Nicaragua’s atmosphere has been tense since April 2018. What started as a protest against social security reforms led to a conflict that has continued for months, with a death toll of 264, according to a July 2018 report from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Repression against protesters is constant, and involves the police force of Daniel Ortega’s government and paramilitary groups, known in the Central American country as Sandinista mobs.
The weapons the mobs use are among the most worrisome factors for Nicaraguan and Central American non-governmental organizations. First, because authorities suspect that the Nicaraguan Police and Army provided the weapons, and second, because they might end up in the hands of regional criminal organizations.
Protesting from exile
Fátima Villalta is a Nicaraguan national who is also a member of the University Coordinator for Democracy and Justice, one of the groups leading the protests against Ortega. Exiled in Mexico, she told Diálogo that the mobs repress protesters as if they were official police forces, carrying weapons only the Army and Police used before the protests began.
“We think that the Police and military forces provide the weapons. We are not talking about small firearms that can be obtained in other ways. There are pictures of mob members carrying rifles, automatic weapons, and even RPG-7 rocket launchers made in Russia,” Villalta said. “The conflict situation and total domination that Ortega has in place left control of military warehouses non-existent. For example, there are many videos of paramilitary members coming and going from the Dr. Alejandro Dávila Bolaños Military Teaching Hospital to be seen.”
Ana Yancy Espinoza, academic director of the Costa Rica-based Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress, said information indicated that the Police looted weapons from gun shops and security companies that ended up in the hands of paramilitary groups to be used in attacks against protesters. According to the Arias Foundation, the paramilitary units used the weapons that were in the Army’s arsenals, such as Dragunov sniper SVD rifles, PKM machine guns, rubber bullets, and stun grenades, all made in Russia. The military also took 12 mm shotguns from private companies, while the Nicaraguan Police seized weapons from private gun shops, including 50 mm Catatumbo rifles made in Venezuela.
“According to our sources, Police seized weapons from people, gun shops, and security companies and gave them to the paramilitary, the so-called Sandinista mobs. We’re talking about weapons that enter the country legally, such as revolvers, pistols, and 12 mm shotguns,” Espinoza said. “Military weapons also circulate, some left over from the conflict that Nicaragua experienced in the 1980s, but also new models made in Venezuela and Russia, where the Kalashnikov AK-47 and the AK-103 prevail.”
A risk to all of Central America
The final destination of the weapons the paramilitary used in recent months is unknown, which is one of the most worrisome situations for Central America. Espinoza explains that in case of disturbances, regional criminal organizations take advantage of this chaos to access weapons more easily. For example, the Arias Foundation has reports of Kalashnikov rifles used in the Nicaraguan conflict that members of Mara Salvatrucha in El Salvador later seized.
According to Espinoza and Villalta, several factors enable weapons used in Nicaragua to end up in other Central American countries. The crisis increased irregular migration flows toward other countries in the region, so there is the possibility that migration also moves weapons.
In addition, there are criminal organizations linked to narcotrafficking and violence with an interest in accessing weapons. For Espinoza, gangs operating in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala are clearly interested in getting weapons like those of the Nicaraguan paramilitary, especially military weapons.
Another risk factor is that current conflicts might facilitate the diversion of weapons that enter the country legally. The current political panorama makes it difficult to verify the final destination of weapons purchased from Nicaragua.
What to do?
The means to confront this situation seem scarce. In May 2018, the Arias Foundation urged regional countries to subscribe to the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs’ Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) and block the entry of new weapons to Nicaragua by land, so that arms distributors can’t sell more weapons to the Central American country. The reality is that Nicaragua hasn’t signed or ratified the ATT, and neither have other countries who are close to Ortega's regime, such as Venezuela, Russia, and Cuba.
“It’s a monumental challenge. Sections 6, 7, and 11 of the ATT serve as tools that prevent weapons transfers to countries that violate human rights or create instability. However, incrementing these measures requires a lot of political will, something that is not evident right now,” Espinoza concluded.