ESPERANZA RIO COCO, Nicaragua >> The wailing came from a house perched along the river as people gathered outside. Two indigenous men had been abducted during a skirmish with nearby settlers, and no one knew where they were.
“Why did they do this to you?” a sister of one of the men shouted, slumping over his neatly made bed and howling in her native Miskito tongue.
A few days later, the men were found, decapitated — the latest in a series of Miskito Indian men killed in battles over land in Nicaragua.
Indigenous communities all over Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast say they are under attack by settlers who have taken over their ancestral lands.
Thousands of Nicaraguans have moved into the lush tropical rain forests that are home to the country’s nearly 180,000 indigenous Miskito people. The newcomers — called “colonists” by the Miskito — have been lured by the promise of gold and the abundance of lucrative timber. Some of the settlers have also been forced from their lands by drought.
“It’s our territory,” said Isidro Charles, a Miskito farmer who had accompanied one of the decapitated men to the village’s communal lands when men with AK-47s snatched him.
With the law on their side, and a bitter history of war, the Miskitos sometimes pushed back, confronting the settlers with large groups of people. The settlers responded with a vengeance, raiding indigenous towns.
One indigenous village was burned to the ground. At least 600 indigenous people have fled to neighboring Honduras, where they live in dirt and squalor, advocates say. The killings of at least 30 Miskitos have been documented; the settlers say at least 80 farmers have also been killed, but have been unable to provide a list of names.
During a recent visit to Francia Sirpi, a remote community several hours’ drive from the coast, more than a dozen indigenous men showed off gunshot wounds they had received from attacks while fishing or hunting. One teenager lost a leg. In December, three communities were attacked in a single day, with two men killed. Three others were kidnapped that day and have not been seen since.
Now the men patrol the far-flung indigenous communities with homemade weapons.
“They are trying to get us out of here,” said Vina Ernesto Efrain, 44, who saw her nephew gunned down the day a group of heavily armed men showed up in her village. “I haven’t been to my farm since, which means they took it from me.”
The series of attacks harks back to another time, when these indigenous communities battled the leftist Sandinista government in a quest to keep their land in the civil war in the 1980s.
Thirty years later, even after the native communities were granted autonomy over the lands and given preferential treatment under the law, critics say a new land grab is underway as the Sandinista government looks the other way.
Antonio Monterrey, the secretary-general of a farmers’ association formed in response to the land disputes, blamed the Miskitos for the attacks.
“Why are the indigenous being murdered? Because they provoked the murders,” Monterrey said. “They initiated the violence. It’s illogical to say they will evict us. There will be bloodshed.”
Monterrey said Spanish-speaking farmers had been killed as well, usually after mobs of Miskitos tried to force them out and shake them down for money.
Although some farmers have been forced out, hundreds of them remain, said Lottie Cunningham, a Miskito human rights lawyer.
“A lot of people don’t understand. In the city, if you have money, you go buy a pound of chicken. These people depend on the forest and fishing,” Cunningham said, noting that many of the villages are hours away from any town and reachable only by boat. “All these land sales were illegal. The attorney general, the prosecutors, they offer no answers for the murdered or the injured.”
So far, her group has counted 30 killings of Miskitos.
Publicly, President Daniel Ortega has sided with the Miskitos, insisting that the law is clear: Indigenous lands cannot be sold.
“It’s fraud! You cannot sell the land!” Ortega said in a speech last year. “They arm themselves there however they can with homemade weapons, maybe some rifles left over from the war, to remove them. Some of the communities have organized to evict the settlers.”
But in practicality, people on both sides of the dispute say the government has allowed the settling and the violence to continue unabated, partly because several of the indigenous leaders implicated in the illegal land sales are Sandinista government officials.
The government formed a special commission under the prosecutor general’s office to tackle the issue. The prosecutor general, Hernán Estrada, referred questions about the matter to the Foreign Ministry, which did not respond to requests for comment. The National Police also did not respond.
Before the violence took off late last year, Estrada told a government news site that his office had at least 17 criminal cases pending against notary publics who had signed off on fraudulent land titles.
“We had to send a clear signal that we are already moving in a direction to eliminate such practices,” Estrada said.
Cunningham said the tension between Miskitos and the Sandinistas dates to the early 1980s, when the Sandinistas, fresh from their revolutionary victory, ran the Miskitos out of their homes and burned down villages in a mass displacement.
The animosity was so strong that when the Sandinistas won the 1979 revolution and launched literacy campaigns in Spanish, the Miskitos took up arms. The Sandinistas have been back in power for a decade now, and that bitterness remains.
“What happened last time they took our lands?” Wilson asked as he looked around the refugee shelter where he lives. “War.”
The war ended with a peace agreement in 1987, when Ortega gave indigenous communities autonomy over nearly half the country’s territory.
“It was a model throughout the Americas,” said Laura Hobson Herlihy, a University of Kansas anthropologist who has studied the Miskitos for two decades and calls Ortega’s wartime concession “astonishing.”
“No indigenous group had ever achieved that kind of regional territorial autonomy. He might have given away too much, and maybe he does regret that.”