The Miami Herald
May 21, 2001

Town torn by fight for local self-rule in Nicaragua

11 jailed, 40 flee after the killing of a policeman


 MULUKUKU, Nicaragua -- History has been unkind to Mulukukú, a little town whose leaders are in big trouble.

 Eleven town elders are in jail, and 40 community activists are fugitives. They are wanted on homicide charges, all because a community long torn by wars and hurricanes wanted to become a city of its own. A battle for incorporation turned violent and left a law officer shot dead and a police department eager to blame someone.

 ``Everyone united like brothers. We wanted to be a city,'' said Bernarda Arriliga whose husband is hiding from the police. ``We didn't ask for a fight, violence or war.''

 As she tells it, the story of Mulukukú -- population 22,000 -- starts years ago. When Arriliga and her husband moved there in 1978, they were pioneers. There wasn't a single house in this town, 150 miles northeast of Managua, where even now there is no telephone service or paved road.

 When the leftist Sandinista Front assumed power in Nicaragua in 1979 and a war later raged against it in the mountains, the old gold-mining town swelled. Then best
 known for being home to a Sandinista army training base, Mulukukú became an immigration center for thousands of peasants fleeing combat.

 When bad things occurred during the war, they often happened here. In 1985, a helicopter was shot down by the anti-government force known as the contras, killing 14 soldiers. Eight women died the same year when a contra ambush blew up buses ferrying families visiting their military sons and husbands. In 1988, Hurricane Joan battered Mulukukú.

 ``In the '80s, this was a frontier,'' said Noel Montoya, Mulukukú's representative on the Northern Regional Council. ``There was no road to the other side of the country -- this was the end of civilization on the Pacific Coast.''

 But in some ways, things weren't so bad. There was a bank in town and social services for widows and orphans. All of that went away in 1990, however, when the
 Sandinistas and their army packed up after losing an election.

 Politically, Mulukukú fell under the municipal authority of larger communities hours away. And just like townspeople in Pinecrest or Miami Lakes, people here are weary of watching their tax dollars spent elsewhere -- except that here, they haven't had even a bank, a courthouse or a hospital since the army moved out.

 ``If you're in a hurry to get married,'' Montoya says, ``six hours is a long time,'' referring to the time it takes to get to the nearest courthouse.

 But the bureaucrats up the line dragged their feet, reluctant to lose Mulukukú's tax base. Tired of waiting, hundreds of local residents shut down the Tuma River bridge, the link between the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, on April 18.

 For a week, hundreds of people effectively shut the town down by showing up at the bridge instead of their jobs. Then brigades of anti-riot police showed up. At 5 a.m. April 24, they blasted tear gas at the baffled crowd.

 ``We tried to mediate to change their attitude. They wouldn't open the bridge,'' said Rio Blanco police spokesman William Ballesteros. ``We came with tear gas, and they responded with gunfire.''

 In the confrontation and ensuing panic, a policeman was killed and another wounded. A protester was shot while running away and is now in jail. Nobody knows who fired the fatal shot. ``They're looking for heads,'' said Ricardo Obando Rui, who is in hiding. ``They'd have to arrest everybody.''

 Police rounded up the town leaders who organized the protest, considering them the ``intellectual authors'' of a murder. Squads of police ransacked homes, searching for other suspects, many of whom vanished into the mountains.

 ``We wanted to be a city, and now we are without our husbands and sons,'' said Maritza Tercera, whose spouse is wanted. ``We're much worse off.''

 The federal government has sent a committee to Mulukukú, but incorporation seems remote.

 Authorities say they are not sure which of the many official steps to local self-rule, if any, Mulukukú has satisfied.

 Protest leaders say they collected signatures and took petitions to the general assembly nearly five years ago. But no one seems to know what happened to the

 Alejandro Romero, spokesman for the Nicaraguan Institute for Municipal Development, said the issue probably won't be tackled until after the November presidential election. In the meantime, the standoff continues. Townspeople want arrest warrants vacated; the police department wants suspects to turn themselves in.

 ``I think a lack of coordination is to blame,'' Romero said. ``I think there is a lack of understanding of how to ask for things.''

                                    © 2001