impartial legal systems in the region. I look forward to working with many stakeholders to help Guatemalans build a safer and better future at home. pic.twitter.com/ExIqf0bg84
— Vice President Kamala Harris (@VP) May 20, 2021
Biden tasked Harris with overseeing U.S. efforts to cut off migration from northern Central America, and his administration has repeatedly asserted its belief that anti-corruption efforts are central in the long run to that effort.
El Faro’s Washington correspondent, José Luis Sanz, recently interviewed one of the judges, Gloria Porras, days after she fled the country under the threat of imprisonment in April.
The moves last week showcase how networks of corruption in Central America exploit the friction points in regional politics to find political cover for their agendas. As Bukele’s self-coup against the judiciary absorbs international attention and the U.S. relationship with El Salvador <deteriorates, anti-democratic actors in both Guatemala and Nicaragua are conscious that the Biden administration’s strategy in the region is wobbly. Ruling administrations in both countries are actively pushing boundaries despite pressure from Washington, which last week announced it would redirect aid from Salvadoran institutions involved in the coup to human rights and transparency organizations in civil society.
#Breaking | @USAIDES will cut funding to #ElSalvador's Supreme Court, Attorney General's Office, National Civil Police and the Institute for Public Access to Information and redirect aid to local civil society and human rights organizations.https://t.co/AVxEldT2kG
— El Faro English (@ElFaroEnglish) May 21, 2021
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