On March 18, 2013, tensions erupted when a riot broke out in Chichigalpa, the center of sugarcane production Western Nicaragua. There, 180 former workers, widows, and their children protested the lack of government response to the epidemic of Chronic Kidney Disease of unknown Etiology (CKDu). Law enforcement response was swift. Participants and bystanders alike reported that they were beaten by local police forces and threatened with retaliation if they came forward with their stories. In all, twenty-five men, women, and children were arrested. La Isla Foundation personnel were there to document the protests, and themselves became targets of police action.
This report is based on interviews of detained protesters and bystanders, footage collected on the day of the riots, and subsequent accounts that have emerged concerning ongoing human rights violations against those involved. Here, we document the abuses suffered by protesters and bystanders that day, analyze them within the broader context of ongoing rights violations associated with the CKDu epidemic, and conclude with recommendations for actors across sectors. Ultimately, the Foundation believes that the recent riot and resulting police action serve as a forewarning of the potential violent turn that this already tragic epidemic could take, should the epidemic and the rights violations associated with it continue unaddressed.
Illegal Treatment of Sugarcane Workers and Their Families
La Isla Foundation has encountered many instances of systematic rights deprivations throughout the course of its work with affected communities. LIF has observed that sick workers and their families often find themselves trapped in a self-reinforcing web of inadequate social services, poor working conditions, and widespread intimidation which discourages them from advocating for their own interests or seeking alternative employment. LIF believes that these restrictions violate both domestic and international laws.
Poor working conditions
Cane cutters can work as much as 10 to 12 hours daily without overtime payment. There are no mandated rest days for workers. During harvest, a minimum of 84 hours is worked weekly. We have observed that workers will typically work until they physically exhaust themselves and then take a day off; for most this equates to one day off every three to four weeks.
Our observations to date have also shown that cane cutters, specifically in Western Nicaragua, work on a quota system wherein they are required to cut a certain amount of cane per day. Typically, they can cut anywhere for 5 to 7 tons per day, but some workers report cutting up to 13 tons a day in order to qualify for bonuses based on exceeding the daily quota. Workers are paid per ton cut at around 0.90 USD per ton. The temperatures in the open fields often-exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit and there is little to no shade. As a result of bonus incentives, workers are hesitant to take sufficient breaks to rest their bodies and replenish the fluids lost working. These practices also violate several international legal instruments to which Nicaragua is a signatory.
Low Wages and Manipulation of Non-monetary Pay
Earning on average around 7 USD per day, most laborers working at maximum capacity cannot earn enough money to support their families. As many must use their earnings from the 6 month harvesting season to support their families year round, workers and their impoverished families often occupy a precarious position, teetering on the brink of homelessness or starvation.
Inability to Access Adequate Healthcare
Adequate health care can be extremely difficult to access for workers who have been fired due to illness. Sugar cane producers test workers’ creatinine levels, an indicator of kidney health, before the start of each harvest season, and sporadically throughout its duration. When workers’ blood tests show high creatinine levels, when they are most in need of medical attention, they are fired and lose access to the plantation hospital. After which, they have few viable alternative options for appropriate medical care. Due to the poor living conditions in the rural communities affected, in-home treatment options carry an extremely high risk of fatal infection . Only a few sugarcane communities have readily accessible small health clinics.
Restrictions on the Right to Privacy and the Freedom of Association
Union Participation – The environment for union organizers across sectors in Nicaragua remains incredibly difficult. According to the US State Department 2012 Investment Climate Statement, labor activists and NGOs alleged that employers routinely violated collective bargaining agreements and labor laws with impunity in Nicaragua. Discussions that we have had with local community members confirm this phenomenon. As an independent organization concerned with increasing the protection of workers in Nicaragua, we have observed the methods used to impede independent union activities on the ground. In the past, the plantation has revoked workers’ food stipends and threatened suspension to punish them for speaking out.
Participation in Independent Research – In addition to discouraging participation in union activities, workers have faced intimidation when participating in independent research initiatives. Most recently, in February 2012, 10 workers were fired for their participation in a cross-industrial medical study led by government supported research institution, Center for the Investigation of Environmental and Occupational Health (CISTA), a government supported research institution under the auspices of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Nicaragua, León (UNAN-León).
Police and Company Presence at Wakes and Funerals – LIF has observed an increased police, company, and local government presence at the wakes and funerals of former workers who died from CKDu . LIF’s partners based in the affected communities attribute this presence to a fear on behalf of the company and local government authorities that such funerals will serve as motivation and a forum for protest. In addition to monitoring the conduct of funeral services, LIF has received reports that police, government representatives, and company officials appear at services to threaten family members with reprisals should they protest, and to offer them payment for compliance. LIF has observed an unusually high level of police presence at the funerals that it attends within the affected communities. Most recently, in March 2012, our staff experienced this phenomenon at several funerals when trucks of local Chichigalpa-based police officers parked near the cemetery to monitor the funeral processions as they arrived at the burial sites.
Pension / Social Security
The most frequent complaint that our organization encounters and the primary motivation behind the March 18th protest is the inability for sick workers and the families of the deceased to collect social security and pension benefits. CKDu was declared an occupational illness under Nicaraguan law in 2008, conferring upon the disease a special status, and ostensibly removing the hurdles required for patients and their families to access benefits. Unfortunately, many claim that these changes in the law have had the opposite effect and made it harder to collect benefits. Some believe that this is because, if the state covered the costs of treatment of all of its citizens suffering from occupationally-related CKDu and provided financial support to the families of the sick and dying, it would eventually go bankrupt.
Events of March 18, 2013
On March 18, 2013, 180 protesters (workers, widows, and children from Chichigalpa) went to Managua in a 3 bus convoy to peacefully call attention to the disease ravaging their community. Initially they organized themselves in a formation traditionally associated with funeral processions, marched through the streets with banners, stopping in front of the Grupo Pellas Headquarters. There, they demanded corporate accountability for the thousands in their community who have died from CKDu . Ex-workers and widows spoke about living with and losing loved ones to CKDu . They received no company response. And, after protesting for a little over an hour and a half, the group left.
They continued to the Instituto Nacional de Seguridad Social (Social Security Headquarters) to demand the provision of social security and pension payments to affected workers and their families. There, protest leader, Daniel Valvida, submitted a list of ex-workers suffering from CKDu who applied for and qualified for social security under the law, but from who benefits were being withheld. After failing to garner the attention of the Grupo Pellas conglomerate or the national government, the group headed home in the afternoon. Each of their protests in Managua were monitored by a strong police presence, however, both protests were peaceful.
Upon returning to Chichigalpa from Managua, the protesters decided to block the flow traffic on the Pan American highway at the entrance to Chichigalpa citing the lack of response by corporate and government authorities during the protests held in the capitol. Roadblocks are a common act of civil disobedience employed in Nicaragua. The group blocked both sides of the entrance with their buses, banners, and signs. They allowed 20 vehicles to pass every 20 minutes, and ambulances and buses carrying sugar cane workers to pass uninterrupted.
Shortly thereafter, police arrived to negotiate the dissolution of the roadblock. Protesters expressed their frustration at the lack of response they received in Managua and that they felt that this act of civil disobedience was the only way to bring attention to the epidemic ravaging their community. As the tension escalated, special forces riot police were called in to disperse the crowd .
We believe these police units responded to a peaceful protest with excessive use of force. Police attempted to forcibly confiscate the equipment of some of those recording the events, including LIF’s own videographer. They fired tear gas into the crowd which included women and children retreating down the road. When a group of young men responded by shooting slingshots and throwing rocks at the force, police countered by marching towards the center of town, through residential areas, halting to fire tear gas. Witnesses believe that at least 30 tear gas canisters were fired into a crowd of less than 200 people. The crowd dispersed shortly thereafter. A few hours later, police began arresting people indiscriminately in their homes and on the street. Police severely beat suspected protesters and assaulted bystanders, including children as young as six years old.
In the aftermath of the protest twenty-five men, women, and children were arrested. Most were released the next day, after signing a document barring them from filing a complaint with the human rights commission. Several of those released were threatened with violent reprisals should they speak out about police conduct during the riot.
Police Violations of Human Rights
According to Nicaraguan custom, protests which block roadways must periodically allow cars to pass and must not result in the destruction of state property. Witness accounts and video footage taken at the incident, seem to support the assertions that the protesters followed these regulations. LIF believes that the protest conducted on March 18 was undertaken peacefully and in accordance with Nicaraguan law. Consequently, by dispersing the protest violently and subsequently indiscriminately arresting protesters and bystanders, police forces violated national, regional, and international legal protections. These violations are discussed in detail below.
Violation of Freedom of Association
A police official…told me because I am the president of this association, “If you don’t move these people, it would go badly for me.” I insisted to the people that we leave because I don’t like violence, I like peace; I had never even been arrested until that day. So I said to my people, to my brothers, because we’re all affected (with CKDu), we’re a group of older people, a few of us older than 60 years old, and so I said “we should disperse and get out of there and see what happens” but then the people didn’t disperse and in that moment Commissioner Cárcamo sent the riot police on us.
Daniel Valdivia, Protest Leader, March 22
As mentioned above, according to witness accounts, the protest conducted in Chichigalpa was peaceful. By attempting to disperse a nonviolent protest conducted in accordance with the law, police violated participants’ rights to free speech and peaceful assembly. Article 30 of the Nicaraguan Constitution protects freedom of expression in both public and private forums. Article 53 of the Constitution guarantees the right of peaceful assembly without prior permission and Article 54 protects the right of public demonstration in accordance with the law.
Freedom of Expression is also protected under international law including: The American Convention on Human Rights (ACHR), The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).
Excessive Use of Force
The police got angry and told two men to grab [my uncles]. My mother said, “Let them go! Let them go!” and they put a pistol to her chest. I ran over to her and he hit me and knocked me over and I fainted. I got up feeling really strange seeing all the feet around me and I stood up feeling all dizzy… it was horrible.
female, 6 years old
When they finished with me, one went and stomped on my hand, he grabbed my hand and stomped on it. They had shot teargas bombs, my face was burning and I passed out.
male, 15 years old
By all accounts, those participating in the protests in Managua and Chichigalpa were unarmed. However police response was swift and violent. At least one protester was trampled by police forces upon their arrival . Another man was hit between the eyes with a riot shield. Subsequently, LIF’s video footage of the riot shows police shooting tear gas rounds at individuals and laughing . After the crowd had dispersed the strong show of force continued. Police marched beating protesters and bystanders, including children.
Of those we interviewed, two of the children who were apprehended and obtained received moderate injuries at the hands of the police. One child, a 15-year-old boy who was kicked and beaten, showed signs of cuts, bruising, and boot marks on his back. Another child, a 6-year-old girl, sustained a swollen contusion under her right eye after being hit in the face.
Excessive use of force violates Art 10 of the ICCPR which mandates that all persons deprived of their liberty be treated with humanity and respect. It can be argued that excessive use of force of in this instance could constitute “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment” in violation of Article 36 of the Constitution, the American Convention on Human Rights, and the ICCPR.
The unjustifiable use of violence against children is even more alarming, and in glaring violation of the law. The Convention on the Rights of the Child mandates ”no child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”.Furthermore, the use of violence against innocent children in view of their parents could constitute torture under international law for both parties involved. The Convention Against Torture (CAT) defines torture as
“any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.”
In the present case, it is likely that the police used violence against children to intimidate their parents and to strike fear into the community at large.
Violation of the Right to Due Process
Imagine that, they put me under arrest with my finger broken, my eye all messed up, my head cracked here, another lump here, beaten and everything and they didn’t let me out. Not until the next day did they let me out. I didn’t have anyone who would tend to me. They took me off handcuffed like I was a thief, [I asked,] “Why don’t you take these handcuffs off?” [and they said,] “No, you go like that.” When we got back one of the police says to me, “You like what we did to you? Did you enjoy that? It’s so you learn to respect.” …I’m in pain from the beating, from what these men did to me. It doesn’t get you anywhere to make a human rights complaint because they work with [the police] too.
male, 32 years old
LIF contends that in addition to the illegal attempt to disperse a lawful, protected protest. Police further violated the constitutional and treaty-protected rights of Nicaraguan citizens by denying them due process throughout the course of arrest, detention, and release.
Arbitrary Arrest – The majority of the adults and children whom we interviewed that were arrested claim not to have attended any of the protests which took place on March 18th. The witnesses claim that as the crowd fled towards the city, police followed them, launching tear gas and indiscriminately arresting those who they came across. Protest organizers, protest participants and bystanders that we spoke to believe that police set out to make an example of community members, regardless of whether they had participated in the protest. Furthermore, children were among those arrested and detained, seemingly without cause.
Article 33 of the Nicaraguan constitution declares that no person should be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention or be deprived of their liberty except on grounds provided by the law pursuant to a legal proceeding. Furthermore the arbitrary arrest and detention of persons violates Nicaragua’s human rights treaty obligations under the American Convention on Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. By targeting citizens involved in a legal protest, bystanders not involved in protest activity, and children outside the scene of the protest; police forces arrested citizens on grounds not related to the law, violating an essential constitutional right.
Conditions of Release – Prior to release, almost all of those detained signed a release foregoing their right to pursue future claims against the police related to the riot and subsequent arrests. In some cases, parents were asked to sign this document in the middle of the night, before they were allowed to take custody of their children. It is not certain if these agreements are valid under the law, as they allow for signatories to sign away fundamental civil rights. In any case, such agreements were expressly meant to deprive detained individuals of recourse under the law. Article 33 (4) of the Nicaraguan Constitution guarantees a right to recourse in the case of false imprisonment. Article 9(5) of the ICCPR also provides for a similar right to receive compensation in the case of false imprisonment or arrest.
Even after signing away their right to file a complaint, several detainees were threatened with harm should they speak publicly about their experience. For example, a 13-year-old boy, the son of a prominent protester who was arrested and beaten, reported that he was told that if he spoke out police would kill him and stuff a cockroach in his mouth. These threats not only amount to torture under international law, but they are also intended to discourage victims from attempting to access justice and secure redress for the violation of their constitutional rights, frustrating due process of the law
LIF believes that the events of March 18th provide a glimpse of the violence that could erupt should the systemic rights deprivations associated with the CKDu epidemic and the present conditions continue. We encourage all parties to reflect on the unfortunate incident that occurred in Chichigalpa and commit to addressing these longstanding issues.