A few yards from the main entrance of the Supreme Court (CSJ), to the rightof a blue gate, operates one of the "branches" of the FSLN troll farm dedicated to spreading propaganda and attacking those who the regime considers opponents through social media, a former employee of the Judiciary confirmed to CONFIDENCIAL.
The existence of this office in the main headquarters of the Nicaraguan judiciary was revealed by CONFIDENCIAL in the article “Lazaro” accounts: Ortega dictatorship evades Meta and brings back “troll farms” in Nicaragua[AB1] published in August of this year, and the former judicial official now shares details of its operation.
The investigative report details how a complex network of more than 1,400 media pages, groups and users that had been dismantled in 2021 by the company Meta (owner of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp) was reactivated to continue distributing political messages favorable to the Ortega-Murillo regime as well as hostile and/or false content about the opposition.
Meta described this network as a FSLN troll farm operating from government institutions, such as the Nicaraguan Institute of Telecommunications and Post (Telcor), the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute (INSS) and the CSJ.
CONFIDENCIAL's source added that they also saw an office dedicated to the same purpose operating in the Institute of Institute for Higher Judicial Studies, another entity of the Judicial branch in Managua. They said that on more than one occasion, they saw Maurice Ortega Murillo, son of the presidential couple, entering and leaving that office. Maurice Ortega and two of his sisters direct the TV station, 13 Viva Nicaragua.
Office supervised by Justice Aguilar
In the troll office in the CSJ, Justice Marvin Aguilar, the magistrate vice-president of that institution, is the highest-ranking figure closely following its operation. He communicates instructions according to the orientations he receives as political secretary of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN).
The main operations manager is union leader Carlos Alberto López Tinoco, secretary general of the National Confederation of Judicial Workers of Nicaragua. The troll operation was installed in the space to the right of the main gate of the CSJ –the office from which López Tinoco carries out his work as a union leader.
López Tinoco is described by CONFIDENCIAL's source as an FSLN political operative who, in addition to leading the operations of the FSLN troll farm, manages the juicy budget of the Confederation, which comes from the 5% of wages withheld from the affiliates of the different unions at the national level. He also controls and operates the dining rooms of the judicial headquarters in Managua as well as a variety store within the CSJ complex. "They call him 'Justice 17', because he gained quite a bit of power in 2018 [with the outbreak of citizen protests repressed by the government]," says the former official.
The union leader also has his own radio program called El Tayacán, broadcast on Radio 580, and which he posts on his Facebook page that has 163,000 followers.
With his vitriolic discourse, López Tinoco reproduces the hateful rhetoric of Vice President Rosario Murillo and President Daniel Ortega. In one of his most recent editions of El Tayacán, on September 8, he spoke about what Ortega calls "mercenary journalism", the same term recently used by the head of the Nicaraguan Army, Julio César Avilés, against independent journalism in exile.
Sources linked to the CSJ add that López Tinoco had been a police officer in the National Transit Security System where he held different positions, among them, in the area of traffic accident investigations.
"As an accident investigator, [López Tinoco] made his contacts in the courts and then went to work as a court 'paper pusher'. There began his promotions as he linked himself to the unions of the Judicial branch," says the source. "He walked around armed during the repression of 2018, and was seen in a group that repressed a march near the Iván Montenegro [market]," he adds.
Trolls receive "extra benefits"
Part of Lopez Tinoco's role, says the source, is to select the personnel of the troll team, made up of a dozen Judicial branch workers –most of them court clerks– who leave their posts and responsibilities to dedicate themselves to the "exceptional mission" in daily shifts of up to 12 hours. Their monthly salary stays the same, and as "extra benefits" they are provided with breakfast and lunch and, sometimes, transportation to their homes.
"These workers who were assigned to the troll office were told that they were going to receive benefits and be appointed as public defenders or substitute judges," the source says, adding that the promised promotions have only occurred in a couple of cases.
The administrative general secretary of the CSJ, Berman Martínez Martínez, and Walter Sobalvarro, former leader of the Sandinista Youth in Managua and current director of the General Services office in the Supreme Court, also coordinate the operation of this troll office, whose existence is generally known by those who work in the institution.
The judicial source says that the president of the CSJ, Alba Luz Ramos, knows about these operations, as do the rest of the justices. They recall that on more than one occasion, Justice Juana Méndez passed by, greeting and congratulating the trolls for their "good work".
Trolls use equipment donated by Spain
The informant describes how the trolls use government-owned equipment, including computers donated by Spain, as can be seen on the stickers on each piece of equipment. On several occasions, the Spanish government has made this type of donation to the Nicaraguan Judiciary, as stated in press releases published on the website poderjudicial.gob.ni.
As described in the investigation by CONFIDENCIAL about the FSLN troll farms that were "resurrected" after Meta dismantled them in 2021, the work of this office consists of attacking those they consider enemies and spreading Orteguista propaganda.
"They would choose a [Facebook] page and start denouncing it until it fell, or some post [for example] by the Civic Alliance [for Justice and Democracy]," says the Judicial Branch source, who says that this office has focused mainly on the Facebook and YouTube platforms.
In addition to monitoring the social media of their "enemies," much of the trolls' time is dedicated to disseminating Ortega's propaganda through dozens of channels and pages. One of the trolls' tactics is to emphatically promote publications of popular influencers who are part of the FSLN's communication strategy, such as El Gato Sandinista or Tania Sandinista, two of the profiles mentioned in CONFIDENCIAL's investigation.
Nicaraguan and Danielista
I was born a Sandinista. I will die a Sandinista.
I love love. Liberty. Love. Laugh. Dream.
Social media influencer | Nicaragua
Joined in November 2021
19,900 Following | 23,700 Followers
Tania Sandinista's Facebook page is one of the pages that is most coordinated with other Sandinista pages to publish and share the same contents, according to the investigative report. The report also says that El Gato Sandinista is one of the most influential Facebook pages and has "the same patterns that were identified in the 'Lázaro' accounts of the troll farm". The report was part of "Digital Mercenaries," an investigative journalist project coordinated by the Latin American Center for Investigative Journalism (CLIP) and carried out by an alliance of 20 media outlets, five organizations specialized in digital research, and master's students at Columbia University.
An office that has starts and stops
According to the judicial source, the CSJ's troll office is not always up and running. Since its birth in 2018, it has gone through periods of activity and inactivity.
In 2021, the office was active until November, when the presidential elections – considered an "electoral farce" by much of the citizenry and by the international community– took place. In the lead up, the Ortega-Murillo regime imprisoned dozens of journalists, human rights defenders, civic leaders, businessmen and all the opposition presidential hopefuls. Subsequently, Ortega was reelected without political competition, with high abstentionism, a police state imposed starting in September 2018, and absolute control of all branches of government, the Police and the Army.
After the vote in 2021, the judicial branch trolls returned to their original posts. The troll office was then reactivated in January of this year and continues operating, according to the former judicial worker, as one of several "branches" of the Orteguista troll farm, where nothing happens without orientations from El Carmen, the presidential couple's residence and the main headquarters of the FSLN and the Ortega-Murillo regime.
This article was originally published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by our staff.