In Nicaragua, Indigenous People Are in Standoff With Illegal Settlers and Police

The smoldering embers of history’s violent conflict between the indigenous Miskitu and the Sandinista revolutionaries of Nicaragua — which peaked in 1981 when the Sandinistas attempted to nationalize Miskitu territory — were never completely extinguished. Now, as Nicaragua braces for mass protests around the upcoming November election, controversies surrounding what some see as an authoritarian bid by Daniel Ortega for a fourth term, are coinciding with escalations in colonial violence in the isolated, binational region of Muskitia.

The United States, Mexico and Costa Rica recently issued travel warnings due to a heightened incidence of expulsions and arrests of academics, activists, and nonprofit workers throughout Nicaragua — many of whom had cited scientific or moral opposition to the proposed canal. The autonomous indigenous nation of Muskitia has long suffered an even more violent siege, however, and is the site of a long simmering conflict zone between its legal, indigenous inhabitants and heavily armed illegal settlers known as ‘colonos.’

Miskitu land rights are protected under Nicaraguan Law 445, and further reinforced by international tenets such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People and ILO Convention 169. The militarized Sandinista police in the region violate national and international law in their ongoing participation and complicity with the violent tactics perpetrated by these heavily armed actors. Traditional communities are disappearing as counts of refugees and internally displaced Miskitus climb into the thousands; one entire township fled to Honduras.

Reynaldo Francis, mayor of the indigenous city of Bilwi, says they are currently hosting over 400 internally displaced Miskitu. The central government has provided no assistance in helping them manage the influx of refugees, and many newly displaced Miskitu are forced to go door to door, begging for work.

In February, the indigenous political party of YATAMA held a conference in Bilwi (also known as Puerto Cabezas) to discuss the ongoing crisis.

“It’s about the resources we have on the land,” Dean Hodgson explained outside the conference, earlier this year. The YATAMA assembly, he said, was about deciding if the communities of Muskitia were ready to take matters into their own hands and, “to clean [the crisis] up ourselves.”

Mario Leman Müller, a central figure in the “Sanamiento Movement” to take back Miskitu territory was shot on September 15, 2015 — a day otherwise marked in celebration of Miskitu independence. Sandinista youth raided YATAMA headquarters and shot Lehman in cold blood. He died while being transferred to Managua for emergency medical treatment.

Senor Ramos Astin, another leader in the Sanamiento Movement, traveled to the YATAMA conference to join in exploring and building collective solutions to the ongoing violence. He explained how colonos attack Miskitu communities with Uzis, assault rifles, and even hand grenades. The Miskitu on the frontier have only their old hunting rifles, traditional harpoons used for fishing, and machetes to defend their families. He further confirmed reports of educational and health services collapsing in the region. People are beginning to go hungry; and, women are harassed and raped by colonos as they attempt to work the fields to gather food.

Christina Smith, a Miskitu woman, traveled to the conference from the community of Li Auhbra. Smith’s sister was abducted by colonos while working in the field to collect food with her children. Though she was eventually released, the woman has since fled to a refugee camp in Honduras.

A local Miskitu journalist who oversees the local community radio station, was attacked by eight Sandinista youth during a demonstration against the Sandinista government in the fall of 2015. One of the youth struck the back of Juan Herbacio White’s head with a blunt object from a moving motorcycle. The group then forcibly entered YATAMA headquarters and tried to burn the radio station to the ground — luckily, community radio staff successfully defended it.

Sandinista police raided the Managua home of YATAMA leader Brooklyn Rivera in mid-June. It was soon revealed that Rivera had left for Canada mere hours before the home invasion to visit family and engage with First Nation communities in the north. It is unclear if the FSLN police were hoping to pillage his home for information in his absence, intimidate the Miskitu community as a whole, or were actually hoping to arrest Rivera.

A group of excombatientes (veterans) from the previous war between the Sandinistas and Miskitus vowed to meet him at the airport to insure his safe passage back into Nicaragua — which he was ultimately granted upon his return in late June.

The territories are suffering a vast spectrum of violence at the hands of colonos — murder, kidnap, rape, intimidation, obstruction from producing food, and obstruction from medical care according to Constantino Rommel, Vice President of the Indigenous Territorial Government of Wangki Tsba Raya near Honduras. Rommel himself was shot by Sandinista police while trying to deliver food relief to the hard hit community of Santa Clara. The attack came after Rommel failed to stop at a military police checkpoint, knowing his life would be threatened either way. This incident occurred on the same day Mario Leman Müller was shot by Sandinista youth following their invasion of YATAMA headquarters.

The content for this article was wholly informed by interviews conducted and translated by Dr. Laura Hobson Herlihy of the University of Kansas — who speaks fluent Miskitu and was in the region conducting her annual course on Miskitu language and culture.