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Roberto Rivas, Ortega’s enabler through electoral fraud, dies

Former President of the CSE was accused of illicit enrichment and corruption allegations but was never investigated under Ortega’s protection.

Octavio Enríquez

9 de marzo 2022


The former president of Nicaragua’s Supreme Electoral Council (CSE), Roberto Rivas, the former vote counter who enthroned Daniel Ortega’s regime through electoral fraud, died after five-months of hospitalization, medical sources reported.

He died Saturday, March 5, at 11:05 p.m., because of a “refractory septic shock,” which occurs when there is a serious infection, although he was admitted for Covid-19, the source explained.

Rivas Reyes, 68, was one of the most influential officials close to Ortega. He became a magistrate in 1995 and five years later was appointed as president of that institution.

His rise to the presidency of the CSE marked the beginning of an administrative management that lasted 18 years until his resignation at the end of May 2018, five months after the United States sanctioned him for “significant corruption” based on the Global Magnitsky Act, an instrument used to punish the corrupt and human rights violators around the world.

As a public official, Rivas’ tenure was marked by CSE irregularities that favored electoral results that handed total power to the FSLN. He accepted Ortega’s illegal candidacy for reelection in 2010 saying that it was “written in stone,” and he was biased in his work as an electoral judge, thus helping to consolidate a family regime that has been in power for 15 years.

He was perhaps most known thanks to his opulent lifestyle that led him to accumulate assets: jets, luxury cars and mansions in Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Spain. Added to this were scandals and numerous public denunciations for illicit enrichment that never reached the courts. He died in impunity.

Despite his crimes having been documented by the national and international press, no official investigation ever resulted in a formal accusation against one of Daniel Ortega’s main protégés.

Rivas grew up as an official in the shadow of his political godfather, Cardinal Miguel Obando, Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Managua between 1970 and 2005.

Obando advocated in favor of his appointment as a magistrate in 1995 and also secured his position for decades as president of the Council since October 2002 in agreements with the Sandinista strongman, described as corrupt by the opposition.

According to local newspapers of the time, Ortega used his influence in the Comptroller’s Office to prevent a legal process against Rivas for embezzlement, after a private meeting with Obando, which paved the way for a solid alliance with his fierce enemy during the years of the Sandinista Revolution (1979-1990).

This arrangement even provoked differences within the FSLN, which had appointed comptrollers after the political pact with former president Arnoldo Aleman in 2000.

From those years of Ortega’s agreement with the Cardinal, the position of the then comptroller Luis Angel Montenegro was memorable, who assured that he did not dirty himself by changing the resolution of criminal presumption agreed by the comptrollers in the Rivas case. Nine years later, when he had already become vice president of that institution, he publicly defended Rivas and even justified his change of opinion by saying that only “rivers don’t go back.”

In 2004, Obando celebrated a mass of “reconciliation,” embraced by some of the former enemies of the Catholic Church. He aligned himself so much to Ortega’s service that, as time went by, his critics saw in him an unworthy image of his past and labeled him as a chaplain of the ruling party when they saw his constant presence in government activities.

Family relationship with the Cardinal

Rivas met Obando when the former official was a very young man at his home in the department of Matagalpa, in the north of the country. His mother, Josefa Reyes Valenzuela, known as Doña “Chepita,” was the assistant of the religious man from the 1970s until the death of the Cardinal on June 4, 2018.

The Rivas household considered the religious leader a member of the family, so there was no surprise when Obando appointed him as administrator of the Archdiocesan Promotion Commission since 1981, a foundation in which he raised thousands of dollars in the context of the civil war.


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His home on the Masaya highway was built on property donated to the Catholic Church during the years when Obando was archbishop. The Redemptoris Mater Catholic University, founded by the Cardinal and where he was buried, remained in the hands of the former magistrate’s family.

The eccentricities of a nouveau riche 

The years in which his public figure grew exponentially, he began accumulating mansions on the shore of the beach, purchasing luxury cars and hiring waiters who were forced to wear white gloves. He had a French chef, who used to cater to his most exquisite tastes. 

His cousin Rigoberto Reyes recalled the origin of his fortune in El Nuevo Diario, when he collected a compensation from the State for 1.8 million dollars in 1996, which included a Kentucky donkey that had belonged to his grandfather, which Reyes accidentally killed in 1959.

Rivas married Ileana Delgado Lacayo -also sanctioned by the United States-, and had four children: Josephine, Estefanía, Indira and Roberto Miguel. According to a profile in La Prensa’s Magazine, Rivas was obsessed with cleanliness. He ordered his veterinarians to clean the teeth of his Akita dogs in his Costa Rican mansion, a habit that annoyed some of his Nicaraguan employees.

Even his closest spokespeople never dared to deny his pompous life and his spokesman on the CSE, Felix Navarrete, accused the media of snooping around in the magistrate’s bedrooms in a paid advertisement.

Under the shadow of Ortega’s total power, Rivas bought a mansion in Costa Rica located in a plush residential area. When the report was published in 2009, the mansions at this location in Costa Rica ranged between 980,000 and 3 million dollars, and he earned 5,000 a month. When questioned, he always repeated the argument that he was a coffee producer to justify the multiplication of his assets. A Confidencial report in March 2018 revealed that his farms in San Ramon, Matagalpa, produced below costs, contradicting the alleged coffee-growing bonanza.

According to an investigation by the newspaper La Nacion, in Costa Rica, in a quarrel against any semblance of independence of branches in Nicaragua, Rivas hosted two of Ortega’s sons, Laureano and Maurice, while they were studying in that country. It was a major scandal when the same Costa Rican newspaper verified that the magistrate used exonerated diplomatic cars, luxury vehicles, one of which was used by the sons of the Sandinista ruler.

El Nuevo Diario published that Rivas had an invoice factory within the CSE itself, which allowed him to divert US$23.6 million from the treasury between 2004 and 2008. While these scandals occurred and filled the front pages of independent newspapers, his role as the mastermind of electoral frauds was growing.

At press conferences, Rivas would get upset that the media used words like appointment instead of election, and at press conferences he would respond reluctantly, getting red with anger, to journalists’ questions. Little by little he became the shadow of another character from the past.

Journalists called him Ortega’s “Modesto Salmeron,” recalling the former president of the electoral tribunal during the Somoza years. The late Jesuit priest Federico Arguello, told La Prensa’s Magazine in 2008 that Salmeron used to go around the polling stations, motivating voters in a very particular way: “vote, vote, afterwards I will count them,” he would say.

Rivas’ anecdotes never provoked laughter, but indignation. In 2009, when the Comptroller’s Office reported that his declaration of probity was missing, he presented himself before the officials and handed it in again. He told reporters that he did not know if he should add a shuttle on the moon, which he has recently purchased. Oblivious to his own sarcasm, subsequent events showed that he continued to buy compulsively.

In February 2018, before his resignation, a Confidencial investigation discovered that he had bought a palace of 1,545 square meters in Spain. It cost nine million euros. His neighbors were Real Madrid players, from a global wealthy elite.

Although he was never held accountable in court, former magistrate Rivas was one of the few officials at whom the people would shout “thief,” regardless of whether it was in the street, the market or churches. After his resignation, the CSE was left in the hands of pro-Ortega magistrates and the figure of Rivas became associated in popular memory as a reference for outrageous thefts and corruption.

The reporter investigated the corruption of Roberto Rivas between 2000 and 2018.


This article was originally published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by Havana Times.


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Octavio Enríquez

Octavio Enríquez

Periodista nicaragüense, exiliado. Comenzó su carrera en el año 2000, cuando todavía era estudiante. Por sus destacadas investigaciones periodísticas ha ganado el Premio Ortega y Gasset, el Premio Internacional de Periodismo Rey de España, el Premio a la Excelencia de la Sociedad Interamericana de Prensa, y el Premio Latinoamericano de Periodismo de Investigación del Instituto Prensa y Sociedad (IPYS).