Robert Muggah is the co-founder of Igarapé Institute and SecDev Group.
Nicaragua’s political crisis is spinning out of control, with political tensions rising to levels not seen since the 1970s, during the country´s revolution to oust the Somoza dictatorship. Protesters are demanding early elections or the resignation of President Daniel Ortega and his wife, vice-president Rosario Murillo, accusing them of corruption, despotism and nepotism. A full-scale civic insurrection is underway and the country’s reputation as an oasis of stability is rapidly coming undone.
At least 280 civilians have been killed and another 1,800 injured since protests began three months ago. Protesters are incensed with Mr. Ortega’s decision to increase social security contributions and reduce pensions. Rather than negotiate, the President is violently suffocating the protests. Pro-government paramilitaries, police and soldiers armed with handguns and assault rifles have been clashing with protesters equipped with slings, stones and homemade mortars.
The situation could, however, be much worse. Nicaragua is not a particularly well-armed society. There are an estimated 5.2 guns per 100 people in the country, one of the smallest ratios in the world. Last year, the homicide rate was just 6.8 per 100,000, among the lowest in the Americas. This is half that of neighbouring Costa Rica, known as the Switzerland of Latin America. By way of comparison, Honduras and El Salvador´s registered murder rates are 43.6 and 60.1 per 100,000, respectively.
Being known as a surprisingly safe haven for decades, Nicaragua has nowhere near the level of gang violence as its neighbours, home to the notorious MS13 and Barrio 18. What is more, the government has avoided applying zero-tolerance, tough-on-crime or “mano dura” approaches that are common elsewhere in Latin America. Instead, public authorities in Nicaragua invested in police reform, community policing, alternative sentencing for non-violent offenders and development programs – especially poverty and inequality reduction.
But commitment to these strategies started to wane in 2007, the year after President Ortega was re-elected. The Sandinista government slowed security reforms and partnerships with non-governmental organizations amid accusations that some of them advanced anti-government agendas.
The seeds of corruption and instability were planted well before 2007. While Nicaragua has largely avoided egregious drug-related violence, drug traffickers have been installed in the country for several decades. Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel established a foothold, as have the Zetas and some Colombian crime groups. Cocaine is regularly trans-shipped through the country, allegedly with support from President Ortega’s inner circle.
The Nicaraguan authorities have made a show of cracking down on the drugs trade, including high-profile arrests of dealers and the occasional interdiction of drugs shipments. Despite accusations by the Ortega administration, there is little evidence that his political opponents are “terrorists” or financed by drug traffickers. To the contrary, the Ortega administration´s electoral campaigns are alleged to have been supported, in part, by drug money. There are also frequent reports of Nicaraguan and Venezuelan officials co-operating in transporting narcotics. These claims go back to the 1980s, when Mr. Ortega was accused of colluding with the former drug kingpin Pablo Escobar.
In 2017, Nicaraguans’ famously high trust in its security forces also began to waver. During protest marches last year, police and pro-government militia detained marchers and six people were allegedly killed by armed forces – an ominous prelude of the bloodshed to come.
What makes the latest outbreak of political violence especially surprising is just how quickly public opinion has turned against President Ortega and Vice-President Murillo. Despite a general queasiness about presidential term limits and corruption, most Nicaraguans were satisfied before the outbreak of the latest protests. In 2017, over 70 per cent of them approved of the government and 75 per cent believed that conditions were improving. The overall poverty rate had dropped from 42 per cent to around 29 per cent since 2007, and the economy was growing at a respectable 4 to 5 per cent per year. The turn-around in the public mood is remarkable; minor-league despots should take note.
While a national dialogue is underway to resolve the crisis, the only way out of the impasse is for Mr. Ortega to call elections or step down. The Nicaraguan government must fully abide by the recommendations set out by an independent Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). Canada, along with its partners, can help force negotiations and monitor elections, but for any agreement to stick, it must be a Nicaraguan-led process.