The Nicaraguan army: Observer or accomplice?

Good start, terrible final

The Nicaraguan army: Observer or accomplice?


Roberto Cajina, Civil Consultant in Security, Defense and Democratic Governance

After the defeat of the FSLN in the general elections of February 1990, the Nicaraguan Army initiated an unprecedented and hopeful process of reestablishing the Defense. The objective: to lay the foundations of its professionalization and institutionalization in order to survive in an adverse and very complicated scenario. It was unprecedented because the army would go from being the army of a party – the FSLN – to become the military institution of the nation, of all Nicaraguans. And unprecedented because it would be the first time that Nicaragua would have an army that would not be subject to the interests of any powerful groups or political parties. Hopeful, since recognizing and accepting the supremacy of the legitimately constituted civil authority underpinned the difficult process of building democratic institutions in the country.

The first step was, even before the defeat of the FSLN in the elections of February 1990, the reform of the Law of Creation of the Grades of Honor, Position and Military Grades in July 1986 in which the old grades of the guerrilla and hierarchy were abandoned and a new one established equivalent to what existed in all the professional armies of the world; the second, the formal break of its links with the FSLN through the resignation of its main leaders and officers in 1990 from the positions they held in the party bureaucracy, as stipulated in the Transition Agreements of March 1990.

Time would show that this did not turn out to be a simple formality because in real terms it was not possible that “resignations” alone would strip away the allegiance to a political party that had been the matrix on which the army was founded and developed, in the space of a decade. Moreover, I have always said to its founders, its chiefs and high officers, that the “red and black little heart inside” never disappeared. The third step was the construction of the legal scaffolding of the institution, whose main pillar is Law 181, Code of Organization, Jurisdiction and Military Social Security, of September 1994, which changed the name from the Sandinista Popular Army (EPS) to the Army of Nicaragua, and later the laws related to military justice, among others.

Until the end of 2006, the Nicaraguan Army enjoyed national recognition and was, with good reason, a leading reference at the regional and hemispheric levels. Its role in the political transition from authoritarianism to democracy, that is, from the regime of Daniel Ortega to the government of Violeta Barrios de Chamorro and the two legitimately elected governments that succeeded, was key in the haphazard process of building democratic institutions in Nicaragua. It was the highly polarized scenario of the first years of the transition, when the government of Mrs. Barrios de Chamorro was subjected to intense destabilizing pressures, both by the radicals of the UNO and the most conservative sectors of the United States Congress, and by the extremists of the FSLN, whose leader, Daniel Ortega, decided to “govern from below”.

Twenty years on, however, with Daniel Ortega again in power and his undertaking of authoritarianism, hope is frail. As of 2010, with the appointment of Julio César Avilés as the new commander-in-chief, the army began to squander everything it had achieved until then and entered into a process of deinstitutionalization. Two weeks after the partial reform of the constitution in January 2014, Law 181, Code of Organization, Jurisdiction and Military Social Welfare was reformed, giving the army greater levels of functional autonomy and almost total institutional autonomy. By then, the identification of General Avilés was evidentially a part of Daniel Ortega’s political continuity project, in which the corporate interests of the army, administered by the Military Social Security Institute (IPSM), and the individual members of the military leadership – the general staff and the coronels – merged with those of the Ortega-Murillo consortium. At official events, Daniel Ortega never fails to take the opportunity to remind the military of its “Sandinista origin”, to ensure its political – and personal – loyalty to his project of creating a political dynasty.

Impassable before the police and paramilitary massacre

For almost eight months, from April 18 to date, the Nicaraguan Army has remained apparently impassive in the face of the political and humanitarian crisis in the country. The repression unleashed by the police and the paramilitary gangs of the Ortega-Murillo regime has left more than half a thousand murdered, more than 4,000 injured, 1,609 disappeared, hundreds of illegally captured, kidnapped, tortured, more than 500 political prisoners and close to 400 prosecuted under unfounded charges such as terrorism and organized crime. Many have wondered and wonder what the reason is for this alleged indifference of the uniformed. Sectors of the population and some political actors have demanded the intervention of the army to disarm the paramilitary gangs that, together with the police, kill, kidnap and capture those who demand freedom, justice and democracy. Actually, the army’s impasse is not as it seems. Although they are not intervening directly in the crisis, the mere fact that they remain silent in the face of repression and genocide makes them silent accomplices of the regime.

The press release of April 21, the statement of May 12, and the press release of May 30 have been the only three times in which the military have fled from the ‘stealth oyster’ in which they have locked themselves up. In the first press release, immediately after the massacre began, entitled “The army’s position in the face of the country’s situation”, they assure that in the last hours they have been “filled with pain and mourning” and that they join and support “the decision to find a solution through dialogue to find a consensual response to the issues that gave rise to these moments of pain “. They also reject “the manipulations of information, which have been developed on the work of the Army of Nicaragua,” without specifying what those “manipulations” are.

The communiqué of May 12 extends the terms of the press release of April 21. It came almost a month after the police and paramilitaries unleashed their orgy of criminal repression and blood of innocent Nicaraguans, and four days before the National Dialogue was installed. According to the communique, the army stands in solidarity “with families that have lost loved ones and those who in one way or another have been affected by all the acts of violence”, assuring that they support “the efforts to clarify these facts and proceed according to the law”. The dialogue, they say, “is the only route that will avoid irreversible damage to our people, our economy, national development and our security.” Likewise, they support “the work of mediation and witnessing of the dialogue led by His Eminence, Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes”. And they warn that “The current situation is dragging us towards the division of the Nicaraguan family through campaigns that foment hatred” without pointing out those who promote them.

The press release of May 30 – just after snipers posted at the National Stadium facilities fired at the massive march on Mothers’ Day and murdered eight young people who had been summoned in front of the main entrance of the Central American University (UCA), plus three murdered in Chinandega, one in Masaya and four in Estelí where marches similar to the one in Managua were carried out, in addition to dozens of injured – it is exculpatory and only refers to a video that circulated in the social networks in which double-cabin trucks with armed persons are entering and leaving the facilities of the Military Hospital. The Army, says the note, “reiterates its rejection of all kinds of manipulation of false information that is disseminated through different media to misrepresent actions of our institution,” assuring that they will never accept slanderous information. “The Nicaraguan Army has absolute control of its Forces and Means,” they say. After those three documents, absolute and profound silence to this day. Except for a slight reference to the dialogue, not a single word from General Julio César Avilés, Commander-in-Chief of the Army, about the massacre, for example, at the celebration of the 39th anniversary of Naval Forces on July 30.

In addition, on July 18, a small digital newspaper in Managua published a note entitled “Army of Nicaragua rejects on paper to play the role of (military) coup mongers” in which the spokesman of the armed institution is more concerned about the image of the army and insists on legal formalities related to the performance of the Army during the crisis. Pure form and nothing profound.

The three dimensions of ostracism of the military

The mutism of the uniformed in the face of the political crisis that Nicaragua has lived since April 18 and those killed, wounded, kidnapped and tortured by police and paramilitaries, has three dimensions: one legal, another political and the third is financial. The first comprises the constitutional precepts and the second relates to Law 855, the Military Code reformed in January 2014. The first thing that must be highlighted is the incoherence between the constitutional mandate and what the law prescribes in relation to the intervention of the Army in missions of public security and internal order. On the one hand, Article 92 of the Constitution establishes that “Only in exceptional cases may the President of the Republic, by decision taken in the Council of Ministers, order the intervention of the Nicaraguan Army in support of the National Police when the stability of the Republic is threatened by major internal disorders, calamities or natural disasters.” Although this constitutional article establishes a clear restriction on the military in that it allows the military to act “only in exceptional cases” and “major internal disorders” and by order of the President of the Republic, the fact is that what happens in Nicaragua is an exceptional case and those who have caused the serious internal disorders have been the Police and the paramilitaries. In any case, it would not be in support of the police but to disarm police and paramilitaries alike. But who believes that Ortega would order the Army to intervene to neutralize the two pillars of what keeps him in power?

The fortune of the Army at risk

The political dimension is very clear. It is more than evident that the current commander-in-chief of the Army, General Julio César Avilés, does not have the political authority or the personal talent to stand up against the Ortega-Murillo couple as the commanders in chiefs who preceded Avilés did to the leaders of the day, each one in his opportunity and for different reasons. Although Avilés is one of the founders of the Sandinista Popular Army (EPS), his level of political ascendancy is absolutely lower than that of the generals Humberto Ortega, Joaquín Cuadra, Javier Carrión and Omar Halleslevens who preceded him. Avilés assumed the command of the Army in February 2010 for a period of five years, that is, until February 2015, but due to his submission to the Ortega Murillo couple, Daniel Ortega “rewarded” him by extending his term of office at the head of the military institution for five more years, that is, until February 2020.

The third dimension is relatively little known by the public, except by specialists and perhaps some politically informed sectors. This is the fortune of the Army managed by, indeed very efficiently, the Military Social Security Institute (IPSM). An audit of the firm Deloitte & Touche found that in 2002 the IPSM had a capital of 29.5 million dollars, which in 2009 had increased to 72.3 million dollars.

By 2012, these funds could have increased to 100 million dollars, 40 percent of which are invested in bonds in the United States and are managed by the investment firms Russell Investments, Reverence Capital Partners and TA Associates. Just imagine, without having to do a complicated operation of financial mathematics, how much this fortune of the IPSM makes out today, six years later. Nicaraguans in the United States have begun a campaign for these investment firms to stop administering the Nicaraguan Army pension fund because, they say, it is money stained with the blood of Nicaraguans murdered by the Ortega Murillo regime. “We must let them know – they affirm in a letter addressed to the general managers of these investment firms – that they are sitting on money soaked in the blood of our Nicaraguan brothers and sisters, so they can break their relationship with the murderous regime of Daniel Ortega and his benefactors in the Army.”

The Army knows very well that to openly engage in the bloody repression unleashed by the Ortega-Murillo regime, would mean that its funds invested in the United States would be automatically frozen and their impact would be devastating. The army would have practically no way to cover its obligations to the officers who have retired or will retire or maintain the additional benefits they provide to their members. This explains, in part, not only the silence of the military, but also that the army does not openly and directly participate in the crisis and repression. In fact, in statements to a US television network starting September this year, Republican Senator Marco Rubio warned the Nicaraguan military that there would be “consequences.” For example, the pensions of the Nicaraguan military are invested in the United States Stock Exchange. That money would be frozen.” Enough threat to keep appearances at least, right?

Moreover, through the IPSM, the Nicaraguan Army is one of the main shareholders of the Banco de Finanzas (BDF), one of the four banks in the country negatively rated at the end of last August by the Fitch Group. The Fitch Group is a global leader in financial information services and credit ratings, which has already put at risk the financial interests of the uniformed because in the event of a bankruptcy of the BDF the shareholders are the first affected. As the economic crisis triggered by the political crisis unleashed by the couple in El Carmen deepens, the risk will be elevated. This situation should have triggered the alarms and put the military authorities on red alert, but it is unknown what precautions they will be taking or have taken already. This should be enough reason for the military to warn Ortega that he is putting them at risk. Still, they have closed ranks with the Ortega-Murillo regime. Is it that they will be willing to “die with their boots on,” squander their fortune and leave the officers who contribute to the IPSM in ruins and helpless?

An army tailored to Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo

Article 93 of the Constitution defines the Army as “a national institution, professional, non-partisan, apolitical, hierarchical and non-deliberative” and, in 94, prescribes that “The members of the Nicaraguan Army and the National Police may not engage in political & partisan activities.” This role could be music in the ears of Nicaraguans. Unfortunately in reality it is nothing more than words on a piece of paper. Some acts that may appear irrelevant, are nothing but. They prove it. For example, until 2007, celebrations of the anniversaries of the Army, the Air Force and the Naval Force were carried out, as appropriate: In military areas, usually in the morning and under the procedures of the Military Protocol. This changed in 2007, with the return of Daniel Ortega. First, the Secretariat of Communication and Citizenship and then the Vice Presidency of the Republic monopolized the celebrations of the military. They began to take place in the late afternoon and outside of the military areas.

The Military Protocol, usually sober, was replaced by the delights of Rosario Murillo. The Blue and White flag of Nicaragua began to be subjugated by the red and black flag of the FSLN, in such a way that these national celebrations were turned into party rallies with the consent of the military authorities and in open violation of the provisions of the Article 94 of the Constitution. Despite this, the uniformed have never seemed uncomfortable. Apparently they enjoy it. The foregoing, however, is not a simple formality or a way to involve the people in these celebrations, although those of this year 2018 have been held in closed premises. It is about ending a hidden message that cannot be misunderstood: “The Army is with the government, the Army supports the Government”. With a deep-rooted militarist tradition in the collective imagination of Nicaraguans, this message could easily have reached the population, giving the regime a privileged position of power, the power of the rifles, a power on which the Ortega-Murillo regime sustains itself.

What do the military get in exchange for their loyalty? Only unfulfilled promises

However, it is necessary to ask: what does the Army receive in exchange for its support for the two-headed regime? Apparently nothing, just promises of modernization of their air and naval equipment, because what they have is old, and their status is more than precarious. Ortega first tried to find equipment in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, but the government of the former KGB was not in a position to replicate the donations of the “generous” assistance that the former Soviet Union offered to the Sandinista revolution in the decade of the 1980ies. Ortega only negotiated with a Russian shipyard the purchase of six additions to its surface fleet – four patrol boats and two for missiles, the latter surely unnecessary. A clueless general spoke of acquiring MiG-29 warplanes with the pilgrim idea to fight drug trafficking as if it were a conventional war. It was also said that a small fleet of Russian Yak-130 aircrafts would be acquired, a training and combat aircraft of little or no use in the interdiction of international drug trafficking aircrafts.

In the end, the Army had to settle for the donation of tanks T-72 B1, which were discarded material of the Russian Armed Forces and that for Nicaragua only means a greater expense because they have to be maintained. They only serve for exhibitions in the military parades every September 2 when the anniversary of the constitution of the Army is celebrated. However, out of nowhere an unexpected light appeared at the end of the tunnel. The government announced that it ordered two patrol boats Damen Stan Patrol 4207 from Dutch company B.V. Schepswerf Damen Gorinchem, valued at 14 million dollars. But without further explanation that light was extinguished because to date, and although the National Assembly approved the corresponding loan, the two patrol boats have not yet reached the ports of the country.

The Army tolerates the paramilitaries, it is convenient not to intervene.

If the Army only receives unfulfilled promises in exchange for its support for the Ortega-Murillo regime, why is it silent in the face of the criminal repression unleashed by the ruling couple? What comes into mind is that perhaps the army is defending its corporate financial interests and the individual ones of the military leadership that could be in collusion with those of Daniel Ortega, Rosario Murillo and his closest circle. Apparently, there is no other explanation. Their relation is not based on ideological or political coincidences as in the 1980s. Now they are essentially utilitarian, of muted financial benefit.

It may be true that the Army has “absolute control of its forces and means” as stated in the note of May 30. However, the reality is that the military has allowed, willingly or not, that the Police and the paramilitaries took over the legitimate monopoly of the Army, leaving the Army less than an actor of distribution in the crisis that the country is experiencing. The Political Constitution recognizes only the existence of two armed institutions in Nicaragua, one military – the Army – and the other of a civil nature – the Police -. Pretending to contain and neutralize the unexpected and massive civic and peaceful rebellion of the self-summoned, Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo appealed to the police and paramilitary groups.

The paramilitary groups were organized from the vice presidency of the Republic in coordination with the 135 mayoralties and the Councils of Citizen Power (CPC) at the territorial level that Murillo controls. The paramilitary groups are made up of ex-policemen and ex-military, line police men who wear civilian clothes at night, and workers from these municipalities. Thereto comes an undetermined number of the more than 800 prisoners who were serving sentences, including for serious felonies, who were released by order of Daniel Ortega, demobilized members of the Military Service, demobilized and / or active gang members and young people in a situation of social risk, as well as small drug traffickers dedicated to drug dealing. The oversight and command are distributed among members of the Association of Retired Military (AMIR), former members of the Special Troops of the Ministry of the Interior (MINT), known as Troops Pablo Úbeda (TPU), active members of the Directorate of Special Operations (DOE) of the Police and police officers with military experience.

Paramilitaries, an armed body outside the Constitution 

Although it is practically impossible to establish the exact number of its troops, it is important to note that these paramilitary groups constitute a real irregular force with military capability, established in a quasi-military format, that do not respond to the official commands of the security forces, in this case of the Police. In the photographs and videos circulating on social networks it is possible to identify the weapons they use, including assault rifles AK-47, FAL and AR15, 12-gauge shotguns, M1 carbines, pistols and revolvers.

If the Magna Carta expressly states that “There can not be more armed bodies in the national territory than those established in the Constitution” and the paramilitary groups are a third armed body, who then has to comply with this constitutional precept? The Magna Carta indicates that it is the President of the Republic. But if he does not do it, who should do it then? The answer to this question is in the constitution itself and in Law 855, which we will call the Law of the Army. The constitution states in its article 95 that “The Nicaraguan Army will be governed by strict adherence to the Political Constitution, to which it will maintain respect and obedience”. The Law of the Army prescribes in its article 2 that one of the functions of the Army is “To dispose of its forces and means to combat threats to national security and defense, and any illicit activity that endangers the existence of the Nicaraguan State, its institutions and the fundamental principles of the nation.”

It is more than evident that the paramilitaries, as an illegal armed group, constitute a serious threat to national security and defense and their illicit activities jeopardize the existence of the State, its institutions and the fundamental principles of the nation. This article, as can be verified, does not condition or restrict the intervention of the Army to control and neutralize this “third armed body” organized, armed and financed by the couple from El Carmen. Consequently, if the Army does not have forces and means to fight it, it is simply because they are not willing to comply with what the law orders them, thus underpinning the Ortega-Murillo regime against the will of the great majority of Nicaraguans who demand justice and democracy and demand that they leave. Also, the military violates the Constitution because by not intervening, it is clear that they are not governed by it, neither respect nor obey it. Thus, although the Army has legitimacy of origin, because of its silent complicity it has no legitimacy in its performance. Evidence of this is the little or no confidence that most Nicaraguans have in the Army and the unfavorable opinion of General Julio César Avilés, commander-in-chief of the military institution, of Nicaraguans, according to the opinion poll of the Nicaraguans in the Gallup CID of September of this year.

An “attempted coup”, and where was the army? 

After Ortega withdrew the controversial reform of the INSS and he agreed to dialogue to try to resolve the crisis, on April 22, five days after the initiation of the unprecedented civic and peaceful rebellion, but maintaining its repressive escalation, the Ortega-Murillo government knew that it was cornered. Because the president had nothing to offer in the Dialogue to solve the crisis, in his stubbornness to stay in power, he turned to provocation instead. He arrived at the Dialogue facility with a disproportionate and intimidating security deployment, including two helicopters from the Army Air Force, and empty hands already stained with blood. The first days of the Dialogue developed between the intransigence of the government and the firmness of the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy. On May 23, a week after it was installed, the Dialogue was temporarily suspended.

A month earlier, on April 23, the same day that hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans participated in the largest peaceful self-convened march in Managua, the first references to a supposed “soft coup”, or “soft landing” appeared, allegedly forged against the regime of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo. One month later, on May 23, on the same day that the Dialogue was temporarily suspended, the official narrative changes from “soft” to “hard.” The chancellor of Daniel Ortega, who heads the government delegation in the National Dialogue, states that the agenda, presented by the bishops of the Episcopal Conference in their work as mediators and witnesses, “in its concentrated form, the agenda is the design of a route for a coup d’etat, the route to change the Government of Nicaragua”. However, what the agenda indicated was the constitutional mechanisms for the enjoyment of a fair and transparent electoral process, indicating that a partial reform of the Political Constitution was necessary to reach that goal and in order to advance the presidential, municipal, legislative elections, incl. in the autonomous regions, as soon as possible, as well as other concurrent reforms.

From that moment, the rhetoric of the “attempted coup d’etat” spread word of mouth from government officials like wildfire. Is the agenda presented by the bishops an “attempted coup d’état”? Obviously not, but in its desperation to delegitimize and criminalize the civic and peaceful protests of the autoconvocados, the Ortega-Murillo regime resorted to this rhetoric to victimize themselves. This was misguided. In reality, a coup d’état is a violent action carried out by military forces or rebels who seek to seize the government of a State and constitutes a lack of recognition of constitutional legitimacy. It was a grave political and conceptual slip of the Chancellor because a “change of government” by constitutional means is not synonymous with a “coup d’état. Also, the autoconvocados are not military or rebels who seek to seize the government by violent means. The civic and peaceful character of the unarmed, civic rebellion reveals, without a doubt, the lying nature of the official narrative of the coup d’état.

On the same note, Guillermo Fernández Maldonado, coordinator of the Mission of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OACNUDH/UNHCHR) in Nicaragua, told a press conference on August 29 that, since the beginning of the crisis, the Ortega-Murillo government had presented the protests to the Mission as an attempted coup that sought to break the constitutional order. “What we told [the government] – Fernández Maldonado emphasizes – was that if this is how they see it (of the coup d’état), they should give us access to the information and to the places that can support this. If, indeed, we find the facts to document this, we would make it public. They have not responded to us, he added, [to] none of the requests for information and they have not allowed us to go to any of the places we proposed”. He added that the official information to which the Mission had access “does not support that interpretation (of the coup d’état)”. The next day, the Ortega-Murillo regime ordered the expulsion of the OACNUDH Mission from the country. The regime had understood that the falsity of its narrative had been exposed and they were left with no other arguments than brute force and abuse of power.

That aside, let us for a minute assume that the bishops of the Episcopal Conference and the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy actually intended a coup d’etat to President Daniel Ortega, since he returned to power in January 2007 as is claimed. Let us also assume that those behind that conspiracy were, as Ortega has reiterated, “the extremist forces in the United States that are settled in Florida” and that it was executed by the” clandestine armed forces that […] have become the instrument of death of the right-winged coup d’etat”. In such circumstances, one is inclined to ask: Why did Ortega wait 11 years to denounce it? Where they and what were the Army and the Information Directorate for Defense (DID) doing in the meantime. The DID is an organ “specialized in strategic information of the State”. It turned into an organ of political intelligence – political espionage – of the regime, in open violation of the constitutional precept that expressly “prohibits the agencies of the Army and Police, and any other State institution, from engaging in political espionage activities”? Nothing! Moreover, none of the three documents (the press release and the two press releases cited above) issued by the Army make even the slightest reference to this “attempted coup d’état”. In any country of the world an attempt of coup d’etat is revealed by its intelligence organs and, immediately, the security alarms go off to neutralize the conspiracy and capture the conspirators. But in Nicaragua it was not like that. The Army did not know or could not discover in time the threat that loomed over its supreme chief. Who discovered it was Foreign Minister Moncada! And this only has two explanations: Either the DID is inefficient to a great degree, or maliciously this information was kept for unsuspected purposes.

Link to the article in Spanish here