On the afternoon of Friday, September 28, 2018, farmer Santos Bellorín Lira was tending to the small grocery store at his home in the Santa Teresa de Guasuyuca community, in Pueblo Nuevo, Estelí. That same afternoon, but more than 250 kilometers away, in Managua, Commissioner General Jaime Vanegas Vega, Inspector General of the Police, announced that civic demonstrations were “illegal” thus effectively imposing a de facto police state in Nicaragua.
The peasant's daily routine and the police ordinance had no link at first. However, three years and one month later, in November 2021, Santos Bellorín's life was swept away by one of the many transgressions of the Ortega dictatorship within the police state.
The peasant was illegally detained on November 6, 2021; tried and convicted under fabricated charges and without the right to defense in February 2022; banished to the United States and denationalized in February 2023. His case – like that of hundreds of other Nicaraguans – sums up what Nicaragua suffers under the police state.
““I was leading an ordinary life with my family, working peacefully and never going without my regular meals. But suddenly this catastrophe, this ruin, came into my life and changed it unjustly,” the farmer reflects, speaking by telephone from New Jersey, United States.
Police state: from a preventive measure to a repressive strategy
Santos Bellorín's daily life was like a coin, with two unchanging sides: working the land in the morning and tending to the grocery store in the afternoon. He did not belong to any political party, nor was he an open opponent. Having never owned a smartphone, it could be said that he was digitally “illiterate,” yet the Sandinista justice system charged him and sentenced him to eleven years in prison for alleged “conspiracy” and “cybercrimes.”
“Why?” is the question the farmer has been asking himself since November 2021. “If I had walked in the 2018 protests, I would say so. If I handled information or someone passed me news, I would understand. But I was out of that loop, which is why all of this is strange to me,” he comments.
Former political prisoners, human rights defenders, and security experts agree that the police state is not designed to exclusively affect opponents but to intimidate any citizen who goes against what is “established” by the dictatorship of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo.
“(The police state) emerged as a mitigating measure in response to the marches that became a political problem for the regime, because they showed strength (of the citizenry), and a generalized rejection of Ortega and Murillo,” emphasizes a security expert who asked to remain unnamed.
He adds that the police state in Nicaragua became “a strategy of the regime to repress, imprison and persecute” dissidents.
The police ordinance, dated September 2018, came after the dictatorship shot down citizen protests, in which it killed more than 320 citizens, wounded thousands, and kidnapped and imprisoned hundreds of protesters, as confirmed by national and international human rights organizations.
Dictatorship perfects repression
Juan Sebastián Chamorro, a former political prisoner, emphasizes that the Nicaraguan police state copied the Cuban dictatorship, with which the FSLN has maintained ties for more than 50 years. “The Cubans know perfectly well how to deal with this type of crisis and they export this repressive knowledge.”
“They (Ortega's regime) have a plan,” he continues, “whose fundamental objective is not to let go of power and, therefore, they execute all these repressive actions.”
The criminalization of the marches was followed by constant harassment in the homes of opponents; the prohibition of meetings in homes or other centers; police summons for carrying or selling the blue and white flag; threats from FSLN fanatics; closure and theft of media; cancellation and confiscation of NGOs, unions, and universities; kidnappings, prosecutions and convictions of any dissident leadership or voice; among other violations of civil and political rights of citizens.
Maribel, a resident of a city in the center of the country, left the opposition organizations to stop police harassment. “I belonged to the UNAB (Blue and White Unity) group and every time we defined a place to meet, the riot police arrived and surrounded the block. That happened every time we tried to hold a meeting. They had infiltrated our WhatsApp group or tapped our phones,” she says.
“I was under constant siege by the police at my house. So, I made the decision to resign and I announced it in the WhatsApp group. What happened when I resigned? -They immediately stopped harassing me,” she explains.
Human rights defender and member of the Human Rights Collective Nicaragua Nunca Más, Gonzalo Carrión, explains that the police state “combines” the authoritarian “nature” of Orteguismo with an “evolution” of repressive methods.
“We are already in the fifth year of systematic repression. They perfected it and added banishment, stripping of nationality, and confiscations,” he details.
NGOs canceled between December 2018 and September 2023, according to a CONFIDENCIAL monitoring. Among these 27 public and private universities.
political prisoners between 2018 and August 2023, of which at least 89 remain in prison. Among them is the bishop of Matagalpa, Rolando Álvarez.
Nicaraguans exiled and stripped of nationality. In addition, hundreds have been prevented from returning to the country, including some 80 religious men and women.
Farmers were the first to suffer from the police state
Felix Maradiaga, a released political prisoner, stresses that the repressive apparatus of the FSLN, of which the Police is a fundamental part, “did not emerge in a vacuum” and “always had a great destructive capacity.”
However, “before 2018, the political leadership - represented by the Ortega-Murillo family - had not considered it necessary to use the full force or repression,” but during the civic protests of that year “the regime sensed very closely the probability of collapsing,” so now they stick to that restrictive script to “stay in power at any cost and without any limit or self-restraint.”
Carrión recalls that the repressive guidelines were in place since before 2018. “Anyone demanding rights or demonstrating, for example, against reelection, was prescribed a beating, either by the police or by the shock forces.”
Maradiaga highlights that, in 2012, Fundación Libertad - which he presides - documented police violence in a case study of Nueva Guinea, after that year's municipal elections. “We found very serious patterns of political violence, including inhumane treatment and sexual abuse committed by the police,” he says.
Journalistic investigations have revealed the murder of more than 200 farmers since 2007, the year when Ortega retook the presidency. These crimes were committed by police, army, and paramilitaries, according to witnesses and investigators. CONFIDENCIAL documented that, between October 2018 and December 2019, at least thirty political activists or farmer opponents were selectively executed.
“The opponents in rural areas had a more crude experience with the Police and the Army. In urban areas - in departments such as Managua, Masaya, and Carazo - it was less clear how grotesque the FSLN and the police could be,” Maradiaga said.
Use of digital espionage
Gregorio, an exiled opponent, highlights that, before and after 2018, citizens adapted to the different repressive strategies of the regime. “There were express protests, graffiti on walls, throwing blue and white balloons. The goal was to not stay quiet,” he recalls.
“When the streets got really dangerous (because of the imprisonments), we went digital. We reported what was happening in our places, put together information packets to share with the media or disseminate them on social networks,” he describes.
However, the opposition slowed down these efforts in the face of the regime's digital surveillance and the new laws and regulations against cyber activism. “Many of the leaders had their cell phones tapped or their calls intercepted,” says Gregorio, who lived in the southern part of the country.
The regime has been using, since 2018, a Russian technological tool - called the System for Operational Research Activities (SORM, for its acronym in Russian) - to spy on Nicaragua, according to a report by US researchers Douglas Farah and Marianne Richardson.
The SORM platform works for phone and internet surveillance and allows operators to monitor credit card transactions, email, phone calls, text messages, social networks, Wi-Fi networks, and forum postings.
This system is in addition to other surveillance methods used by the regime and revealed by CONFIDENCIAL. In October 2022, the existence of 39 “fake antennas” for electronic surveillance to capture the private information of users was made public.
In October 2018, it was revealed that the dictatorship bought spying and intelligence-gathering software from Israeli companies, which appropriates all the activity of a smartphone, such as a user's location, sites visited, and personal contacts. In addition, these technological tools can turn the equipment into a secret recording device.
The police state against state workers
In these last five years, espionage and persecution have not been limited to opponents, with state workers also under the Orteguista magnifying glass. CONFIDENCIAL spoke with some public officials who agree that they are “watched all the time.”
Alejandro, a Social Security worker, says that the surveillance has reached the point that they installed “cameras in the offices and corridors” to monitor them all the time. “If you are at the computer they see what you are doing. If you go out into the hallway to talk on the phone, they ask you why you didn't answer the phone in the office,” he complains.
All the workers avoid talking politics and when they do it is to praise the comandante and the compañera, or rant against the ‘golpistas.’
“We can't say anything about the bad economic situation or price hikes without blaming the ‘golpistas.’ You never know who is listening to denounce you and get you fired," laments Patricia, a health sector worker.
Ortega and his supporters call citizens who rose up against the government in 2018 “golpistas,” which roughly translates into coup-plotter. The dictatorship's narrative maintains that the Government was the “victim” of a “failed coup attempt,” although national and international organizations have dismissed that version of events, and instead criticize an excessive use of police force against citizen protests.
Patricia reveals that the health workers are forced to always tell the population that the services they provide are “thanks to the comandante and the compañera.”
“Even if you know that they (Ortega and Murillo) don't take a penny out of their pockets, we have to say that phrase, because you don't know who the patient is related to or if a colleague is spying on you,” she says.
In addition, state workers have denounced that they are forbidden to leave the country without permission from their supervisor.
Re-engineering of the regime's police force
The persecution and surveillance have also reached the Police, the main repressive arm of the dictatorship. Ortega reformed, in July 2023, Law 872, or Police Law, to punish with imprisonment - a maximum of three years - those police officers who leave the institution or “disobey” the orders of their superiors.
These reforms took place in the midst of a police reengineering orchestrated by the FSLN Secretariat. The leadership close to Ortega seeks to curb desertions in the State, exercising greater control over the Police, the Judiciary, and the entire sector of public employees.
The regime has increased the personnel, budget and police hierarchy, but the data on desertions is kept secret, only the high commanders handle it.
Ortega appointed retired Commissioner General Horacio Rocha as presidential advisor on security issues in 2022. He has been behind all the changes in the Police and other agencies such as Civil Aeronautics.
This 2023, the dictatorship has promoted more than 30 women to management positions. Nineteen of them were named “co-chiefs” - a position that did not exist - in departmental delegations and in the Judicial Assistance Directorate (DAJ), known as El Chipote.
Likewise, several police chiefs – who were at the forefront of repression in 2018 – were separated from the institution, such as the deputy director and head of espionage, Commissioner General Adolfo Marenco Corea, and Commissioner General Luis Alberto Perez Olivas, director of the El Chipote police prison.
According to experts, this reengineering seeks to “unite” the police, “reward” the repressive middle ranks, and promote “absolute loyalty” to the political project of Ortega and Murillo.
Rolando Álvarez, the forbidden name
Gregorio left the country in 2023 after the police arrested him and the Sandinista justice system ordered him to report to the police station in his town for daily check-ins. Of the judicial hearing, in which he was “sentenced”, he recalls a phrase: “The prosecutor told the judge that we were there because we published on social media that Monsignor Alvarez was innocent. – You know, madam judge, that saying that is treason to the homeland.’”
Álvarez, bishop of the Diocese of Matagalpa, has been in prison for more than a year and was sentenced to 26 years and four months in February 2023. He was sentenced after refusing banishment to the U.S., which provoked the wrath of Ortega, who called him “arrogant”, “unhinged” and a “madman.”
The regime's hatred of Alvarez has reached the point that praying for the bishop at mass has been grounds for banishing and imprisoning priests.
The Catholic Church is the institution that has suffered the most persecution in the last two years. The dictatorship has imprisoned, banished, denationalized, and denied entry to the country to priests; invaded temples; banned processions; eliminated Catholic NGOs and radio stations; and expelled foreign priests and nuns.
Ortega and Murillo take every opportunity to insult priests and bishops. The dictator has called the Church a “mafia” and accused it of being anti-democratic for not allowing Catholics to elect the Pope, cardinals, bishops, and priests by direct vote.
Options of the police state: flee or keep quiet
To Gregorio, the prosecutor's phrase - “to say that Bishop Alvarez is innocent is treason” - always comes back to his mind. “If they do that to a bishop, what could they not do to me? Besides, now I can neither go to Mass nor pray; so I decided that the best thing to do was to leave and not expose my family anymore,” he confesses.
“At any moment, they could withdraw my precautionary measure and put me in prison. I was not going to allow my wife to come to see me in prison and be mistreated as they have done to several women, relatives of political prisoners,” Gregorio adds.
Gregorio joined the thousands of Nicaraguans who have left the country, either for political or economic reasons. The specialist in migration issues and researcher at Inter-American Dialogue, Manuel Orozco, puts the exodus of citizens at 604 485, between 2018 and 2022, mainly to the United States and Costa Rica.
Other Nicaraguans, like Maribel, have preferred to leave opposition organizations and lower their profile. “When police raids happen, I am afraid they will come to my house and I prepare myself mentally. Exile is not an option for me, I am over 50 years old,” she excuses herself.
Maribel says that, despite her low profile, FSLN fanatics ignore her, insult her, and try to get her upset in order to start an argument and thus denounce her. “I try to go out as little as possible, and when I do I have to move quietly. I'm terrified of leaving my family alone,” she admits.
“Terror” is what the police state seeks to inflict, according to experts. “This machinery of repression is aimed at containing, in any way, all manifestations of protests,” explains lawyer Gonzalo Carrión. “It seeks to keep the population demoralized, terrorized and that they have no sign that reminds them of April 2018,” he adds.
The specialist in security issues warns that “the police state has a very particular element: the terror it inflicts on the population. The state violence pursues to create a generalized state of fear so that people leave the country or do not protest.”
“The police measure that started to counteract the protests became a more Machiavellian strategy or plan of the regime,” he stresses.
This article was originally published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by our staff.