Survivors of a May 21 massacre in which Nicaraguan soldiers and police allegedly gunned down three ranch workers with AK- 47s say they fear for their lives after refusing an alleged military officer’s clandestine proposal to cover up the killings.
“We’ve sentenced ourselves to death,” said José Ríos, a ranch owner who filed a complaint against police and military officials with the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH) and the Chief Prosecutor’s Office after the killings.
According to witnesses, a group of eight armed antiriot police and soldiers showed up at the ranch on May 21 based on a report that an armed group was hiding out at the remote cattle farm known as “El Encanto,” in the South Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAS).
Guns drawn, the armed authorities entered the ranch house without knocking and began rummaging through the place in search of weapons, according to witness María Saenz.
“They asked me how many armed people” were in the house, said Saenz, who was eight months pregnant at the time and gave birth prematurely six days after the traumatizing incident.
One of the soldiers asked Saenz’s husband, ranch manager José Miguel Salazar, “Where are the guns?” Her husband had a .38 mm pistol visibly tucked in his belt.
When an armed soldier told Salazar he was being arrested, Salazar asked for the arrest warrant. That’s when one of the soldiers tried to grab him, but Salazar pushed him away. Amid the commotion, another soldier allegedly opened fire with his AK-47, injuring Salazar, who later died.
In retaliation, farmer Marvin López stabbed a machete in the side of one of the soldier’s heads. Authorities responded by shooting him dead.
Trying to flee the gunshots, ranch workers José Inés and Santos Marenco ran outside. Inés said he took cover and lied on his stomach, which is when bullets aimed in his direction hit and killed Marenco.
The day after the shootings, Ríos said he met with army officials, one of whom allegedly offered to forget about the issue if Ríos would agree to keep quiet. Ríos, however, filed a complaint the following day with the CENIDH in Managua.
Police from La Cruz de Río Grande, the police department allegedly involved in the incident, don’t have a telephone and are only reachable by radio, according to police in neighboring Juigalpa. Juigalpa police deferred questions to the National Police in Managua.
Police Commissioner Jimmy Maynard said there are “many doubts” and “a lot of confusion” surrounding the incident, which has prompted Internal Affairs to launch an investigation.
The three police officers implicated in the case haven’t been suspended, Maynard told reporters in a May 28 press conference.Army Gen. Omar Halleslevens told press he’ll cooperate with the prosecutor’s investigation, but didn’t say whether the army had launched its own internal investigation.
Maynard said police normally travel with army soldiers in the rural RAAS, and that police arrived at the El Encanto ranch in response to “an accusation” that “a threat” had been made. He didn’t say whether police were acting on an arrest warrant.
Ríos suspects it was his neighbor, with whom he’s been feuding, who told police his ranch was housing armed militants. A week before the El Encanto incident, Ríos filed a complaint with police against his neighbor for allegedly stealing cattle.
The Nica Times tried getting a hold of Abelina Gutiérrez, the Bluefields judge handling the case, but didn’t get a response by press time.
Though the National Police in Managua promised Ríos protection after the shootings, as of press time he said it hadn’t arrived.
“We need protection but don’t know where we can get it because we don’t trust the police or the army,” he said.