The indigenous people of the Caribbean of Nicaragua have faced another scene of horror, within the terror that surrounds them in their struggle to conserve their territories and protect their resources. It is about the atrocious murder of the Mayagna leader Salomón López Smith, whose body has been found with terrible signs of torture: a shattered skull, the skin separated from the face, no ears, several mutilated fingers, no hair, a fractured spine and several shots in the the back. A brutal violence that, in addition, demonstrates the helplessness and oblivion in which these communities find themselves, cornered by violent groups that have the complicity of the regime led by Daniel Ortega.
López Smith’s body was found on March 15 in a remote area of northeastern Nicaragua, where these indigenous Mayagna populations live, trying to maintain their traditions despite the threats that lie in wait for them. The self-styled Mayangna Sauni Arungka Matumbak Territorial Government has expressed its repudiation of the murder of whom they consider to be a recognized activist in defense of the rights of Caribbean indigenous populations and has blamed the murder on the so-called ‘settlers’, invaders who arrive from other regions. of Nicaragua to illegally seize the land, to establish crops or expand cattle ranching.
These invaders seize the territories by force in the face of the resistance of the indigenous people. Then, they present documents without legal weight with which they claim the properties. Human rights organizations have denounced that many ‘settlers’ are ex-soldiers who illegally occupy indigenous territories for the exploitation of wood, mining, monoculture of African palm and cattle ranching. The Center for Justice and Human Rights of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua (Cejudhcan) has denounced that many of these ‘settlers’ are close to the Sandinista Front, Daniel Ortega’s party.
The members of the Mayangna Sauni Arungka Territory maintain a constant denunciation of the violence they suffer. Last year was especially hard for these indigenous people, after several attacks were recorded that left dozens injured. The victims are the leaders, rangers and farmers who are attacked while moving to their orchards. Impunity reigns in all these crimes. “The community members lament that the authorities do not pay attention to their real problems: the invasion of their territories through violence, the imposition of communal and territorial authorities related to the FSLN, which displaces the leadership of these peoples and the permanent usurpation of their natural resources, thus ending their traditional livelihoods”, the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH) has warned. The Center for Legal Assistance to Indigenous Peoples (CALPI) denounces the use of machine guns and shotguns in the attacks.
The organization that defends the indigenous, canceled
Violence against indigenous people has been taking place with greater constancy and viciousness by the ‘settlers’ since 2015. The invaders have burned entire communities, rape women, shoot at communities and kidnap people. Between 2015 and 2022, at least 63 indigenous people have been killed by settlers and 46 remain missing. All in impunity. Cejudhcan has denounced him in the media and before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). He is the only voice that warns of the “ethnocide” in progress in Nicaragua.
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On March 17, however, the Ortega regime ordered the cancellation of the legal status of the NGO, leaving thousands of indigenous people who found support in this organization in distress. Cejudhcan was closed along with 24 other organizations, which has increased the number of institutions closed to 132 since 2018, when social protests demanding the end of the regime were registered.
Cejudhcan is the only organization that for years has documented the invasion of indigenous territories, despite threats from the settlers and regional authorities of the Sandinista Front. The organization is directed by Lottie Cunningham, a Miskito lawyer whose work has been recognized internationally. In 2020, she was awarded the Right Livelihood Award, also known as the “Alternative Nobel Prize” for her constant denunciation of the lethal violence suffered by indigenous people for defending their territories. For months, Cunningham had been harassed, even at the Managua International Airport itself, when she tried to travel.
The indigenous people have been denouncing for years that the Sandinista government does not comply with Law 445, formally called the Law on the Communal Property Regime of the Indigenous Peoples and Ethnic Communities of the Autonomous Regions of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua and the Bocay, Coco, Indio and Corn. This law establishes five phases in the process of recognition and formalization of indigenous property rights: demarcation, conflict resolution, titling and regularization. The latter has been breached by the authorities. The “sanitation” consists of territorial ordering and the expulsion of third parties who do not share the worldview of the indigenous people, or respect for the land or community norms.
A study published in April 2020 by the Oakland Institute, an organization that studies environmental issues, warns that the Ortega government “encourages the gold rush in Nicaragua.” In 2017, the Nicaraguan Mining Company was created, which allows the Nicaraguan State a greater participation in mining businesses together with private companies. In this way, the total land under mining concession increased from around 1,200,000 hectares to 2,600,000 hectares. What is alarming is that 853,800 hectares of that land are in the buffer zone of the Bosawás reserve, in indigenous territories.
This gold rush is coupled with the expansion of ranching and monocultures, which encourages land invasions and violence against indigenous people. The murder of López Smith is the latest violent episode suffered by these Nicaraguan populations and has generated rejection from human rights organizations and even from the United States: the State Department has urged the Ortega regime to bring the murderers to justice of the indigenous leader. “Activists attribute this atrocity to settlers who threaten indigenous communities and act with impunity under the regime. This must stop”, the Joe Biden government has demanded.
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