This story published Sunday recounts the violent dismantling of one of the principal barricades in the country in the earlier days of the crisis, from the perspective of the peasants from the Anti-Canal movement. It also reflects the contradictory role of the Catholic church in the crisis, from a pastor who helps save the lives of wounded peasants, to a Bishop who refuses to accompany the dismantling, which would have protected them from the violent government response.
The Massacre of San Pedro de Lóvago
By Ana Cruz, La Prensa, January 18, 2020
Was there a massacre at the barricade of San Pedro de Lóvago? And if there was, how many peasants died? This work tries to clear up the facts behind one of the most violent events of 2018 of which little is known.
July 14, 2018. As of now there is no report on what happened that day at the strategic intersection known as the “San Pedro de Lóvago Junction,” 120 kilometers from Managua, when peasants from the central mountains of Nicaragua, who had put up a roadblock in protest against the Daniel Ortega regime, were attacked.
The versions go from a massacre with hundreds of peasants executed, at times supported by videos of doubtful origins, to the official version that ignores it. It did not happen for the Government of Nicaragua, like that massacre of banana workers in Colombia, January 6, 1928, that Gabriel García Márquez recounts in A Hundred Years of Solitude, when the authorities tried to convince the inhabitants of Macondo that everything was a dream, that there was no massacre, and that the workers were no longer there because they had left to seek better jobs in other places.
In May 2018 at the San Pedro de Lóvago Junction in Chontales was one of the approximately 180 roadblocks that had been put up throughout Nicaragua. Possibly this was one of the most important, because it paralyzed the three roads that connected with the municipalities of Juigalpa, Acoyapa and Santo Tomás. This junction was a key point through which moved farm and milk production from several provinces of the country.
The peasant, Nemesio Mejía, 43 years of age, remembers that it took a week for them to plan the roadblock. “We started with a barricade on April 23rd in Nueva Guinea (located in the southern Caribbean). We were there a week, pressuring from there so they would quit repressing in Managua, but we realized that we were only wearing people out. There were no results at that time. So, between May 1 and 2, we had some meetings, and we decided to advance. We agreed that we were going to the the Lóvago junction,”related Mejía, one of the peasants who became a coordinator of that barricade.
On May 10, 2018 the peasants closed the three roads from the Junction of Lóvago that connect with the municipalities of Juigalpa, Acoyapa and Santo Tómas. The barricade was maintained for two months and four days, and at which gathered, between 1,000 and 2,000 peasants -at times more, at other times less- from Punta Gorda, Río San Juan, El Almendro, Juigalpa, Santo Tómas and Chontales.
These peasants already had long experience in protesting. They came mostly from the Anti-Canal Movement that demanded respect for their lands, and the repeal of the “Special Law for the Development of the Infrastructure and Nicaraguan Transportation related to the Canal, Free Trade Zones and Associated Infrastructure”, Law 840.
The peasants were so well organized that they never lacked food nor vigilance. “They would bring us trucks full of food. Trucks with cheese, taro, cassava, plantains and butchered cattle. One day there was so much that we had to set a date for each person who wanted to donate food, because so much was coming in that we were wasting it,” remembered Mejía.
The Catholic priest, Carlos Abea Balmaceda, at that time pastor of the San Martín de Porras Church in Nueva Guinea, stated that he visited the Lóvago barricade on 12 occasions, and it was “when I ate the most meat in my life. They butchered cows there almost every day. This families would send food. Trucks arrived with products that they planted on their lands. Food was never lacking at that barricade.”
“They used to share even with those who could not pass because of the barricade,” commented the religious.
The coordinator of the Lóvago barricade pointed out that with so many people gathered, they had to organize themselves into three groups, even though those from Punta Gorda coordinated the entire barricade, which watched over each road that connected with Juigalpa, Santo Tomás and Acoyapa. But at night, when the support was less on the part of the communities of Juigalpa and Santo Tomás, the people from Punta Gorda supported the care of the barricades.
The stakeout, according to Mejía´s story, was difficult for the peasants, because they had few and poor hours of sleep. In the two long months of protest from the barricade, the peasants slept on stones, pieces of black plastic, or cardboard. The most fortunate slept on hammocks and others, more confident, on the weeds next to the highways.
“We would not even sleep for a complete hour because of the uncomfortableness, and the fear that they could come in and attack us,” revealed Mejía.
The coordinator of the Lóvago barricade remembers that several peasants “went crazy” because of the accumulated weariness and the fear of being murdered. “There were more than 2 months without being able to sleep well. There was no rest. It was very hard. A young man suddenly began to talk incoherently, and we had to put him in the hospital for several days. Many people left there traumatized because they were afraid and were not saying so,” referred Mejía.
Fr. Abea noted that two days prior to the July 14, 2018 ambush, by accident a person who was driving drunk ignored the barricade and ran over one of the demonstrators. “The man died, and we had to show up to mediate, because the driver was driving drunk,” lamented the priest from Nueva Guinea.
Another one of the painful, but moving, moments according to Mejía, happened when the peasants paid homage to the student, Kevin Valle. The young man died during the attack against the students entrenched in the Polytechnical University of Nicaragua (UPOLI).
The casket of Kevin Valle passed through the Lóvago junction, because he was from La Gateada in the municipality of Villa Sandino in Chontales. This is why, at the request of the peasants, his relatives allowed that they pay him homage for a few minutes.
The emotional posthumous event began when the peasants raised the white and blue flag. Then they formed a human chain and sang the National Anthem, while the casket with the body of Valle slowly moved forward on top of a small truck.
The coordinator of the Lóvago barricade gave a speech to all those who at that moment were watching over the barricade. “I told them that we should be prepared, because what happened to that boy could happen to any one of us. He died for seeking freedom for Nicaragua, and we also were exposed to that sacrifice and suffering,” warned Mejía, before the shattered peasants who were supporting the grief of the family of Valle.
Fear and exhaustion began to be felt. The brutal Cleanup Operation that the government executed had already begun, dismantling by gunshot, one by one, the barricades in the country. By the beginning of July, the neighboring barricades in Santo Domingo, Juigalpa, San Pedro and Morrito were dismantled, and that left them practically defenseless to a possible ambush from para-police, police and soldiers. Mejía remembers that now by July 13th there were not even 500 peasants who continued supporting, at least by their presence, the Lóvago barricade.
Days before the brutal ambush, suspicions of a possible attack on the Lóvago barricade arrived when some people from the communities warned the coordinators that in a community close by, some 400 people were gathering from the Nicaragua Army. “The people who live close to the Tierra Blanca community told us that they saw soldiers congregated, and with the dismantling already of nearby barricades, well, they nearly had us surrounded. So the decision to leave began to develop,” Mejía confessed.
Added to the fall of so many nearby barricades, that in one or another way protected the Lóvago barricade, the peasants received the news in the afternoon of July 13, 2018 that Medardo Mairena and Pedro Mena, also founders of the Anti-Canal Movement, had been detained in the August Sandino International Airport in Managua.
The feeling that it was time to leave became latent. A peasant with the initials of M.G., who we will call Luis to protect his identity, stated that, for them as members of the Peasant Movement, one of the strongest reasons for leaving the barricade was the detention of Mairena. “We thought that if we left the barricade, they might release Medardo, but instead of that, they attacked us with gun fire, when in the barricade, since all of us were peasants, we only had our machetes, others had stones, sticks, slingshots and one or another pistol that we used to take care of our plots of land.”
The coordinator of the Lóvago barricade met with the people that were left, and spoke to them frankly. “I told them that I preferred to abandon the barricade and no allow the death of any peasant. It would hurt me that they would kill the people for continuing, even though there was no longer any more support from other barricades,” revealed Mejía.
The morning of July 14, 2018 some peasants, without consulting the coordinators of the Lóvago barricade, called Fr. Abea to inform him that they had planned to dismantle the barricade. They also entrusted to him that they requested the accompaniment of Bishop René Sándigo, and that he had refused.
“They (the peasants) tried to negotiate the arrival of the bishop, and the demobilization of the barricade would be achieved, but the Bishop of Chontales refused. He said he was not coming,” confirmed the religious priest.
The priest stated that the dismantling began at 5am, when the peasants began to withdraw in small groups to their homes. The coordinator of the Lóvago barricade stated that the majority, some 200 to 300 peasants, left between 9 and 10am on that July 14th, heading to the highway that connects with Santo Tomás.
“I told them, let´s go, let´s go, get on the trucks! And we pulled out in a type of caravan,” described Mejía.
The coordinators of the barricade were in a small vehicle, and attempted to go out ahead to inform the rest if they saw something suspicious. Mejía remembers that, meters before reaching the area of Poza Azul, the place in which they were attacked, again along the highway to Santo Tomás, he received a call in which he was warned that they were waiting for them.
“I consulted with the driver about how far we were from the point that they told me, and unfortunately we were already less than 800 meters away. Immediately I told him to stop. I signaled to one of the trucks to stop, but it continued on, and a hail of gunfire ensued because they were waiting for us,” lamented Mejía.
The sector of Poza Azul where the ambush occurred, is some nine kilometers from the Lóvago Junction. The peasants who witnessed the attack stated that they saw between 40 and 80 paramilitaries, police and Army officers deployed on both sides of the highway.
The hail of bullets against the group of unarmed peasants lasted more than 30 minutes. Some, who fortunately did not end up wounded, say that they saw the bullets hit the pavement and how others hit the bodies of their brothers in the struggle.
“The bullets passed so close to me that I heard them whizzing by while all of us were running. It was a time when we were running for our lives, and we ran to both sides of the highway,” remembered Mejía.
Luis, in contrast to Mejía, was in one of the trucks that carried quarry stone when he was a victim of the attack. “Everything happened quickly. You could hear the explosions. The truck braked sharply, and we all looked for how to jump off and flee into the woods,” related the peasant, now from a point in Nicaragua where he is hiding out of fear of being killed by the Ortega Murillo dictatorship.
He says that he saw police and soldiers shooting at them with high caliber weapons and, when he began to run on the highway, felt that something hot destroyed his leg. “I shouted at my companions, ´they hit me, they hit me´! But they only said to me, ´Where?´, while we ran toward the woods,” recounted Luis.
Nine pellets of buckshot from a 12 caliber shotgun hit the body of Luis. The bullets were lodged in his left leg and part of his abdomen, destroying tendons and part of his intestines.
At the same time, another peasant who we will call Juan, 34 years of age, also was hit by bullets, after he got down from the truck of quarry stones, that they were using to leave the barricade. Also a farmer, he was hit during the attack. 11 pellets of buckshot from a 12 caliber shotgun hit his body. They destroyed his spinal cord. He was left a paraplegic.
The peasant Juan Gabriel Mairena, the brother of Medardo Mairena, also was hit by the bullets during the ambush. The young peasant was in the back of a small car, along with another five protestors, and on seeing the hail of bullets, left the car in search of the woods. Before being able to hide among the trees and undergrowth, Mairena was hit by two bullets from an AK-47. They hit him in the shoulder and the left forearm, draining his arm of strength and mobility.
They had given up the brother of Mairena for dead. Mejía describes that, at the moment when they gave him the homemade weapon that Gabriel carried, all stained in blood, it was like “when one loses a son. It was devastating. They thought that they had finished him off because they left him some 800 meters within the woods, under a tree,” recalled Mejía.
Gabriel pointed out that, on being left under the tree by the companions who helped him to continue, he regained his strength and walked for four days in the mountains toward Nueva Guinea. The excessive attack and the long hours of walking, that more than 200 peasants had to do until feeling themselves “safe”, in addition to the lack of communication among the members of the Anti-Canal Movement, made many think that the deaths had been more numerous.
Dead and wounded
“There was talk of more than 20 dead, but I could not confirm that because I did not stay there. All of us ran,” stated Mejía. Fr. Abea related that, possibly the more “confirmed” dead were the three citizens who were driving, and were helpers in the truck in which the peasants were traveling, because he stated that days after the ambush, he was able to have some contact with approximately 90 percent of those who were in that caravan.
International human rights organizations, in spite of being present at that time in the country, did not record exact data on that attack on the peasants who blocked the Lóvago junction.
Nevertheless, in their 2018 Annual Report, Chapter IV on Nicaragua, the Interamerican Human Rights Commission (IACHR), described as “the most violent incidents occurred within the framework of operation cleanup those that took place in peasant areas, like Morrito, in the Río San Juan Province and San Pedro de Lóvago in Chontales.”
The number of people killed in Nicaragua, from April 18 to July 30, 2018 then had reached 317, according to the report of the IACHR.
In the early morning hours of July 16, 2018, now with the permission of the Police, Fr. Carlos Abea was able get them to allow him to see how the place had been left, and confirm with his own eyes whether there were bodies of peasants strewn in Poza Azul or around the highway that connects with Santo Tomás.
The priest remembers that several peasants told him that the three that were in the cabin of the truck “did not run because they were not in the barricades,” but since the attack did not stop until several minutes later, unfortunately, they were also hit by the bullets.
The point where the attack occurred, even though nearly 48 hours had passed since the ambush, the priest stated that it looked like a hurricane had just passed through. “The environment was silent and very tense. Everything was run down, like a hurricane had just gone by, that left everything strewn about. There was a stretch of road with a ton of stuff strewn about, clothing and shoes. There was everything because the peasants threw themselves to both sides of the highway and they had to run to save their lives,” bemoaned the priest.
The priest walked up to 800 meters around where the ambush occurred, but did not find any bodies. “I did not see any bodies, but I did see a lot of people wounded,” he said, at that time the pastor of Nueva Guinea, now confined to exile in Mexico, because his life was in danger for having helped the peasants.
After more than six hours of searching without results, the priest decided to abandon the area, but stated that he returned 17 days later to rescue the wounded peasants who were hiding in the woods.
Mejía revealed that he was in coordination with Fr. Abea, after he was able to charge his cell phone, to indicate to him the location of those wounded or sheltered in different points in the woods. The religious remembers that there were occasions when he rode around for up to two or three hours in his vehicle to be able to get to the points where the peasants were hiding.
The coordinator of the Lóvago barricade had to go into seclusion in the woods for a week, until he crossed into Costa Rica. Gabriel, in contrast, walked four days by himself in search of medical attention. Everyone had given him up for dead. He got to Nueva Guinea, and a doctor gave him medicines and sewed him up, but told him that he could not do anything more, because if he did, they would kill him. One month and seven days later Mairena also crossed the border into Costa Rica to save his life.
Luis and Juan, hours later the same day of the ambush, were taken by human rights defenders, sent by Abea, to a private clinic in Juigalpa. Both spent several weeks hospitalized.
In total the priest states that he supported some 18 or 20 peasants who remained in the woods wounded. One of the cases that had the most impact on Abea was that of a 90 year old peasant, who had two bullets in his left leg, above the knee.
“His capacity of love for others, and his conviction that his struggle was just, and if he died it was worth it, had a great impact on me,” commented the priest.
The celebration over the rescues carried out did not last long, because the religious realized that several of them, some 12 peasants, had been detained by the Police. Most were from the community known as La Campanera. As of today the priest states that he never heard anything about them.