Alex Vanegas couldn’t stop crying. He was watching the news in Nicaragua on April 20, as the broadcasts led with how a sniper killed 15-year-old Álvaro Conrado with a single shot to the throat during the start of student protests against the regime of President Daniel Ortega that continue today.
“I was inconsolable. How is it possible that they killed a boy who was taking water to the protesters?” Vanegas says on a rainy afternoon in Managua. “After that, I started to take part in the anti-government protests.”
Vanegas, a lean 63-year-old, has given rise to a new form of protest. He runs the streets and highways of Nicaragua with a slogan, “Corro para correr a Daniel,” which roughly translated means he is running to oust the president. The protests were sparked by a government reform to raise taxes and reduce benefits. Ortega backtracked when the disturbances continued, but by that point, several people had been killed and the movement continued, demanding justice for the dead. The government continued to repress them, prompting more deaths and more anger, a cycle that continues to this day — with a death toll around 400.
I started running to run off the diabetes, but now I’m running to run off Ortega.
Vanegas runs at least 18 miles each day, with a staggering 50 miles as his personal best. The retired marathon runner makes a living selling stainless steel pots and renting small apartments in a working-class neighborhood of Managua. Now, when the government puts down the protests — imprisoning leaders or chasing them into exile — Vanegas is often the only show of rebellion on the streets for days. He runs with posters plastered with photos of imprisoned students and T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Freedom for the political prisoners!”
The temperature topped 100 degrees on the streets of Managua in the afternoon of Oct. 2. The city was coated with police and government sympathizers who emerged to obstruct the protesters, according to human rights organizations. In the midst of a racket of car engines, a voice could be heard reciting the words of a famous Nicaraguan poet, the late Rubén Darío: “Si la patria es pequeña uno grande la sueña” — “If one’s homeland is small, you dream it big.” It’s Vanegas running in between the cars. Government loyalists boo him and the police laugh as he runs by.
“People support me. I feel that protesting in this way contributes to calling out this government and adds pressure for Ortega and his family to leave,” Vanegas says with conviction. Before the protests, he was only known in his neighborhood, but Vanegas has now been transformed into a national figure. Journalists squabble over interviews with him, and he gets constant calls from both home and abroad to talk about the injustices he sees. And that was the reason he started running the streets in the first place. Human rights organizations were reporting 36 people had been killed during the protests and mothers of the victims had gathered to protest, carrying photos of their dead children. Vanegas arrived in support, but he walked around and around in circles, not knowing what to do.
“I hadn’t run in two years because of a back problem, and I started walking and my body kept asking for more and more, and I couldn’t stop,” he says of the start of his endless run, reminiscent of the title character in the film Forrest Gump — but with a moral purpose.
Trained as a business administrator, Vanegas used to make a living as a DJ, presiding over parties. Some 40 years ago, he was given a piece of news that changed his life, when a doctor told him he had diabetes and had to improve his diet and exercise regimen. So he ran and ran and ran some more, becoming an amateur marathoner who competed abroad as well as at home. “I started running to run off the diabetes, but now I’m running to run off Ortega,” he says, laughing. His son Samuel Vanegas adds: “My father is hyperactive; he can’t stay still. He dances, sings, runs, walks.”
Elsa Valle is a 19-year-old student who was accused of terrorism by the government. When she got out of jail at the end of September, she realized that Vanegas had run hundreds of miles carrying her photo and wearing a T-shirt demanding her freedom. “We couldn’t watch the news in prison, and when I got out my family told me what he had done for me — he has been like an angel,” Valle says.
His protests against Ortega have had a personal cost for Vanegas. He has been imprisoned twice — once in Masaya, a city less than 20 miles from Managua that for more than two months staged a standoff against Ortega. He was running on the streets of Masaya one day when two police trucks full of officers drove into his path. Social media video shows Vanegas running and asking for help, but he was captured and interrogated.
“Why are you running on the streets?” asked one of the police officers. “Because the streets belong to the people,” he replied. “Go home!” screamed a policeman, before letting him go.
That same day he was arrested again when he arrived back in Managua. “I thought that they were going to kill me, but they took me to El Chipote,” a maximum-security jail, Vanegas says. Inside, he told the police that he would continue to run in protest, and the superior officer questioning him said: “Tie him to a rock and throw him in the lagoon,” Vanegas recalls, referring to a body of water just outside the jail.
Vanegas thought he was a dead man, but they let him go. And since then, he hasn’t stopped running.