MASAYA, Nicaragua - There was something about the woman who turned up at St. Michael the Archangel church in this bustling market town one recent day. She was tall, about 40, nicely dressed in slacks and a blouse. Maybe an office worker, the Rev. Edwin Román figured.
Then she settled into the pew where he was hearing confessions and leaned in.
"Where can I get bombs?" she whispered.
Román says he quickly realized what was going on.
"I can tell when people are infiltrators," said the priest, a well-known supporter of Nicaragua's pro-democracy movement. Spies for the government of President Daniel Ortega, he said, were trying to entrap him.
Ortega has responded to Nicaragua's worst political unrest since the 1980s by banning protests and smothering dissent. As conflict still simmers, the Catholic Church, one of the country's last venues for protest, finds itself besieged.
Ortega supporters try to infiltrate parishes. Security forces surround churches during Mass. Priests suffer harassment and death threats. Police ring the Jesuit university when students dare to wave Nicaraguan flags and chant anti-government slogans.
There are echoes of the 1980s, when Nicaragua's pro-Marxist government clashed with conservative bishops in a Cold War standoff. Like then, Ortega's Sandinista party is in power. Now, though, the dispute is over democracy, at a time of rising populism and authoritarianism.
Ortega, 73, has accused church leaders of being "committed to the coup plotters," as he calls the young activists who organized mass demonstrations last year.
The clergy deny they're trying to undermine Ortega. But as Nicaragua has become one of the most repressive countries in Latin America, the church has become a refuge for dissenters.
Threats against church leaders have become so intense that the Vatican recently called the outspoken auxiliary bishop of Managua, Silvio Báez, to Rome.
"There's an attack on religious freedom like we've never seen in Nicaragua," said Félix Maradiaga, a Harvard-trained political scientist and opposition activist. "And it's occurring under the world's nose."
When the bullets started flying in Masaya, Román was in his bedroom, watching TV. He heard a pounding on his garden gate.
"A young person appeared asking, 'Father, do you have gloves, alcohol, gauze?' " the 59-year-old priest recalled. "I looked around. The only gloves I had were oven mitts."
It was a spring night in 2018. Masaya, about 14 miles from the capital, was once a Sandinista stronghold. Now it was at the heart of a national revolt. What had begun as protests against pension cuts had swelled into rallies against Ortega's 11-year rule and his dismantling of democratic institutions.
Román started making calls. Soon the rectory at St. Michael's became an informal clinic for wounded demonstrators.
"For me, it was a humanitarian service," the priest said.
Throughout the country, priests and bishops found themselves on the front lines of the crisis. They rescued demonstrators who fled to churches as police and heavily armed paramilitaries moved in. They counseled parents distraught over the arrests of their teenagers.
Ortega has a turbulent history with the church, widely influential in this majority-Catholic country.
In the 1980s, he defied its leadership, inviting leftist priests into his cabinet and encouraging the creation of a pro-government "popular church." (That earned his government a public scolding from Pope John Paul II.) More recently, he tried to reconcile with the Catholic hierarchy, backing one of the strictest antiabortion laws in Latin America.
As Nicaragua's political crisis intensified last year, Ortega asked the bishops to broker a national dialogue. There were few other institutions that could do it: Most opposition parties had been co-opted, or stripped of their legal status.
But the talks soon stalled, and the backlash was swift.
Ortega charged - without presenting evidence - that churches were being used "to store weapons, to store bombs." As paramilitaries and police dislodged protesters who had occupied college campuses and neighborhoods, churches were caught in the crossfire. Priests and bishops tried to give protesters sanctuary; pro-government mobs attacked them. At one point, Báez was knifed in the arm as he tried to defend young people in a church.
More than 300 people, most of them demonstrators, were killed, according to human rights groups. The Nicaraguan government claims the protesters are part of a coup attempt financed by the U.S. government.
Nicaraguan authorities have denied targeting priests. They did not respond to a request for an interview.
A year after the crackdown, the barricades are gone, but the death threats continue. Román says he's followed by plainclothes security agents. He has been detained by police twice, for several hours each time. Officers have surrounded his church when he has celebrated Mass in remembrance of those killed or to commemorate the release of political prisoners. After the services, worshipers hold impromptu protests at the church entrance, waving the country's blue-and-white flag - a symbol of the rebellion.
Inside his quiet, airy church, someone has placed a Nicaraguan flag alongside a statue of St. Michael. Blue-and-white ribbons dangle from a figure of the risen Christ.
"This is how people now protest," said the priest. Anything more could land them in jail.
Security forces still generally refrain from entering Catholic Church property. That's why a blonde 36-year-old woman traveled to Managua's soaring modernistic cathedral on a recent sunny afternoon. She joined a handful of demonstrators outside, waving Nicaraguan flags and chanting anti-Ortega slogans.
"This is the only safe place we can come," said the woman, who provided only her nickname, Chela.
But she gazed anxiously at the police special forces trucks ringing the fenced perimeter. "They're on top of us. In our neighborhood, they're watching us."
In April, the cathedral lost its most powerful voice when Pope Francis recalled Báez to Rome indefinitely.
The bishop had become an unlikely face of the Nicaraguan opposition. A 61-year-old scholar with a receding hairline and a doctorate in theology from the Vatican's Gregorian University, he was a hit with young people.
That was due, in part, to his human rights advocacy over a decade in Managua. But the cleric was also an ace at Twitter.
"Whenever an event happened, everyone wanted to hear a pronouncement from a bishop," said the sociologist José Luis Rocha, a frequent contributor to the Jesuit publication Envío. "And out pops the tweet from Báez."
While the Vatican did not explain Báez's move, the bishop said in interviews that he had been the target of an assassination plot. In May, the Nicaraguan bishops' conference said the clergy, and Báez in particular, had been subjected to "discredit and death threats."
In recent months, the church has taken a lower profile. The bishops' conference is no longer organizing the talks with the government, although the papal nuncio, Archbishop Waldemar Sommertag, is participating.
Maradiaga said some bishops were uneasy about the church assuming a prominent political role. And unlike in the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II backed Nicaragua's bishops amid a U.S.-funded insurgency, the current conflict has received little attention abroad.
"Priests opposing the regime don't have the strong international support that existed before," said Maradiaga, who heads the Institute of Strategic Studies and Public Policies, one of several civil-society groups that have been outlawed by the government.
The isolation is evident in the northern city of Esteli, where Monsignor Juan Abelardo Mata, the 73-year-old head of the Nicaraguan bishops' conference, holes up in a church compound watched by five unarmed security guards. The longtime human rights advocate has been a prominent critic of the Sandinistas.
Mata and seven of his archdiocesan priests have received death threats, he said. At least four Nicaraguan priests have fled the country.
A year ago, when Mata was on a trip to Masaya, Sandinista supporters shot at his car and beat his driver, he said. Since then, he has avoided visiting parishes for patron saint days or confirmations.
"I don't want bloodshed on my account," he added. "People here are ready to give their lives for me."
When he leaves the city, he goes undercover.
Under the glass of his dining room table, Mata keeps a picture of Óscar Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador who was gunned down in 1980 while celebrating Mass. Last year, Romero was canonized.
Mata said Nicaragua's church would not be intimidated, even if a priest is killed.
"The church doesn't die," he said. "The church has watched as the caskets of its persecutors pass by."
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The Washington Post's Ismael López Ocampo contributed to this report.
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Video: Rev. Edwin Román says that paramilitary forces and police killed unarmed civilians outside his church where these bullet holes are.(The Washington Post/The Washington Post)
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WASHINGTON - The Trump administration on Tuesday will significantly expand its power to quickly deport undocumented immigrants who have illegally entered the United States within the past two years, using a fast-track deportation process that bypasses immigration judges.
Officials are calling the new strategy, which will take effect immediately, a "necessary response" to the influx of Central Americans and others at the southern border. It will allow immigration authorities to quickly remove immigrants from anywhere they encounter them across the United States, and they expect the approach will help alleviate the nation's immigration court backlog and free up space in Immigration and Customs Enforcement jails.
The stated targets of the change are people who sneaked into the United States and do not have an asylum case or immigration court date pending. Previously, the administration's policy for "expedited removal" has been limited to migrants caught within 100 miles of the U.S. border and who have been in the country for less than two weeks. The new rule would apply to immigrants anywhere in the United States who have been in the country for less than two years - adhering to a time limit included in the 1996 federal law that authorized the expedited process.
Immigrants apprehended in Iowa, Nebraska or other inland states would have to prove to immigration officials that they have been in the United States continuously for the past two years, or else they could end up in an immigration jail facing quick deportation. And it could be relatively low-level immigration officers - not officers of a court - making the decisions.
President Donald Trump has promised to deport millions of immigrants and has threatened enforcement raids targeting those in as many as 10 major cities.
Nearly 300,000 of the approximately 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States entered the country illegally and could be subject to expedited removal, according to the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute. The typical undocumented immigrant has lived in the United States for 15 years, according to the Pew Research Center.
Though border apprehensions have fallen in June and July as the Trump administration and Mexico intensify their crackdown on the southern border, acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan said in a draft notice Monday that "the implementation of additional measures is a necessary response to the ongoing immigration crisis." He said the new rule would take effect immediately upon publication in the Federal Register, which is scheduled for Tuesday.
"DHS has determined that the volume of illegal entries, and the attendant risks to national security and public safety presented by these illegal entries, warrants this immediate implementation of DHS's full statutory authority over expedited removal," McAleenan said in the notice. "DHS expects that the full use of expedited removal statutory authority will strengthen national security, diminish the number of illegal entries, and otherwise ensure the prompt removal of aliens apprehended in the United States."
Immigration lawyers said that the expansion is unprecedented and effectively gives U.S. agents the power to issue deportation orders without bringing an immigrant before a judge or allowing them to speak with a lawyer.
"Under this unlawful plan, immigrants who have lived here for years would be deported with less due process than people get in traffic court," Omar Jadwat, director of the Immigrants' Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement. "We will sue to end this policy quickly."
Royce Bernstein Murray, of the American Immigration Council, also vowed to challenge the policy in court, arguing that the broadened authority allows DHS "to essentially be both prosecutor and judge."
Advocates warned that the policy could ensnare longtime legal residents or even U.S. citizens who have been deported in error before. Vanita Gupta, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said she fears the rule will lead to increased racial profiling and turn ICE into a "show me your papers militia."
"This new directive flows directly from the racist rhetoric that the president has been using for the last week and indeed months, but this new rule is going to terrorize communities of color," said Gupta, who was head of the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division under President Barack Obama. "It really reads as a send-them-all-back policy," she added, referring to the audience's chants at a Trump rally last week that said "send her back" in response to the president's attacks on a Somali-born Muslim congresswoman, Ilhan Omar.
David Leopold, a Cleveland immigration lawyer and former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said expanding the expedited removal program shifts the decision-making to immigration officers who might not have much experience with such a policy and means that many immigrants who might have the right to remain in the country won't be given the opportunity to show it.
"That is going to apply to a huge swath of people," he said, noting that the rule requires migrants to prove that they have been in the United States for years - a particularly difficult onus when they are, by definition, lacking legal immigration documents. "My view is: How are they going to prove it? The burden is on them to prove it. If I can't prove it, I'm done."
ICE, which enforces immigration law and makes arrests across the United States, estimates that "a significant number" of undocumented immigrants would be eligible for expedited removal, including at least 20,500 migrants the agency apprehended last fiscal year and more than 6,400 it arrested this year, as of March 30.
McAleenan, in the federal notice, made reference to the Trump administration's recent efforts to deter migration to the United States on many fronts, an approach that has included pushing asylum claimants back into Mexico to await court hearings, stepped up Mexican enforcement against migrants as they head north, and the threat of ICE raids on families who have final removal orders. McAleenan wrote that the new rule "will reduce incentives" for migrants to enter the United States and swiftly move away from the border to avoid the faster deportation process.
DHS said it has anecdotal evidence that many immigrants smuggled into the United States hide in "safe houses" far from the southern border to avoid the threat of expedited removal. This year they said they found 67 undocumented immigrants in a safe house in Roswell, New Mexico - just beyond 100 miles from the Mexican border - and the year before they found three others, held for ransom, at a house in San Antonio, about 150 miles from the border.
Federal officials said they could make exceptions for people with serious medical conditions or "substantial connections" to the United States, and they say deportation is not necessarily immediate. Officials said they have safeguards in place for migrants who might be U.S. citizens or legal residents.
Asylum officers will interview immigrants who fear returning to their home countries to determine if they qualify for asylum or another form of protection, and they potentially could refer them to full deportation proceedings. Unaccompanied minors from non-neighboring countries are not eligible for speedy deportations under federal law.
Expedited removals stem from a 1996 law, signed by President Bill Clinton, that authorized the use of expedited deportations for illegal immigrants apprehended anywhere in the country who could not prove they had been physically present in the country two years before their apprehension.
In practice, enforcement was far more limited, at first applying to migrants arriving at a port of entry or by sea. In 2004, President George W. Bush expanded expedited removals along the U.S.-Mexico border, allowing for the swift expulsion of immigrants caught within 100 miles of the border who had lived in the country fewer than 14 days. The Bush administration said issuing removal orders bars migrants from reentering the United States and makes it easier to pursue criminal charges against them if they try.
Expedited deportations soared from about 50,000 immigrants in 2004 to 193,000 in 2013, about 44 percent of the total number of people deported that year, according to the American Immigration Council.
Trump sought to expand expedited deportations days after he took office as one of multiple strategies to crack down on illegal immigration at a time when the immigration court backlog hovered at about 600,000 cases. The plan never materialized, and illegal border crossings sank in the months after assumed the presidency.
But apprehensions soared during the past year as migrant families from Central America have sought refuge in the United States; they often are quickly released to await court hearings because of limits on how long the United States can detain children.
Since then, the immigration court caseload has spiked to more than 900,000 cases, and ICE has more than 50,000 migrants in custody each day, a record.
In the notice, McAleenan said expedited removal will relieve pressure on detention centers and the courts. He said the courts had fewer than 168,000 cases at the end of fiscal year 2004, when DHS expanded expedited removal along the southern border.
Migrants in expedited proceedings spend an average of just more than 11 days in immigration jails, while detainees awaiting "time-consuming" court hearings spend almost 52 days in jail.
"DHS expects that the New Designation will help mitigate additional backlogs in the immigration courts and will reduce the significant costs to the government associated with full removal proceedings before an immigration judge, including the costs of a longer detention period and government representation in those proceedings," McAleenan said in the notice.
The Trump administration says the notice is exempt from the Administrative Procedure Act's public comment requirements, but DHS is seeking comments on the change even though it is slated to take effect immediately upon posting.