By Maynor Salazar and Ismael Lopez (Confidencial)
HAVANA TIMES — “Be careful, there’s a truck lurking on the El Periodista roundabout.”
“A Hilux pickup truck passed by shooting outside Santa Maria Church.”
“There are a group of hooded men on the highway heading towards Old Santo Domingo.”
Warnings on social media are becoming more and more frequent. “Death squads”, the name people in Managua’s neighborhoods and suburbs use, are five-member paramilitary squads who travel around on the back of pickup trucks.
A source connected to the National Police told CONFIDENCIAL that vigilante groups (which the Government continues to deny their existence) are made up of Managua City Hall employees, civilian-dressed policemen, former policemen, veteran guerrilla fighters and gang members from Managua’s neighborhoods and other cities.
“They don’t necessarily have one of each. Sometimes, it’s the police or former guerrilla fighters who lead the operation,” the source explained.
They are each paid 300-500 cordobas (around 10 to 17 USD). If they travel on motorbikes, they are given a fuel voucher. If they only move around on the pickups, then it will have a full tank. They meet at the Managua City Hall’s district offices. “Sometimes at gas stations. They always move around at night and their mission is to create a climate of terror. If they have a target, then they kidnap them and transfer them to El Chipote for [State Security] interrogation,” the source told us.
Keller Steven Perez Duarte, 23, was one of these death squads’ victims. His lifeless body appeared on El Plomo Hill, with signs of torture. The lawyer of Nicaragua’s Permanent Human Rights Commission (CPDH), Pablo Cuevas, explained that two UNAN students recognized the young man and had said that the last time they saw him alive, he was leaving the occupied university on a motorbike, without a helmet, to buy something.
The CPDH has also documented the case of a young man (who asked to remain anonymous out of fear for his own life) who was kidnapped in the Hugo Chavez Neighborhood, when he was riding his motorbike. He said that a group of hooded men were traveling on a grey Hilux truck and shot at one of his motorbike’s tires.
They trapped him, threatened him at gunpoint and handcuffed him. They tortured him and he passed out. The young man says that they stripped him and threw him on El Plomo Hill. “I’m sure they must have thought I was dead,” he said.
Kidnapped by paramilitary forces
On May 24th, Andrew Ubeda Martinez left his home to buy a pastry for his mother. He was with his friend, Katherine Lopez. Walking down the street in Managua’s Americas 2 neighborhood didn’t imply any danger. However, hours went by and his mother, Reyna Martinez, got so worried that she began calling his cellphone. He didn’t answer. Then, she tried the young girl’s phone, she didn’t answer either. Andrew has been missing for over a week. He is 19 years old and his friend is 18.
His mother has searched for him “in the sky, seas and land.” He hasn’t turned up. She was told that he was being held in a cell at the Judicial Assistance Department (DAJ), also known as El Chipote. And in spite of her asking for him and being told he was being detained then, he disappeared from registration lists. “He just went to buy me a cake because it was my birthday,” the distressed mother said.
Her son’s disappearance was the worst birthday “present”
Andrew was kidnapped, his uncle Julio Martinez said. “Neighbors saw a grey Hilux 4×4 pass by and several men pushed them in.” The young man had taken part in two peaceful marches demanding Daniel Ortega’s resignation from power and justice for the victims of National Police and paramilitary forces’ repression, during these two months of protests.
On Friday June 1st, the National Police issued a statement claiming that “on Thursday May 31st, at approximately 7PM at night, Christian Josue Mendoza Fernandez, Andrew Salvador Ubeda Martinez and Katherine Nourian Ruiz Lopez were captured.” Mrs. Reyna rejects the police’s version of events.
“They denied me access to my son in El Chipote. An official had already assured me that he was there. Some prisoners also confirmed this. I don’t know why they are doing this to me,” she said, her voice breaking.
According to the official statement, the Police will carry out “investigations into organized crime, murder, car theft and other crimes… once these investigations are completed, the police report will be forwarded onto the Public Ministry so that it can charge the detainees accordingly.”
“Now, they are telling me that they are charging him with several crimes. My son isn’t a criminal. He just went out to buy me a birthday cake. He hasn’t stolen anything, either him or his friend,” she said.
The police report has lots of gaps in information. Andrew went missing on May 24th, but the official report says that he wasn’t arrested until June 1st. However, witness accounts from other inmates at El Chipote, and confirmation from an official at this enclosure, who had spoken to Reyna previously, contradict “this set up” they want to make.
Andrew was kidnapped by a “death squad.” And now he is connected to crimes which his mother is sure he didn’t commit. Gonzalo Carrion, CENIDH’s legal director, said that the National Police tried to wipe their hands clean by saying that he was captured recently when evidence and witness accounts refute this version.
The death squads are out of control
Sergio Lopez, a taxi driver, told us that on Wednesday night, he was chased by a white Hilux 4×4 truck and at least 8 men on motorbikes near the Jardines de Veracruz neighborhood. “They were ready to rob me,” he said.
The taxi driver had four passengers on board when he saw the truck and motorbikes on his tail. “One reached right up to me and wanted to shoot me but his gun was jammed. I took advantage and sped off and entered Rubenia neighborhood,” he said.
On Thursday May 31st, several citizens denounced a paramilitary attack on stores located in Plaza Familiar, on the Masaya highway.
“I was in a restaurant and a Hilux 4×4 passed by, shooting. Restaurant customers ran to the bathrooms and staff went running to the kitchen while shots kept coming,” Yasser Morazan wrote on his Facebook account.
The police source who spoke to CONFIDENCIAL assures us that this won’t be the paramilitary’s last intimidating act. “As long as (the Government) can keep paying them, they will continue on the street,” they said.
He revealed that they have “weapons which have been seized in operations against regular crime groups.” They also have pipes and devices to give electric shocks. “They are also trained for this,” he said.
CENIDH’s legal director, Gonzalo Carrion, insists that these groups have existed for a few years now. In 2013, they attacked young people and the elderly at a protest camp, in an operation which City Hall members formed part of, as well as Sandinista Youth members and undercover police agents.
The idea that vigilante groups are made up of civilians is aimed at removing the National Police from these acts of violence which they are clearly involved in.
“It’s to say that they aren’t State Police. A dispute among individuals. Its part of the Government’s terror strategy,” Carrion states.
The lawyer was ironic about the financial resources it takes to travel about in 4×4 trucks, “armed to the teeth” and kidnapping young people from Managua’s neighborhoods.
“They say that these are organized gangs who are killing people. What the Police says doesn’t make any sense,” Carrion said.
Paramilitary move around on a Managua City Hall vehicle
The silver 4×2 Nissan Frontier, license plate M 175-870 which carried a hooded paramilitary member carrying an AR-15 firearm on May 11th belongs to Managua City Hall, according to Confidencial’s own investigation and Noticiero Seis in Punto of Radio Corporacion.
The 2008 truck’s vehicle identification number JN1CHGD22Z0083974 and engine number TD27821939 is registered in Managua City Hall’s name in the National Police’s National Traffic Database, according to documents we have obtained.
At Managua City Hall, municipal secretary Fidel Moreno has more power than City Mayor Reyna Rueda.
The paramilitary member was captured in a photo at the La Robelo traffic lights by LA PRENSA photographer Uriel Molina, when he was traveling in the light of day along the North Highway. The newspaper published the photo on that very same day on its social media pages and then in its printed copy, the following day.
In the photo, you can see a paramilitary standing up on the back of the truck, leaning on the cabin. He was wearing a black t-shirt and hood and was holding a war gun in a shooting position. Two young people were traveling on the back of the vehicle, crunched down, one of whom was wearing a red t-shirt and holding a homemade mortar launcher.
Ever since the protests broke out in Nicaragua and Ortega’s government began to repress university students, the population has denounced paramilitary forces traveling on vehicles linked to state institutions, including the ministries of Health and Transportation, and several city halls.