The Trump administration placed stiff sanctions Tuesday on the wife of Nicaragua’s embattled leader and on his top security aide, sharply ratcheting up pressure on the Central American autocrat to back down from his political opposition and hold elections.
The financial sanctions bar all U.S. banks and other entities from any economic dealings with Nicaraguan Vice President Rosario Murillo, President Daniel Ortega’s wife, who exercises much of the day-to-day power in Nicaragua.
Also hit by the sanctions was Nestor Moncada Lau, a former state security official who is widely seen as Ortega’s second most trusted security aide, after Murillo.
In an executive order, President Donald Trump accused Ortega of systematically dismantling democratic institutions, using indiscriminate violence against opponents and destabilizing the nation’s economy through corruption.
Ortega, a former guerrilla leader of the leftist Sandinista Front, sent paramilitary squads of armed, masked gunmen to quell street protests that erupted earlier this year against his increasingly autocratic government.
Murillo exercises partial control of the national police and the paramilitary forces, which a senior administration official said were credibly blamed for extrajudicial killings, torture and kidnappings. The official briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.
Some 350 Nicaraguans have died in the protests, which largely subsided by July when paramilitary forces regained control of the streets and began a large-scale roundup of protesters. At least 500 people have been arrested on charges related to the popular uprising.
For his part, Moncada Lau dispersed payments to the squads working to quell the street protests and engaged in acts of corruption on Ortega’s behalf, the official said.
He said further sanctions against other members of Ortega’s inner circle will be forthcoming if Ortega does not heed the signal from Washington.
“It’s a message to President Ortega to find an exit strategy and to begin a process for anticipated free and fair elections,” the official said.
Ortega is not scheduled to hold new presidential elections until 2021. He has ruled since 2007, and since then has taken control of the supreme court, the national assembly, the electoral tribunal and other levers of power in the country of six million people.
The Trump administration slapped an earlier round of sanctions in early July on three top Nicaraguan officials, including an Ortega in-law, Francisco Diaz, who at the time led the national police. Those sanctions came under the U.S. Global Magnitsky Act, which allows the administration to yank visas and target individuals responsible for committing human rights violations.