An anti-government protester fires a home-made mortar during a protest in Masaya, Nicaragua, on June 21, 2018. (Marvin Recinos/AFP/Getty Images)

In 1979, this city was at the heart of a revolution that brought President Daniel Ortega’s party to power. But this past week, ordinary citizens clutching homemade mortars and metal-pipe guns manned barricades in an uprising challenging the rule of Nicaragua’s septuagenarian leader.

The town, about 15 miles southeast of the capital, Managua, announced on Monday that it no longer recognized Ortega’s government. Residents defended that declaration with a well-organized but poorly equipped resistance, as state security forces and armed government supporters moved to take back Masaya.

More than 210 people have died in unrest in Nicaragua since nationwide demonstrations started two months ago. The protests were initially over proposed pension reforms but quickly expanded to include demands for more democracy and the resignation of Ortega, who has removed constitutional term limits, banned several opposition parties and governs with his wife, Rosario Murillo, as vice president.

Human rights groups have criticized the government for excessive use of force in responding to the demonstrations. The government has denied the accusations.

The fight for Masaya is the first full-scale battle between the government and protesters, and it could be a turning point in the unrest.

“This is a struggle for democracy, to reestablish a separation of powers,” said a man overseeing several barricades on the highway on Masaya’s eastern flank, who would give only his nom de guerre, Commander Zeta. “This dictatorship has gone too far.”

Forces loyal to Ortega launched an offensive early Tuesday. By Thursday morning, they had retaken most of Masaya and were encroaching on Monimbo, the indigenous neighborhood where the city’s rebellion began. Under intermittent but heavy fire, students, former tour guides and other citizens fought back with mortars and occasional gunshots, falling back to other barricades when the attacks grew too intense.

Officials at the National Police press department said they had no information on what was happening in the city.

About half of the citizen forces around Zeta’s barricades were armed. Most of them fired homemade mortars, while others wielded makeshift guns, small contraptions welded from metal pipes. A handful of leaders carried firearms: pistols, shotguns and a few rifles and semiautomatic weapons.

“We recovered these guns from [the front] and from police we’ve captured,” Zeta said. “These dogs are killing people here, and we’re only defending ourselves using their weapons.”

Some carried machetes or homemade explosives packed in small jars. Meanwhile, pro-government militias employed snipers and AK-47s. Four residents of Masaya have been killed since the fighting started, raising the city’s death count to 24 since the start of the rebellion, said Danilo Martínez, the Masaya representative for the Nicaraguan Association for Protection of Human Rights.

But there were also casualties on the government side. Police declined to confirm the exact numbers, but members of the pro-government militia and citizens’ movement each said they were roughly equal to the number of locals killed.

Combatants and civilians in Masaya said the armed resistance is necessary because they can no longer live under Ortega’s government and fear severe repercussions should the city be recaptured.

“In all other countries, there are elections and democracy. . . . Nowhere else on Earth would the president’s wife be the vice president,” said Silvio Estrada, a local resident who said he lost his fingers in brutal interrogations under Anastasio Somoza’s dictatorship four decades ago.

“Many will lose their lives, because we’re committed to following this through to the end,” he said.

The fighting is a sharp departure for a city whose residents used to line the streets when Ortega visited. Masaya became famous as the site where Sandinista fighters sought refuge and regrouped during government bombing in June 1979.

A few residents remain faithful to the Sandinista party. A local woman selling fresh juice said she resents the blockade of the city because it raised prices and torpedoed demand. Armed pro-
government groups patrolling the town’s limits identified themselves as true Sandinistas. They said the protests don’t represent the people and instead are the product of CIA intervention, recalling U.S. funding of the contra rebels in the 1980s.

“It’s a massive conspiracy, like the Cold War,” said one masked pro-government fighter who declined to give his name.

“My heart’s in this struggle, because I know it’s foreigners and outsiders who are financing this [protest] and instigating it,” another masked militiaman said. The government says it is not controlling the militias, but as the militiaman spoke, a member of his group stripped off his police uniform and donned the all-black garb worn by the informal groups.

The State Department said this past week that early elections would “represent a constructive way forward.” And on Tuesday, Carlos Trujillo, U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States, arrived in Nicaragua to meet with Ortega and others to discuss ending the violence. But if any outside intelligence agencies are funding or instigating the protests, the citizen combatants in Masaya don’t know it: Several asked a reporter whether President Trump would send support for the resistance.

The uprising has spread far beyond Masaya, which was the first city to barricade itself. Roadblocks have been a feature of the unrest since April, but rising violence in recent weeks has spurred individual neighborhoods across Managua and the cities of Esteli, Diriamba and Leon to erect barricades to keep out police and paramilitaries. Leon in recent days became the second city to declare its autonomy.

“Masaya is a town of fighters; a city that has taught us the playbook for resistance,” said Léster Alemán, one of the best-known student leaders in the protest movement.

As government forces pushed closer to the fortified neighborhood of Monimbo, panic spread across Nicaragua. News anchors teared up on the air, pleading for someone to intervene and prevent what many feared would turn into a massacre. The Catholic Church in Nicaragua sent a delegation of bishops, headed by Managua’s archbishop, Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes, to the city.

As thousands ushered the priests through the streets, the embattled citizens began singing “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

But in cities such as Leon, the fighting continues. “This is the same history we survived 40 years ago when Somoza’s National Guard murdered young dissidents,” said Tania Albaga, who lives in front of Masaya’s memorial to fallen Sandinista rebels. “There’s nothing new under the sun — history repeats itself.”