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Murder in New Nicaragua Stirs Fear of Old Ways

December 31, 1990|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Jean Paul Genie had no future in the old Nicaragua. Some of his friends had gone to battle and come home crippled. Others had fled to avoid conscription. His parents, fearful for their only child as he neared draft age, made plans to abandon the country.

Then last February, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro was elected president, ending a decade of Sandinista rule. She abolished military conscription and settled the Contra war. Exiles came back. One of them, Carla Lacayo, became Genie's first sweetheart. The youth, known to his classmates as "little big man," turned 16 on Oct. 2 and seemed to flourish.

By Oct. 28, Genie was dead. His car was riddled by gunfire, apparently unleashed in panic by the nervous bodyguards of a senior official as he sped past their caravan on a darkened Managua highway. The gunmen left him slumped and bleeding at the wheel.

To many here, the tragedy betrays Chamorro's promise of a new Nicaragua and echoes an insecure past under arrogant rulers beyond the reach of the law.

More than two months after the shooting, the senior official has not come forward and no suspect has been detained. The victim's parents, pressing their own inquiry, have received death threats. And a police detective looking into the crime has been killed.

The Genie case is sensitive because of circumstantial evidence pointing to Humberto Ortega, the Sandinista general who remains chief of the armed forces. Gen. Ortega has privately told the youth's father, a wealthy pharmaceutical distributor with friends on both sides of the political divide, that neither he nor his bodyguards were involved. But the general is widely suspected of a cover-up, even by some Sandinistas.

Still, a government-supervised investigation by the police and army, both run by Sandinista officers, is continuing. It has become a closely watched test of how justice works under this Central American country's first freely elected government.

Nicaraguans recall a similar case seven years ago when a bodyguard of the late Sandinista \o7 comandante \f7 Carlos Nunez fatally shot a motorist trying to overtake his caravan. Nunez apologized and the guard stayed on duty.

Memories of such killings also go back to the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza, which was toppled by Sandinista guerrillas in 1979.

"The historic problem here is that criminal acts by military men go unpunished. The ordinary citizen is defenseless against them," said Emilio Alvarez, a Conservative politician whose son died 12 years ago in a shooting spree by Somoza's National Guardsmen. A military tribunal absolved the killers.

"I hope this case will be different," Alvarez said. "If not, the government's image will be damaged."

Disturbed by rising crime and postwar political violence, Chamorro has appealed on television for witnesses to Genie's death to speak up. The president, whose husband's assassination in 1978 set off a popular uprising against Somoza but was never fully solved as a crime, has told the youth's parents that she feels powerless to do more. Nicaraguan news media, unfettered after years of censorship, have reported every angle of the case.

Genie was killed while driving home on the Managua-Masaya highway after visiting his girlfriend. No one has admitted seeing the shooting that Sunday night. But three motorists and two night watchmen have said they saw a caravan of armed men in at least three Renegade Jeeps moving on the two-lane highway in the vicinity of the shooting at about the time it happened.

Walter Salmeron, a classmate of the victim, testified that he raced past Genie's Mitsubishi Lancer, overtook the caravan and later heard gunfire. A widely accepted scenario is that Genie, notorious for his hot-rodding, was trying to catch Salmeron. The guards must have become so nervous when the first car sped past that they opened fire on the second, according to this theory.

Police said Genie's car was hit 19 times in the front, back and right side by AK-47 assault rifle bullets, three of them fired after it had spun off the road and stopped.

Chamorro, several of her ministers and all seven \o7 comandantes \f7 of the Sandinista leadership use armed escorts. Only those of Daniel and Humberto Ortega are known to drive Renegades. "They were the Ortega brothers' status symbol," said an official of the Sandinista government that Daniel Ortega headed as president.

Suspicion has focused on Humberto Ortega because his residence is on the Managua-Masaya highway, in the direction that the caravan was headed the night of the shooting. Three of Gen. Ortega's guards have testified that the entire squad was at the residence all that evening. But one witness said he saw Gen. Ortega riding in the caravan minutes before the shooting.

"People more or less accept that (the killing) was an accident or an over-reaction," said the former Sandinista official. "What they do not accept is this silence. It is difficult and painful for us to believe, but too much evidence leads to Humberto."

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