The Dragunov sniper rifle, an old friend of Daniel Ortega
When government forces stormed the opposition barricades in the city of Masaya in June they came armed to the teeth, bearing one of the most feared weapons in Nicaragua – a Russian sniper rifle, known as the Dragunov.
During the assault, one of the local resistance leaders Darwin Potosme, 33, was standing at a street barricade with a home-made mortar when he was struck in the eye by a bullet that shattered his skull. When one of his closest companions came to the rescue and tried to lift his body he also came under fire, hit by a bullet that went clean through his cheek.
"I have attended several wakes of friends killed by bullets that shattered their heads,” another local leader, known as Commander Guardabarranco, told Univision News by phone from hiding. “Some we tried to rescue. It’s terrible to have to try and collect their brain ... their brain mass ... in a plastic bag, so it would not be left lying there,” he added, choking back tears.
The use of the Dragunov against the civilian population in Nicaragua has raised human rights concerns, fueling mounting international criticism of the government of President Daniel Ortega, a former Marxist guerrilla.
“Nothing can justify shoot-to-kill practices, nor the indiscriminate use of lethal force against a crowd,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director, Human Rights Watch. “Yet there is compelling evidence showing that Nicaraguan officers and pro-government gangs have repeatedly used lethal weapons against unarmed protesters in their effort to end the demonstrations in the country at any cost.” he added.
The Dragunov first made its appearance in Nicaragua during the 1980s when the former Soviet Union was the largest supplier of weapons to the socialist Sandinista government which fought a decade-long war with the U.S.-backed ‘Contra’ rebels.
After peace came in 1990, the Dragunovs were put in storage, reserved for use by the army Special Forces and a police Special Operations unit. They were rarely seen in public, except at military parades.
Until, that is, mass public protests broke out in April over a botched government reform of the social security system. When pensioners and students took to the streets April 18, they were met not just with tear gas and rubber bullets. Among the police ranks masked para-military gunman also appeared.
“Snipers were deployed as another means of repression and evidence suggests a link of the snipers to State agents,” according to a June 21 report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), a branch of the Organization of American States (OAS), citing eyewitness testimonies.
Autopsy reports examined by the IACHR from staff at public hospitals found “numerous victims were treated for bullet wounds in the head, eyes, neck and the thorax, as well as in the back. The mechanics and trajectory of the shots would indicate arbitrary use of lethal force, or extrajudicial executions.”
On April 20, Alvaro Conrado, a 15-year-old was carrying water to students trapped in the National Engineering University when he was mortally wounded in his neck and face. Several witnesses claimed that snipers posted nearby in the National Stadium fired the shots.
Made in Russia
Named after its developer - Evgeny Dragunov – the rifle was inducted into the Soviet military as a marksman’s rifle in 1963 and proved itself in the Afghan and Chechen wars. It has also been spotted more recently in the Ukrainian conflict and in Iraq.
Similar to the more famous AK-47, the Dragunov is manufactured by the same company, Kalashnikov Concern JSC, the largest Russian developer and manufacturer of assault automatic and sniper weapons. Its cartridge is fed from a 10-round box magazine and is capable of semi-automatic fire only, unlike the smaller AK-47 which is fully automatic. Fitted with a telescopic sight, the Dragunov is a medium-range rifle, with a range of 600 to 800 meters, out-distancing the more common AK-47.
In April 2014, the U.S. Treasury imposed economic sanctions on Kalashnikov Concern to punish Russian President Vladirmir Putin for supporting separatists in the Ukraine.
Russia has supplied Nicaragua's military with a variety of equipment, including tanks, helicopters, armored vehicles, and patrol boats, military analysts say. Moscow also operates a counterdrug center and satellite communications center in Managua. In July 2014, Putin made the first visit of a Russian president to Nicaragua, where he met with Ortega.
The Dragunov first appeared in Nicaragua after Ortega’s Sandinista guerrilla army overthrew dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979, however it’s not known if the Dragunovs currently being used are from the former Soviet-era stocks or date from more recent times, though most analysts believe they are older weapons.
A Venezuelan model of the Dragunov, known as the ‘Catatumbo’ is also manufactured by CAVIM, a state-owned firearms manufacturer, which produces a more powerful 50-caliber version with a far greater range. However, contrary to some news reports, Univision is not aware of any reliable accounts of its use in Nicaragua.
Nicaraguan Army Special Forces as well as a police special operations unit were trained to use the Dragunov in the 1980s, according to Roberto Cajina, a Nicaraguan security expert. After the Contra war ended most Dragunovs ended up in military arsenals, with only a handful left in police hands, according to one well-placed former senior Sandinista officer, who spoke to Univision on condition that he not be named. Although the military have stayed out of the conflict, he suspected some Dragunovs may have been provided to paramilitaries from military stocks.
“It’s a tremendous gun. It’s very sturdy and those things will last 100 years,” said the former Sandinista officer, dismissing the theory that Nicaragua might have received fresh stocks from Russia or Venezuela.
“There has always been a military sniper unit equipped with Dragunovs,” added Cajina, a Nicaraguan security expert. A police special operations unit, created to combat terrorism and organized crime, was also equipped with them in recent years, he said.
Photograph taken by news agencies, including AFP and Reuters have shown a police special operations officers armed with machine guns and Dragunov rifles in operations against protesters, who are mostly armed with stones and homemade mortars.
“The snipers likely come from the police special operations unit because they clearly have some training,” said Cajina. He doubted that the rifles had come from military stocks. “I still give the army the benefit of the doubt. They just want to see out this crisis without getting involved.”
Experts say there appear to be two groups of paramilitaries, some who appear to be fitter and with some training who have appeared alongside police with more sophisticated weapons. Others are overweight and seem less well-trained, armed with AK-47s. Videos have appeared on social media purporting to be from retired soldiers saying, "we inform the National Police that the retired soldiers are picking up their weapons again and we will be on the streets together for the defense of the country."
Nicaragua’s paramilitary forces are believed to consist of an assortment of current and former soldiers and police, ex-Sandinista combatants from the 1980s civil war, municipal officials, and hardcore Sandinista party loyalists, according to security experts and human rights groups. Univision reporters have witnessed them in action on several occasions. The heavily-armed paramilitaries are often seen traveling in pickup trucks, sometimes in the company of police.
“We have seen before these scenes of police acting together with heavily armed criminals and thugs conducting operations up and down the country, town by town, community by community,” said Vivanco. “They are shooting to kill, at civilians.” This is all happening in broad daylight.”
Ortega at first denied any official links to the paramilitaries. In an interview with CNN he said: “they are not paramilitaries … they are citizens defending themselves.” He later described them as “volunteer police.”
Nicaragua only has one National Police force, numbering about 14,000, with centralized control over all local and national policing from transit to homicides. The force enjoyed a degree of political autonomy until a constitutional change pushed through by Ortega in 2014 gave him official control.
In a speech on July 19, the anniversary of the Sandinista revolution of 1979, Ortega sought to turn the tables, accusing his opponents of being responsible for the violence, naming a list of dead police officers, without mentioning civilian casualties.
He accused the students and other opponents into “a diabolical force … satanic sects, coup supporters, murderers.” He added: “When we see the way in which they acted, torturing the people in the barricades, killing them in the barricades, all that like a satanic rite ... these people should be sought out to be exorcised,” he told a large crowd of supporters.
Last month the White House said in a statement that “ President Ortega and Vice President Murillo are ultimately responsible for the pro-government parapolice that have brutalized their own people.” The Trump administration also sanctioned Nicaragua’s de facto police chief Francisco Díaz, 56, for serious human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings.
Díaz, is the father-in-law of one Ortega and Murillo's children.
The Treasury Department accused the Nicaraguan police of approaching gang leaders in Nicaragua "for support in attacking anti-government protesters and have been accused of indiscriminately firing on, and killing, peaceful protestors."
“We are going to need a complete purge of the police when this is over," said Cajina. "It’s going to be extremely hard. The whole state is going to have to be reformed from top to bottom.”