Dissident police in Nicaragua: 'Prisoners or dead men'

Police officers speaking out against government's crackdown or asking to resign, face threats, arrest and even death.

by

    Managua, Nicaragua - A smattering of photos are what's left of the life of Faber Lopez Vivas.

    They show a normal 23-year-old, fixing motorbikes with his brother in the garage, hugging his nephews, dancing at family Christmas parties and playing frisbee with his beloved dog, Kira.

    In one, he stands behind his partner with a hand on her expanding belly - he was about to become a father, with a daughter still due to arrive this September.

    In others, he wears his uniform, sitting in the undergrowth with his gun resting on his lap.

    Faber was an officer in the Nicaraguan police force. One photo shows him with the dogs in his K-9 training programme. He was called away in the middle of the course to deal with the protests rumbling through the country's streets.

    Now Faber is dead. His mother Fatima Vivas Torrez picked up his beaten and stitched-together body on July 9.

    Faber, right, was called away in the middle of a training course to deal with the protests 

    She claims that he was killed, not by protesters but by his own colleagues in the Nicaraguan police force.

    Fatima, other police officers, human rights groups and analysts have told Al Jazeera that dissident law and order officials are among the most vulnerable in the recent government crackdown.

    They allege phone hacking, imprisonment, torture and even death can be the fate of officers who voice their disapproval with the government's violent methods to quell opposition. Even simply asking to be discharged can lead to the same fate.

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    The Nicaraguan protests began over reforms to the social security system. But they quickly ballooned into calls for the country's increasing autocratic President Daniel Ortega to step down. Street barricades went up, students occupied the national university. Thousands marched.

    When Ortega's government hit back, the police - together with armed paramilitary groups, were used to violently break up protests and round up suspected opposition supporters.

    The United Nations says that in the more than four months since the start of the crisis, the force has been involved in forced disappearances, torture and extrajudicial killings.

    Fatima Vivas Torrez claims her son Faber was deeply unhappy with the actions of his fellow officers and wanted to resign but was warned of the consequences. "He said, "Mum, I've already asked to resign, but they tell me if I do, they'll kill me and my family."

    Things began to get tenser when a photo appeared on social media of Fatima with Medardo Mairena, a prominent farmer leader and government critic. Her son told her that it was causing him problems with his superiors.

    Fatima was deeply worried. On Sunday, July 8, she went to mass after trying, and failing, to get hold of Faber early that morning.

    There was no answer either when she got back from church. Officials wouldn't take her calls, or evaded her questions. Then, news began circulating on Facebook police pages that Faber had been killed.

    Finally, at around 11pm, she says she reached a sympathetic officer on the emergency line. "I said, 'Please don't keep me hanging on; it's my son.' She said 'I understand, I'm a mother, too.' She rang me back half an hour later and in a melancholy voice told me my son was dead."

    'Signs of torture'

    The next day, things were about to get even worse. Fatima went to pick up the body. Pablo Cuevas, a lawyer with national rights group the Permanent Human rights Commission (CPDH) went with her.

    The forensic doctor in the morgue told Fatima and Cuevas that the cause of death was a shot to the head while dealing with protesters.

    But Fatima says that when she later examined the body with forensic doctors whom she knew, they discovered something completely different.

    Faber was deeply worried about the actions of his fellow officers and wanted to resign, his mother said

    "We started to find the signs of torture; wounds in the arms, fingers broken, nails torn out, bruises on the back, a wound in the left leg, cigarette burns on the arms. His face completely deformed. I said, 'This isn't a gunshot, this is torture.'"

    Fatima passed Al Jazeera videos and photos of the body of Faber. They show wounds to both arms and head, along with a mass of stitching on the face. One of the fingers is bloody and hanging as if on a hinge.

    A forensic expert to whom Al Jazeera showed the video and the pictures confirmed that Faber "suffered great torture before he died" and said that a massive blow to the head eventually killed him - not a gunshot.

    Fatima believes that her son was tortured to death for wanting to leave the police, and for the photo that showed her with the farmer's leader. "What an accident that Friday he says he's going to resign and then Sunday my son is dead? And they hide his death, they lie to me, and why?"

    'Prisoners or dead men'

    Rights groups say that Faber Lopez Vivas is far from the only officer who suffered from speaking out. Cuevas, the CPDH lawyer who went with Fatima to pick up her son's body, puts it bluntly. Police who ask to be discharged "can wind up prisoners or dead men", he says.

    It's a stark message, but both Amnesty International and CENIDH, another Nicaraguan human rights group, also told Al Jazeera that officers wishing to leave the force can face threats, jail time or even death.

    "What an accident that Friday he says he's going to resign and then Sunday my son is dead?

    Fatima Vivas Torrez, mother of slain police officer 

    Back in his fluorescent-lit, cell-like office, Cuevas takes a police shield out of his desk drawer. He says it is just one of several given to him by officers who have asked the CDPH to process their discharge for them in absentia, while they go into hiding.

    It is now the human rights groups' policy to give them 15 days to go underground or flee the country before they present their resignation. The assumption is that as soon as the police force knows that an officer has quit, the force will come after them.

    In exile

    Later, Al Jazeera tracked down one of the officers who has fled - to Costa Rica. He is young, very young.

    He says that he had wanted to join the police force since witnessing his father being robbed of his entire pay packet when he was 14.

    "I felt helpless to not be able to do something and that was what motivated me," he told Al Jazeera. 

    But once in the force, he says he realised changing things would be difficult. He found himself empathising with his student friends, angry over the violent excesses of his own force.

    He began to speak out to colleagues, but realised he was getting nowhere. Now scared, he wanted out.

    He says he called in sick and shut himself in his house, wondering what to do. Finally, he got in touch with the CPDH. He handed them his uniform and badge and they agreed that they would present his resignation once he was safely away. He ran.

    The day after the police realised he had gone, he says that they searched his home.

    Meanwhile, he had already arrived in neighbouring Costa Rica, without a penny.

    He had never left Nicaragua before and was reduced to sleeping on the streets for six days, he says, until a family friend took him in. His situation is still desperate. He can't even tell the many other dissident Nicaraguans who fled the country what he did for a living. He fears they will reject him, too.

    In a Skype phone call with Al Jazeera, he broke down in tears. "In the blink of an eye, your life, your illusions are gone," he said.

    "You're suffering because you're far from your family, your country, and you don't know where to turn for help. You're alone."

    In prison

    Other police officers have been even less lucky and have been locked up before they could get away, according to human rights groups.

    One of them tells his story while sitting in a hotel in the centre of a Nicaraguan city outside of the capital. He is short, stocky and nervous, but as the TV lights for the interview are set up to give him the anonymity that he has asked for, he opens up.

    "My biggest fear was to fire on a person who was defenceless. Who was marching peacefully in protests," he says.

    Fresh out of the police academy, the officer says he was charged with guarding the home of a public figure. One day, a march began to close in on the residence. "They gave us orders to defend ourselves at all costs. We understood that was an order to fire. We had AK-47's."

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    Luckily, the march didn't come close to where he was stationed. But it was the final straw. He wanted out.

    He made his feelings known in a group WhatsApp chat with fellow police officers. That, he subsequently found out, was unwise. One day, he says he was called in by the police intelligence unit who showed him already deleted messages from the phone he realised they had hacked.

    They told him they would take him for a walk "to refresh his memory" on what else he could have said, or plotted. The next thing he knew, he says, he was in prison.

    He was kept there for four days, he says, without his family knowing his whereabouts while the police interrogated him. "They said to tell them everything because, if they found anything different than what was on my phone, then they would have to imprison my parents, my family, my wife."

    The officer says that his brother eventually found out where he was. After pressure from his family, he was released. He's since been allowed to leave the force.

    A once respected police force

    It wasn't always like this for Nicaragua's police officers. A few years ago, they belonged to a force that was the envy of other Central American countries struggling with sky-high crime rates and rampant corruption.

    Nicaragua's model, which focused on close links to local communities and high levels of public trust, earned international plaudits and kept homicide rates relatively low.

    But former officers and human rights organisations say that over time things started to radically change. The ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) demanded obedience and the country's law and order institutions began to take a distinctly partisan hue.

    A former federal prosecutor, speaking to Al Jazeera under a condition of anonymity, said "The first time I knew it was turning political was in 2015, when we had to go to the official welcome ceremony for Nicolas Maduro. Then, in a march against peasant farmers. Then, in 2016, we had to go and vote - and they knew who you had voted for."

    She says that, in the end, she resigned after refusing to take a case against those she considered innocent.

    The autonomy of the police force, in particular, was badly affected says Roberto Orozco, a Nicaraguan security analyst. "It was the litmus test that Ortega never passed. He gave benefits to favourites and undermined the little institutionality that the police had."

    For many, that process reached its conclusion with the recent appointment of Francisco Díaz Madriz as police chief. A relative of President Ortega's by marriage, he has been sanctioned by the United States for human rights abuses and is believed to have been in charge during the crackdown on protests.

    Al Jazeera contacted the Nicaraguan police force multiple times, detailing the accusations against it and requesting comment. There was no reply.

    A demonstrator shouts slogans to riot police during a protest against Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega's government in Managua [Oswaldo Rivas/Reuters]

    Government supporters defend the force, pointing to the 22 officers killed during the protests, and describing demonstrators as "criminals", and "vandals". Violence against officials is acknowledged in a new report from the United Nations human rights office describing cases of burning, amputations and desecration of officer's corpses.

    But the UN says that those cases "do not legitimise in any way" the Nicaraguan government's response and goes on to hold the police responsible for a litany of alleged abuses, including "extrajudicial killings; enforced disappearances; widespread arbitrary detentions; torture and ill-treatment".

    What's more, the police have acted in tandem with armed extra-official groups says Erika Guevara Rosas, Amnesty International's Americas Director.

    "There's been more than 300 people killed in the context [of the protests], both by the police and paramilitaries - parapolice as they're called there," she told Al Jazeera.

    "They operate in collusion with the police and some of these groups are being protected by the police themselves while they commit atrocities against demonstrators."

    No hope of going home

    With shadowy, and seemingly ruthless, forces arrayed against them, many dissidents believe they simply won't be able to return home till President Ortega leaves office.

    Fatima Vivas Torrez, the mother of murdered police officer Faber Lopez Vivas has fled the country after receiving threats.

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    Speaking to Al Jazeera via Skype from a location in Central America that she did not want to reveal, she says in tears: "All the time, it gets more difficult. Far away from my country. Without money. Without my other children. And I'll never see Faber again."

    Many former policemen and women, including the young ex-officer who fled to Costa Rica, are facing similar dilemmas.

    It's not known how many have quit the force in the last few months.

    But what human rights organisations agree on, is that they are far from safe.

    Follow John Holman on Twitter: @johnholman100

    Sergio Ramirez: Ortega is facing a bloody reality check

    Talk to Al Jazeera

    Sergio Ramirez: Ortega is facing a bloody reality check

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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