- - Sunday, July 29, 2018

SANTIAGO, Chile — First Venezuela, now Nicaragua.

A blueprint to hold on to power first rolled out by leftist Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro appears to be guiding the government of embattled Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega. With nearly 450 reported dead from anti-government protests in Nicaragua that broke out in April, Mr. Ortega has adopted the Venezuelan strategy of deploying armed paramilitary gangs to enforce political control in what some U.S. analysts are calling a “pattern of repression.”

Mr. Ortega, the head of the leftist Sandinista guerrilla movement in the 1980s who has been in power for more than a decade, is trying to crush a popular rebellion through a combination of brutal street gangs and with the offer of “fake negotiations” with opposition and student groups, analysts say. They said an alliance of rogue regimes in Latin America could destabilize the region, disrupt U.S. allies and expand an alliance of authoritarian governments south of the border.

“As Nicaragua follows Venezuela’s dangerous path, the U.S. should be prepared to take further action with our regional allies to address the threat of these regimes,” Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a leading voice on Latin American issues on Capitol Hill, told The Washington Times.

Parker Asmann, an analyst writing for InsightCrime, which covers criminal networks in the region, said last week, “Both Ortega and Maduro have branded opposition protesters as ‘terrorists’ and ‘vandals’ in an effort to further criminalize their movements. They have also utilized armed pro-government groups … to violently repress those in the opposition, at times with deadly force.”

Nicaragua, which largely avoided the criminality and street violence that plagued other Central American states in recent years, suddenly was caught in a spiral of violence when armed supporters of the Ortega government began confronting students and civic groups at public protests.

The protests were sparked by a proposal, which has since been canceled, to cut government social welfare programs. The demonstrations have morphed into a direct challenge to Mr. Ortega’s authoritarian rule and corruption in a government in which his wife, Rosario Murillo, serves as vice president.

The government has imposed multilayered repression even amid publicized rounds of talks with high-profile politicians and Catholic Church mediators. Critics fear the talks are designed to deflect attention from violent pro-government mobs terrorizing the population and keeping opponents on edge.

Maduro and Ortega gain breathing room in mediated talks by playing on divisions among opponents and trying to wear them down,” Nicaraguan sociologist Oscar Vargas said.

The Trump administration presented a resolution before the Organization of American States this month condemning what it called “grave acts of violence, violations of human rights and abuses perpetrated by police, paramilitary groups and other actors against the people of Nicaragua.”

The Venezuelan government, whose top officials already have been targeted by U.S. and international sanctions, joined Nicaragua in voting against the resolution. The leftist government of Bolivia and two Caribbean island nations who depend on Venezuelan oil subsidies also voted against the condemnation. Ten Latin American governments abstained.

The government has repeatedly denied any role in the violence against protesters, and Mr. Ortega said those opposing him are plotting a coup.

Clashes in Masaya

The OAS was responding to Mr. Ortega’s brutal siege of the town of Masaya, where protesters had erected roadblocks and occupied public buildings in a peaceful vigil against the government when hooded gunmen backed by police stormed the town. The gunmen invaded homes, churches, schools and hospitals to round up suspected government opponents. Many were shot and kidnapped, eyewitnesses said. Catholic priests trying to protect dissidents were beaten.

The Nicaraguan Pro-Human Rights Association said last week that at least 448 had been killed in clashes since April. International human rights organizations said they are investigating reports that activist leaders are being thrown into secret prisons to be tortured or killed.

“It’s surprising that Ortega was able to put together such a sophisticated paramilitary apparatus, designed to establish plausible deniability for the government’s brutal repression, so quickly,” said Douglas Farah, an analyst in terrorism who has consulted for the Pentagon. “These parallel para-state repressive forces, operating in conjunction with the state, are a specialty of regimes in Venezuela and Cuba.”

Defense intelligence analysts said they noticed that members of the shabbily clad civilian units were using sophisticated Russian weaponry, including the latest-generation AK-103 automatic rifles, Draganov sniper rifles and RPG-7 rockets.

One student leader in Masaya told CNN that Cubans and Venezuelans were embedded with the paramilitaries.

Speaking before a rally of supporters in Managua last weekend, Mr. Ortega pledged to “fortify the self-defense groups” protecting his “Sandinista revolution.” He described opposition parties as “satanic sects” and called for their “exorcism.”

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza also spoke at the rally and compared Nicaragua’s crisis to “the one we lived through in Venezuela last year.” The Maduro government cemented its hold on power with national elections boycotted by the opposition and denounced as illegitimate and fraud-ridden by international observers.

Mr. Ortega may be feeling the heat as domestic and international criticism mounts. He tried to walk back his support for the paramilitaries in an unusual interview with Fox News’ Bret Baier on July 23 by saying the armed civilians were connected with drug traffickers and criminal gangs and acted on their own. He also rejected any suggestion that he step down before his term expires in 2021.

Venezuelan paramilitaries, known as “colectivos,” are the brainchild of Vice President Tareck El Aissami, who served as interior minister under Mr. Maduro. Mr. El Aissami formed the units by indoctrinating street gangs in poor neighborhoods and coordinating them with the national intelligence service.

The U.S. government has sanctioned Mr. El Aissami personally for reported links to drug traffickers and terrorist groups.

Motorcycle-mounted colectivos broke up Venezuelan opposition protest marches that were filling the streets of Caracas last year by randomly shooting protesters as police stood by. Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma, a fierce critic of Mr. Maduro, said colectivos worked closely with Venezuelan intelligence agents in stalking him before his escape from Venezuela in October.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a former CIA director, told Congress that Venezuelan paramilitaries were armed with sophisticated Russian shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles.

Many analysts say Mr. Ortega lacks one resource that Mr. Maduro has found to be critical in Venezuela: a vast store of national oil wealth that can be used to buy loyalty for security and military forces. But the system of politically controlled paramilitary units is designed to allow the government to engage in repression indefinitely without involving the army.


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