On election day, Nicaraguan woman honors teen son killed in protests

·4-min read

Junior Gaitan was 15 when he was shot in the chest during demonstrations in 2018 against Nicaragua's long-term President Daniel Ortega.

Three years later, his mother Aura Lila Lopez is still struggling to cope with the loss. On Sunday, when Nicaraguans go to the polls in a presidential vote stacked in Ortega's favor, she will go to put flowers on her son's grave.

In the gloom of Lopez's modest dwelling in the city of Masaya, southern Nicaragua, photos of Junior adorn an entire wall.

On a small table, statuettes of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, a candle and a wreath of artificial blue and white flowers -- the colors of the Nicaraguan flag -- flank yet more framed pictures of the teenager.

The shrine keeps growing.

"I still cry, I still yearn for him," Lopez, 49, told AFP.

She wears a T-shirt on which is printed a photo of her son in his primary school graduation toga, as well as the phrase: "Junior Gaitan. El Pollito (the Little Chicken)," his nickname.

"I cannot get used to not having him here. It is very hard to lose a child, it is a thing I do not wish on anyone," she sobbed.

Gaitan was among at least 328 people known to have died in 2018, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, when Nicaragua's security forces clamped down violently on anti-government protests.

Ortega, now 75, had accused the protesters of "terrorism" and of seeking to oust him with help from the United States.

He is assured of a fourth consecutive term in elections Sunday, with all viable challengers detained or in exile.

- 'A gunshot to the chest' -

Gaitan was one of many young people who erected roadblocks during the protests in 2018 that all but paralyzed the country for four months.

He was carrying a backpack full of mortars when, according to his mother, he was shot by a policeman.

On that day, June 2, 2018, he woke up early to take up his post at a barricade, but his mother locked him in a room because the police and armed groups were patrolling the neighborhood of Monimbo in Masaya -- which was at the forefront of the anti-government campaign.

"He was desperate to leave, he started crying, and his father gave him permission to go see the barricade. He told him not to move from there," Lopez recounted.

But when he did not return after a few hours, she started to fret.

"If something happens to Junior, I'll die," she remembered thinking. "I prayed to God not to do this to me."

But soon the neighbors started bringing news. She went from roadblock to roadblock on the back of a neighbor's motorcycle to look for him.

"When I got to the church, there were many people. And there he was, his face covered, with a gunshot to the chest."

- No 'earthly justice' -

Near the front door of Lopez's house, a basket with bags of toasted bread stands on a wooden table. She sells the bread and cold drinks to make a living.

Her husband, Javier Gaitan, fixes bicycles from home. In his work shed, there is also a large photo of Junior.

The couple has three other sons, a daughter and three grandchildren.

Junior Gaitan liked football and dressing up for parties. He was a good student and wanted to be a graffiti artist, said his mother.

On the first anniversary of his death, other boys in the neighborhood dedicated a football match to him. Their victory trophy adorns the shrine his mother built.

"Until now, there has not been justice," Lopez told AFP.

"For Ortega, these deaths do not exist. There were no deaths, no killings and there are no political prisoners," she said.

Five months ago, she said, the security forces kept a menacing watch over a church mass to mark the third anniversary of Junior's death.

Ortega's regime has some 150 political opponents behind bars, including 39 opposition figures and seven presidential hopefuls arrested since June.

On November 2, the Day of the Dead, Lopez brought frosted flowers -- which she taught herself to make -- to her son's grave at a nearby cemetery.

Once a month, she serves lunch to the boys of the neighborhood in his memory.

And on Sunday, she said, she will protest in her own manner.

"We will not have earthly justice," she said as she lit a candle at her son's shrine.

"Divine justice is all I can hope for."


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