MANAGUA, Nicaragua -- Nicaragua’s National Police arrested two more potential challengers to President Daniel Ortega on Tuesday, the third and fourth opposition pre-candidates for the Nov. 7 elections detained in the past week.
Félix Maradiaga was arrested after being called to the Attorney General’s Office to provide a statement. He is being investigated for alleged crimes against the government. His campaign said in a statement that police stopped him, his driver and his lawyer after they had left the Attorney General’s Office.
Later Tuesday, police announced the arrest of Juan Sebastián Chamorro, another pre-candidate and former director of the opposition coalition Civic Alliance. He had received a notice to appear for an “interview” Wednesday at the Attorney General’s Office to give a statement about a case against the nongovernmental gropu Nicaraguan Foundation for Social Development that he led until 2018.
A police statement said he was being investigated for similar alleged crimes as Maradiaga.
Just before his arrest, Maradiaga had told journalists he was interrogated for four hours about his activities as the former director of a nongovernmental group focused on economic research, whether he had ties to drug traffickers and if on his trips to the United States he had requested sanctions against Nicaragua. He said he told them he had requested sanctions “but not to punish the people, but rather government officials who have committed crimes against humanity.”
Last week, authorities detained Cristiana Chamorro, a cousin of Juan Sebastián Chamorro, and Arturo Cruz Sequeira, a former ambassador to the United States who was arrested Saturday under a controversial “treason” law passed in December. On Monday, a judge ordered Cruz held for three months while an investigation is carried out. Cristiana Chamorro remains under house arrest.
Julie Chung, the U.S. State Department’s acting assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, said via Twitter that Maradiaga’s “arbitrary” arrest — and last week's detentions — “confirm without a doubt that Ortega is a dictator. The international community has no choice but to treat him as such.”
Vice President and first lady Rosario Murrillo mentioned the investigations Tuesday and characterized the subjects of the probes as “terrorists” and “criminals.”
“They believe they’ll be forever unpunished, (but) justice arrives, late but it arrives in this Nicaragua that had been prospering and in reconciliation,” she said. “How much we would have done with what this mountain of thieves stole, not just thieves but also terrorists, criminals.”
Ortega is seeking a fourth consecutive term as president. His government has been moving aggressively to clear the field of challengers. Maradiaga was a pre-candidate for the opposition coalition Blue and White National Unity.
Coalition spokesman Josué Garay said Maradiaga was beaten by police during his arrest, causing his face to swell. He also said police were carrying out a search of Maradiaga’s home.
A National Police statement said Maradiaga was being investigated for “acts that diminish the independence, the sovereignty and the self determination, inciting foreign interference in internal affairs, requesting military interventions, organizing with financing from foreign powers to carry out acts of terrorism and destabilization, proposing and managing economic, commercial and financial operation blockades against the country and its institutions, demanding exalting and applauding the imposition of sanctions against the Nicaraguan state and its citizens, damaging the supreme interests of the nation.”
In its own statement, the Attorney General’s Office it was investigating two organizations Maradiaga had led — the Fundación Libertad (Freedom Foundation) and the Institute for Strategic Studies and Public Policies.
Tiziano Breda, Central America analyst for Crisis Group, a nongovernmental group aimed at avoiding and resolving deadly conflict, said the arrests serve multiple purposes for Ortega.
First, he said, it sends a message to rally the Sandinista base, reinforcing Ortega's narrative that 2018 street protests were an attempted coup with foreign backing. Second, it’s a show of force aimed at stirring divisions within the opposition and eventually forcing them into a decision of backing a lesser candidate or not participating in the elections, Breda said
Finally, he added, it tests the limits to see what the international community will tolerate, but comes far enough ahead of the November elections to allow for negotiations.
“Ortega is trying to eliminate those (candidates) who clearly represent a greater challenge, a greater risk of being able to accumulate sufficient support to challenge him in the elections,” Breda said.
Sanctions from United States and Europe imposed on those close to Ortega and key figures in his government have clearly bothered him, but have only led him to dig in more and not produced concessions, Breda said.
He said diplomatic outreach from the United States, which Crisis Group recommended in a report last month, would represent an alternative strategy for the administration of President Joe Biden.
Breda said Ortega could be pursued for alleged crimes against humanity once out of office and so far has not been given an incentive to give up power.
Associated Press writer Christopher Sherman in Mexico City contributed to this report.