Grace Vanegas has spent the last two days shut up in her house, together with her daughters. She hasn’t gone out because she supported the “work-stoppage” held this Tuesday in Leon, and later that same day the paramilitary forces and riot squads of the National Police attacked the barricade put up on the corner near her house, in the Guadalupe neighborhood of Leon, known as Nicaragua’s University City.
She began hearing the bursts of machine gun fire around three in the afternoon. Grace grabbed her two little ones to protect them inside the house. A Toyota Hilux pick-up truck barreled through the street by the Guadalupe Cemetery and attacked the barricade whose citizen defenders were protesting against Daniel Ortega’s regime and the repression that has caused over 150 deaths.
On Tuesday, Leon looked desolate. The streets and sidewalks usually crammed, with shops, stalls and passers-by, were deserted. The “general work stoppage” called by Civil Society and the April 19th Movement was a “success”. According to its organizers, around 90% of the commercial and daily activity stopped.
Leon was the first city in Nicaragua to go “on strike”, serving as a prelude to the national strike that COSEP, representing large private businesses, and other members of the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy announced for Thursday, June 14.
Images, videos and eyewitness reports coincided that by three pm on Tuesday the streets of Leon were “deader than on Good Friday”. The only activity was around the two citizen roadblocks, one at the intersection connecting Leon with the city of Chinandega, and the other blocking the exit to Managua. However, the quiet nature of the protest was broken by the bullets of the riot squad. Immediately afterwards, according to Grace, “the paramilitaries appeared.”
“The hooded figures in the pick-up entered aggressively, firing their weapons: “Bam, bam, bam, You could hear the bursts of gunfire,” the young mother described.
The confrontation lasted until 4 pm when there was a pause and the roadblock was restructured. The little grocery stores in the Guadalupe neighborhood that were already closed for the “general work stoppage” reinforced the locks on their doors to protect from the paramilitaries. At seven in the evening, the confrontation began again.
There were some wounded, but none seriously. Despite the rifles the paramilitaries were brandishing, there were no deaths. However, a number of people were arrested, among them more than ten of the independent citizen protestors. During the disturbances, the population also took over a building of the mayor’s office and the Guadalupe police station.
Leon’s “general strike” ended in the middle of the tension. Anibal Toruno, director of Radio Dario – a radio station that was burned down by Sandinista mobs – is a member of the citizen coalition that organized the strike. According to him, on Wednesday morning the paramilitaries returned to encircle the city. But the neighborhoods in Leon had already begun to put up cobblestone barricades to defend themselves. Almost all the neighborhoods barricaded themselves off.
Over 100 barricades
When Roberto Garcia – Grace Vanegas’ husband – headed for the center of Leon to go to the supermarket, he saw that the city had barricaded itself off. Hundreds of citizens were ripping up cobblestones and blocking the corners. The picture they presented was similar to that in the city of Masaya which had preceded them in total civic rebellion. Now the “first capital of the 1979 Sandinista Revolution” had joined in. Leon – founded by the Spanish as “Leon Santiago de los Caballeros” – had expressed its repudiation of President Ortega and his repressive government.
The protesters made a map of the barricades in Leon: ten barriers in the neighborhood of La Ermita; on the corner of Santa Fe; in the Guadalupe Residencial Area; in front of the National High School of the West; by the Fraternity building; in Zaragoza; in the indigenous neighborhood of Sutiava… in “almost all the neighborhoods in Leon,” stated a citizen who preferred not to give his name.
Anibal Toruno, the director of Radio Dario, told us that on Wednesday morning the paramilitaries were going around the city in pick-ups, but in every neighborhood, they encountered the barricades. The coalition of independent citizens asked the Catholic Church to intercede on their behalf with the National Police and the municipal government of Mayor Roger Gurdian. Father Silvio Rueda of the San Felipe parish was put in charge of this. Confidencial attempted to communicate with Mayor Gurdian, but upon being consulted he hung up the phone.
The request to the police commissioner was to the point: an end to repression, the disarticulation of the paramilitary groups, freeing the prisoners, respect for the protests at the roadblocks, and not to block supplies of food and medicines to the citizen trenches. The prisoners were freed.
The request was received by Domingo Navas, Leon’s departmental police commissioner. The protestors agreed not to attack any public buildings or those of the national police. The police chief denied responsibility for the paramilitaries, so that Toruno then requested that Mayor Gurdian, who wasn’t present, pass along the request for disarticulation to the political secretary of the Sandinista Front. The radio director assured that following the mayor’s call, the paramilitaries ceased their siege of the barricades.
In the Guadalupe neighborhood, Grace Vanegas’ neighbors went out to get provisions for the next day. Leon’s streets were still a bit unwelcoming. “There were hardly any taxis and everyone came and went quickly to shut themselves back in their homes,” Vanegas described. “To shut ourselves in again, because tomorrow [Thursday, June 14] we join the national strike,” she promised.
One death in Nagarote
In the city of Nagaorte, within the same department as Leon, the paramilitaries attacked the roadblock very early Tuesday morning. A young man of 24, Wiston Saballos from the El Porvenir neighborhood, was killed.
According to reports, a microbus full of hooded figures shot up the roadblock while those guarding it were resting. By Wednesday afternoon there were reports of some businesses destroyed, among them the branch office of a bank.