Rosario Murillo carries out great purge in Nicaragua’s judiciary, dismissing over 900 people

Judges, secretaries, janitors, chauffeurs and even President Daniel Ortega’s first-born son have all been summarily sent home by the ‘co-president’

Daniel Ortega y Rosario Murillo, la semana pasada en Managua, Nicaragua.
Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo, last June in Managua.JAIRO CAJINA (AFP)

Just a few days before she was evicted from her office and sent home, the president of Nicaragua’s Supreme Court of Justice, Judge Alba Luz Ramos, was enjoying the city’s patron saint festivities with her friends in Jinotega. The veteran official, who has always been loyal to President Daniel Ortega, could not imagine what was being plotted against her: her dismissal by order of the powerful “co-president,” Ortega’s wife Rosario Murillo. The second-in-command of the Sandinista regime has carried out an unprecedented purge in the country’s justice system, according to various sources consulted by EL PAÍS. The “sweep” has extended to 900 officials at all levels of responsibility, from judges to janitors and chauffeurs.

On October 24, retired general commissioner Horacio Rocha, a presidential advisor with the rank of minister on national security issues, expelled Ramos from her office and prevented her from collecting her belongings. The judge said she felt “outraged” and protested. But she couldn’t do anything about it, and was unable to appeal the decision. The “order from above” was to “shoot her down.” The purge had secretly begun 72 hours before her dismissal with the intervention of bank accounts and the computer system of the Supreme Court of Justice (CSJ), a key institution in the repressive machinery of the Ortega-Murillo regime, as it ratifies politically motivated rulings and fuels judicial persecution against every critical voice in Nicaragua.

The police intervention of the judiciary included the demotion of the administrative secretary Berman Martínez and the IT director Martín García. Martínez was part of Judge Ramos’ circle of trust. Sources agree that the “investigation” entrusted to Commissioner Rocha was motivated by alleged “acts of corruption” by Martínez.

“Alba Luz [Ramos] was very protective of Berman, who was general secretary of the Court. They were good friends because he went to the equestrian events, to all the parties with her. They became personal friends and that was Alba Luz’s mistake,” a source close to the top of the justice apparatus told EL PAÍS. “So what happened then? Rosario [Murillo] and Alba Luz have never had a good relationship. Rather, it has been a bad relationship since the 1980s and it turns out that the vice president has now taken advantage of this corruption case to finally get rid of Alba Luz, who has always been protected by Daniel Ortega.”

To understand what the judicial source is talking about, it is worth remembering that the Sandinista regime is two-headed: Murillo is in charge of the daily administration of power, but since 2018 she has taken over spaces that Ortega used to control, such as the National Police and other powers of the state. In fact, in recent years, the “co-president” Murillo has been appointing officials loyal to her in public institutions, to the same extent that she has displaced the “old guard” of the Sandinista Front, such as Commander Bayardo Arce and Colonel Lenín Cerna, to cite two of the most scandalous cases in which Murillo prevailed and made broad political headway within the Sandinista party and the government.

After 2018, when a violent and prolonged sociopolitical crisis broke out in Nicaragua, the president of the Supreme Court resigned from her position three times. However, Ortega rejected her resignation letters and urged her to continue in the position. Those were turbulent years between Judge Ramos and Vice President Murillo, to the point that the judge did not attend public events chaired by the presidential couple. This was a very notable absence, since all public officials, especially those who hold state powers, are required to attend.

“When you went to these events you could see Alba Luz’s uncomfortable look... I think that later things calmed down and we even saw a photo of her with Rosario [Murillo] last May. But the truth is that the relationship between the two has always been very bad…. In the meetings between the Presidency and the four branches of government that were held once a month, Alba Luz was one of the few, or maybe the only official, who did not remain silent. She contradicted some nonsense that Rosario wanted to carry out in the Court. Alba Luz has always had a strong character, and that has clashed with Rosario, who does not like to be contradicted,” says the source with ties to the CSJ.

An unprecedented purge

For some years now, various journalism investigations showed that Judge Ramos had filled the positions of the judiciary with family members and friends. All of them were swept away by Vice President Murillo. But the “purge” is bigger than that: there are more than 900 dismissals, not only at the headquarters of the CSJ, but in all judicial offices nationwide. That means almost 10% of the total staff of the judiciary. Among those who were sent home there are senior magistrates such as Yadira Centeno of the Civil Section. The purge also includes appeals magistrates, area directors, judges and secretaries in central and local courts, as well as administrative and service personnel.

“She has been gaining power, that is undoubtedly so. I think that Daniel Ortega is getting weary due to his age and his illness, and he has been delegating more and more power to Rosario. Seeing these allegations of corruption in the Court, he could not continue protecting Judge Ramos. Now it only remains to be seen if he is going to allow her to be put on trial or sent to prison, as has happened with other dismissed officials. But the most likely thing is that he won’t,” says another source linked to the Sandinista presidency.

Among those loyal to the “co-president” in the judiciary is Judge Marvin Ramiro Aguilar García. A memo sent on October 31 to CSJ workers confirmed for the first time the dismissal of Judge Ramos. The statement presented Aguilar García as the “acting president” of that branch of power. Despite being one of the stalwarts of the Sandinista regime and having assumed the position of national political secretary after the resignation of former magistrate Rafael Solís in 2019, Aguilar García had not made big waves in the pages of the regime’s media outlets. “His most notable stain was the designation (sanction) imposed against him by the United States Department of State on December 21, 2020 for ‘coordinating attacks against members of the pro-democracy opposition,’ says an article about the official published by the media outlet Divergentes.

Murillo's control through Aguilar

Juan Carlos Gutiérrez Soto, a political scientist and researcher, explains to EL PAÍS that, between November 2018 and January 2019, the political-institutional control of the judiciary was no longer in the hands of Judge Rafael Solís, the godfather at Ortega and Murillo’s wedding and trusted aide to the presidential couple. Solís defected after disagreeing with the repression that began in 2018.

“Although Solís had earned the trust of both Ortega and Murillo, his line of political communication was with Ortega. On the other hand, Judge Alba Luz Ramos had limited margins of power within the Court. However, hers was an important vote within the sessions of the judiciary and she had a wide network of officials who respected and were loyal to her,” says Gutiérrez Soto, a political scientist who was stripped of his nationality by the regime in February 2023. “The political functions of Judge Solís were assumed by Judge Marvin Aguilar, who got close to Murillo through Moncada Lau [right hand of the Presidency], who himself functions as a communicating vessel for the decisions of Ortega and Murillo in the CSJ.”

Ortega’s first-born son dismissed

Murillo’s purge continues, and has even extended to her husband’s first-born, Camilo Ortega Herrera, whom he had with former guerrilla fighter Leticia Herrera and who was working as head of a technical division of the CSJ. “There is terror among all of us who have not been fired. We are paralyzed,” a CSJ worker told EL PAÍS on condition of anonymity.

Murillo’s “sweep” has even implied constitutional changes: The National Assembly controlled by the ruling party removed the CSJ’s power to supervise the administrative functioning of the Public Registries of Real Estate and Commercial Property, appoint public registrars, as well as sanction them for disciplinary offenses, through a reform to article 165 of the Political Constitution of Nicaragua.

In addition, of the 16 magistrates that make up the judicial branch, there are 10 vacancies that will have to be filled in the coming months. The sources consulted by this newspaper have no doubt that it will be Murillo, with a certain degree of consensus with Ortega, who will grant these positions. Enrique Saénz, a former lawmaker who was stripped of his nationality and now lives in exile in Costa Rica, believes that this “purge” is a “symptom of the decomposition of the dictatorship.”

“It is the first time throughout these 16 years of government that something similar has happened. Eliminations and dismissals have been seen, but more focused: one here, another one there. Various academic and political studies on the processes of social change have documented that one of the evidences of the decomposition of a dictatorial regime is the emergence of cracks in the power bloc. And in this episode we are faced with a crack. Now we have to wait for it to be reproduced in other institutions, which does not mean that they will fall tomorrow.”

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