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Inside Nicaragua's bloody conflict over indigenous land

An armed Miskito patrols the banks of the Coco River. Settlers have occupied Miskito-owned farms, preventing the community from accessing its agricultural resources. [Alex McDougall/Al Jazeera]

March 1, 2017

Waspam, Nicaragua - The story that Lina Chale recounts in her native Miskito language is in stark contrast to the blue doves, a symbol of peace, painted on a white wall of a church behind her. "They killed him in such a ghastly way," says 52-year-old Chale.

On August 18, 2016 , her younger brother Gerardo failed to return home from his farm in the mountains. He had been kidnapped along with another Miskito man from La Esperanza, a village on the Coco River. A few days later, indigenous rangers discovered their decapitated bodies .

For the past two years, a string of violent attacks has plagued Nicaragua's Caribbean coast.

According to CEJUDHCAN, a non-governmental organisation defending the rights of indigenous people in this region, 21 indigenous men have been killed since 2014, and dozens more wounded or kidnapped. Women have been raped. More people are still missing. Armed men have attacked several villages, including Polo Paiwas, which was burned to the ground in October 2015. The violence has been at its worst in the area of almost 4,000 square kilometres between the rivers Coco and Wawa, south of the border with Honduras.

The Miskitos, the largest indigenous group on the Caribbean coast, with a population of up to 300,000, blame the attacks on "settlers" coming from other parts of the country and occupying their ancestral territories.

Thousands of Mestizos, Nicaraguans of Spanish descent, have moved into the rainforests, lured by the promise of cheap, fertile land, precious timber and gold. Many are simple farmers or artisanal miners.

The Miskitos have tried to force the newcomers out, but the settlers have been determined to stay. As tension has grown, a wave of violence has erupted, with killings on both sides of the dispute. The brutality of some attacks on the indigenous communities has fuelled suspicions that hired thugs are among the settlers.

Fearing for their lives, almost 3,000 Miskitos have fled their homes since 2015, according to CEJUDHCAN . Many have taken refuge in neighbouring Honduras, where they live in makeshift huts, facing hunger and diseases.

Others have stopped going to the mountains where they have farmed, hunted and fished for generations.

"We have all our livelihood there, but we have abandoned it," says Chale, who lives in La Esperanza . "We are afraid that we could meet the same fate as my brother." Her family now has to rely on the generosity of fellow Miskitos with plots closer to the village to provide them with food.

The state's absence

Miskitos say the government has done little to stop the violence which has affected more than 40,000 people.

According to CEJUDHCAN, the army was deployed only once - in December 2015 - and just for a few days, when three communities in the remote territory of Wangki Twi Tasba Raya were attacked in a single day. The military took up stations but did nothing more.

On the day of the attacks, three men from one of these communities were kidnapped. The police ignored pleas to search for them.

"The officer who answered the phone said their priority was to distribute Christmas toys for poor children," says CEJUDHCAN founder Lottie Cunningham.

When Gerardo disappeared, the military base near the community of La Esperanza refused to help Chale search for her kidnapped brother. "They said they were not authorised."

Miskitos claim that these crimes not only go uninvestigated but often, unrecorded.

Neither the police nor the army responded to Al Jazeera requests for comment, but a government official speaking on the condition of anonymity confirmed that on a number of occasions the police have refused to receive complaints related to the land conflict.

Miskitos see the lack of police and army action as the government siding with the Mestizos .

Injustice for settlers

The Mestizos, however, believe they have also suffered an injustice.

In September 2015, a group of Miskitos, led by Steadman Fagoth, an indigenous ally of Nicaragua's ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front ( FSLN) party, forced dozens of settler families out of the Morobila gold mine.

The miners say they had paid indigenous communities for mining rights. The police and the army allegedly ignored their calls for protection before the eviction and have failed to investigate the looting and violence that accompanied it.

"When a Mestizo kills a Miskito, there is an outcry: Settlers! But when a Miskito kills a Mestizo nobody says anything," claims Alfredo Montiel, a member of a Mestizo farmers' association, formed in response to the land conflict.

They're not usurpers, they say, but victims of a scam.

"We have suffered a lot of abuse because of the Law 445," says the farmers' association vice-president Jose Boanerges, citing the legislation which reserves more than half the Caribbean coast for indigenous people.

This law bans the sale of indigenous lands.

There has been a widespread practice, however, of unscrupulous indigenous leaders selling land illegally to settlers, disguising the sales as permits to use the land. Settlers are often aware that they're making an illegal purchase, but they say the trouble occurs when Miskitos don't respect the sales.

"Some farmers pay a fortune for land. Then other Miskitos come and say: 'This is our parcel, you have to pay us too'. This is why there are deaths," Montiel says, referring to how clashes happen.

"If I go to the police with my documents and I tell them the Miskitos want to take my land, they say: 'You are stupid if you let them to do it.' Where is the law?"

In September 2015 Mestizo farmers gathered in the town of Sahsa to show the local media hundreds of hoax permits, many of them stamped and signed by the president of the indigenous territory Tasba Pri, Waldo Muller.

Boanerges, who bought a fake permit thinking he had purchased land, says Miskitos employ a simple ploy to evade the authorities.

"The trick is that they never include the sum paid on a permit," Boanerges says.

"We have informed the government about these anomalies. If it doesn't want to see it, then God knows what links there are between them."

Shady land deals

Miskitos affected by the land conflict admit that there is corruption in their midst and have called for an investigation.

"If there are indigenous people involved in this, they should be punished," says Cunningham. "There shouldn't be a whole community suffering for five corrupt leaders. If the state had investigated the first reports of the land sales, if the perpetrators had been publicly detained, the land invasions would have been halted."

In 2013, the government created an inter-institutional commission, chaired by the prosecutor-general, to tackle the issue. It has dismissed several public registrars and arrested lawyers and public notaries involved in the sales of indigenous lands. But it hasn't been enough.

Miskitos believe that powerful groups and businesses are the real motor behind the settler invasion. The government would like to place the blame on the indigenous opposition party Yatama, but its own people are also involved.

Gilles Bataillon, a French sociologist who has studied conflicts in the region, says that successive governors of the Caribbean coast, including Fagoth in the 1990s, have turned a blind eye on the land trafficking.

Muller, who has signed numerous land sales, is a regional FSLN councillor and is allegedly in cahoots with the current governor, Carlos Aleman.

"People within the military nuclei of the FSLN have had the courage to report these irregularities to the FSLN's most influential man in the region, Lumberto Campbell. He replied that no one would touch Muller or Aleman," Bataillon says.

When interviewed by Al Jazeera, Muller and Aleman both denied being involved in illegal land sales.

Unfulfilled promises

Nicaragua was an international pioneer in granting significant land rights to native peoples. In 1987, indigenous communities gained autonomy over their ancestral territories on the Caribbean coast. In 2003, Law 445 bound the government to clear indigenous territories of people without proper land titles.

President Daniel Ortega has publicly backed the Miskitos. "It is an invasion! It is a fraud!" he said in September 2015. "The police must act immediately to evict those who are occupying" indigenous lands, he stressed last October, only nine days before general elections.

Fagoth, the government's indigenous ally, visited Miskito communities around the same time.

"He said that if we vote for the FSLN, they would begin clearing our territory the day after the elections," says Mariano Zamora, a member of the Council of Elders, the indigenous administrative body in La Esperanza. "There have been many elections with pledges like this and nothing has happened."

Fagoth denies this was pure electioneering. "The president is committed to clearing indigenous territories. But paperwork takes time," he says .

Cunningham is sceptical about the government's will to proceed.

"They don't want to discuss anything related to the land conflict. They hamper our work, don't let us access documents, or even enter their offices," she says. "They don't really want to clear the territory, because they need the settlers' vote to stay in power."

Internationally, the government has initially denied any connection between the violence and the land conflict.

"The government told the Inter-American Court of Human Rights that it has received no complaints regarding the land conflict and that all the 2,000 and something complaints registered in 2015 on the Caribbean coast were common crimes," Cunningham says.

In a later statement to the court in December, the government blamed the insecurity in the region on incitement by Yatama and CEJUDHCAN. It failed, however, to provide any answers about how it protected the communities at risk.

Meanwhile, there are fears of a new wave of violence. Weapons, including firearms imported by drug traffickers or left behind after the 1970s and 1980s wars in Nicaragua, are abundant on the Caribbean coast.

"We don't know who to cry to," Zamora says.

Tired of unfulfilled promises, his community ignored Fagoth's advice.

"He said that if we don't vote for the Front [FSLN], we can suffer three more years. So now we are waiting for the punishment."

(c) AlJazeera 2017

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