This story is co-published with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.
IN JUNE, OUR TEAM Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) hired Cristopher Mendoza, a sociable Nicaraguan journalist based in Managua, for a challenging assignment. At the time, we were in the middle of a eight month survey in Nicaragua’s little-known deforestation crisis; the country is losing its forests at a faster rate than any other country in the world, according to United Nations data. A mine of internal documents from the Nicaraguan Forestry Department gave us rare insight into how state corruption enabled this destruction, but we also wanted to understand how the disaster affected the 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 face increasing violence from land grabbers, to report on conditions on the ground.
We were also worried. President Daniel Ortega’s autocratic regime launched a sweeping crackdown on political dissent, jailing dozens of rival politicians, activists and journalists ahead of the November national elections. Security forces raided the homes and offices of independent journalists and media outlets, in several cases prosecuting repressive new laws that targeted “fake news” and foreign funding of Nicaraguan media.
Yet despite fears of meeting security forces on a trip 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 is an area that is very 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 managed to reach remote indigenous communities, traveling by night bus to bypass government checkpoints. He heard from Miskito residents about the toll of environmental destruction and foreign encroachment on their land, 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 member of the National Congress. History has revealed how Nicaragua’s environmental crisis is fueled by the corruption of the Ortega government.
When Mendoza returned to Managua, however, his situation rapidly deteriorated. Prosecutors requested a meeting with Mendoza, to ask him questions about his colleagues at a local news agency, who were facing false 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 later said. He postponed the meeting and fled the country to eventually arrive 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.”
The OCCRP team of journalists, based in the United States, South America and Europe, continued their investigation as the crackdown in Nicaragua escalated. As we worked it became clear that state bullying was part of the story. Nicaragua’s environmental disaster was not recognized because its witnesses were silenced. The media have faced an endless series of criminal charges; the reporters we worked with fled the country one after another.
Journalists are not the only ones to be in danger. Last year Global Witness, a UK-based nonprofit that tracks violence targeting environmentalists, reported that murders of environmental activists in Nicaragua had more than doubled from the previous year, making it the deadliest country, per capita, for defenders of the land or the environment. As we have reported, sources tightened and became inaccessible, in one case after being the target of an assassination. We have struggled to find experts capable of clarifying points of law or explaining the technical details 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 officially.
We published our survey, which included the essential work of 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 undisputed election, Carlos Fernando Chamorro, the exiled editor of Confidential, a leading independent media—wrote, “Never in the history of Nicaragua has the press been more powerless against the fabrications of authoritarian power and its eagerness to persecute.”
According to Mendoza, most independent reporting on Nicaragua now takes place outside the country, via journalists and sources in exile who can now speak more freely. He hopes that he and other Nicaraguan journalists can one day turn back the clock, to break through the spreading silence. “All the Nicaraguan journalists I know have their backpacks ready to go,” he said. “To continue to tell 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 the OCCRP investigation into Nicaragua’s “Forgotten Deforestation Crisis” and is currently the 2021-2022 Ted Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
TOP IMAGE: FILE – This aerial photo from September 16, 2015 shows land cleared by “settlers” that indigenous Miskito chiefs accuse of forcibly seizing land long considered communal property and clearcutting the forest tropical plant for cattle ranching in Murubila, Nicaragua. The Nicaraguan government not only has failed to enforce laws that protect its indigenous peoples and their communal lands, but actively encourages illegal land grabbing and grants concessions to mining and logging companies, according to a report released on Wednesday. April 29, 2020 (AP Photo / Esteban Felix, file)