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John Cerna: “They hit us while our hands and feet were tied”

The university student spent 1075 days imprisoned by the dictatorship, most of that time in a maximum-security cell in La Modelo prison.

John Cerna was a political prisoner of the regime for more than 1000 days. For 800 of these days, he was held in a maximum-security cell in La Modelo prison. Photo: Confidencial

Redacción Confidencial

21 de marzo 2023


The young university student, John Cerna, known by the pseudonym “El Tigrillo”, was held for more than 800 days confined in a maximum-security cell in La Modelo prison, after being abducted by the Ortega dictatorship’s police on February 28, 2020.

“They didn’t interrogate us, but they took us out for beatings,” the young released political prisoner told Esta Noche and Confidencial in an interview.

Cerna, expelled from his university studies and sentenced to twelve years in prison for the alleged crime of “illegal drug-trafficking,” related the conditions of torture of political prisoners in the prisons of the dictatorship.

“We did not have access to medicines, or to personal hygiene products,” denounced the young man exiled to the United States last February 9, together with 221 other political prisoners.

He emphasized the importance of including young people in the opposition political spaces, in order to achieve a real change in the country. “They must give us young people the space we deserve,” he said.

On March 9, Cerna published a letter of gratitude to those who demanded his freedom during the nearly three years he was detained.

You remained for 1075 days as a political prisoner of the dictatorship after being captured on February 28, 2020, by the police in Managua. Did you expect this arrest?

Yes. I was expecting it as a result of having participated in the protests since 2018. In my case, I lived through the attack on the Divine Mercy Church on July 13 of that same year. On August 25, 2018, they issued a warrant against me. The immediate result was my expulsion from the university, but what did not expire was the accusation against me by the police.

Did you suspect that you were under surveillance by the regime since before your arrest?

Of course, I did. I had just enrolled to study again at the Universidad Centroamericana and the Police used young people to investigate and follow us. So, a few days before, Kevin Solis was captured due to an incident inside the university. Therefore, our arrest was imminent, and finally it happened on February 28 by means of an “intelligence operation,” according to them. Their order was “alive, dead or as you find him.”

Did they tell you why they were arresting you? Did they tell you of what they were accusing you of?

At no time. On February 28 they took me to forensic medicine office and placed a paper in which it said that “I banged myself and slipped during the arrest.” I had three fractured ribs (as a result of the force used to arrest him). The next day they took me to the court and charged me with drug trafficking.

What evidence was presented against you during the mock trial?

On the same day they arrested me, they took my backpack, in which I had my computer and work documents. They took everything out of it. While I was in El Chipote they pulled out from inside the same backpack the packages with gray tape with a weight of at least three pounds of marihuana and a bag with 100 grams of cocaine. It was the same during the mock trial. They brought some forms stating supposedly that I had been detained in District I and III, but that was never the case. When they arrived to testify, there were discrepancies, even with the person in charge of doing the toxicology tests. Basically, it was to accuse me of something by which they could hold me without any pretext. That process ended with a ridiculous sentence.

After 200 days imprisoned in La Modelo, you were transferred to a maximum-security cell where you remained until the day of your release. How were those 875 days in the “infiernillo” (little hell)?

During the days I was in La Modelo I suffered parotiditis, which is “mumps” or inflammation of the parotid glands in the neck. I had no access to medicines, nor to have a medical examination. My mother and girlfriend delivered a bunch of medicines for me, but they never gave them to me. In March of that year the first case of Covid-19 was declared in Nicaragua. So, it was being imprisoned during the pandemic, in harmful overcrowding conditions, and I had a history of lung damage.

In June of that year, I contacted Carlos Dada of El Faro newspaper and I proposed to him to write a letter in which I would present the situation of the political prisoners, and that was the main reason why I was sent to maximum-security. The first day in maximum-security I was shackled, hanged by the ankles and wrists, I lost mobility in my right leg due to lack of blood circulation. We had to store water, because it did not arrive. The famous “chupeta” (food) were full of stones. I was losing bone in my gums. Although they did not take me out for interrogations, they did interrogate me with the other prisoners, and then they took us out for beatings, with our hands and feet tied to a bench.

You were a fifth-year civil engineering student at the Universidad Nacional de Ingenieria (Engineering National University) in 2018 when the student protests erupted. For joining the demonstrations, you were expelled, as were other young people. Where are now the young university students who lit the flame of the national protest?

We have never left. We are still among you, but it is not limited to me, but to each one of the young people who are still in exile. Even those who lost their lives, they are in the heart of our country. However, they are with the spirit of recovering the reason for which we started. Their role to have a better country is to prepare themselves. No matter how far away we are, they will never take away that sense of belonging, that sense of love, because the blue and white stripes have permeated our hearts. And that allows us to recall every day the work that we must do so that one day we can have the Nicaragua we continue to dream of.

In June 2020, a letter you wrote from prison was published in Confidencial entitled: “From one of Daniel Ortega’s prison,” in which you denounce that political prisoner “are not the bargaining chip for the forgiveness of crimes against humanity.” What are your demands as a student, young person and released political prisoner of the regime?

As a student my demand is for a real university autonomy. The 6% law is now just an excuse for them to obtain resources since 1998. One of my demands as a young person is that they give us the place we deserve, because we really need that space. That they stop trying to use us just to be an image, something nice on the media screen, but that they really give us that opportunity, which we have earned, to be participants in each one of those spaces.

How do you assess the future of the opposition and the pro-democracy movement in Nicaragua?

The future of Nicaragua is still in our hands, not in the hands of Ortega and Murillo, because they are still afraid, even of one man. His name is Rolando Alvarez, who in November 2021 said: “Christ lifted us up, he liberated us. Likewise, they can take away our physical freedom, but never the spiritual freedom.”

Do you think it is possible to achieve unity among the different people of the opposition to carry out a strategy to confront the dictatorship?

Yes, I think it is possible, even if the probability is minimal, but it necessary to put aside the interests that have existed before and still exist. Thus, the unification of all sectors and that we become participants of this process is necessary.

What are your plans for the future?

Tomorrow will be a better day, and for me that day was February 8, when at night they took me out of that maximum-security cell, and a new path began for me. One in which a beam of light came through the door and is giving me an opportunity to continue preparing myself, to support my loved ones, to work for my family, for my friends, for our country. I am sure that we will return home, no matter how far away we are.

This article was originally published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by Havana Times.  


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Redacción Confidencial

Redacción Confidencial

Confidencial es un diario digital nicaragüense, de formato multimedia, fundado por Carlos F. Chamorro en junio de 1996. Inició como un semanario impreso y hoy es un medio de referencia regional con información, análisis, entrevistas, perfiles, reportajes e investigaciones sobre Nicaragua, informando desde el exilio por la persecución política de la dictadura de Daniel Ortega y Rosario Murillo.