After ‘Operation Clean-up’ my Nicaraguan suburb mourns

St Pedro Church, Sutiaba, June 2018 surrounded by barricades. Credit Steve Lewis

St.Pedro Church, in June, surrounded by barricades.

Father Victor Morales was woken at 5 a.m. by the young men on the barricade outside his church. “They’re coming Father, they’re here”. What the community had been afraid of was happening now. When Fr. Morales cautiously looked into the street he saw scores of armed, hooded men flooding into the suburb.

On that day, 5th July, the Nicaraguan police, with masked and armed para-military support, attacked the suburb of Sutiaba in Leon, the ‘barrio‘ where I’ve been living for the last year.

‘Operation Clean-Up’, as the government called it, resulted in three dead among the parishioners of Fr. Morales’ San Pedro church. Since then the community has been living in fear – and nationally the pressure on the Catholic church has also increased.

Roadblock in Leon, built from paving stones, 10 June 18, credit Steve Lewis

Roadblock in Leon, early July, before the paramilitaries came. The lad is armed with a catapalt.


Now, a few weeks after the three deaths, local people are still cautious to tell their story. “I was frightened that day, yes of course, but not surprised”, said Fr. Morales. “Other priests and I had tried to negotiate with the authorities in the preceding days. But they didn’t listen.”

In June local people had put up barricades all over Leon, built from paving stones, as a protest against the FSLN government for the violence they have used since demonstrations begun suddenly in April. The barricades were also a self-defense mechanism, to prevent paramilitaries driving into the suburbs in pick-ups and shooting. But after a month of stalemate the state was forcibly going town by town and taking the barricades down.

“It was very violent that day” said F. Morales. “They had riot-police and paramilitaries in at least 20 pick-ups, and bulldozers. I couldn’t leave the house for a couple of hours, I felt impotent, furious and sad. But later I could walk to the health post and I learnt about the deaths.

Father Victor Morales, parish priest of San Pedro, Leon. 2 Aug 18, Credit Steve Lewis

Father Victor Morales, outside his church

“Sadly, the youngsters didn’t realize that they couldn’t win”, said Fr. Morales.” You can’t hold off heavily armed men with fireworks and catapults”.

Four blocks South of San Pedro church the remains of the barricades litter the streets, and two sad crosses mark the spot when Junior Rojas and his friend Alex Machado were killed. Down a dusty alley-way, and past a large rabbit-hutch, the family of Junior sit outside their two-room house, still seemingly in a state of shock.

“They killed my boy with a single-shot to the head”, said his mother, Aura Rojas. “He was behind the barricade, but the police had flooded the suburb. They were to the North and West – they shot him from a block away.”

Junior, 21, was a builder’s assistant, and studied at night school, in first grade of high school. “He was my support, he looked after us”, said his mother, “I have glaucoma and can’t work, so he supported me and his nine-year old neice. The government have said all sorts of lies about the men on the barricades, that they were delinquents, they sold marijuana, but its not true. Junior was a good lad, he attended mass, he studied, and played football at weekends.”

“They took his corpse and dumped it in the morgue” said Junior’s sister, Cruz Hernandez. “We went to get his body later that day. They would barely speak to us. There was no autopsy, no investigation, they gave us no paperwork. Only one doctor dared look at him that day. They warned us – go home to your family now, or something worse might happen there.”


The family of Junior Rojas, shocked, outside their house.

Junior was killed just yards from a close friend of his, Alex Machado Vazquez (24). Three blocks to the West another young man was killed under the shade of a large Tamarindo tree. Danny Ezekiel Lopez (21) was apparently shot while on a bicycle, passing a barricade. “They shot him 8 times”, said a local barber on the corner, who didn’t want to be named, “they wanted to send a message. And that worked – after that most of the other neighbors around here took down their own barricades.

The governments ‘operation clean-up’ moved on from Leon to other towns during July, with a steady succession of unarmed young men killed by hooded paramilitaries with high-caliber weapons. Since the protests began in April at least 317 people have been killed according to the International Human Rights Commission (IHRC). Thousands of others have been injured, or imprisoned. “Around 90% of those killed have been anti-government protestors” according to the IHRC. In June and July most of these have been killed by para-militaries, who President Ortega has described as ‘voluntary police’.

Aura Marina Rojas, mother of murdered student Junior, shows his photo. Leon, 2 Aug18. Cred Steve Lewis

Aura Rojas, with a photo of son Junior. July 2018

As in Sutiaba, local priests have been called on to mediate in many of the besieged barricades. In the small town of Diriamba on 9 July, Bishop Silvio Baez and other senior clergy were attacked and lightly injured by a mob of FSLN supporters, as they tried to mediate the release of local people. In Managua on 13th July Father Raul Zamora had to take care of dozens of students who took refuge in the Church of Divine Mercy after being attacked at the UNAN University.

Nationally the Catholic Church is trying to keep alive the dialogue between government and opposition, in spite of accusations from President Ortega that the church is part of the opposition. Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes has said in weekly mass that the Church “is persecuted” but won’t give up their mediation role. Visiting Leon for the first time on 2nd August, the Papal representative in Nicaragua, Waldemar Sommertag, emphasized that “the National Dialogue is the only route to peace”.  But at the time of writing, president Ortega shows no sign of returning to the dialogue. He doesn’t need to, he is buying his own  version of peace in a different way – through the barrel of a gun, fired by a man in a mask.


Laying flowers at the makeshift cross that marks where Junior was killed.

All photos Steve Lewis

More Nicaragua photos, follow instagram @owstonlewis

Content originally published by Catholic News Service, reproduced here with permission


Photo Gallery – Doors of Leon

Leon is an old colonial town, slightly crumbling around the edges but that’s one of  the reasons we like it. One of the delights is walking around the side-streets. On every block there are beautiful doorways to be seen:

Watching the world go by…

Pastel colours.

 Window shadows

 The biggest door in town

 Rocking chair

 Crumbling facade

 Dawn, and working

 Red hues

 Preparing for Easter

 Ready for action

 Jazz practice

 Rainy season

 Cycling to work

 Time for a chat

 My favourite…? Almost like an oil painting

Which is your favourite? And what can you learn about Leon from looking at these photos? Please write your views on the ‘Comments’ box below.

If you like these pictures please follow owstonlewis on instagram


A good news story: Improved health in El Salvador

img_3049Let’s start 2017 with some good news. I will introduce you to my friend Graciela. Graciela’s story shows us that life is getting better in most developing countries, that foreign aid works, and that most people in most poor countries are healthier now than they used to be. They are taking control of their lives.

From 1991 to 1994 I lived in a village in rural El Salvador with my wife Kath. Avelares was one of the villages we visited often, trying to support a primary health service in a very poor area. It’s a small community high in the hills, and in 1991 was in territory controlled by FMLN guerrillas. Local people were trying to provide a very rudimentary health and education system with young volunteers from each community. In Avelares back then, Graciela was the volunteer providing primary health services. She had just a few weeks of training and some medicines and bandages provided by the Catholic diocese and an excellent NGO named Concern America.

In November 2016 Kath and I visited the villages again and were thrilled to meet Graciela, who remarkably is still the provider of health care in Avelares and three surrounding villages. Twenty five years on she is looking a little older now – but then again so are we! She still lives in the same house and works in the same one room clinic made from mud bricks. But what has changed significantly are the health statistics. Graciela told us with great pride that no child has died in her community in the last eleven years. We were astonished.


Graciela in her health post

In the 1990’s in El Salvador the Under Five Infant Mortality Rate was 60 deaths per 1000 live births. Today it has fallen to 16. But in rural areas deaths of children were much more common. Kath and I probably saw one child death every couple of months, when we were living and working there. There was little antenatal care, very poor nutrition, and no access to hospital, due to the war and the very poor road to the lowland areas. All babies were born at home, with no electricity, with only a local midwife to help. At a rough estimate I’d say one child in ten died before the age of five in the area around Avelares. And maternal mortality rates in the 1990’s were also very high.


Our neighbour Adan in 1993, holds his deceased newborn twins before their funeral. They were born a month premature. Reina,the mother, gave birth at home with no professional health attendance.

Last month Graciela explained to us with pride the improvements made now by the ministry of health. ‘All children are born in hospital now’ she explained. ‘It is my job to deliver antenatal advice, and take weight and health measurements. But two weeks before the birth date the mother-to-be is taken down to the town in the lowlands, to wait in the ‘Casa Materna’, the maternity home. I learnt to my amazement that in the last dozen years only one child had been born in the village. ‘That time I couldn’t get transport in time’ she explained.

Having once been supported by the Church and NGOs, Graciela is now employed by the Ministry of Health under their Primary Health Care system. This has been a very positive move by the state, to retain the rural experience of the community health workers (CHWs). In some provinces ex-CHWs make up the majority of the paid primary health workforce. One of Graciela’s old colleagues, Dagoberto Menjivar is now a senior doctor and administrator. Yet he started as a CHW with fifteen days training on the ‘Curso basico’. A real success story.


The room on the left-hand side is the Avelares health post. On the right-hand side is a community centre

Graciela told us that the Ministry is very demanding. She has to visit every house in her communities on a regular timetable and carry out a series of controls and vaccinations in every house. ‘Once the mother has returned to the village after giving birth, I have to visit the house every day for the first week, then once a week for a month, then once a fortnight etc. If a child were to die in my area, I would be taken before a tribunal and can be held responsible. If a child dies of a preventable early-years illness I could go to jail…”


All babies now are born in hospital. Graciela arranges an ambulance for them two weeks ahead of their due-date.

It is not only infant and maternal deaths that have diminished rapidly in the last 25 years. In El Salvador and nearly all Latin American countries there has been steady progress in life expectancy and other health statistics. With more certainty over the health of their children, families have been taking more control over their fertility. When we lived in the region most parents had 6, 8 or even more children. We knew one neighbour who told us sadly that she had given birth to 18 children “but only five are alive today”. In 1990 nationally only half of women used family planning and in our rural area the percentage was miniscule. Today in El Salvador nearly 75% of women of a relevant age are using contraception. Graciela explains the benefits of up to six methods and can administer most of them herself.

In 1990, in our zone, I estimate local women had on average six births. Nationally in El Salvador women had an average of 3.8 births. Today the figure has fallen to just under two. This bodes well for future health of the family. Child and maternal health services under the state system are free – which encourages take-up, especially from rural areas. Donor countries in the 1990’s and 2000’s which supported El Salvador can feel proud of this progress.


Graciela outside her health post. She provides all routine vaccinations as well as family planning and all preventative child and maternal health services.

There are still many problems in El Salvador, such as ongoing violence from youth gangs, and these problems get covered in the global media. But the country is a democracy (and the current president is a former guerrilla leader from the FMLN). Countries like the UK, and donors such as the EU and the World Bank supported Salvador to recover from the civil war and build capacity in the health service. Now El Salvador has a working and effective primary health care service, staffed by local people like Graciela and Dagoberto, who know their communities. To me that is a pleasure to hear. Behind the headlines, the health of poor people in Latin America is steadily getting better.


The hills above Avelares. Graciela walks from village to village up these slopes. Throughout Latin America Community Health Workers provide the health service in remote rural areas.

Gallery: Easter in Leon / Semana Santa en Leon

San Benardino day, in San Francisco church

Monday before Easter


Easter, dusk edit

A week before Easter

Easter choir boys

Youth assembly


Making the sawdust carpets


Sawdust Jesus


A Living Tableau


Sawdust carpets attract lots of visitors

Youth in the Church

Youth still very active in the Church, unlike in the UK


Night processions


Procession for San Bernadino

Monday of Easter week

On the route of the procession


Street shrine

Street shrine with band

Tableua, ancient & modern

Tableau, Ancient & Modern

Black candles for San Bernadino

Black candles for the black saint San Bernadino

Follow Steve on Instagram: @owstonlewis for more photos of Nicaragua

El Significado Que Nos Dejo Monseñor Romero

Blog por José Fidel Campos Sorto

“Yo conoci por primera vez a Mons. Romero en 1975. Yo tenía 16 años, él llegó en visita pastoral a mi pueblo Sesori en donde mi papá era el sacristán. Me dio la impresión de un Obispo piadoso; luego constaté su actitud solidaria en visitas que mi padre le hizo a Santiago de María. En 1979, en San Salvador volví a constatar esa cualidad incrementada de su persona hacia los necesitados.

Romero mural1La conversión de Mons. Romero fue un proceso gradual que para él significó ser abierto a conocer la realidad, y su sensibilidad al sufrimiento de la gente. En 1977 fue nombrado Arzobispo y tomó posesión ante la algarabía de los ricos y la desilusión de los pobres. Pero los cuerpos de seguridad del gobierno generalizaron la represión al grado que solamente poco después le asesinaron a su mejor amigo, el padre Rutilio Grande. De ahí en adelante, se fue produciendo un giro en monseñor Romero; pues ya no se trataba solo del padre Rutilio; sino de catequistas, sacerdotes, obreros, campesinos que aparecían descuartizados por los cuerpos represivos.

Los Escuadrones de la Muerte, amparados en el Ejército del gobierno, sacaban de sus casas a las víctimas en presencia de sus familiares u otros testigos que luego daban testimonio al Socorro Jurídico, institución creada por el Arzobispo para velar por los derechos humanos.

Para los diferentes sectores populares, víctimas de la despiadada represión, monseñor Romero llego a ser la única Voz de los que no la tenían. Cada misa dominical era escuchada con devoción, porque además de ser una catequesis de formación cristiana, él denunciaba los hechos represivos de ambos bandos, y especialmente de la Fuerza Armada. Para nuestro pueblo, monseñor fue un dignificador de la persona humana. Para las mayorías populares, monseñor fue el único referente calificado que daba esperanzas al pueblo desde la palabra de Dios.

Romero in villageVimos monseñor com la persona que privilegió el diálogo como salida a la crisis del país. Para nuestro pueblo, Mons. Romero fue un modelo de hombre verdaderamente libre para decir la verdad oportunamente, sin odio y con respeto. Cuanto necesitamos eso en nuestros días!. Monseñor Romero trascendió nuestras leyes jurídicas cuando afirmó que éstas deben estar al servicio de las personas y no al revés. De ahí que, ante la brutal represión desatada por las Fuerzas Armadas en contra del pueblo, Monseñor Romero les dijo:

“Yo quisiera hacer un llamamiento muy especial a los hombres del ejército…. Hermanos, son de nuestro mismo pueblo, matan a sus mismos hermanos campesinos. Ante una orden de matar que dé un hombre, debe prevalecer la ley de Dios que dice: no matar. Ningún soldado está obligado a obedecer una orden contra la Ley de Dios. Ya es tiempo de que recuperen su conciencia y obedezcan antes a su conciencia que a la orden del pecado. La Iglesia, defensora de la Ley de Dios y de la dignidad humana, no puede quedarse callada ante tanta abominación”.

romeroshotEstas fueron las palabras de monseñor Romero que tocaron las fibras de la fuerza Armada y de sus Escuadrones de la Muerte, quienes le asesinaron al siguiente día lunes, 24 de marzo de 1980.

Este hecho significó para nosotros como pueblo, una inmensa pérdida de nuestro defensor y guía espiritual. De ahí en adelante monseñor Romero ha sido considerado y venerado como un Santo. Luego de su asesinato, nos sobrevino un estado de indefensión generalizado que nos obligó a muchos a salir del país, otros nos incorporamos a la guerra, y otros a sobrevivir en medio de la misma guerra.

A 36 años de aquel magnicidio, constato que el mensaje del profeta  Oscar Romero trascendió a su espacio y a su tiempo. Hoy es un salvadoreño universal, que con su mensaje siempre nuevo sigue iluminándonos los problemas sociales que nos aquejan en El Salvador – y yo digo que en todo el mundo. Por ejemplo cuando él mismo lo dijo: “Yo denuncio, sobre todo, la absolutización de la riqueza. Este es el gran mal de El Salvador: la riqueza, la propiedad privada como un absoluto intocable y ¡hay del que toque ese alambre de alta tensión, se quema!”(1979).

Cafod posterLas palabras de Romero tienen mucha relevancia hoy. Por ejemplo, sobre el tema de migración, tan presente hoy en nuestro tiempo, Romero dijo: “Es triste tener que dejar la patria porque en la patria no hay un orden justo donde puedan encontrar trabajo”(1978).

El mensaje de Monseñor Romero me interpela, tiene aplicación actual, por eso creo que el pueblo no lo ha olvidado, y sigue estudiando sus homilías para renovar fuerzas y seguir luchando por la justicia social de nuestros pueblos.


Para finalizar, me uno al llamado que monseñor hizo en su momento (1977): “No teman los conservadores, sobre todo aquellos que no quisieran que se hablara de la cuestión social, de los temas espinosos, que hoy necesita el mundo. No teman que los que hablamos de estas cosas nos hayamos hecho comunistas o subversivos. No somos más que cristianos, sacándole al Evangelio las consecuencias que hoy, en esta hora, necesita la humanidad, nuestro pueblo”.











Por José Fidel Campos Sorto

Este link es una canción de Mejía Godoy sobre Monseñor Romero: