They ride in the back of Toyota double-cabin pickup trucks, assault rifles slung over their shoulders. No one knows their identities. They always wear black ski masks or hoods.
The gunmen — between 1,000 and 1,500 of them, according to some estimates — are part of a recently formed paramilitary force protecting the continued rule of President Daniel Ortega against a three-month-old civilian uprising. Their main tactic is terror. They conduct roundups, fire at protesters, carry out dark-of-night raids and menace the population.
The Pro-Human Rights Association of Nicaragua said Thursday that paramilitary forces have conducted 595 “kidnappings” and disappearances of citizens since the uprising began April 18. The group said it has tallied 97 killings since July 11.
“Today in Nicaragua, there exists an undeclared state of siege,” Alvaro Leiva, executive director of the rights group, said at a news conference.
Police statements make no mention of hooded gunmen when describing deaths, such as that of Brazilian medical student Raynéia Lima, who was shot and killed Monday night in Managua. Police said a private security guard shot the 31-year-old. But they have made no arrests, and her vehicle has vanished. Brazil lodged a diplomatic protest.
In some ways, the paramilitary forces have achieved their objective. Almost none of the scores of massive roadblocks that paralyzed the country from the uprising’s onset in April remain. In public statements, Ortega sounds upbeat, claiming that the country is returning to normal.
“It’s been a week now that turmoil has stopped,” Ortega told Fox News on Monday.
While Ortega may feel he’s gaining the upper hand, his opponents say he’s taken Nicaragua on a dark path. Tourist arrivals have plunged, and 800 of the nation’s 2,500 restaurants are dark. Jittery Nicaraguans have yanked some $715 million from banks since the beginning of April.
“People go home at 5 or 6 and they don’t leave at night out of fear,” said Lucy Valenti,president of the Nicaraguan National Chamber of Tourism, a trade group.
Ortega denies that he had anything to do with creating the informal militias that continue to patrol city and country roads, though less visibly than week or two ago. But the fiction is blatant. Television broadcasts from July 14 show the 72-year-old revolutionary-turned-autocrat embracing hooded gunmen after they dislodged protesters in Masaya, where opponents of Ortega had turned the city into a citadel against his rule.
”They can detain people on the highway. They can search vehicles, ask for papers, search cellphones,” said Sergio Ramirez, an acclaimed writer who served as Ortega’s vice president from 1985 to 1990 but is now a bitter critic. “You can turn up tortured on the side of the road or jailed in El Chipote,” a notorious prison.
Uniformed police often accompany the paramilitary forces but it is the militias who are better armed. They carry high-caliber rifles, including ones with telescopic sights. One was photographed with a rocket-propelled grenade.
“They don’t answer to anyone,”Ramirez said. ”It is as if in the United States the Ku Klux Klan would appear carrying weapons and doing roundups, and the police were protecting the actions of the Ku Klux Klan.”
Leaders of an opposition alliance seeking Ortega’s removal before his term ends in 2021 have pledged to use nonviolent means, but the fierce crackdown may imperil that objective.
“The more time that passes, the more desire people have to defend themselves,” said Fidel Moreira Flores, leader of the Center for Governance and Democracy Studies, a non-governmental organization with offices in Nicaragua. He said young people are restive. “They are shouting: Look for weapons so we can defend ourselves.”
Like many civil society leaders, Moreira fears that his own arrest may be imminent.
“Some friends called me yesterday and told me I am on a list and should leave the country,” Moreira said, adding that his contacts are connected to the government.
Lesther Alemán, a 20-year-old university student who took part in early rounds of Catholic Church-mediated negotiations between Ortega and the opposition, said paramilitary forces are pursuing anyone deemed supportive of the opposition.
“People who offer provisions are being hunted. People who go to the marches are being hunted. Those who have lent their homes as safe houses are being hunted. They are on a constant witch hunt,” Alemán said in taped responses sent to a reporter from a secret location.
Alemán said he wasn’t personally afraid but “I am very worried about my family.”
Those who look down the road say they fear the paramilitary units eventually will turn to open criminality, making Nicaragua look more like its violence-wracked neighbors to the north: Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.
“You create them but you don’t control them. They have their own social dynamic. They are starting to rob on the streets,” said Óscar René Vargas, a sociologist.
Armed groups aren’t Ortega’s only tool to combat his opponents. The Sandinista Front-controlled National Assembly on July 16 approved a sweeping antiterror law that allows the state to prosecute anyone who causes death or injuries or destroys public or private property.
The loose wording lets the government interpret the law to go after “people who are simply exercising their right to protest,” Rupert Colville, spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, told a U.N. news service.
But Nicaraguans are not prone to bottling up their feelings, and even as ordinary citizens hunker down in fear they have made life difficult for officials who venture into public.
“You see now that the principal Sandinista officials can’t go to the supermarket. They board airplanes and people start shouting at them, ‘murderers,’” said José Adán Aguerri, president of Nicaragua’s largest business and agricultural group, the Superior Council of Private Enterprise.