When Mariela Cerrato saw her daughter and son-in-law on the evening news in late July, flanked by masked police and described as terrorists, she was not surprised. She knew the authorities had been hunting the couple.
Their business had been burned to the ground just days before and a wanted poster with their faces had been circulating on social media. Paramilitaries in balaclavas had come to Cerrato’s house demanding that she disclose their whereabouts. But she didn’t know — the pair had been moving from safe house to safe house. The last time she had seen them in mid-July, they were preparing to flee their small city of Masaya, Nicaragua with hope of reaching Costa Rica.
Now Cerrato’s daughter, Maria Peralta, and her husband, Christian Fajardo, are in a maximum-security facility in the country’s capital, Managua, facing over 30 years in prison. They are just two of more than 400 activists arrested and being prosecuted as part of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s crackdown on protesters who have been calling on him to resign.
Nicaragua plunged into violent upheaval after protests began on April 18, sparked by an unpopular change to the social security system. The demonstrations soon broadened, ballooning into a nationwide, student-led movement against Ortega, who critics say has imposed increasingly authoritarian rule during his 12 consecutive years in power. Thousands in the streets were met with well-armed police and paramilitaries, who fired into crowds, tortured and raped detainees, and arbitrarily detained leaders, the United Nations found. Over 300 people have been killed, more than 2,000 injured, and 2,000 arrested.
While the streets have now been cleared of barricades and there is a veneer that the crisis is over, the country remains deeply troubled. Over 40,000 Nicaraguans are seeking refuge in Costa Rica, according to authorities, about 13,700 of which have formally sought asylum. The Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights says that over 550 Nicaraguans are still imprisoned, and the government continues to track and capture its opponents — among them students, farmers, and family members of those killed. Last month, police recently released a statement that banned protests without authorization.
Many of those arrested will be tried as terrorists, thanks to a law passed by the Ortega-controlled Congress in July that expanded the definition of terrorism to include a broad range of crimes, such as damaging property. Those found guilty will get 15 to 20 years in prison. According to Roberto Larios, director of communication for the courts, over 200 people have been accused of terrorism. At least 18 people have so far been found guilty. The cases mark the first time anyone in Nicaragua has been convicted of terrorism.
The state says the law was passed to comply with recommendations from the Financial Action Task Force, or FATF, an international body concerned with terror financing. Former prosecutors, lawyers, activists, and protesters say that no matter the origin, the law is now being used to criminalize protest and is a thinly veiled excuse for Ortega to silence critics.
“It is so open that it could apply to any activity, up to passing a bag of water to someone in a barricade. … Here we are facing a citizen rebellion, a social rebellion, this is not terrorism,” said Alberto Novoa, a former attorney general of Nicaragua, in an interview with a local paper.
Nicaragua is not alone in widening its definition of “terrorism” so far that activists and protesters end up behind bars. Ortega is just the latest in a line of leaders to pass sweeping counterterrorism laws that activists say can be used to infringe on civil liberties. Over the past few decades, more than 140 countries have adopted counterterrorism measures, but increasingly states have been using these laws as a “shortcut to targeting democratic protest and dissent,” Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, the U.N. special rapporteur on the protection and promotion of human rights while countering terrorism, has explained. A 2018 U.N. report highlighted this trend of branding human rights defenders, activists, and experts as “terrorists,” in Algeria, Egypt, the Philippines, and elsewhere. The Center for Strategic and International Studies has also noted that several countries besides Nicaragua have used compliance with FATF counterterrorism measures to justify passing restrictive laws in recent years.
“From Brazil and Nicaragua to France and the U.K. to Kyrgyzstan and Australia, we’re seeing clampdowns that make it all too easy to label protesters, journalists, activists, political opponents, and others that the authorities want to neutralize as ‘terrorists’ and ‘extremists,’” said Letta Tayler, a senior researcher on terrorism at Human Rights Watch. “We’ve seen a dangerous global spread of draconian counterterrorism laws since the September 11, 2001 attacks. … Because the word terrorism is associated with atrocities, it’s now easy to get public buy-in to responses that break the law in the name of security.”
“When leaders need an enemy and need to mobilize people against that enemy, confuse people about the truth, and shut down debate, ‘terrorism’ is now an option.”
Fears related to the Islamic State spurred a recent spate of laws in many countries, said Tayler, but even in Latin America, where the threat of an ISIS attack is remote, the word “terrorist” has seeped into the discourse. Honduras passed anti-terror legislation last September that could send protesters to prison for 15 to 20 years. Unlike Nicaragua, Honduras has not used the law against those who participated in protests in the wake of its electoral crisis, although some protest leaders remain imprisoned. In Ecuador, Colombia, and Chile, indigenous and environmental activists have been charged with terrorism. In 2016, Brazil passed an anti-terrorism law that came under fire from the U.N. and other experts for its broad definition of terrorism. El Salvador’s supreme court has classified gang members as terrorists and modified existing anti-terrorism legislation to implicate anyone collaborating with them as well, a move that some say has been used to justify repression and request international aid. Venezuela passed a controversial anti-terrorism law in 2012, and President Nicolás Maduro declared that the 2017 protests that swept the country were carried out by “terrorist groups.”
Guatemala is currently considering broad anti-terrorism legislation that would restrict civil liberties and freedom of expression, according to civil society groups. Under the law, those who block roads, damage property, or use social media for “political or economic ends,” among a range of other actions that cause “panic and fear in the population,” could be tried for terrorism.
“After 9/11, terrorism became the enemy. When leaders need an enemy and need to mobilize people against that enemy, confuse people about the truth, and shut down debate, ‘terrorism’ is now an option,” says Adam Isacson, a senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America.
There is no universal legal definition for terrorism, but in Nicaragua, terrorist acts are now defined as those that result in death, injury, or property damage — public or private — when the purpose of the act was “to intimidate a population, alter the constitutional order, or compel a government or an international organization to perform an act or abstain from doing so.”
Novoa, the former attorney general, is challenging the new anti-terror measure in court, arguing that the law is unconstitutional and should not apply to protesters. “I’m challenging the law because I wanted to see if one day they tell me what the logical legal arguments are for weakening the rights of citizens, established in the social pact called the Nicaraguan Constitution,” he wrote to The Intercept in an email. “Independence, autonomy and impartiality does not exist in the Nicaraguan state, since all formal powers are controlled by Mr. Ortega and Ms. Murillo,” he said, referring to Ortega’s wife, who is the vice president. “The judicial system is a political arm of repression used against those who are think differently from Ortega and Murillo.”
Julio Montenegro, a human rights lawyer who is handling Christian Fajardo and Maria Peralta’s cases, said that some of the individuals accused of terrorism were merely part of a street barricade, brought supplies, food, and water to other protesters, or provided medical care for those injured. The U.N. has also raised concerns about the prosecutions, noting in a scathing report that “the trials of people charged in relation to the protests have serious flaws and do not observe due process, including the impartiality of the courts.”
As Maduro has done in Venezuela, Ortega has used classic autocratic tactics to stamp out dissent. The government has denied the state’s role in violence, and Ortega has changed his story multiple times about whether the masked paramilitaries seen in videos working alongside police are his supporters. He has painted protesters as the sole actors causing chaos and portrayed government forces as the country’s peaceful defenders against terrorists destabilizing the nation.
While rights groups say the death toll of the unrest reached at least 300, with some putting it as high as 500, the Nicaraguan government recognizes just 198 victims, including 22 police officers who were killed — in one case, an officer was stripped and burned. At pro-government rallies, his supporters chant, “They were terrorists, not students!” Ortega himself has called for justice for those killed on the pro-government side, saying that the country has entered “a moment of justice and reparation for the 198 victims of coup-inciting terrorism.” To date, not one paramilitary or member of the police has been tried for terrorism or any other crime.
As she swiped through videos of Fajardo leading hundreds through Masaya at an anti-government march, his mother-in-law, Cerrato, described his role as a leader in the movement. When protesters took control of the city in June, Fajardo and Peralta oversaw the logistics of the campaign, Cerratos explained. “If there wasn’t water, food, lights, etc., Christian was responsible. … But he wasn’t in the barricades — he didn’t have time. … Taking declarations, taking care of sick people … they were stocking the medical clinics that were here in Masaya,” she continued, pointing to a corner of her house stacked with IVs, bandages, and crutches.
Masaya, which sits 15 miles southeast of Managua, was long ago a bastion of support for Ortega and his leftist Sandinista rebels when they overthrew right-wing dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979. But in 2018, it became the center of the anti-Ortega resistance. Protesters managed to overtake the city, but police, paramilitaries, and government snipers were able to wrangle back control after a particularly brutal and bloody offensive, in which state forces set off explosives, shot at protesters, and captured leaders.
“What is terrorism? When there is will and intention to cause panic in citizens,” said Montenegro, Fajardo and Peralta’s lawyer. “Aggressions causing panic weren’t carried out by Christian and Maria, but by paramilitaries who are associated with the police.”
Along with terrorism and financing terrorism, Fajardo and Peralta have been charged with organized crime and hindering public services — crimes for which the state has yet to provide evidence, according to Montenegro. Montenegro and Cerrato, who is also a constitutional lawyer, say the government has violated rights and skirted due process from capture to trial.
“The paramilitaries come by and I look at them, ask them what they want. If they want to kill me, they can kill me.”
On the first day of Fajardo and Peralta’s hearing in August, Cerrato arrived outside the courthouse at 6 a.m. By 9 a.m., she was joined by activists waving banners bearing the couple’s faces, as police in balaclavas with M16s slung across their chests looked on. As the hearing continued to be delayed, she waited 10 hours before finally entering the building. By then, the activists and TV cameras had gone and she was joined by a group of around 25 women, all waiting in the pouring rain to drop food off for imprisoned loved ones. At 8 p.m., she emerged to report that she had never been let into the hearing.
The next morning, Cerrato walked through her daughter and son-in-law’s unfinished house, which is next door to her own. Clothes were still all over the bed and an orange-and-white cat lay splayed out in the middle of the kitchen.
Court proceedings for the couple are now scheduled for mid-November. In the meantime, Cerrato has started working on behalf of Santiago Fajardo, Christian’s brother, who has also been captured and charged with terrorism. The effort is not without its dangers. At a demonstration she attended in September calling for the release of imprisoned protesters, police shot tear gas and rubber bullets while armed Ortega supporters opened fire — one person was killed and five others were wounded.
“I’m proud that these kids have participated in this fight,” she said. “I’m not afraid. I leave my door open. The paramilitaries come by and I look at them, ask them what they want. If they want to kill me, they can kill me.”