Hansell Vasquez liked to dream of owning a big company. He saw himself leading it and giving his family the comforts that they had once lacked. He made several start-up attempts.
First, he inaugurated a homemade hamburger business that failed within a short time. Later, he created a factory of artisan soaps, but it also failed to prosper. Just before being arrested and declared guilty of the supposed crime of terrorism, he created a small advertising and audiovisual production agency. He thought that the old saying “the third time’s the charm” would be a harbinger for him. However, fate has taken him down other roads.
In April, 2018, Hansell joined the civic protests that arose from the hugely unpopular reforms to Social Security that the Ortega regime had attempted to impose. He abandoned his business and went underground, convinced that Nicaragua needed a change.
His mother, Lilliam Ruiz, thinks about him every day. At times she finds herself thinking that it’s all a lie, that her son isn’t in prison, that he’s gone on a trip, camera in hand, to make some videos, and that he’ll soon be back to show her the images he managed to film. Later she comes back to reality and discovers how strong she’s become since last July 11 when she saw the news on social media that her son had been abducted by a group of paramilitary in Catarina, a town in the Carazo department.
She’s had to be strong, she says, in order to transmit that strength to him. Now, that she’s about to talk in depth about Hansell, 26, however, her eyes fill with tears and the knot that rises in her throat stops her from speaking. Hurriedly she gets up from her chair and making an effort says: “better you start with my husband”.
Luis Vasquez, Hansell’s father, responds immediately, as if he needed to explain the grief they’re bearing. “For us, it’s very complicated. The absence of our son is like being in mourning. There are moments when we fall into depression, because we’d want to have him here, we’d want to have access to seeing him regularly.”
On October 16, 2018, Hansell Vasquez, Rodrigo Espinoza and Marlon Fonseca were sentenced to fifteen years in jail for crimes of terrorism, plus two years for weapons trafficking and six months for obstructing public services. The Prosecution also tried to accuse them of frustrated aggravated murder in the case of the fire at the government-allied radio station Radio Ya. The three were accused of being the authors of that fire, but no link could be proven and that part of the case was dropped.
A stint at Channel 8
As in many cases, journalism came into Hansell Vasquez’ life because he had a vocation for it. He felt that need to find out about everything and to question it, his mother says. As a result, when he graduated from high school, he began majoring in that career at the privately-owned University of the Valley.
He had few complications during his years in the university. He felt ever more strongly that this was the ideal career for him and occupied part of his time doing socially useful volunteer work. When he was almost finished with his course of study, he was offered a student internship in the web department of Channel 8, one of the government’s television channels directed by one of Daniel Ortega’s sons. There’s where he began his working life.
Months after the internship had finished, he was offered a permanent job at Channel 8 and he remained there for three and a half years. Nonetheless, after a short time working in the field, he noticed how the information was hidden and manipulated at the government’s convenience. This caused internal conflicts for him, because he understood what his duty as a journalist was.
“He resigned because he felt burned out. There were things that he didn’t like. You had to hide information – like if someone was killed and a policeman did it, it shouldn’t be publicized. In fact, there was a case where he posted a news item, and since some government people were involved, they sent him a memorandum,” says his father, Luis Vasquez.
The indignation Hansell felt over the way the National Police were behaving wasn’t new. His parents recall his anger in 2015, the day that a police patrol car opened fire against a vehicle in which the Reyes Ramirez family were riding, in a community called Las Jaguitas. The death of two children at the hands of police – who had mistaken the vehicle for that of a drug dealer they were seeking – dominated the country’s media outlets.
“He never had any political affiliations. He kept up with everything that was happening. He was bothered by the injustices. When they killed those children in Las Jaguitas, he came home very angry. He was so indignant he couldn’t sleep that night,” his father continued.
He finished his journalism studies, but he lacked the money to pay for transmitting his diploma. Doing so had been one of his plans, prior to April.
A cook and a musician
Of his three siblings, he was closest to Jareth, the youngest. His parents say that Hansell saw him almost as a son. He would counsel him that he should study hard, and when saw some class or course offered that would be good for Jareth, Hansell would tell him: “Go for it, I’ll pay for you”. His advice was, “take all the classes you can, so you can become a professional,” his brother recalls.
They were so bonded that Jareth remembers one occasion when he told him, “I have an urge to eat Nachos”, and Hansell went off to watch YouTube videos to learn how to make some for him.
“He was a good cook. Last December (2017), he helped me make Christmas dinner. And I remember that he later said: “It’s beastly good, because I helped,” Liliam Ruiz states.
His love of the kitchen was the factor that motivated his parents to inaugurate a hamburger shop in their house. He was the one who took on the work of preparing them and of adding a special sauce that he copied from the internet. But the business didn’t get off the ground.
Music was another of his passions. He learned to play at the Protestant church where he attended, He formed a musical group there, and from time to time they’d play at events. Hansell can play the guitar, the bass, the drums and conga drums.
“He must have been about 12 years old when he learned to play. We had some guitars here at one time, but out of necessity, we sold them off. He’d tell us: “let’s sell these guitars. We’re not going to go hungry in order to have these things here,” recounts his father.
The civic struggle
From the inception of the student protests over the government’s negligence in combatting the forest fire in the Indio Maiz Forest Reserve, Hansell Vasquez felt that he couldn’t continue being silent. At that time, he went out to take video footage of the demonstrations that the students from the University of Central America were leading. And when the proposed reforms to the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute came shortly after, he continued documenting the protests on social media. At the end of that week of April 18, 2018, he joined the students who had barricaded themselves into the Polytechnic University.
“By April 21, he told me he was going to go defend his country. His mother told him: ‘Be careful, you’re very young.’ But he replied, ‘Yes, it’s because I’m young and not crippled that I have to defend my country. I have to go,’” recalls his father.
From then on, they saw him less and less often. He chose to go underground and only came home to get clean clothes. The one he communicated with every day was his mother. Finally, around 6 pm on July 11, 2018, three pick-up trucks full of paramilitary ambushed the vehicle in which he, Rodrigo Espinoza and Marlon Fonseca were traveling from Caterina to Managua after dropping off some aid.
As his mother was later told, the pick-ups surrounded the vehicle, and some men immediately jumped out. These men, who weren’t identified as police, stripped the clothes off the three youth and beat them. Then they loaded them into the pick-ups and continued striking them. Liliam and her husband were at a worship service when friends came to tell them that news of their son’s capture was circulating on social media. That same night, Hansell and the others were all transferred to the cells of the Office of Judicial Assistance, known as the El Chipote jail. And the odyssey began for his family.
“It was a very hard blow for us, because we didn’t expect it to happen. We knew that he was involved, but we never expected that they’d grab him. They took him in the month of his birthday. He spent his birthday in the La Modelo prison,” his brother Jareth Vasquez says sadly.
During his first days in the cells of La Modelo, Hansell was tortured, supposedly to force him to say who was financing them. They’d take him out in the early morning to be interrogated. Later, he told them that he wasn’t tortured, but his parents believe that he’s not telling them everything in order not to distress them.
“One day we came to visit and saw that he’d been beaten: one arm was black and blue. We asked him, and he told us that there’d been a fight among the prisoners and that they’d hit him. But we found out that the police took him out and beat him. He’s tried to avoid having us suffer,” states Vasquez.
On January 11, Hansell marked six months in prison for the crime of protesting. For him and his family, those six months in prison have been the hardest months of their lives. His mother can’t stop thinking about him every day. At times, when she wants to forget everything she goes to her room to watch television; but when she gets there, she’s already remembering all the times that Hansell would come into her room to watch television with her. “He wouldn’t let me watch anything, because he was always talking, so then I’d kick him out,” she says.
“I’m very proud of Hansell for the effort he’s making on behalf of the country. It’s sad what the police did to him, but I know that it’s part of the struggle and he knew it too,” says his brother, Jareth Vasquez.