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Analysis of Nicaragua’s Paramilitary Arsenal

February 12, 2019

By Giancarlo Fiorella

Translations: Русский

All times appear as local time UTC-6.

Human rights organizations and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have, in recent years, become aware of the importance of open source information for documenting and investigating potential war crimes and crimes against humanity. Even the International Criminal Court (ICC), in an August 2017 arrest warrant against Libyan general Mustafa Busayf Al-Werfalli, has recognized the role that freely-available information shared online can play in collecting evidence.

On December 21, 2018, the Grupo Interdisciplinario de Expertos Independientes (Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts, GIEI) published a report on the 2018 Nicaraguan protests, focusing on the period between April 18 and May 30. President Daniel Ortega crushed these protestswhich were sparked by an unpopular decree reforming social security, but later grew to demand the president’s resignationthrough the widespread use of deadly force. Estimates of the number of dead during the protests range from approximately 322 to 512. The GIEI report concluded that “the Nicaraguan State committed crimes against humanity” in its repression of the protests.

In its report, the GIEI identified the use of military weapons by police and paramilitary forces alike to attack protesters, including AK-74s, Dragunovs, PKM machine guns, and M16s. The report was complemented by open source information, including images of the protests shared on social media platforms.

Using open source information, this article identifies these weapons and others in the hands of paramilitary and police forces during two separate instances: the July 13 attack on the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Nicaragua (National Autonomous University of Nicaragua, UNAN) and the July 17 takeover of Masaya. The article also highlights the close relationship between paramilitary groups and the Nicaraguan National Police during the 2018 protests.

The Paramilitaries

As the protests unfolded, the government of President Ortega relied increasingly on paramilitary groups to attack demonstrators. The GIEI report concluded that these groups acted “in parallel and coordinated fashion with the National Police,” and that this coordination included “guarantees of impunity” for these groups.

The paramilitary groups were made up of “unidentified persons” who often carried “military weapons.” The report indicates that members of these groups included public employees, members of the youth wing of the ruling Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (Sandinista National Liberation Front, FSLN) party, the Juventud Sandinista (Sandinista Youth, JS), as well as current or former gang members. In a report titled “Instilling Terror”, Amnesty International also highlighted that the Nicaraguan government made “extensive use” of these groups to repress protests.

The Nicaraguan government’s position on the paramilitaries has fluctuated. President Ortega has suggested that they were financed and organized by drug traffickers and the United States government and denied all connection to these groups, later to say that the paramilitaires were  “volunteer police”. Francisco Díaz, the head of the Nicaraguan National Police, said in an interview with Norwegian media published on February 2 2019 that “the majority” of the paramilitaries were in fact “professional police [officers]” conducting “secret operations”, while the rest were “volunteer police.”

Attack on the UNAN, July 13 2018

On July 13, 2018, government forces attacked student protesters at the UNAN, located in the south of the capital of Managua. The attack culminated with an assault on a church in which the students had taken refuge, leaving two of them dead. Some of the students recorded part of the attack, and said teary goodbyes to their loved ones expecting that their deaths were imminent.

The event was also recorded by one of the attackers. In the video, a group of armed men are taking cover behind a barricade. At the start of the video, they are preparing to advance to another barricade located in front of their position.

The paramilitary assault on the UNAN in Managua on July 13, 2018:

Visual clues in the video allow for its geolocation to a 100 meter stretch of road north of the Rigoberto Lopez Pérez roundabout, which serves as one of the entrances to the UNAN:

The approximate location of the two paramilitary positions are marked by the dotted yellow lines. The paramilitares were advancing towards a student barricade located beneath the monument marked by the green box (satellite image courtesy of Google/Digital Globe)

The earliest version of the video found was uploaded to YouTube at 8:02 PM on July 13. Based on the direction and length of the shadows cast by the paramilitaries as they advance, it is possible to approximate the time that the video was recorded to a window between, roughly, 3:45 PM and 4:15 PM that day.

The paramilitaries in the video were advancing toward a student barricade which was located underneath the monument on the Rigoberto Lopez Pérez roundabout. One of the students in that barricade appears to have recorded part of the attack:

Note the two palm trees behind the “X” shape in the student video and in the reference image

 

(source)

The earliest version of the student video found was uploaded to Twitter at 3:31 PM on July 13.  Given the estimated time window of the paramilitary assault video, it is possible that the students recorded part of that same attack.

The following still frames were taken from the paramilitary assault video:

Remington 700/M24SWS rifle. Remington 700 is the civilian name for the weapon, while the military version is called M24SWS:

M16A1 assault rifle. Note the distinctive carry handle that sits atop the rifle:

AK rifle ammunition magazines and an unknown handgun, likely a Bersa Thunder 9 (thank you for the tip, Twitter user @revoabril1904 !)

Soviet Pattern 75 round drum, possibly Russian or Romanian:

The image above also shows a pair of two-way radios. The one on the left is probably manufactured by MOTOTRBO (see DP4800 and XPR 7000 series) while the one on the right is probably a Tait TP8100 series. These radios are marketed for industrial and commercial use, and evidence suggests that the Tácticas y Armas Policiales de Intervención y Rescate (Intervention and Rescue Police Weapons and Tactics, TAPIR) unit of the Nicaraguan National Police used similar radios in the past, as seen in these videos.

Amnesty International believes that Nicaraguan “authorities at the highest levels… directed and controlled certain aspects” of this paramilitary attack.

The Takeover of Masaya, July 17-18

Masaya is a city located approximately 20 kilometers south of Managua, Nicaragua’s capital, and was the site of frequent confrontations between the government and demonstrators during the protests. Government forces took control of the city from the protesters on July 17. These forces included a contingent of paramilitaries who recorded themselves raising an FSLN flag in a plaza to mark their victory. The earliest version of the video found was posted on the Facebook page of El 19 Digital, a pro-government page, at 1:45 PM on July 17:

An image shared in an article by El 19 Digital shows the paramilitaries posing for a picture in the same location. Most of the men are dressed in blue shirts, a characteristic that distinguishes them as members of a paramilitary group according to the GIEI report.

A paramilitary group celebrating the takeover of Masaya on July 17 2018 (source):

Comparison between the video (top) and the image (bottom). Note the man with the red hat, red gloves and black mask is present in both the video and the image, and that the same section of the sky is cloudy, suggesting that the picture and the video were taken within a relatively short period of time (source):

Some of the weapons wielded by the paramilitaries, starting from the top, left-to-right: MPi-KMS-72, Galil ARM, M16A1, underfold AK (possibly an AKMS or Type 56-1):

The video also highlights the close connection between Nicaraguan police and the paramilitaries. At the 1:40 mark in the video, a man in black uniform appears. The word “POLICIA” (Police) is written in white on the back of the man’s uniform. At the 1:50 mark, the man turns and walks out of frame. As he does, a patch on his right arm briefly becomes visible. The patch appears to be that of the National Police’s TAPIR unit.

The patch on the man in police uniform in the video (left) appears to be that of the TAPIR unit of the National Police, as seen in the image on the right (source):

There is another piece of evidence that suggests a close relationship between police and paramilitaries: an image apparently taken at about the same time showing police officers on the same spot. The image appeared on El 19 Digital, the same pro-government page that shared the paramility flag-raising video, on July 17. The image was also shared on Twitter, as seen in the tweet below calling attention to the weapons carried by the officers:

Some of the weapons wielded by the police starting from the top, left-to-right: PSL, M79 grenade launcher, Remington 700, Dragunov SVD,, PK-pattern light machine gun (source):

The ground appears drier in the police image than in the paramilitary one, suggesting that the two were taken some time apart. However, it is possible that the same police car appears on the right of both images, suggesting that they were still taken within a relatively short period of time.

The police vehicle in the flag raising video (left) and the police group image (right). Note the last digit of the registration number of the vehicle (appears to be “6”) and that it is parked in the same spot in both images, which suggests that it might be the same vehicle (source):

On July 18, journalists with Agence France-Presse (AFP) and Agencia EFE (EFE) recorded footage of paramilitaries at the same plaza as the one above. Based on these videos, we can geolocate the footage to the Pedro Joaquin Chamorro plaza, which ordinarily serves as a community market.

Geolocation using stills from the AFP footage (satellite imagery courtesy of Google/Digital Globe):

The videos include high-quality shots of some of the weapons that the paramilitaries carried, which are identified below.

Jungle-taped AKM with no stock:

The man in the images above appears in the AFP and the EFE videos. He is carrying an SVD Dragunov with a PSO-1 scope. Note the colour of his shirt and the grey backpack straps, which suggest that it is the same man in both videos:

Jungle-taped Type II AK:

A common weapon carried by the paramilitaries was the Mossberg 500-pattern shotgun, like the ones seen in the images below shared by the Nicaraguan news website Confidencial showing paramilitaries in Masaya on the morning of July 17:

A Mossberg 500 pattern shotgun. This one appears in the EFE video:

War Weapons, War Wounds

According to the GIEI report, there is evidence dating back to 2011 of FSLN members “giving weapons” to civilians “to use in aggressive acts against political opposition groups.” In its analysis of a government operation in the town of Diriamba on July 9 2018, Amnesty International concluded that “most of the weapons” used by paramilitary and police forces there were “service weapons exclusively issued in the Army.” The use of the weapons highlighted in this article by paramilitary groups fits into the pattern of close collaboration between these groups and official state security forces as observed by both Amnesty International and the GIEI investigators.

On May 26, 2018,Confidencial published an investigation titled ¡Disparaban con precisión: a matar! [“They shot with precision: to kill!”]. After tracking down the medical imaging records of 19 protesters in a Managua hospital and speaking to doctors there, Confidencial found that 15 of them had been shot in the head, and at least eight of them had been killed.

A doctor at the hospital spoke to the publication on condition of anonymity about what the medical imaging showed. The doctor said:

“Based on what I’m seeing, they were shooting with ‘scientific precision’: to kill!”

The Confidencial investigation offers yet more evidence that the Ortega government was determined to bring an end to the protests by any means necessary. The indiscriminate use of the weapons seen in the hands of paramilitary and police forces alike in this article made the kinds of injuries reported by Confidencial not only possible, but practically inevitable.

Far from being reserved only for human rights activists and NGO investigate panels, the identification and documentation of the use of these kinds of weapons is within the purview of open source investigators around the world.

The weapon identifications in this article were done with the help of @CalibreObscura, an independent open source researcher who specializes in weapon analysis from conflict zones around the world.

Giancarlo Fiorella

Giancarlo is an investigator and trainer for Latin America at Bellingcat. He is also a PhD candidate at the Centre for Criminology & Sociolegal Studies at the University of Toronto, where his research focuses on protest policing and civil conflict. For questions and story ideas, you can reach him via email at giancarlo@bellingcat.com, or on Twitter (@gianfiorella).

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11 Comments

  1. Ariana

    Doloroso, científico, verdadero. Lo peor, que la comunidad internacional continúa emitiendo pronunciamientos….cuándo actuarán de forma drástica? Muy gracias.

    Reply
  2. Denis Garcia

    Nicaragua still suffering the horror of this murderer government that keeps kidnapping and jailing innocent people, only for use their constitutional right to express your opinion.

    Please help us to find the way out to this suffering.

    Reply
  3. Mix

    Creo que tu análisis es bueno necesitas ser mas equilibrado yo estuve en los tranque me salí por que nos mandaron pkm tu sabes que son verdad creo que tu informe no es objetivo

    Reply
  4. Douglas

    Excelente! Adoro ler os relatórios investigativos da billingcat, gostaria de de arrumar um tutor para me ensinar passo a passo como realizar investigações através de códigos abertos e fazer relatórios de alta qualidad assim.

    Reply
  5. Richard

    But Ariana, why would they act? i.e. why would they try to save the victims? I suppose by “they” you mean foreign states. “They” will probably just watch as what is left of the Venezuelan Experiment destroys itself. Just like “they” did as Iran, Hezbollah and Russia slaughtered the remains of the civilian Syrian Revolution.

    Reply
  6. Ernesto (ECM)

    Buen reporte y obviamente muestra la brutalidad del uso de la fuerza y municiones vivas. Sin embargo, me pregunto, en uno de los videos salen los paramilitares detras de dos trincheras protegiendose de disparos (los cuales se oyen en el video). Quien les disparaba? Este reporte incluyó investigación sobre las armas usadas por los otros grupos?. Sería intersante hacer un balance si las fuerzas policiales y paramilitares abusaron del uso de armas letales y despliegue militar o en algun momento también estaban defendiendose de ataques con armas letales tambien. Como dije antes, es un reporte muy detallado y gráfico, no deja dudas de lo que pasaba en ese lado del conflicto.

    Reply
  7. Michael

    To my knowledge of the paramilitaries that the police chief Francisco Diaz (Father in Law of Daniel Ortega’ son) They are nothing more than military professionals of the Nicaraguan Army. Both the Ortega Police and the Army are guilty of these massacres. Those responsible for these two institutions that have acted as assassins, should be taken to the International Court of Justice, including who led the massacre and who are still ordering the kidnappings of their citizens; Ortega and Murillo.

    Reply
  8. Matagalpinol

    Como dice nuestro periodista #MiguelMora, preso político, la victoria es de Dios .. Jehová de los Ejércitos…

    Reply
  9. Nick

    This investigation tries to show prove that the National Police and “paramilitary forces” were working hand in hand and it contradicts what President Daniel Ortega let a journalist know during an interview. Let me explain to you that when he said paramilitary he was clearly referring to the demonstrators commiting crimes and holding in their hands lethal weapons. By that time many police officers had been killed by by the so-called peace protestors, as a matter of fact the first casualty we saw, and media did not utter a word about it, was a police officer who was shot to death. All those you called paramilitary are civilians who don’t belong to the entity but have worked with police officers for years and the reason why they don’t use their uniforms and they use a mask is because the media was playing important roles in disclosing police officer’s personal information putting in complete danger their family, some got their houses burned down and brought to ashes. Let’s use common sense, had the “paramilitary” and police officers use their guns AK 47, M-16 and the like , they would have killed thousands not only a few in a single clash. Police officers only defended themselves when they saw there was a life-threatening situation, their objective was always to clear the roads for us to move freely and the reason they celebrated is because we once again were free from violent demonstrators who were killing, robbing people from their peace and fighting by themselves to have full control of a roadblock and any money they collected by any means. This article is biased since it does not point out others who suffers the consequences left behind by demonstrators. The plan was not to kill but to lift the roadblocks and when demonstrators started shooting police officers and “paramilitary” had to respond with all right. In the beginning, it was a media show, people pretending they were injured, people dead that then came alive, people out of those 1000 dead who were killed appearing much alive and living in other countries, it was a clear attempt to exacerbate the already unbearable situation at that moment, civilians tempers flared by false images and videos and sparked an uprising cussed by big lies. The first day back on April 18, when everything started shouldn’t had happened if police officers had done their job correctly because many people were involved in theft robbery wearing t-shirts only used by people in the government. Next day, students wanted to take the law in their hands instead of waiting for the commander in chief to find these people and make them responsible for all the injured and damages but unfortunately it happens otherwise and everything else is just story.

    Reply
    • Richard

      Wow: “it contradicts what President Daniel Ortega said ..”
      Is this supposed to be a proof of something?
      It is really a tragedy both for Daniel Ortega and his place in history but much more so for the people of Venezuela. And parts of the Left fall into the same trap as in Syria, Libya, .. Anything against USA is seemingly OK.
      A better standpoint on this crisis: from the standpoint of the toiling classes:
      http://claysbeach.blogspot.com/2019/02/on-situation-in-venezuela.html

      Reply
  10. dan

    Can’t wait for your piece on the right wing murderous regime in Honduras that has refused to leave office after being defeated in an election.

    Reply

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