MEXICO CITY—Nicaragua’s embattled President
moved to tighten his grip on power, as paramilitary forces loyal to his government attacked antigovernment protesters at several key points over the weekend, killing an estimated 11 people.
Three students were killed after clashes at Managua’s main university campus. Meanwhile, as many as eight people died on Sunday as masked gunmen attacked opposition barricades in two provinces, according to the Nicaragua Human Rights Association, a local human-rights group that has been tracking violence during three months of opposition protests.
Among the dead was a 10-year-old girl, the group said.
“It was butchery,” said Alvaro Leiva, the group’s spokesman, describing how armed groups believed to be linked to the government descended on several towns. Many of the men wore black ski masks and some wore military-style fatigues.
The actions appear aimed at clearing out opposition strongholds after nearly three months of protests that have killed roughly 300 people, mostly unarmed protesters.
Mr. Ortega’s government has described the protests as an undemocratic effort to dislodge him from power before his term ends in 2022. He has been in power since 2007, having previously been in power during the 1980s.
At least 25 have died since Tuesday, as police, working in coordination with armed gangs, attacked barricades set up by protesters on the sprawling campus of the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua in Managua and elsewhere in the country, according to local news reports, human-rights groups and Catholic church leaders.
On Friday, two students were killed and 15 badly injured in a coordinated attack on the university, sending students fleeing to a nearby church, where another student died.
The armed attackers prevented ambulances from reaching the church to treat the wounded until Saturday morning. Two journalists were also trapped at the church, including a reporter from The Washington Post.
Early Sunday morning, armed groups entered the largely-indigenous city of Masaya, a seat of the resistance to Mr. Ortega some 17 miles south of the capital of Managua. Paramilitary groups also entered the nearby cities of Diriá, Niquinohomo and Catarina, according to rights groups and Silvio José Báez, the auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese of Managua.
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“To everyone in these cities, I beg you to escape, protect yourself and save your lives!” Mr. Báez wrote Sunday morning on his
account. “Avoid more deaths!”
In Nindirí, a suburb of Masaya, armed men accosted a vehicle carrying Nicaraguan Bishop Juan Abelardo Mata, shooting the vehicle’s tires and breaking windows, according to a Winder Morales, a spokesman for the Nicaraguan Bishops’ Conference. The bishop was unharmed, he said.
While Mr. Ortega’s forces have put the protest movement on its heels, it has come at a high cost of losing what popular support he has left, said
security consultant in Managua. He said the outcome of the protests would depend on pressure from the business community and outside nations.
The conflict began in early April, when reforms to the country’s social security system set off protests. While the government backtracked on the proposed changes, the crackdown on protests set off an escalating movement. Since then, the Nicaragua Human Rights Association says some 370 people have died.
José Miguel Vivanco,
Americas director for Human Rights Watch, said that his organization had as of Tuesday verified about 270 deaths of civilians, but by the weekend that number had probably risen to more than 300, he said.
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“It’s a bloodbath orchestrated and organized and implemented by Ortega and his government to resolve a political crisis,” Mr. Vivanco said Sunday in an interview.
The events over the past three months have reminded many observers of nearby Venezuela, where another left-wing autocrat,
has launched repeated crackdowns on protesters over the past few years—claiming hundreds of lives.
In both countries, like-minded Socialists initially took power through the ballot box, only to gradually concentrate power by eliminating or stacking other independent institutions like the judiciary and electoral authorities. When people took to the streets, both governments responded harshly.
A number of Latin American governments, including Mexico, Chile, Argentina and Nicaraguan neighbor Costa Rica, condemned the violence against protesters and called for a resumption of talks toward a peaceful solution to the Nicaraguan crisis.
“Mexico condemns the use of lethal force against students and civilians who were at the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua yesterday [Friday], and deplores the fact that swift access was not permitted for medical assistance,” the Foreign Relations Ministry said in a statement.
Nicaraguan prelates, in a message published Saturday, reiterated their willingness to act as mediators in the search of a peaceful solution to the violence, but said the Ortega government has lacked the political will to negotiate in good faith by refusing to dismantle the armed pro-government groups.
“In recent days, there has been an increase in repression and violence by pro-government paramilitary groups against people who are protesting civically,” they said.