• Indigenous peoples in Nicaragua

    Indigenous peoples in Nicaragua

    There are seven indigenous peoples of Nicaragua. Nicaragua has adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and ratified ILO Convention 169 in 2010.

Nicaragua: justice takes time but it comes


The struggle of indigenous peoples for their land rights has brought about an increase in acts of violence by invading settlers. The Alal Massacre and the attack on Kiwakumbaih mine workers are the two most emblematic acts. Instead of dismantling the criminal gangs operating in the region, the National Police and the Judiciary system have criminalized Mayangna indigenous people and named them responsible for the murders, massacres and destruction of property. However, a complaint brought to the international level at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights was successful in demanding the release of the Mayangnas unjustly detained because of violations to their right to due process.

For centuries, indigenous peoples have been subjected to ethnocide, dispossession, slavery, labor exploitation, marginalization, discrimination and exclusion. To reverse this reality, our leaders have gone to national, regional and international bodies to denounce human rights violations. Only since the 1960s, thanks to the resurgence of the indigenous movement, have we been incorporated into national legislation and international treaties. Progress has also been made in the recognition of territorial rights, linguistic rights and the right to self-determination.

Three indigenous groups live on the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua: Sumu Mayangna, Miskitu and Rama. During the last decade, the communities have claimed their territorial rights by obtaining collective property titles distributed in 23 territorial units (including two Afro-descendant territories), this corresponds to 31.3 percent of the national territory. The main problems faced in these territories are invasion, looting, depletion of natural resources and food insecurity. In this case, we are interested in addressing the crimes and massacres suffered by the communities as a result of the invasion of new settlers.

The Alal Massacre

In Nicaragua, for the State and the mestizo-colonizing peoples of the Pacific, the greatest crime of indigenous communities is for us to have achieved full recognition of territorial rights, which led to an increase in lethal conflicts perpetrated by invading settlers. The Miskitu Nani and Mayangna Balna peoples have suffered massacres, murder, rape and destruction of property and livelihoods. Since January 2020, the Mayangna Balna people have been the most affected: the community of Alal was completely burned and six of its members were viciously murdered.

The community members pointed to the criminal gang known as Los Chabelos as the alleged perpetrators, although the name of Isabel Meneses Padilla was also mentioned. The National Police said in a statement: "Police investigators identified Isabel Meneses Padilla, alias "Chabelo", the leader of the criminal group". Although the National Police, together with other security authorities, carried out investigative work, no criminal sentence was ever recorded against those responsible for the Alal Massacre.

On February 10, 2020, the National Police announced the capture of Lester Isaias Orozco Acosta, alias "El Choco". This member of the "Los Chabelos" group was identified as one of the material authors of the crime, who indicated that the ringleader of the gang was Isabel Meneses Padilla. It is not yet known if this detained person has been convicted and/or sentenced.

Attack on Kiwakumbaih mine workers

While human rights organizations, indigenous activists, relatives of victims and Mayangna authorities denounced the persistence of impunity, there was an escalation in the number of murders in indigenous territories, especially on the lands of the Mayangna Sauni As, Mayangna Sauni Bu and Mayangna Sauni Arungka peoples. On August 23, 2021, at least 10 murders, rapes and destruction of property of people working in the Kiwakumbaih mine in the Sauni As territory were recorded.

Although the families of the victims pointed to the criminal gang "Los Chabelos" as responsible for the crime, the National Police attributed the crime to four Mayangna brothers (forest rangers and authorities of the Suni Was community) and six other members of the indigenous community. According to the police’s hypothesis, the motive for the discord had been the extraction of gold and other precious metals.

This lack of information has distressed the international community and indigenous rights defenders, who have highlighted the lack of truthfulness. On June 27, 2023, the Inter- American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) ordered the immediate release of the detained Mayangna indigenous men, given that due process guarantees were violated: "Due to mistreatment, arbitrary isolation regimes, reprisals or violent acts, unhealthy cells, lack of adequate and timely medical attention".

In its statement, the Inter-American Court resolved:"To grant provisional measures to A.C.L., I.C.L., D.A.B.A. and D.R.Z., members of the Mayangna indigenous people, who are deprived of liberty in the penitentiary center called 'La Modelo' in Nicaragua, and to require the State to immediately proceed with their release and adopt the necessary measures to effectively protect their life, personal integrity, health and personal liberty". So far, the State of Nicaragua has not responded, although it is obliged to submit a report on the situation of the Mayangna who are unjustly imprisoned.

Capture of the gang's ringleaders

The situation of the four Mayangna brothers seems to not ever end. There has been no light at the end of the tunnel. A very important event occurred on Friday, July 21, while the relatives and members of the Mayangna people wait for the government to comply with the measures of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and release the detained persons. On Friday, July 21, the National Police announced they had captured two of the leaders of the criminal gang "Los Chabelos". The security forces presented Rafael Mendoza Scoto and Darling Antoño Scoto (alias "Barril") as the leaders of the criminal group.

The National Police have accused them of being responsible for three armed attacks on the Mayangna population of Sauni As and other criminal acts in different parts of the region: the Alal Massacre, the burning of 15 houses and the murders at the Kiwakumbaih Mine. The last event occurred on March 11, 2023, when armed settlers killed five indigenous people and burned 13 houses and a church in the community of Wilú.

The capture exposes the unjust life imprisonment sentence of the four Mayangna, who were accused as the material and intellectual authors of the Kiwakumbaih crime. In this case, the National Police fabricated false evidence to accuse them, and the judicial system admitted it as valid (whether erroneously or intentionally). Now that the true perpetrators of the crime were exposed, the Mayangna should have been released immediately in compliance with the IACHR Court's provisional measure.

On the other hand, in February 2020, the National Police had identified Isabel Meneses Padilla as the head of the Chabelo group and then, three years and six months later, presented Rafeal Mendoza Escoto as its leader. This only raises doubts about the true identity of the gang's leader. In any case, with these new perpetuators identified justice has finally arrived for the Mayangna people. Now what remains is to wait for the final resolution after judicial due process, where these criminals will be found guilty.

The challenges of the Nicaraguan State

There are still many murders to be solved. We cannot allow them to continue assassinating us. All necessary measures must be taken to contain all acts of violence against the individual and collective rights of the indigenous population, which is vulnerable to heavily armed criminal gangs. Today our communities are insecure, there are problems of food crisis and the level of destruction of the livelihoods of the population that depends on natural resources is worrying.

The State of Nicaragua must listen to the recommendations of international human rights organizations and, above all, to the demands of our people. If this systematic practice of settlement continues, it will produce a cultural genocide. On the other hand, we demand the regularization of the titled territories and the relocation of the armed settlers and illegal settlements. They have caused much damage to the environment and to the livelihoods of the Mayangna, Miskitu and Rama families.

Although the presidential discourse sustains the consolidation of communal property rights, there is still no political will to finish with the last phase of the legalization of the indigenous territories. At this point, it is essential that the State of Nicaragua intensify its efforts to capture the criminal gangs operating in the indigenous territories, as well as to sanction the notary publics who continue to falsify document and simulate the legalization of land transactions in the indigenous and Afro-descendant territories.

Mayangna Wahaini Ramhni Tani (MAWARAT) is an indigenous organization that stands for "Mayangna Brotherhood for our Rights".

Cover photo: Mayangna community of Mahalwas. Photo: José Garth / La Prensa

Tags: Indigenous Debates



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