Nicaragua is showing all the symptoms of a failed state. At the center of the storm is the corrupt minority government of Daniel Ortega, the former revolutionary leader who now acts more like a cartel boss than a president. Over the past seven weeks, Ortega’s police and paramilitaries have killed more than 120 people, mostly students and other young protesters who are demanding the president’s ouster and a return to democracy, according to a human-rights group. Police hunt students like enemy combatants. Sandinista Youth paramilitaries, armed and paid by Ortega’s party, drive around in pickup trucks attacking protesters. Gangs of masked men loot and burn shops with impunity. Cops wear civilian clothing, and some paramilitaries dress in police uniforms. “This is starting to look more like Syria than Caracas,” one Nicaraguan business leader told me.
The asymmetrical fighting has claimed the lives of at least 120 people, including one U.S. citizen, and injured more than 1,000, according to the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (known by its Spanish acronym Cenidh). Most of the fatalities have reportedly been unarmed young people, including a 15-year-old shot in the neck for bringing water to student protesters. Hundreds more have been unlawfully detained, released days later with ghastly bruises and tales of cruelty behind bars. The ugliest day so far was May 30, Mother’s Day in Nicaragua, when AK-47–toting police indiscriminately opened fire on a peaceful march to honor the dead. As police sprayed the crowd with bullets, government sharpshooters positioned on the roof of the national baseball stadium went headhunting with sniper rifles. Before the sun rose, 16 more Nicaraguans were dead, and another 88 were injured. “This is a terrorist state,” the Cenidh president Vilma Núñez told me. “Being a young person protesting here is a crime that’s punishable by death.”