Riot police stand guard outside the Evaristo Vasquez Police Complex, where Nicaraguan pre-presidential candidate Juan Sebastian Chamorro was detained in Managua, Nicaragua on June 30.
Riot police stand guard outside the Evaristo Vasquez Police Complex, where Nicaraguan pre-presidential candidate Juan Sebastian Chamorro was detained in Managua, Nicaragua on June 30. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

President Daniel Ortega, along with his wife and Vice President, Rosario Murillo, have been undermining Nicaraguan democracy for years, according to critics and human rights groups.

There was the centralization of the executive branch of government, followed by the weakening of its democratic institutions. Loyalists to Ortega and the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) were chosen to head the Supreme Court, the Attorney General’s office and even the Supreme Electoral Council.

Municipal election results in 2008 were doubted by the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH) and the 2016 presidential elections weren’t overseen by international observers.

But the real inflection point came in 2018, when Ortega’s government approved changes to the country’s social security programs in an attempt to stem rising deficits within the program. Contributions by workers and employers would have increased but the amount retired workers would get in their pensions would have decreased.

People of all ages took to the streets to demonstrate in massive protests. The government was forced to withdraw its proposal, but it did little to quell the anger of Nicaraguans, many of whom took the moment to express broader anger with Ortega’s governance.

Protests evolved into broader demands, including that Ortega step down.

Instead of working with opposition groups and protesters to find a peaceful solution, Ortega’s government took the opposite approach — intense and deadly crackdowns, violating human rights as pro-government armed groups arbitrarily detained hundreds who were participating in the protests.

In some instances, parapolice groups would erect “obstacles to prevent the injured from gaining access to emergency medical care as a form of retaliation for their participation in the protests,” the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) said in a report released that year.

Churches were attacked if protesters were thought to be seeking protection inside, which the country’s Catholic Church denounced.

Universities became ground zero as pro-government forces attacked students who had been holed up in defiance against the government, killing at least two people in one deadly incident, human rights group CENIDH reported.

According to multiple human rights groups, at least 325 people were killed during the civil unrest as Ortega’s security forces used lethal force against protesters.

According to Amnesty International in a report released a month after the protests began, the government used a violent repression policy against its people — a “shoot to kill” strategy.

Ortega’s government denied those charges. According to their “official” statistics, at least 195 people were killed, an inconsistency that remains to this day.

Months after the protests began, the government was able to temporarily calm the storm working to negotiate agreements with several civil groups — the Catholic Church serving as their mediator — all with the intention to meet some of the demands and end the unrest.

But the negotiations would stall with Ortega refusing to bow down to their main point — a call for early elections. The government finally agreed to allow international organizations into the country to investigate the deaths of hundreds of protesters and release some of those imprisoned on what the IACHR called “unfounded and disproportionate charges.”

With Ortega strengthening his hold on power in all state entities — judicial, supreme court, military, media, the excessive force against any dissent continued.

The protests became a justification to enact a slew of new laws that continued to repress any form of dissent, creating fear throughout the country.

Anti-government protests were subsequently banned. Waving the country’s flag in public or wearing its colors, a key symbol of the 2018 demonstrations, was criminalized.

More than 100 university students who participated in the demonstrations were expelled from school and health care workers who had assisted the injured lost their jobs, according to the IACHR.

Anyone who spoke out publicly against the government could be considered a traitor to the nation. Independent news stations also became targets. Some were raided and shut down. Journalists were imprisoned or were forced into exile.

The crackdown continues: The protest movement against Ortega began to dwindle until it eventually died out, yet the systematic repression lives on.

Independent media outlets and journalists continue to be harassed. Certain political parties have been disbanded. International suggestions presented to ensure free and fair elections have been ignored.

“Here, the person that raises their voice gets marked or singled out as a traitor to the country,” said Juan, a Nicaraguan who supported the protests and disagrees with the Ortega government. He asked CNN not use his real name in order to speak out against the administration without fear of reprisal.

“They’d consider me a traitor to the country,” he said when asked what would happen if the government knew he was speaking to foreign journalists. “They can make up some crime and take me to jail for who knows how many years.”

Juan spoke to CNN from inside his car outside his job, as he was afraid to express his true opinions inside. He said there are always people around who could report anti-government sentiment to the authorities.

His fears of persecution are well founded.

Human rights groups say so-called “traitors” often experience torture at the hands of the country’s notoriously ruthless security forces.

The government did not respond to CNN’s request for comment on the allegations of torture.

Hundreds of protesters and activists are believed to still be detained, according to CENIDH in a report released in February, and more than 108,000 Nicaraguans have fled the country since 2018, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

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