The bizarre tale of a man who shot into a group of protesters in Nicaragua last Wednesday — while police stood by — got even more bizarre over the weekend.
On Saturday, 27-year-old Samir Matamoros appeared before a criminal court in Managua and confessed to shooting into a crowd of anti-government protesters gathered in Nicaragua’s capital on Sept. 2. He said he did it because the head of a respected violence prevention organization asked him to “add some fuel to the fire” to roust would-be protesters from their apathy. He said she had offered him something in exchange, though he didn’t specify what.
“I have needs,” Matamoros told government-allied reporters — the only ones allowed into the hearing — outside the courtroom.
The protesters who were there the day of the shooting and other government critics have a very different theory: that someone allied with President Daniel Ortega’s Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) government — or perhaps even the government itself — put Matamoros up to the stunt. Luckily, no one was injured despite numerous shots fired into the crowd.
Whether one believes Matamoros’ story or not mostly depends on which side of Nicaragua’s increasingly bitter, pro-anti Sandinista divide one is on. Long, long gone is the triumphant Sandinista nationalism that united much of Nicaragua’s population after the overthrow of Dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979. Long gone, even, is the defensive glue that held together the country’s left-leaning citizenry as they fended off the U.S.-backed Contras in the 1980s and other outside attempts to thwart Nicaragua’s socialist agenda.
For the past several months, protesters have been gathering every Wednesday in the country’s capital to demand electoral reforms and transparency in next year’s general election. Ortega is expected to run for a third consecutive term thanks to a constitutional change, pushed through last year by his party, which scrapped term limits.
Started as a citizen uprising, the recent protest movement was quickly hijacked by conservative, anti-Ortega political parties. But more and more groups are joining the protests, including the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), which was founded in 1995 by disaffected FSLN intellectuals.
The woman who Matamoros, the shooter, says asked him to stir up the crowd is one of the disaffected (though she’s not a MRS founder). Mónica Zalaquett, who heads the Center for Violence Prevention, was once a Sandinista loyalist. But the Chilean-born, Nicaragua-nationalized writer and peace activist became disillusioned with the Sandinistas’ perceived lack of interest in women’s rights.
Zalaquett founded the Center for Violence Prevention, which works with at-risk youth primarily in Managua, in 1997. Matamoros went through a program at the center and later became involved as a mentor to other troubled youth. Zalaquett told the Nicarguan news magazine Confidencial that Matamoros had stopped his involvement with the center a year ago to dedicate his free time to FSLN politics.
“We’re surprised and hurt by what happened,” she said. Zalaquett also told reporters that she had thought highly of Matamoros prior to the incident.
The circumstances surrounding Matamoros’ actions, and especially, his confession, are undoubtedly suspicious. First off, videos show that when Matamoros began shooting into the crowd, police officers standing nearby made no move to stop him. Local media reported that the head of transit police, Juan Valle Valle, was standing just a few meters from the shooter but later said he saw nothing.
Aminta Granera, Nicaragua’s generally-respected police chief, said the officers present at the protest all had jobs to do and did them. She said National Police officers went after Matamoros and captured him minutes after he fled the scene on the back of a motorcycle. The motorcycle driver was not captured, adding to suspicion of some sort of government collusion.
Matamoros — who Nicaragua’s National Police says has a rap sheet that includes aggravated robbery and theft — is accused of attempted murder, endangerment and illegal possession and use of a handgun. He was brought before a judge on Saturday. Only official media outlets were allowed into the hearing. Matamoros’ private lawyer, Darling García, also said she was not allowed into the hearing.
While Zalaquett received an outpouring of support from Nicaraguan intellectuals, including writer Gioconda Belli, and government critics, Sandinista officials have party faithfuls have accepted Matamoros’ confession as truth.
In an interview with government-allied Radio Sandino, Nicaragua’s human rights deputy ombudsman, Adolfo José Jarquín Ortel, said Zalquett’s alleged collusion with the shooter was “humiliating.”
“We’ve been working in Nicaragua to leave the war behind, to eradicate violence. We can’t have political parties and non governmental organizations doing this kind of thing,” he said. Jarquín also suggested that protesters were paid to participate.
Whatever is the ultimate truth of the shooting incident, the outcome doesn’t appear to favor the government. The protest movement grows ever stronger and with more diverse participation — mimicking the unprecedented coalition of forces that just forced a sitting president from office in Guatemala.
Matamoros did stoke the fire, regardless of who, if anyone, put him up to it.