**Victim testimonies, confidential interviews and reconstructions of official reports collected by a Central American think tank in an independent investigation prepared at the request of a US agency revealed that the Nicaraguan Army was never neutral; instead, it actively participated with the government of Daniel Ortega in the 2018 repression that, according to human rights organizations, left more than 300 civilians dead.
According to the evidence presented in the study, the Nicaraguan Army even provided weapons and logistical assistance to shock groups or paramilitaries, offered intelligence on the protests, and directly persecuted opponents.
The report entitled “The military in the Nicaraguan political repression” was presented in January 2021 and reveals the mechanisms through which the military would have been involved in state violence and persecution against opponents of the Ortega regime.
On April 18, 2018, a political and social crisis broke out in Nicaragua. Massive protests were held across the country to demand that Ortega be removed from power due to a series of strong Social Security reforms. Protesters took control of almost all Nicaragua’s cities, and main arterial roads were blocked by barricades that had been erected to oppose a government operation to restore order.
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However, in early July, 2018, the government launched an offensive against the demonstrators called “Operation Cleanup,” which had a toll of dozens of deaths, mainly in Masaya, Carazo, Jinotega and León. Officers of the National Police operated in conjunction with armed civilian allies and militants of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) ruling party, whose leader is Ortega. These armed civilians were known as “paramilitaries.”
Operation Cleanup, according to the investigation, was bloody and ruthless, to a degree that the government regained control within a few days, leaving at least a hundred dead, several hundred injured and another hundred disappeared or captive as political prisoners.
“The 2018 protests were considered by the Daniel Ortega government to be an act of foreign interference and therefore by law, they had to be treated as a threat by both security systems coordinated by the Nicaraguan Army,” says the investigation.
Phony military “neutrality”
At this stage of the government’s campaign of repression, the Nicaraguan Army slipped onto the sidelines and it was not until May 12, 2018 that it issued a statement declaring its supposed “neutrality” in the face of the crisis.
However, through the Defense Information Directorate (DID), which functions as a state security mechanism or national counterintelligence, the military were involved in the “attention” that the State gave to the socio-political crisis, the investigation reveals.
A former intelligence major, interviewed for this report, sums it up: “The DID was in charge of gathering information on the ground, which was then delivered to President Ortega, the chief of both defense systems, so that the National Police and the paramilitaries could then act on reliable data. The information dealt with locations of roadblocks, numbers of protesters, resources and weapons they had, names of their leaders, means of supply, etc. I venture to say that it was the DID that then passed the information on to those repressive forces, even to the addresses where the protest leaders lived.”
This is confirmed by statements made by Ana Isabel Morales, former Minister of the Interior, at a meeting of FSLN militants. The date and place of the meeting are unknown, but a video was uploaded to the internet in late January 2019 in which she states that “Army intelligence is working here in this region.”
“… We know how it is, how the game is played. So we, the elders, have to teach them about pre-checking, surveillance, to support the police intelligence or army intelligence that is working here in the region. When they come, when it’s our turn, you let them come into your house to set up surveillance points for their operation, give them your full support. Because we know what it means. We have been where they are now, we were in the army, we know the importance of operational information.”
From the DID to the COE
The military command denied Morales’s statements in a release dated February 2, 2019, claiming that they came from a former official “without any link to the military,” but some former military personnel consulted for this investigation believe that Morales did know what she was speaking of, not only because she was the minister of a portfolio that handles counterintelligence, but also because she was one of the FSLN militants most trusted by Ortega.
Another military unit named by ex-military personnel interviewed for the report is the army’s Special Operations Command (COE). Several of these ex-military members said that the main officers of that unit surveyed the country by helicopter, mainly the northern region, to collect tactical information on what is known as the “operational situation.”
This was another channel that the Nicaraguan Army might have used to identify the strongest barricades and weak points that could be exploited in a military operation.
Military participation in the repression
The investigation determined that the repression was the Nicaraguan army’s second level of participation in the serious incidents that began in April 2018.
Several deserters interviewed for this investigation were active military personnel during the 2018 crisis and they tell, together with retired ex-military personnel, how General Julio César Avilés himself called them to join the paramilitaries and work alongside the National Police to dismantle the national protest.
Three of the sources in the report identified the same patterns of military participation in the repression. Some of the most important patterns are:
1-. Selecting personnel from special troops to insert them as civilians into the paramilitary forces that violently repressed the protest marches and mounted operations to clear the roadblocks.
2-. Conducting operations in remote regions and at Nicaragua’s southern border.
3-. Using army resources to mobilize paramilitary troops and military weapons that were distributed to them.
Avilés’s gruesome orders
The three ex-military members say military intervention in repression of the 2018 crisis was a decision taken by President Ortega and General Julio César Avilés, supreme commander and commander-in-chief, respectively, of the Nicaraguan Army, and that the army contributed personnel and weapons for the operations that the government then carried out to dismantle the barricades.
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“Although the Nicaraguan Army has tried to stay out of sight and situated itself on the sidelines of the repression, the analysis of these cases and the testimonies of the victims contradict the picture of neutrality they have tried to paint,” the investigation finds.
Army chief sanctioned
On May 22, 2020, the general and commander-in-chief of the Nicaraguan Army, Julio César Avilés Castillo, was sanctioned by the United States Treasury Department for his complicity with the Nicaraguan government in the bloody events of April 2018.
According to the US Treasury Department, Avilés was sanctioned because he was “politically aligned with President Ortega and refused to order the paramilitary or parapolitical forces to be dismantled during and after the political uprising that began on April 18, 2018.”
In addition, he was accused of providing arms and support to the forces of repression organized by the regime. “The military provided weapons to the parapolice who carried out acts of violence against the Nicaraguan people, which resulted in more than 300 deaths, significant acts of violence and abuses of human rights against people associated with the protests.” Avilés, 65 years old and closely tied to the armed forces since 2010, immediately reacted angrily, denying the accusations.
According to a human rights defender consulted for this report, the military has had to justify its actions by accusing detainees of drug trafficking or claiming they are members of criminal gangs that have murdered farmers. However, there has never been a professional, impartial investigation of each of the crimes that the military accuses the detainees of committing.
Military decomposition, step by step
Before Ortega’s rise to power, civil–military relations were regulated by a clearly democratic legal framework, in which the Ministry of Defense played an adequate role in carrying out national defense policies and civilian management of the Nicaraguan Army.
A year after Ortega’s return to power in 2008, the now closed Institute of Strategic Studies and Public Policy (IEEPP in Spanish) reported institutional deterioration of the Ministry of Defense and consequently of the civil and democratic management of defense, by means of reforms to the Executive Branch Act that eliminated the Minister of Defense as the person delegated by the president to direct military affairs. At this time, Ortega directly assumed the functions of political, military and civilian chief of the armed forces.
According to the investigation, “this established the first and most important condition that defined the role that the Nicaraguan Army would play in state violence that was carried out before, during and after the April 2018 crisis.”
“Fifteen years after his return to power, and having served three consecutive terms in the Executive, what is clearly evident is that Ortega had a plan, which was to subordinate all the powers of the State to create an environment that would allow him to consolidate an autocratic, dynastic family regime,” the investigation concluded.
“In this plan, the personal and partisan subordination of the Nicaraguan Army has been a priority. Ortega has employed political maneuvers to stay in power, including constitutional reforms, reelection, dismantling opposition and state powers, centralizing municipalities and taking over the military,” adds the investigation report.
Ortega eliminated the role of the Minister of Defense, a civilian who had directed the military affairs of the State and, through a strategy of co-optation, took control of the military and granted it law enforcement powers in the National Security system, so that military control would be guaranteed in any emergency that might threaten his administration.
Since 2010, the regime has made profound changes in civil–military relations through several items of legislation that created the National Democratic Security System and the Sovereign Security System, which are an integral part of the State’s national security policy.
Political subordination of the army
Ortega assigned power roles to the army in Bill 750, the Democratic Security Law (2010); Bill 748, the National Defense Law (2010); and Bill 919, the Sovereign Security Law, which basically ensured that through the Defense Information Directorate (DID) the Nicaraguan Army would participate in the event of any crisis that might put internal security and the stability of the regime at risk.
In order to achieve political subordination of the army, Ortega made changes in the military laws to keep former Sandinista guerrillas in the army. On December 3, 2009, internal military regulations were loosened so that military commanders would not go into legal retirement if they were physically and mentally fit to continue serving. What Ortega did not say openly was that these cadres were his former guerrilla comrades whom he felt could be brought back into the party fold. Army General Omar Halleslevens (2005 to 2010) turned Ortega’s “proposal” into reality and amended the internal military regulations, which were published in the December 15 Official Gazette No. 237.
This investigation has revealed that since 2010, Ortega’s regime has made profound changes in civil–military relations through various items of legislation, creating the National Democratic Security System and the Sovereign Security System, which are an integral part of the state’s national security policy.
Before these systems were created, responsibility for security was assigned according to the laws governing the Nicaraguan Army and the National Police, institutions that receive their mission from the Nicaraguan constitution. The army is responsible for national security and defense of Nicaraguan territory and the police for internal (or public) security and for investigating and pursuing lawbreaking.
However, once the Democratic Security Law, National Defense Law and the Sovereign Security Law were approved, the army and the police were to join forces, along with other complementary institutions, to ensure national security, which was defined as the territorial integrity and stability of the Nicaraguan State and government.
This coordination is directed by the president, but places the military on the top level above the rest of the institutions that take part in these functions. In other words, the Nicaraguan Army is the state institution that directs and coordinates this alliance between the army and the police.
Reincorporation of top military commanders
To put it another way, the investigation reveals that “the army exercises executive control over actions that ensure national security, which implies, according to this body of laws, internal security when the stability of the country and the State are threatened by conditions such as:”
1-. Any illegal act that threatens the existence of the Nicaraguan State and its institutions.
2-. Acts of foreign interference, espionage, sabotage, rebellion or treason.
3-. Acts of foreign interference in national affairs.
Ortega considered the 2018 protests to be an attempted coup and an act of foreign interference and so by law, a menace that had to be addressed by both security systems coordinated by the Nicaraguan Army through the Defense Information Directorate (DID).
Ortega not only permanently delayed the departure of the old Sandinista guerrillas from the ranks of the army, but also absorbed them into public service by installing them into state and civilian management positions with state resources or into executive positions in private businesses owned by the Ortega–Murillo family.
According to the investigation, up to 43 high-ranking military commanders who had gone into retirement have been absorbed by the government since 2013 thanks to Ortega. Of the ex-military members who had belonged to the Nicaraguan Army (93%), 82% had been high-ranking ex-officers and held strategic positions within the military institution, such as chief of staff, operations and inspector general, among others.
For more detail: Power and money: Daniel Ortega subordinates the army step by step
“Only the remaining 18% were low-ranking military personnel. It is notable that 59% of them (26) were Sandinista guerrillas who fought in the armed conflict that ended up overthrowing Anastasio Somoza Debayle in 1979,” the investigation states.
“This is an unusual pattern in the administrations of the last 20 years. No other government has hired a large number of retired military personnel for positions in government institutions. According to the information gathered, these people have been placed in at least 19 different public agencies, indicating that they have amassed considerable power. Several of these institutions have been key in setting up the logistics for repressing those whom the Ortega–Murillo regime identifies as its enemies,” concludes the investigation.
The Omar Halleslevens case
The clearest example of Ortega’s co-optation of the military was the appointment of retired army general Omar Halleslevens as vice-presidential candidate in the 2011 elections, Ortega’s first consecutive re-election after his narrow victory in 2006.
After the coup against Honduran President Manuel Zelaya by the armed forces in June 2009, Halleslevens assured Ortega that the army would never take part in a similar action in Nicaragua.
Halleslevens held the highest military leadership position from 2005 to 2010 and handed over his position to then Major General Julio César Avilés, who has since served in the position at the pleasure of Ortega and the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN).
Subsequently, Halleslevens was vice president of Nicaragua from 2012 to 2017. The FSLN’s appointment of a recently retired Army general to run in the election was only surpassed by Ortega when he appointed an active military high commander to a position as a public official. Major General Denis Membreño Rivas was appointed to lead the Financial Analysis Unit (UAF) while on active duty, and continues to occupy the position.
According to the investigation, Ortega has sought to win the military’s political loyalty as well as that of the institution itself using what is known as the “mirror policy;” an indirect message to active members of the army letting them know that loyalty brings rewards, both individually and collectively.
“Thus, for example, the active military would see in the reflection of the ex-military in the government their own future if they are faithful to Ortega’s political objectives; economic perks, leadership in non-military spheres, impunity and other privileges, which are also extended to their families,” the investigation report states.
“According to the Military Code or Military Law, an officer of the Nicaraguan Army, depending his military rank, receives a retirement pension, which includes his salary up to retirement. A high-ranking officer could receive a pension of USD $2000 tax-exempt, and if he is hired to a high position in a government institution, a further USD $2000 would be added, effectively resulting in a monthly salary of USD $4000. And if the government hires the official’s wife, which has already occurred in the case of the Supreme Court of Justice and the Supreme Electoral Council, the monthly income for the household would be close to USD $5,000.”
In other words, Ortega would be rewarding his faithful officers, and punishing those who do not agree with his policies. His benevolence is visible in the case of the ex-military people that he has working for the government and the companies where he holds shares or influence.
IPSM, the financial arm
On the institutional side, according to the investigation, Ortega has benefited large army corporations, which are administered under the Military Social Welfare Institute (IPSM), the financial arm of the military.
Military companies have bid on tenders and carried out government projects with an advantage over other private competitors, which has enabled them to increase their funds and manage them discreetly and quietly.
By 2009, with a total of nearly 60 businesses and an estimated capital of 72.3 million dollars, the IPSM had become one of the largest investment groups in the country.
“The lack of transparency in the management of military businesses makes it difficult, at present, to know how much capital is managed by the military through the IPSM. Although the Office of the Comptroller General (CGR) is authorized to audit the Nicaraguan Army, the army ensured that it would keep civil oversight out of its finances by approving, in the Military Code, that it should be audited through external private firms and present only the final outcomes to the CGR, which would then approve them without verification,” the report says.
The army also enjoys privileges such as priority in the annual budget, having its purchases protected under official secrecy, and senior commanders being awarded key positions in public ministries or in private companies linked to Sandinista businesses when they retire from the armed forces.
The land force of the Nicaraguan Army has 198 tanks, 285 armored vehicles, 160 rocket launchers and 272 towed artillery pieces. The country’s inventory of military hardware also includes 13 helicopters, and 21 ships and patrol boats.
Nicaragua has more land force equipment than Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador, which, however, have larger numbers of active personnel; 20,000, 15,000 and 25,000, respectively. The Nicaraguan Army has 12,000 active troops, according to Global Firepower based on information from the respective governments.
In the case of Nicaragua, officials have not provided a convincing explanation of why the number of tanks was increased if the country is not at war with any other nation. In 2016, the government and the army were questioned about the scandal around the purchase of fifty T-72B1 combat tanks, which the country received through an 80 million–dollar agreement with Russia, funds which had not even been approved as a loan by the National Assembly.
Almost five years later, it is still unknown whether the 50 tanks were paid for by Nicaragua or donated by Russia. In budget reports published by the Ministry of Finance, there is no data on this item, nor any on acquisition of equipment by the army.