On Thursday, after nearly two months of violence and upheaval, some residents who ventured into Nicaragua's city streets Thursday discovered something that had become something of a rarity: quiet.
A 24-hour nationwide strike left thoroughfares deserted and storefronts empty — and though even the massive walkout couldn't prevent several deadly clashes, the day at least tempered some of the violence between security forces and the demonstrators protesting President Daniel Ortega.
Then, it ended.
Friday brought fresh clashes between riot police and protesters, adding more sorrow to a ledger that has been mounting since mid-April, when Ortega's government introduced — then quickly retracted --a group of widely unpopular pension reforms. Despite their hasty reversal, the attempted reforms prompted a largely student-led protest movement that is calling for expedited elections, in hopes of ousting the longtime president.
What began as a series of peaceful protests was met with a brutal state response, and soon deteriorated into outright bloodshed.
Local human rights groups say the number of people killed in the unrest since April 18 could range as high as at least 165. That toll includes a 15-year-old altar boy shot dead Thursday in the city of Leon by pro-Ortega paramilitary fighters, according to local journalists.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights called for the dismantling of such armed paramilitary gangs, sometimes called "Sandinista mobs," which have been attacking protesters with the tacit approval of government forces.
"The Nicaraguan State must take urgent measures to immediately end arbitrary attacks on the lives and personal integrity of all Nicaraguans, with no distinctions whatsoever, including their political views," Antonia Urrejola, the commission's rapporteur for Nicaragua, said in a statement Thursday.
"The State has an obligation to seek a peaceful solution for the country's situation," he added, " and to investigate and punish the people responsible for all acts of violence."
For those seeking such a peaceful resolution, Friday brought a small measure of hope.
Powerful Catholic clergy gathered Friday for mediation talks — resuming them after the conference of Catholic bishops called the dialogue off late last month in response to a particularly bloody crackdown on a massive march. Late Friday night, the group called for the government to consider acceding to the protesters' demand for an early general election, Reuters reported.
Still, progress was halting. Government officials demanded that protesters tear down their barricades, while opposition groups expressed reservations at making any concessions while the violence was ongoing.
"Every bullet that kills a young person on the street also strikes this discussion," said one activist, according to AFP, "and ends the dialogue."