This story is co-published with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.
IN JUNE, OUR TEAM of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) hired Cristopher Mendoza, a gregarious Nicaraguan journalist based in Managua, for a difficult assignment. At the time, we were in the middle of a eight month survey in the little-known deforestation crisis in Nicaragua; the country is losing its forests at a faster rate than any other country in the world, according to United Nations data. A trove of internal documents from Nicaragua’s forest ministry gave us rare insight into how state corruption enabled this destruction, but we also wanted to understand how the disaster affected indigenous communities living on the front lines. We hoped Mendoza would travel to the country’s northern Caribbean coast, an area of lush rainforest where indigenous residents have faced increasing violence from land grabbers, to report on conditions on the ground.
We were also worried. President Daniel Ortega’s autocratic regime had launched a sweeping crackdown on political dissent, jailing dozens of rival politicians, activists and journalists ahead of national elections in November. Security forces raided the homes and offices of journalists and independent media outlets, in several cases bringing charges under repressive new laws that targeted “fake news” and foreign funding of Nicaraguan media.
Yet despite fears of encountering security forces while traveling and growing violence from land grabbers in the north, Mendoza did not hesitate. He said he would be safer outside Managua than at home. “It’s an area very much abandoned by the Nicaraguan state,” he said, referring to the northern Caribbean coast. “In Managua there is a better chance that someone will recognize me.”
Mendoza has successfully reached remote indigenous communities along the Coco River near the northern border with Honduras. He collected testimonies from Miskito residents about the toll of environmental destruction and foreign encroachment on their lands, as well as the climate of impunity that made these abuses possible. OCCRP later published a story, drawing heavily on reporting from Mendoza, detailing the exploitation of the Miskito people and their forests by a company partly owned by a National Congressman. The story revealed how Nicaragua’s environmental crisis is fueled by the corruption of Ortega’s government.
When Mendoza returned to Managua, however, his situation quickly deteriorated. Prosecutors requested a meeting with Mendoza, to ask him about his colleagues at a local news agency, who were facing bogus money laundering charges. Mendoza had heard of people being thrown into prison after such interrogations; “In prison in Nicaragua, they violate your human rights,” he said later. He postponed the meeting and fled the country, eventually arriving in Costa Rica, in exile from the country where he had lived all his life. “There was no time to plan anything,” he said. “I just had to go.”
OCCRP’s team of reporters, based in the United States, South America and Europe, continued their investigation as the crackdown in Nicaragua intensified. As we worked, it became clear that state intimidation was part of the story. Nicaragua’s environmental disaster went unnoticed because its witnesses were silenced. The media faced an endless series of criminal charges; the journalists we worked with fled the country, one after another.
Journalists are not the only ones at risk. Last year, Global Witness, a UK-based non-profit organization that follows violence targeting environmentalists, reported that killings of environmental activists in Nicaragua had more than doubled from the previous year, making it the deadliest country, per capita, for defenders of land or ‘environment. As we reported, the sources fell silent and became inaccessible – in one case, after being targeted for assassination. We struggled to find experts who could clarify points of law or explain the technicalities of forest permits; the people we found were often too scared to speak, fearing for their own safety and that of their families. The exiles – and a handful of courageous indigenous leaders – were virtually the only ones who could speak to us publicly.
We published our investigation, which included essential work from Mendoza, a week before the national elections. By then, independent media and civil society groups had been almost entirely suppressed. After Ortega claimed victory in an uncontested election, Carlos Fernando Chamorro, the exiled editor of Confidentialone of the leading independent media—wrote“Never in the history of Nicaragua has the press been so unprotected against the fabrications of authoritarian power and its readiness to persecute.”
According to Mendoza, most independent reporting on Nicaragua now takes place outside the country, via exiled journalists and sources who can now speak more freely. He hopes that he and other Nicaraguan journalists will one day be able to return there, to break through the spreading silence. “All the Nicaraguan journalists I know have their backpacks ready to go,” he said. “To continue telling the story of Nicaragua.”
Sasha Chavkin is an investigative journalist specializing in the environment, Latin America and public corruption. He was the lead reporter for OCCRP’s investigation “Nicaragua’s Forgotten Deforestation Crisis” and is currently a 2021-22 Ted Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder.
TOP IMAGE: FILE – This September 16, 2015 aerial photo shows land being cleared by ‘settlers’ who Miskito indigenous leaders accuse of forcibly grabbing land long considered communal property and clear-cutting rainforest for cattle ranching in Murubila, Nicaragua. The Nicaraguan government has not only failed to enforce laws that protect its indigenous peoples and their communal lands, but actively promotes illegal land grabbing and grants concessions to mining and logging companies, according to a report released Wednesday, April 29, 2020. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix, File)