Events of 1993

Human Rights Developments

The human rights situation in Nicaragua during 1993, as in recent years, continued to be shaped by a highly polarized political environment, a weak central government (including a feeble judicial system), and violent actions by rearmed groups of ex-contras and former Sandinista army soldiers, including two major hostage-taking episodes in mid-year.

The Popular Sandinista Army (EPS) and police engaged in an excessive and disproportionate use of force in several instances when responding to rearmed groups, striking workers, and peaceful protesters. The general reign of impunity and the inability of the Nicaraguan state to administer justice continued to be the greatest obstacles to an improved human rights situation.

The crisis of governability experienced by the administration of President Violeta Chamorro, which spent most of the year veering from one political crisis to another, was rooted in the government's loss of support by political sectors that had previously constituted its base. The United Nicaraguan Opposition (UNO) that supported the Chamorro candidacy in the 1990 elections formally declared itself in opposition in early 1993. The government consequently relied largely on the bloc of deputies from the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) in the National Assembly to pass legislation. The FSLN, however, experienced its own divisions over this alliance, and by mid-year had made its support for the Chamorro government conditional. Several half-hearted attempts at national dialogue failed. In addition, a crippling economic recession – government figures placed the unemployment and underemployment rates at 50 percent – exacerbated to social instability.

Because of the polarized political atmosphere and the lack of any effective state mechanism for the investigation and prosecution of violent crimes, the vast majority of deaths and other injuries with apparent political overtones remained the subject of a heated polemic between opposing forces. Both the Sandinista leaders, on the one hand, and the former contras and anti-Sandinista forces on the other, claimed that hundreds of their supporters have been systematically killed by the other side. State responsibility for this violence added to political polarization, since Sandinista officers still headed the military apparatus and were largely in charge of the police, although there had been substantial turnover among the rank-and-file.

The judiciary continued to be ineffective. The public perception that judges were partial to the Sandinistas lingered despite the fact that some 70 percent of judges had been replaced during Chamorro's term in office. Judicial actions in high-profile murder cases, such as that of former contra leader Enrique Bermúdez (in which Scotland Yard detectives gave some assistance during 1993) and teenager Jean-Paul Genie, also did not progress.

In the Genie case, the government refused a request by the OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to accept the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Justice in Costa Rica. By mid-November the Nicaraguan Supreme Court had yet to rule on whether the military or civilian courts should have jurisdiction, given that the alleged suspects were bodyguards of Gen. Humberto Ortega. Some analysts believed that progress might occur in this case in 1994, when the terms of four of the five Sandinista appointees on the Supreme Court expired and the Chamorro government replaced them.

The government was also unable to capture and prosecute former EPS lieutenant colonel Frank Ibarra, head of the so-called Fuerzas Punitivas de Izquierda (Leftist Punitive Forces, or FPI), which took credit for the November 23, 1992, murder of property-rights activist Arges Sequeira. With assistance from the Spanish police, the government carried out a credible investigation into Sequeira's murder, identifying Ibarra and several others as the culprits.

The one development that could have contributed to de-politicizing the human rights debate in Nicaragua was the creation of the Tripartite Commission, an investigative body composed of government representatives from the Interior and the Foreign Affairs Ministries, the Verification Commission headed by Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, and the OAS's International Commission of Support and Verification (CIAV), which had monitored the fate of the demobilized contra forces since 1990. The Tripartite Commission was formed in September 1992 to review some 600 cases of abuses against and by former contras. The commission decided to focus on some one hundred cases of political violence – half involving deaths of former contras, and half in which the victims are presumed to be Sandinistas – in order to arrive at a consensus position as to who was responsible and to evaluate the role of the judiciary, police, and military in investigating and punishing those responsible.

The initial findings of the commission, which dealt only with homicides of former contras, provided a more complex picture of the security situation of ex-rebels than was normally portrayed by either their supporters or opponents. The first report, presented to President Chamorro in February, dealt with nine cases of killings of former contras and one case of the killing of a family member of a former contra.

In only three of these cases did the commission find the state directly responsible for the killings: in two cases, the army (EPS) was responsible, and in the third the police were responsible. In all the other cases, civilians were held responsible, while in one case the perpetrator could not be determined. In three of these civilian cases, members of Sandinista cooperatives were cited as responsible in various land disputes. In the one case involving the recompas, or re-armed former Sandinista military, there was testimony given to the commission which indicated the direct collaboration of the EPS.

The outstanding common denominator of these cases was the fact that all but one of them were inadequately investigated and punished by police and judicial authorities. The creation of the Tripartite Commission did stimulate the government to carry out investigations for the first time or to reopen cases that it had previously closed. However, in only one of the first ten cases presented had anyone been detained (a policeman), and that only came about, apparently, after the Tripartite Commission began its investigation.

A second report detailing eighteen cases (including forty-two violent deaths of former contras, their family members, and othercivilians) was presented to the government in June 1993. Of these eighteen cases, the EPS was found to be responsible in four, although two of these were deemed common crimes. A more serious case was one in which members of the EPS were found to have placed mines on a road that resulted in the deaths of fourteen civilians and former contras in Pita del Carmen, Jinotega, on August 21, 1991. No police investigation was ever carried out.

In four of the eighteen cases, the authors were identified as recompas. The commission received evidence of police complicity in one recompa action; at the same time, the only case among the eighteen in which someone was detained involved recompa responsibility. Civilians were responsible in nine cases (three of these accounted for the only "normal" police investigations), the police in one case, and in one case the author was unidentified. While the state was not predominantly responsible for these killings by civilians, the police and judicial investigations were, as noted in the first report, largely "irregular," "insufficient," "incomplete," or "non-existent."

A third report, due out in late 1993, was to be the first to deal with cases of Sandinista victims. A comparison of the efficacy of police and judicial investigations in such cases with those already studied would allow for a judgment as to whether cases involving Sandinista victims had been taken more seriously by the state. Previous experience by Americas Watch would lead to the conclusion that they have not been. The commission is also expected to make recommendations for the reform of the law governing the Auditoría Militar, the military body which investigates and sanctions abuses committed by the army and police.

The Tripartite Commission has faced innumerable problems and obstacles in its work. First, the government has pledged to respect the recommendations of the commission (reopen cases, prosecute those responsible, etc.), yet only one of the handful of reopened cases of homicide committed by police or military officers and sent to the Auditoría Militar resulted in a conviction during 1993.

While there generally appeared to have been a good-faith effort by police authorities to carry out administrative sanctions, in one case cited by the Nicaraguan Association Pro-Human Rights (ANPDH), a police officer from Waslala who had supposedly been discharged in accord with the commission's recommendations later killed again while on active duty. The Auditoría Militar found this officer guilty in absentia, but he has not been detained. In many cases, the police have been unable to arrest suspects identified by the Tripartite Commission; military officers who have been held responsible by the Commission have also fled before they could be arrested.

In addition, the commission's work progressed more slowly than anticipated, due both to the difficulty of arriving at a consensus position on highly charged cases and to the inability of government representatives (who are also responsible for handling many of the political crises affecting Nicaragua) to attend meetings. Thecommission's discussion of deaths of Sandinista victims was likely slow the process even further, since these cases had not been investigated by the CIAV and only rarely by human rights organizations.

Finally, there was no publicity given to the findings of the commission inside Nicaragua, an important oversight on the commission's part. The release of information could both generate public pressure for justice in the cases investigated, and at the same time lower the level of polemic around the deaths of former contras.

The most serious obstacle to the work of the Tripartite Commission, however, was the government's promulgation of an amnesty law on August 10 for all "political and related common crimes committed up to August 15" (later extended to August 28). The amnesty exempts crimes against humanity and violations of international humanitarian law, although it remained unclear how the government or individual judges would interpret these provisions. The law would also "not affect the functions and purposes" of the Tripartite Commission with respect to "clarification of the facts" and the "determination of the consequent responsibilities." The law was thus not meant to hinder the commission's investigative work, but did not specifically exempt from the amnesty the cases studied by the commission.

In practice, the issue of who should be covered by the August amnesty will depend on each individual judge. In the Arges Sequeira case, for example, a judge (with support from the attorney general's office) determined this to be a common crime that occurred outside of a conflictive zone. The judge thus brought Frank Ibarra and others from the FPI to trial in absentia, a move which itself raised serious questions of due process. A grave example of the kinds of pressures that can be exerted on judges making decisions on whether or not the amnesty should apply was evident on September 28, when gunmen forced a judge in Estelí to sign release papers for some seventy-two prisoners, some of whom had been sentenced for purely common crimes.

The amnesty was the third one promulgated since Chamorro's election in February 1990. The first was passed by the Sandinista-dominated National Assembly, with opposition support, in March 1990, shortly before the Sandinistas left office; another was decreed by Chamorro's government in December 1991. The National Assembly passed the August 1993 amnesty law by a votge of 45 to 4, with one abstention. The Sandinista bloc voted unanimously in favor of the law, while the UNO deputies walked out before the vote was taken. The Chamorro government had promoted the idea of an amnesty since May as part of an inducement to some 1,400 recontra and recompa forces that eventually disarmed and congregated in security zones. In our view, however, it is one thing to declare an amnesty for the purpose of allowing former combatants to lay down their arms and re-enter civilian life, and something quite different to extend that amnesty to those who have committed serious abuses during or outside a combat situation.

The ineffectiveness of the amnesty as both a deterrent and inducement to groups of rearmados to lay down their weapons was vividly demonstrated by a twin hostage-taking crisis in mid-August. A week after the amnesty law was first passed, recontras of the Frente Norte 3-80, headed by José Angel Talavera (alias "El Chacal") kidnapped a delegation of more than three dozen legislators, government officials, and soldiers who had ventured into the northern town of Quilalí to convince them to accept a government amnesty. The following day, a group of former Sandinista military officers calling themselves the National Dignity Command took over the UNO headquarters in Managua and took hostage dozens of opposition politicians, including Vice-President Virgilio Godoy.

After the crisis ended a week later, the recompa kidnappers, along with most other recompa groups, availed themselves of the amnesty. Meanwhile the recontras under the leadership of "El Chacal" entered into further negotiations with the government. These broke off in mid-October, after which the EPS launched a military campaign against them.

Criminal and political violence continued to plague the Nicaraguan countryside throughout 1993, as groups of former contras and Sandinistas rearmed themselves to press for economic demands (land and credit), political demands (such as recontra demands for the removal of army chief Gen. Humberto Ortega), or simply to commit robberies. The actions of such groups throughout the year left scores of persons dead and wounded. On May 18 President Chamorro decreed a thirty-day suspension of constitutional guarantees under Article 150 of the Constitution in several northern departments of Nicaragua as part of a program to concentrate and demobilize members of rearmed groups. The decree suspended rights regarding arbitrary detention and searches without warrants. No complaints of abuses emerged about its implementation, and the President restored full civil liberties on June 16. The government also continued its collection of arms through special disarmament brigades; by mid-year, they had retrieved over 120,000 arms.

Military tactics brought about a rare consensus among Nicaraguan human rights groups in 1993, which uniformly condemned army practices. The EPS launched an aggressive military campaign at the end of 1992 and the beginning of 1993 against the rearmed groups. But conservative critics of the army denounced not only the military's failure to act forcefully against rearmed Sandinistas; they also accused the EPS of aiding and abetting them.

Perhaps because of this criticism, the EPS responded with no holds barred to the takeover of Estelí on July 21 by recompas of the Workers and Peasants Revolutionary Front (FROC) under the command of a former Sandinista major, Victor Manuel Gallego (alias "Pedrito el Hondureño"). The army reported some forty-five dead and wounded in the fighting, although the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH), the Permanent Commission for Human Rights (CPDH), and ANPDH said those numbers were inflated. All these groups criticized the armed assault by the recompas, including theincident in which some fifteen armed FROC took up positions in a local hospital, a serious and reckless violation of international humanitarian law. But human rights groups also criticized the ferocity of the army's counter-attack. The ANPDH and CENIDH both singled out the army's counter-attack on the hospital as unnecessarily endangering civilian lives.

Both the CENIDH and the ANPDH also criticized the military's response to the early September takeover of San Ramón, Matagalpa, by rearmed groups. In that instance, two recompas were killed after being taken prisoner, while three civilians were killed and four others wounded.

The National Police reacted more aggressively against striking unionists and ex-army officers (sometimes armed) during 1993, something which occurred in tandem with changes in the police, including replacing older Sandinista figures with younger ones. The replacement of Police Chief René Vivas with Fernando Caldera was seen by some as a positive step, although both the ANPDH and CPDH criticized Caldera's human rights record during the time of the contra war.

CENIDH, for example, reported in 1993 that the police had used excessive force in evicting striking workers from the central customs installations in Managua on June 9, had beaten several workers in jail, and had lodged trumped-up charges against them to justify its behavior. In an earlier episode in September 1992, students and ex-EPS officers demonstrating peacefully during independence day celebrations (at which President Chamorro was present) were beaten by the police without provocation.

Under international pressure, 1993 also saw renewed (albeit symbolic) efforts by the civilian government of Violeta Chamorro to bring under control the large security apparatus it inherited from eleven years of Sandinista rule. A September 2 announcement by the President that General Ortega would leave his post as head of the EPS in 1994 brought an angry response from the army and the FSLN. However, in early October, the UNO and the FSLN reached an agreement that Ortega would leave once a new military organization law was passed by the National Assembly. Ortega had come under increasing criticism since the May explosion of an arms cache in Managua belonging to the Salvadoran guerrillas and the subsequent suspicion that high-level military authorities must have known about its existence.

In October, President Chamorro created by executive decree a new civilian intelligence agency, called the Office of Intelligence Affairs, to replace the EPS's Defense Information Directorate. (The DID had been headed until then by Col. Lenín Cerna, previously director of State Security in the Ministry of Interior and singled out for numerous human rights violations). Chamorro appointed agronomist Sergio Narváez Sampson, a personal friend with no political party affiliation and no previous experience in intelligence matters. Cerna, meanwhile, was promoted to the post of Inspector General, the third-highest ranking position in theEPS, a move that demonstrated Chamorro's still-tenuous control over military matters.

The Right to Monitor

Human rights groups were largely able to operate within Nicaragua without restrictions. The Permanent Commission on Human Rights (CPDH) worked closely with the Ministry of Government in visiting prisons in 1992 and 1993. The CPDH, the ANPDH, and CENIDH all assisted in the negotiations during the August hostage crisis.

CENIDH reported that Leonel González, a human rights promoter and justice of the peace in Muelle de los Bueyes, Chontales, was killed by unidentified members of a rearmed group on March 26. On August 13, a foreign journalist and two members of the ANPDH were shot at by unidentified gunmen as they were returning from a visit to Jalapa, Nueva Segovia, although there were no injuries.

The International Commission of Support and Verification (CIAV) of the OAS continued to operate in formerly conflictive zones, monitoring rights of the demobilized contras and their families. The CIAV also participated in the Tripartite Commission. In late October, during the military's campaign against the recontras under the command of "El Chacal", the CIAV denounced that several of its vehicles had been denied access to areas in the north, preventing monitors from investigating several denunciations of abuses.

In June, the CIAV's mandate was expanded to include all persons affected by the war, not just those of the demobilized Nicaraguan Resistance. This widened mandate, a welcome step, had yet to be implemented by late 1993.

U.S. Policy

The Clinton administration continued a policy of support for the fragile Chamorro government, simultaneously seeking to foster political reconciliation among all parties and to prod the government to reform the security apparatus and improve human rights.

On April 2, the State Department announced that it was releasing $50 million in economic aid held up by the Bush administration. The aid was released as a tentative sign of support for steps that Chamorro had taken in reducing the size of the army and reforming the economy. The State Department took note of the ongoing work of the Tripartite Commission, the suspension of several police officers named in its first report, and the government's request for a broadened and extended mandate for the CIAV.

After media accounts reported in mid-1993 that recontra groups were receiving aid from Cuban-American groups in Miami, the State Department issued a stern warning that such activities were possibly illegal and "particularly repugnant in that they could support violence directed against a friendly government." Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Alexander Watson reiterated in early October that the U.S. stood ready to prosecute those who violated U.S. neutrality or related laws.

The discovery in Managua of several arms caches left by the Salvadoran guerrillas and containing weapons, fake passports and identity cards, and references to an international kidnapping ring, aroused strong suspicions that senior members of the Sandinista security or intelligence apparatus had approved or known of the caches' existence. In late July, the U.S. Senate approved, by a vote of 77 to 23, an amendment offered by Sen. Jesse Helms to ban aid to Nicaragua due to alleged links to international terrorism.

This amendment was subsequently dropped in a House-Senate conference, but the foreign aid appropriations bill for fiscal year 1994 required the State Department to block economic aid until it reported to Congress that the Nicaraguan government had investigated and prosecuted those found to be responsible for the arms caches, and had made "significant and tangible" progress in reforming the security forces and judicial system and in implementing the recommendations of the Tripartite Commission.

Shortly after the passage of the bill, Assistant Secretary Watson told Congress that the U.S. was reasonably assured that the "current Government of Nicaragua is not involved" in international terrorism activities. In public and private, Watson continued to press senior Nicaraguan officials on key human rights cases as well as the need to exert civilian control over the security forces.

The Work of Americas Watch

Americas Watch visited Nicaragua four times from December 1992 through October 1993 as part of an effort to monitor human rights violations in the context of accelerating political violence. Through contacts with Clinton administration officials, local and international human rights groups, Nicaraguan government representatives, and the U.S. Congress, Americas Watch attempted to ensure that human rights issues were included on the broad agenda of political reconciliation. Our public opposition to the government's proposed amnesty in mid-1993 received wide attention in the Nicaraguan press, and, along with the efforts of Nicaraguan human rights and civic groups, may have resulted in several exemptions from the amnesty law.

Americas Watch continued to press the Nicaraguan government on individual human rights cases and due process issues, as part of a broader effort to end impunity. A report on the findings of the Tripartite Commission and efforts to reform the military and police was scheduled for January 1994.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.