Public doubts charges against teens set for trial in Nicaraguan journalist’s death

BLUEFIELDS, Nicaragua, June 12 (UPI) — Two teenagers face trial Tuesday for fatally shooting a journalist during the height of recent protests in Nicaragua, but many believe they are victims of a police cover-up.

Angel Gahona was working as a journalist in Bluefields, a small city on the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua, live-streaming protests against social security reforms that swept the country on April 21. Phone in hand, he walked into an area that police had blocked off against masked demonstrators who were about a block away. As Gahona, a 42-year-old father of two, walked up the front steps of the mayor’s building, he was shot in the head. A fellow journalist behind Gahona was also recording and caught video of Gahona falling to the ground, his face covered in blood.

That video has since been seen all over the world and became a symbol of the violence that has destabilized Nicaragua in recent weeks, resulting in more than 110 deaths, most of which were a result of police firing on protesters.

Many people in Bluefields believe the police killed Gahona, too.

“Everybody knows it was the police who killed that man,” said Suzenne Allen, a resident of Bluefields who has organized marches in support of the teens. “They shot Gahona in the head just like they shot many of the protesters in their head. That’s their strategy.”

According to several human rights groups, including the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights and Amnesty International, the Nicaraguan National Police were responsible for more than 70 deaths related to the protests during the last two weeks of April. Many of those deaths were by gunshots to the upper body.

Of 36 people who died of gunshot injuries between April 19 and May 2, 22 were hit in the head, neck or chest, according to the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights.

“Most of the deaths that occurred in the country…are the same. these are carefully aimed shots. a single shot fired with precision at the head or jugular or chest,” Bluefields journalist Ileana Lacayo told Amnesty International. “They are shots that aim to kill and they are fired by professionals. not ordinary people; ordinary people don’t have weapons.”

No one has been charged in any of the deaths — except for Gahona’s.

The chilling video of a journalist murdered for doing his job rendered international headlines. And in Bluefields on April 27, a determined contingent of local journalists led by Yolidia Navas, publicly demanded a thorough investigation.

Government responds

Ten days after Gahona was killed, Bluefields police rounded up 15 youths who were protesting in the area where Gahona was shot. Five were placed under arrest. Three of them were later let go without charges and the two remaining teenagers — Brandon Lovo, 18, and Glen Slate, 19 — were charged with the murder of Gahona.

Police said Lovo shot Gahona in the head with a homemade gun from a distance of about 230 feet as a van and line of anti-riot police stood in between them. Because Slate is accused of giving the gun to Turner, he was charged as an accomplice.

For evidence, police said they had witnesses statements and ballistic tests that confirm Lovo fired the gun.

Attorneys for the teens say it’s unlikely the type of rudimentary handmade gun Lovo had could shoot as far as 230 feet. Even if it could, Brandon wasn’t a sharpshooter who could score a headshot from that distance with a van and dozens of police standing in between. But the attorneys can’t do much to argue against the ballistic tests because the only organizations that can perform ballistic tests recognized by Nicaraguan courts are the military and police.

There’s also the fact that Lovo was shot at around the same time — in the back. And that bullet is still there. It hasn’t been taken out because prison doctors say removing it could cause spinal damage. So it hasn’t been analyzed to determine what type of gun it came from.

“I’m not saying the police killed Gahona. But if the police did it, they don’t want to admit they did it. They’d rather accuse those little boys,” said Reynaldo Murray, a pastor and host of a Creole television news program in Bluefields. “In Managua, you can see the same thing. If a police does something wrong, they won’t say they did it.”

Gahona’s family doesn’t believe the charges against the teens, either.

Gahona’s widow, Migueliuth Sandoval, has become a prominent activist in Nicaragua since her husband’s death. Last week, she was in Washington, D.C., with several Nicaraguan student protesters to lobby the Organization of American States, as well as Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to use the United States’ influence to press for justice in Nicaragua over protest deaths.

“The prosecutors have accused the two youths for the murder of my husband, but they have not committed this crime,” Sandoval said at an OEA meeting on June 4.

Nelson Cortez, the attorney for Slate, said the two teens were handpicked by police because they were “vulnerable” targets.

“They’re vulnerable because they don’t have the resources or social standing to confront the charges,” Cortez said. “They’re the perfect victims that the police are using to give themselves a clean face.”

Journalists on a black list

Several people have said there are witnesses of Gahona’s death who could help clear Lovo and Slate, but they’ve been directly threatened not to speak out in order to maintain the police narrative against the teens.

“There are people who know what happened that night but they won’t say anything because it might not just be them that face consequences, but their family, too. And for what? The police already made up their mind who did it,” said one Bluefields resident who asked not to be named.

The permeating fear and suspicion has taken a toll on local journalists, especially independent journalists, who don’t work for a government-supported organization. Navas said several journalists are being regularly followed and phones are assumed to be tapped.

“They’ve put the independent journalists in Bluefields on a black list,” Navas said. “They monitor us. They investigate us.

And Lacayo, the Bluefiields journalist featured in Amnesty International’s report, said her house was raided on April 23, shortly after she accused the police of killing Gahona.

The result has heavily impacted the small but respected community of journalists who serve as an antidote to the government-approved news media. Some have stopped working altogether, while others have are self-censoring in order to maintain needed freelance work with government-run organizations.

“They’ve taken apart the independent journalists’ network here,” Navas said.

‘Bluefields will react’

Bluefields, with its large population of black, Creole English-speakers, has historically considered itself a separate entity from the Pacific side of Nicaragua in terms of culture and geography — there hadn’t been a road linking Managua and Bluefields until earlier this year. But the killing of Gahona, a Bluefields native, and the subsequent arrest of two local teenagers in what many see as a government cover-up, has politically infused the city and tied it to the turmoil happening on the other side of the country.

And some are angry because they suspect that the predominantly Mestizo police force’s decision to arrest Brandon and Glen was racially motivated.

“It’s easier to put the blame on the black boys than to put the blame on a Spaniard,” Murray said. “And that is what we’re living here. That is our history — anything that happen, they say it’s a black man who did it.”

At least three street marches have been organized in the past month, pastors in the Moravian churches talk about the case during sermons, and in the Cotton Tree neighborhood of Bluefields, where Lovo and Slate are from, festivities for Tulululu — a Carnaval-like celebration held each year — were canceled.

“There was nothing to celebrate,” Allen said.

Instead of the festival’s parade beginning in the neighborhood as previously scheduled, residents there painted blue and white stripes on the neighborhood’s main street to symbolize the Nicaraguan flag — an increasingly popular act of defiance against President Daniel Ortega and his Sandinista Party’s red and black flag.

Lovo and Slate face a judge in Managua — 226 miles away from Bluefields — on Tuesday.

Many doubt Lovo and Slate will get a fair trial. But few doubt it will just be another case of injustice that gets forgotten.

According to Murray: “Bluefields is a peaceful town. But if those young boys are found guilty, you’re going to see Bluefields react.”