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Latin America

“Triangle of death” – Nicaraguan victims of repression show pattern of head, neck and chest wounds

Autopsies support allegations by witnesses and relatives of the dead during weeks of anti-government protests who say they were killed by snipers who back President Daniel Ortega. The government denies the allegations
4 Jun 2018 – 06:14 PM EDT
Funeral in Managua of the 14-year-old boy Orlando Córdoba, who was killed in the Mother's Day March on May 30. He was allegedly struck by a bullet fired by Nicaraguan police. Crédito: Inti Ocon / AFP / Getty Images

MANAGUA, Nicaragua - Francisco Reyez Zapata was killed by a gunshot to the head. The 33-year-old was hit May 30 as the government of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo cracked down on a massive anti-government march in Managua, killing 15 protesters and wounding 199.

Many of the people injured during the march, organized by the organization Mothers of April to commemorate the deaths of sons and daughters killed during the previous weeks of protests against the government, were hit by gunfire.

“My brother was killed by a bullet from a police AK-47,” said Reyez Zapata's brother, Roberto. A CAT scan reviewed by Univision News showed the bullet lodged toward the rear of his cranium.

Edgar Guevara Portobanco also died from a gunshot. He did not die immediately. Doctors at the Hospital Bautista tried to save his life, but the bullet that hit him on the right side of the chest caused too much damage.

The body of Kevin Coffin Reyes, 21, a gold medalist in martial arts at the last Central American games, showed a gunshot to the thorax when it arrived at the Military Hospital. Heriberto Pérez Díaz was killed by a shot to the chest.

Triangle of death

Those four victims of the May 30 protests suffered the same wounds as the majority of the fatal victims of the government repression – lethal gunshots to the head, neck and thora
“It's a triangle of death,” said one doctor who has been treating some of the wounded, and seen some of them die. “No warning shots. Shoot to kill,” he said, asking for anonymity because of fears of reprisals.

Hospital neurosurgery units have been jammed with patients with fatal wounds that also point to the use of high-caliber projectiles. “ They are not using 9 mm weapons. These are weapons of war,” said the doctor.

After analyzing CAT scans of many of the wounds, hospital doctors also have agreed that the bullets were fired from “privileged positions” – coinciding with allegations by protesters and victims' relatives that they were shot by snipers.

There have been many allegations of pro-government snipers firing at demonstrators during the 44 days of protests against President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo. Univision Noticias knows of about 30 cases in which single gunshots were fatal.

“My brother was at the mothers' march, protesting the injustices of this government, which is massacring the people, when a police sniper killed him,” said Roberto Reyez Zapata.

Allegations of sniper fire also followed protests in the cities of Matagalpa, Masaya and Esteli.

The snipers in Managua have been allegedly firing from the recently concluded Dennis Martinez National Stadium. The southeast side of the baseball field offers an open view of the National Engineering University campus, site of most of the clashes between protesters and police as well as paramilitary gunmen who support Ortega.

That's where 15-year-old Alvaro Corrado was shot on the neck and killed on April 20 as he carried water to the protesters, to wash off the tear gas.

“I can't breathe. It hurts,” he said before dying. Witnesses and his parents say the shot came from the stadium. Now a virtual martyr known as Alvarito, he was one of the first victims of the “Triangle of Death.”

The deaths of Franco Valdivia y Orlando Pérez in the northern city of Esteli followed shortly afterward. Their mothers told Univision News that they were shot by a sniper firing from the municipal building.

Their bodies were exhumed and autopsies showed the path of the bullets was from high to low, meaning they were shot from elevated positions.

The Esteli municipality did not respond to Univision Noticias requests for comment on the allegations.

“Demented accusation

The InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights mentioned the allegations of sniper gunfire in a preliminary report on the Nicaraguan violence and added a warning about “the possibility that extrajudicial executions have taken place.”

The Commission “considers that potentially lethal force cannot be used to simply maintain or restore public order. Only the protection of life and physical integrity in the face of imminent threats may be legitimate reason to use that force,” the report said. “Nicaragua should immediately implement mechanisms to effectively prohibit the use of lethal force for public protests.”

A week later, Amnesty International issued a report on the Nicaragua protests starkly titled “Shoot to Kill.”

Ericka Guevara-Rosas, the organization's Americas director, said the large number of people wounded by gunfire, the trajectories of the gunshots and the concentration of gunshots to the head, neck and chest of victims showed an alarming and grave pattern.

“These patterns have led the organization to conclude that there are signs that the police and para-police groups have carried out multiple extrajudicial executions,” Guevara-Rosas said.

The Ortega government has said that “there are no shock troops or paramilitary groups in Nicaragua.”

“We cannot accept attempts to allege painful and tragic events that we have not provoked, and would never provoke, and that based on those false accusations there is an effort to restrict the constitutional duty of law enforcement agencies to assist with the security of families,” said a government statement issued the day after the mothers' march massacre.

It added that the government “totally rejects all allegations by those groups that, in a demented and unprecedented accusation … conspire to denounce nonexistent 'attacks.' Then they attack and produce victims to blame the law enforcement agencies.”

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