Nicaragua’s Catholic Church denounces mob violence

Nicaragua’s Catholic hierarchy is condemning Saturday’s ugly incident of mob violence and calling for peace and dialogue following the Sandinistas’ hostile takeover of a pension protest that was originally organized by impoverished senior citizens.

As Sandinista followers get bussed into the capital to occupy the streets and prepare for Monday’s countermarch against the elderly’s demand for a partial pension, Nicaragua’s clergy is speaking out from the pulpit against what Auxiliary Bishop Silvio Báez denounced as the “cowardly violence” committed by the “vulgar and violent mob” organized by the ruling party.

“How were we not going to raise our voices against the injustice that is being committed against the elderly, who are giving an example to the rest of us? They are fighting for themselves and for our future too, so how could we remain quiet?” said Monseñor Báez during the Sunday Mass, said in front of a cathedral full of emotional churchgoers who stood and cheered several times during the homily.

The mass, which was hailed by the opposition as a powerful condemnation of state-sponsored Sandinista terrorism, was not broadcast by Channel 2 TV, which normally carries a live broadcast of the mass but was unable to last Sunday because station technicians were setting up a satellite link to cover the Confederations Cup later that day, according to station director Marta Pasos de Sacasa. The television station’s broadcast of the movie “Free Willy” instead of the Sunday mass was not an attempt to boycott the homily, the station director stressed, adding that live transmissions of mass will resume on July 7 after the soccer tournament ends.

Churchgoers, angered by what they called censorship by the media, tweeted highlights of the homily and thanked Báez for taking such a strong stance against government abuse.

“That mass by Báez just made me want to become a Catholic,” tweeted Ismael López.

In the front pews in the cathedral were the dozens of youth activists who were violently assaulted on Saturday morning by a mob of drunken thugs dressed in Sandinista party t-shirts. Following the predawn dust-up and the ensuing occupation of the streets by the Sandinista Youth, the opposition protesters retreated hastily to the sanctuary of Managua’s Cathedral, where they are receiving donations of food and money from supporters.

“Our group is paranoid now because the mob stole our cédula IDs, our cellphones and our credit cards, so they know who we are and where we live and they will be watching us,” said one 21-year-old university student who was a victim of the Saturday morning beat-down. “We really don’t know what to do. We can’t go to the police, because they were part of this. So we really don’t know who else to turn to.”

Outside the church’s gates, political and social tensions continue to simmer on the streets of Managua, where Sandinistas gather for a reactionary and officially sanctioned march on the capital this Monday. In the virtual realm of social media, outraged citizens voice their disgust with the administration’s intolerance. On Facebook and Twitter, activists post photos and hundreds of emotive comments every hour under the hashtag #ocupaINSS.

“The attitude and actions of this shitty government are embarrassing,” tweeted Oscar Leo Avila.

“Little by little, people’s fear is turning into anger. That is how Somoza was overthrown, when the people lost their fear,” tweeted Cinthia Membreño.

Saturday morning’s mob madness

Last week’s protest in front of INSS culminated on Friday night with a free solidarity concert that drew hundreds of youths who are in solidarity with the cause. At that point, the Sandinistas decided they’d seen enough.

Luciana Chamorro (photo/ Tim Rogers)

Hours after the concert ended, as a reduced group of youths broke down the sound equipment, a Sandinista mob of 200 masked thugs arrived (quite fittingly) aboard municipal garbage trucks to crack skulls and destroy the protest camp.

Some two dozen youth activists were beaten viciously and robbed of their belongings while the senior citizens where manhandled and tossed on the ground like collateral damage, according to witnesses. As the thugs attacked the kids with clubs and bats, dousing gasoline on their makeshift camp and allegedly threatening to kill and rape the younger protesters, the police officers forming a human roadblock a few feet away stood around like storefront dummies.

“The mob was yelling, ‘Get on the ground! Everyone on the ground!’ I covered my neck and threw myself on the ground at the feet of the police. I could see two mobs moving in on us from both ends of the street. They were all wearing Sandinista youth t-shirts put on backwards, and had shirts tied over their faces,” remembers youth organizer Luciana Chamorro, 22. “From the ground, I could see that the mob was starting to beat up some of the guys in our group. I tried to get the police officers to help, but they kicked me in the stomach. I looked up at the officer and asked for protection, but he yelled, “Head down! Eyes on the ground!’”

As the police stood by, the masked mob pinned the youth activists on the street, first robbing them of their wallets, cellphones and personal effects and then alternately beating them and yelling in their ears, according to the victims.

“A man told me he was going to rape me,” Chamorro says. “All around me, they were yelling at people on the ground.”

The assailants, many of whom reportedly reeked of alcohol as they shouted through their t-shirt masks, also roughed up the senior citizens, though witnesses say the younger activists were clearly the primary target of the mob’s vengeance.

“The mob operated with an incredible quickness; I heard only shouts of panic, and then screaming,” says another victim, whose body is covered in scratches and bruises from the beating he suffered. He says the mob seemed trained and coordinated, and that most of them appeared to be in their mid 30s—too old, perhaps, to really be members of the Sandinista Youth.

The young victims were then dragged to their feet and marched off in different directions by the masked thugs.

Chamorro says her group was led toward Plaza Inter, where they managed to allude their captors by running down a darkened street, where a kindly neighbor opened the door to her house to offer refuge. “The woman gave us shelter, and told us to be quiet and not to speak. She told us the incident reminded her of the Somoza dictatorship,” says Chamorro, who is the granddaughter of former President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro and martyred newspaper publisher Pedro Joaquín Chamorro. “From inside the house, we heard four gunshots in the street. We didn’t know what was happening. Then the mob came down the street, banging sticks on the metal gates of each home as they looked for us.”

Oscar Hernandez is sporting a shiner after getting beat up by the mob on Saturday (photo/ Tim Rogers)

Oscar Elias Hernandez, 23, was part of another group of youth activists who were marched off in a different direction toward the nearby San Pedro Cemetery.

“In the cemetery the Sandinistas ordered us to lie face-down on the ground, and they said, ‘This is where you are going to stay; we are going to kill you here’,” Hernández says. “Then they said, ‘You have 10 seconds to run. And don’t look back!’ They started counting down from 10 and we all got up and ran.”

As dawn turned to daylight, the group of beaten and scattered youths began to regroup at the gas station near Plaza Inter, where frightened and bruised friends tearfully embraced one another and took count of who was missing and injured. By 9 a.m., uniformed Sandinista Youth had set up in the traffic circle at Plaza Inter, blaring President Ortega’s campaign music and claiming to be there in solidarity with the same senior citizens who they had just ousted from the INSS.

The displaced senior citizens, meanwhile, sat on the street a block from where they had been previously camped out. As of Sunday, the senior group–diminished but determined–remained on the street, surrounded by Sandinista activists who claim to be there to support them.

Monseñor Baez talks to the Sandinista Youth (photo/ Radio Catolica)

The Sandinistas’ aggressive takeover of the senior citizen’s pension protest was too sardonic for the Catholic clergy to stomach. Monseñor Báez went to the traffic circle at Plaza Inter on Saturday morning with Archbishop Leopoldo Brenes to confront the Sandinista Youth and urge them to stop provoking the population by inciting violence under the false banner of peace, love and reconciliation.

“Go home and study for your exams; stop wasting your time here,” Báez told the group. When the leader of the Sandinista Youth group said they were there to support the senior citizens, Báez’s patience ran out. “Be serious,” he said. “We are not fools and you are not fooling anyone; this (demonstration) is opposed to peace and it’s only creating tension.”

While religious authorities speak out against the violence, Nicaragua’s political authorities remain quiet. Amid calls for her resignation, National Police Chief Aminta Granera has not made any public appearances or comments since the Saturday morning mob attack. Police spokesman Fernando Borge, meanwhile, denies reports of police involvement in violence against senior citizens, but didn’t offer any further comment.

President Daniel Ortega remains tucked away in his compound.

Nicaragua’s Sandinista-dominated TV networks and other media outlets are also silent on the story, occupying their programming schedule with sports, telenovelas, reruns and other mindless blather.

The Sandinista website El 19 Digital focused its weekend news coverage on a series of expectant stories about Monday’s march in support of the Ortega administration.

What comes next?

As the Sandinista government spends money to mobilize supporters to march in celebration of itself, the bruised and battered opposition is left trying to figure out how to turn their black-and-blue marks into a rallying cry for the blue and white.

For the young men and women sheltered inside the gates of the cathedral, last week’s protest started as a show of support for the rights of the elderly, but quickly become something much bigger.

“I can’t deny people are afraid, but I think that something is changing in the way young people are starting to confront repression,” says Chamorro. “I have been involved in protests before, but never before have I experienced this type of repression and violence without control…I feel more outraged than ever. This has only strengthened my resolve.”

Correction: Channel 2TV’s director Marta Pasos de Sacasa says the station’s decision to not broadcast Sunday mass was not an attempt boycott the homily, rather a technical issue as the station encoded its satellite link to cover the Confederations Cup later that day. The clarification has be added to the article in paragraph 4.