MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Hector Saballos, a member of the underground student movement here, sits at a table in a safe house planning how to deliver rice, beans and medicines to friends in hiding. Blood stains his boots, and his finger is broken from a recent shootout. He worries about his girlfriend, who is in a hospital recovering from gunshot wounds.
A few months ago, Saballos, 29, was studying mechanical engineering. When the government of President Daniel Ortega announced changes to the social security system, setting off protests throughout the country, Saballos joined the marches. As security forces began to kill protesters, he manned the barricades, fighting with mortars, guns and rocks.
Now he is a wanted man.
“I had no preparation for this,” he said. “I have no military or tactical training. I grew up on a farm, so I do know how to use a gun. But Ortega is destroying human rights in this country. He is ignoring the separation of governmental powers. We can forgive much of what he has done, but we can’t forgive him for killing his own people.”
Students are at the heart of the movement opposing Ortega, who has been in office since returning to power in 2007; he was last reelected in 2016. In recent years, he has grown increasingly authoritarian, punishing those who speak out against him and cracking down on protests. More than 300 have been killed, many of them young people, since the demonstrations started in April, according to human rights groups.
Students have been prominent in Nicaraguan politics for decades, with university campuses acting as centers of activism during the Sandinista revolution that triumphed in 1979, driving out dictator Anastasio Somoza and bringing Ortega and his comrades to power. Ortega was voted out of office in 1990 and returned to the presidency in 2007.
Until recently, though, students had not taken center stage in opposition movements, although they at times took on issues such as the environment.
“I thought they were just millennials who cared mainly about video games and lived their lives online,” said Marie Antonia Bermudez, a literature professor at the University of Central America (UCA). “But I was wrong.”
With Nicaragua’s opposition parties weak and divided, students have assumed a leading role in the protests. In the spring, they started taking over the universities, building barricades against police and pro-government militias. Military forces have since moved in and occupied campuses, but the students hold iconic status among many Nicaraguans. CDs with songs like “Gracias, estudiantes” can be bought in local markets. Graffiti praising their courage lines the streets of Managua .
The demonstrators have demanded that Ortega step down and that early elections be held.
Ortega has claimed that his political opponents and drug cartels are behind the fighting and insists he will stay in office until the 2021 elections. International and local human rights groups attribute most of the violence to government security forces and their allies.
The crisis has disrupted students’ lives. Most universities have been closed for three months. Many scholarships have not been disbursed, and students have returned to their families in the countryside because they have no money. Others have fled the country. With the economy in a downward spiral, jobs are scarce.
Vinicio Gonzalez, 24, known in the student movement as “Yankee” because of his light skin, was a dance major at UCA before he joined rock-throwing demonstrators confronting police. He had planned to perform at a folkloric dance festival in Costa Rica this summer. Instead, he is hiding out with Saballos at the church.
“Rocks can’t do anything against guns,” he said through tears. “But I have to take these risks. Our friends have been killed and our rights taken away.”
Kim Angeles, 23, was studying sociology at UCA on a full scholarship. She now spends much of her time at a safe house and tells her parents she is going to church when she attends protests.
“My biggest fear is being raped,” she said. “We are just students. We don’t know how to fight.”
Her situation is complicated by her father’s and uncle’s support of Ortega.
“My father thinks that students in the resistance should be killed,” she said.
Medical student Regis Gonzales, 20, helped treat students injured during a protest. He said police arrested him and questioned him for 12 hours.
“After they questioned me, they started writing on a piece of paper. I looked down to see what they were writing. They had written ‘terrorist’ by my name,” he said. “I was shocked.”
He was released and went back to protesting. But the police, accusing him of being a terrorist, issued an arrest warrant for him. He has been living in a safe house.
“I will continue to fight against the political oppression,” he said. “We won’t forget a single drop of blood spilled by our friends who were killed.”
Professors also are facing hardship. Many have not been paid since classes were suspended three months ago, and they cannot go to their offices or do research in the library.
“I am living on savings,” said Bermudez, the literature professor. “I am attending the funerals of my students. My entire department has fled to Costa Rica.”
Sergio Ramírez, winner of the 2017 Cervantes Prize, the most prestigious literary award in the Spanish-speaking world, said pro-Ortega student groups have quashed intellectual inquiry and made voicing opposition opinions dangerous on campuses.
“Somoza never was able to control the universities,” said Ramírez, who served as vice president under Ortega from 1985 to 1990 but now is openly critical of his administration. “Ortega has been able to control them.”
Saballos said that because government agencies issue scholarships, many students are afraid to speak out.
“They know that if they say anything against Ortega, they won’t get scholarships,” he said.
Bermudez said these students operate differently from those of her generation. Their Sandinista uprising was inspired by leaders of the Cuban revolution, men like Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.
“They see our generation of Sandinistas as failures. They don’t want to create great leaders like Che or Fidel,” she said. “They operate more as a group. We used to say ‘Liberty or death.’ But they say ‘Be free . . . and live.’ ”