Days after his 15th birthday, Alvaro Conrado used the gift money he had received to buy water for the students demonstrating against social security reforms on the streets of Managua, Nicaragua’s capital city. It was his way of showing solidarity with those protesting in the intense tropical heat.
Moments later, Alvaro was shot in the neck.
“I think he thought it was his duty to go and help the students,” said his silver-haired father, also named Alvaro Conrado, in an interview with Amnesty International from his wooden rocking chair in the modest family home. “He had the police to one side of him and the students to the other. I don’t think he realised the danger he was in, but he was determined [to help].”
Alvaro was one of almost 100 people killed since Nicaraguan police and pro-government armed groups known as “turbas sandinistas” (Sandinist mobs) set out to crush the protests that began on April 18. Nearly a thousand people have been injured, and the toll keeps rising every day.
On Monday, the eve of the launch of Amnesty International’s report on the Daniel Ortega administration’s shoot-to-kill policy of repression, we witnessed it firsthand.
Nicaraguan human rights defender Bianca Jagger and I were in Managua, meeting with the dean of one of the universities where students had suffered repression when the turbas launched an attack on the National University of Engineering campus across the street from us. Then, minutes later, heavily armed riot police led a second attack on the unarmed students.
The terrible thunder of gunfire was relentless.
Justice must be done. The death of my son and all the young people who died must not have been in vain.
Staff at the private Bautista hospital told us they treated 41 wounded young people that day, one of whom died from a gunshot wound in the chest.
Alvaro had also died at the Bautista hospital, hours after he was refused treatment at Managua’s Cruz Azul public hospital on April 20. Bautista staff said he could have survived if he had been treated sooner.
At least two other public hospitals allegedly refused to treat people wounded in the protests that day. The authorities also failed to fulfil their obligation to conduct autopsies after several killings, and, in a number of cases, they only returned the victims’ bodies to their families after they signed waivers affirming that they would not hold the police responsible for their deaths.
Having rigorously examined nine of the killings since April – including the use of live rounds, the trajectory of shots fired and the high concentration of gunshot wounds around the head, neck and chest of the victims – we believe the authorities are trying to cover up extrajudicial executions committed by police and turbas sandinistas.
Days after Alvaro’s death, police tried to stop his parents from filing a complaint about his death with the Nicaraguan Centre for Human Rights. Within hours, his aunt’s street-food stall was destroyed in what the family believe was a reprisal for speaking out about the case.
The government remains unrepentant. On April 21, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega said those killed were “murderers”. Two days earlier, Vice-President Rosario Murillo had accused the protesters of “fabricating deaths” and acting “like vampires, hungry for blood to feed their political agendas”.
That rhetoric continues to this day. Their efforts to criminalise the dead and even deny their existence have heaped further pain on the victims’ families.
“They want to wash their hands of it. These are people who won’t accept their guilt,” said 27-year-old Graciela Martínez, whose brother Juan Carlos Lopez was killed on April 20.
Juan Carlos, 24, had just left Graciela’s house on the outskirts of Managua and was on his way to meet his wife when he was shot in the chest. He died almost instantly.
“The death of my brother isn’t made up,” Graciela said. “My brother is no longer here. They want to cover everything up. This can’t be kept quiet. It was a massacre.”
The authorities’ attempts to keep it quiet included blocking four television stations that were covering the initial demonstrations. Radio Dario, a station known for its critical coverage of the government, was torched in what the director described as a “terrorist act”, while the news channel 100% Noticias also came under attack on Wednesday.
At least a dozen journalists have been robbed, threatened or attacked since the protests began, while one reporter, Angel Gahona, was shot dead during a Facebook Live broadcast in the coastal city of Bluefields.
The reaction among Nicaraguans has been one of sadness, anger, fear and frustration. Several people we spoke to were reminded of the dark days of the 1970s, during Anastasio Somoza’s dictatorship. Ironically, many Nicaraguans are now comparing Ortega with Somoza, the dictator he helped to overthrow in 1979.
But if Ortega’s government thought it could discourage its people from demonstrating, it was severely mistaken. In a Mother’s Day protest on Wednesday, at least half a million people marched peacefully through the streets of Managua in solidarity with the mothers of the 83 people who had been killed in the protests up until then.
The demonstration represented the biggest coming together of civil society yet. Rural workers rode into the city to march alongside mothers, students, families and businesspeople. Everyone waved Nicaragua’s blue-and-white national flag and chanted: “They weren’t criminals; they were students!”
Simultaneous marches took place in cities across the country as the people made clear that they would not be silenced.
Hours earlier, the Ortega administration had agreed to allow an Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to investigate the violence of the past six weeks. But then, all hell broke loose as the Mother’s Day march came under attack in the most perverse demonstration yet of Ortega’s insincerity.
As we were observing the demonstration, we started hearing rumours of attacks up ahead at Managua’s Central American University. Then we began to hear shots, thought to be from snipers positioned on top of the Dennis Martinez Stadium. Amid the chaos, we made it back to our hotel, where we learned that a dozen or more people were thought to have been killed across the country, and many more injured.
President Ortega cannot keep pretending to be open to dialogue or independent investigations while persisting with this lethal strategy of repression. By turning on his own people and denying their rights to life and free expression, he is overseeing one of the darkest chapters in Nicaragua’s history.
Reflecting on all that has happened, Alvaro’s father can barely contain his anger at the government.
“We’re like prisoners,” he said, blinking back tears. “When we don’t agree with what they say they send the police to shoot us, or they send their supporters to beat us.”
Nonetheless, he remains determined to hold those responsible accountable.
“Justice must be done. The death of my son and all the young people who died must not have been in vain.”
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.