Amid unrest, Nicaragua’s ruling party organizes a series of land grabs

Squatters walk along a newly built road in a settlement on the outskirts of Chinandega, Nicaragua, on July 24, 2018. The settlement was established in early June on farmland that was seized without compensation, with the support of authorities in the ruling Sandinista Front.
Squatters walk along a newly built road in a settlement on the outskirts of Chinandega, Nicaragua, on July 24, 2018. The settlement was established in early June on farmland that was seized without compensation, with the support of authorities in the ruling Sandinista Front. Courtesy of the César A. Castillo family

On repeated occasions in the last two months, squatters have descended on swaths of prime land around Nicaragua to set up overnight settlements, with acres of simple huts popping up almost overnight in some cases.

Owners say the Sandinista Front of embattled President Daniel Ortega organized the land grabs to reward the political party’s hard-core supporters and to retaliate against the business elite that once supported Ortega but now have largely joined a civil groundswell calling for his removal.

About 8,800 acres have been swallowed up in 30 land grabs since May, according to a registry by the Union of Agricultural Producers of Nicaragua, a national trade group. Some of the takeovers involved armed men seeking to exercise control of properties while others involved masses of squatters who immediately threw up huts on the seized land.

For the family of César A. Castillo Cantón, whose grandfather bought La Pañueleta ranch outside Chinandega in 1904, the invasion began June 1, when hundreds of squatters congregated along the edge of the property before surging onto the land a few hours later.

Now, as far as the eye can see, huts made of wooden poles and black plastic dot the acreage, a settlement for thousands of people. On land most recently used to plant peanuts, residents are now digging trenches to lay water pipes. Hundreds of lots are already fenced off. The black and red Sandinista Front flag flaps above many of the huts.

“He [Ortega] is using us as an example, ‘This can happen to you or anybody else,’ ” said Castillo’s wife, Claudia María Montealegre.

Some of the huts on seized land in Chinandega, Nicaragua, are sturdier than others. Land takeovers have proliferated in the country as a crisis hitting President Daniel Ortega drags on. Tim Johnson

The family initially summoned the police. “We received a call telling us that they had invaded our land,” Castillo said. Between 30 and 40 police officers arrived and shooed the squatters off the land, but once the police left, the squatters poured back onto the property.

The next day, the police began giving the family the runaround.

“They told us the chief wasn’t there so they couldn’t give us a copy of the [criminal] complaint,” Castillo said.

Entrenched on the property in a matter of days, the squatters sent messages to the owners that they would be killed if they approached the farm. Lookouts are posted around the perimeter.

“If you pass by slowly, they will throw rocks at you,” Montealegre said.

Nicaragua’s largest business and agricultural group, the Superior Council of Private Enterprise, or COSEP, blames the government for organizing the land takeovers as part of a campaign to lean on the business community.

“It is a way of pressuring the private landowners not to go against the government,” said José Adán Aguerri, the council’s president. “It is direct pressure on the private sector.”

For about a decade after Ortega returned to office in 2007, the private sector maintained an informal pact with the one-time leftist guerrilla leader: Business owners remained silent over Ortega’s autocratic concentration of power and he responded with business-friendly rules that allowed them to prosper.

That pact ruptured after April 18 when a wellspring of public resentment against Ortega gave way to months of street protests and a crushing campaign by police and paramilitary shock troops formed to quell the uprising. Some 300 people have died. Human rights monitors blame government-controlled forces for most of the killing.

Land seizures are part of Ortega’s battle to stop the protests, Aguerri said.

“What is important here is they are saying to you, ‘I, the government, am the one that can assure you that nothing will happen to you. If you aren’t with me, this will happen to you.’ This is the message that the government is giving. ‘It’s in your interest not to fight with me,’ ” Aguerri said.

The erosion of respect for rule of law with the land seizures only underscores the high-stakes struggle unfolding in Nicaragua over Ortega’s future.

“The legal security that we enjoyed all these years is lost because of the craving to maintain control, power at all cost,” Aguerri said.

Nicragua Unrest.JPG
People march with Nicaraguan national flags during the commemoration of Student Day, demanding the ouster of President Daniel Ortega and the release of political prisoners, in Managua, Nicaragua, on Monday, July 23, 2018. Anti-government protests began in mid-April over cuts to the social security system but broadened to include demands for Ortega to leave office and early elections to be held. Arnulfo Franco AP

Property seizures also are drawing U.S. attention. At least eight of the 30 land takeovers registered so far involve owners who hold both U.S. and Nicaragua citizenship, and historical echoes reverberate. The Sandinista Front took power in 1979 after overthrowing a U.S.-backed dictator and ruled until losing elections in 1990. Before leaving power, the Front distributed more than 100,000 farms, houses and other property to its leaders and followers. The seizure became known as La Piñata, the candy-filled papier-mâché figures that dump candy on delighted children when smashed with a stick.

It took more than a quarter century for Nicaragua’s government to sort out La Piñata cases, and offer state compensation for the last of the seizures, a process that Washington declared crucial for respect for rule of law and healthy U.S.-Nicaraguan relations.

The State Department said it “condemns increasing invasions of private property” affecting Nicaraguans and U.S. citizens alike.

“By targeting property owners that have spoken out against his rule, Daniel Ortega appears to be using these measures to further intimidate his perceived opponents,” a spokeswoman said in an emailed statement.

At another ranch outside this agricultural hub in northwest Nicaragua, a seizure occurred in a different fashion, highlighting how some takeovers are massive organized squatter invasions. In other cases, smaller armed groups occupy property but do not set up large-scale encampments.

“There are about 40 people in the house on the hacienda right now,” said Martha Navarro Haggard of her 310-acre sugar cane plantation in San José del Obraje, northeast of Chinandega.

The takeover of her ranch took place June 22, she said. The armed invaders told her foreman that he had an hour to remove about 20 tractors and mechanical plows from the property or they would be burned, she added.

A simple hut made of black plastic sheeting is typical of the hundreds of structures now sitting on the property in Chinandega, Nicaragua, of César A. Castillo Cantón, a landowner whose property was taken over by squatters on June 1, 2018. The nation’s top business group says the government of embattled President Daniel Ortega has organized dozens of land takeovers to retaliate against affluent landowners who no longer support his government Tim Johnson

Navarro Haggard, 55, said she and her husband both hold dual Nicaragua and U.S. citizenship. Other dual citizens include Michael Healy, president of the Union of Agricultural Producers of Nicaragua, who also plays a high-profile role in the now-stalled dialogue sponsored by the Catholic Church to find a way out of the crisis. Healy endured a takeover of his Zopilota farm in Rivas department in the nation’s southwest in June.

Healy’s mother, Esperanza Lacayo de Healy, saw her Santa Lucia and La Chatilla farms seized. She, too, has U.S. citizenship.

At a time of turmoil for Ortega, the seizure and distribution of land is a way to put pressure on a sector that once supported him, said Vilma Núñez de Escorcia, founder and president of the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights.

“They are using these [takeovers] as spoils of war. It is retaliation against private landowners who were once allied with him,” Núñez said. “He feels that they betrayed him.”

She is certain that central authorities have orchestrated the campaign by squatters.

“They are taken there and the police support them in getting in. … They are given four poles and black plastic,” she said.

The takeovers continue to unfold every few days. Land grabs occurred July 17, 18 and again on Tuesday, when invaders seized a 1,500-acre cattle ranch in Villa del Camen, southwest of Managua, said Julio Munguia, technical manager of the agricultural producers body.

Castillo, owner of the former peanut farm, offered some quick mental math to a query about how many squatters now occupy his land. He said organizers plotted off and fenced parcels measuring roughly 30 by 60 feet. Given the size of the farm, “there could be 5,500 parcels on there. … In a few years, there could be 30,000 people living there.”

Neither he nor his wife said there was much they could do.

“Cry out loud,” said Montealegre.

“You can’t do anything else,” Castillo said.

Tim Johnson, 202 288-9536, @timjohnson4