Nicaragua cop mourns son's death in anti-govt protests
1 / 4Riot police in Nicaragua have been battling for weeks growing protests against the government of President Daniel Ortega
Like many Nicaraguans, police inspector Armando Reyes was shocked by the image of a young protester with blood seeping from his head being taken to the hospital on a motorcycle by his friends.
Then came the gut-wrenching realization that it was his own son.
Reyes, 65, used to be the kind of citizen that President Daniel Ortega, the man who has dominated Nicaraguan politics for the past four decades, could depend on for rock-solid support.
He fought along with Ortega in the Sandinista rebellion that overthrew dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979. After the guerrillas won, he joined the police force, under the new ruling junta they installed with Ortega at its head.
For 39 years, Reyes served in that force, through Ortega's first 11 years in power, his loss at the ballot box in 1990, and his return to the presidency in 2007.
Now he no longer wants to be part of the Nicaraguan police.
In fact, he is so enraged by the repression blamed on Ortega's security forces that he chased his fellow officers from his son Francisco's funeral on Friday.
"It wasn't some dog that died," said Reyes, a plain-spoken man with short-cropped salt-and-pepper hair who lives with his large family in a working class neighborhood in the capital Managua named for late Nicaraguan revolutionary Walter Ferreti.
- Horrifying truth -
Reyes did not realize Francisco was at Wednesday's protests.
Francisco, 34, usually spent his days as a traveling salesman -- a job he invented for himself when he could not find any other.
But on Wednesday -- Mother's Day in Nicaragua -- he decided to join the peaceful marches in support of the mourning mothers who have lost their children in seven weeks of bloody crack-downs on the demonstrations sweeping the Central American country.
Reyes was at work in his Managua precinct when he happened to catch a glimpse of a television screen playing cell phone footage of one of the many blood-soaked incidents that day.
In the video, a group of young men try to load an injured protester with a bullet wound through his face onto the back of a white motorcycle.
It is clear the bleeding man has little chance: his body flaps around like a rag doll and falls from the motorcycle as soon as the driver tries to accelerate.
It was only after nightfall, at 8:00 that evening, that Reyes got the news in a phone call from his brother and began piecing together the horrifying truth: the wounded protester on TV was Francisco.
- 'They're murderers' -
A humble man with dark skin, Reyes has little to say about the government he spent most of his life serving.
But one can feel his outrage.
"The other officers tell me to be strong, be strong. OK, I tell them, but how can you kill brothers like criminals, when they were peacefully protesting?"
He has asked to resign from the force, though it is a process that will take time.
"They're murderers," Francisco's mother, Guillermina Zapata, told AFP at his funeral, where mourners filed past a closed coffin with a small flap in the lid that only those with the stomach for it could open to view the remains.
- Snipers on high -
In all, 16 people died in Wednesday's crack-down, the deadliest day in unrest that has now claimed more than 100 lives since it started on April 18.
Ortega, 72, denies his government is responsible for the killings.
He called Wednesday's unrest a "conspiracy" by the opposition aimed at "terrorizing" the people.
But based on Reyes's four decades of police experience, his family believes otherwise.
They have studied the evidence, and everything indicates Francisco was killed by a sniper equipped with a rifle available only to the army and police, they say.
"The proof is there in the pictures. You can see how they killed my brother," said Francisco's older brother Jose.
"They were positioned on top of the (national baseball) stadium."
Another brother, Roberto, described the forensic evidence: Francisco was shot from above, through the back of the head. The bullet exited through his eye.
There is only one conclusion, he said: "He was shot by a sniper."
That could only mean the security forces, or pro-government vigilantes acting with their support, he said.
"This government is killing the people, using the national police," he said.
- 'Police are afraid' -
The question is whether that conclusion -- shared by human rights groups and much of the international community -- will prove fatal for Ortega.
The army has already said it wants no part in repressing the protests, and called for an end to the violence.
The business elite, once deep in crony capitalism with Ortega's government, have broken with him over the crack-down.
Protesters are optimistic that many police are also sympathetic to their cause.
"A lot of police are afraid. They don't want to keep doing this," said one protester at the latest rally Friday, a 25-year-old sociology student who asked to remain anonymous for her own safety.
"They know we're unarmed. They know this isn't a war. It's a massacre."