Logo de Confidencial Digital

PUBLICIDAD 1M

PUBLICIDAD 4D

PUBLICIDAD 5D

Memories of horror in Daniel Ortega's prisons

Three former political prisoners recount brutalities at El Chipote: Bad conditions, ripped fingernails, solitary confinement and fanatical torturers

represión en las cárceles de Nicaragua

Ilustración: Confidencial

Octavio Enríquez

4 de julio 2023

AA
Share

Former political prisoner Carlos Bonilla López, 33, says that after five years, he cannot forget the name of the woman who tortured him: Luxana. He met her on July 23, 2018, when he was captured for the first time and taken to the impenetrable El Chipote police jail in Managua, near the Tiscapa Lagoon.

On that Sunday he was given electric shocks, he was hit in the stomach until he was knocked down, and Luxana heated up an iron. Luxana was one of the detectives of the Auxiliary Judicial Complex (DAJ), in charge of the notorious torture center of Daniel Ortega's dictatorship. 


Bonilla recalls that Luxana gave the orders for the rest of the police officers to beat him. When the iron was hot, she herself shouted at him, “If you don't talk, son of a bitch, I'll burn you,” and threatened to put the iron on his ribs. 

Luxana also instructed the other officers to spread Bonilla’s legs wide open. The pain intensified and Bonilla says he felt he had nothing left to lose: he was imprisoned and had lost his mother. His mother died of cancer on May 10 of that year, when he was standing at the barricades near the Polytechnic University in Managua, one of the epicenters of the massive demonstrations that shook the regime. The University was canceled and confiscated in 2022.

That day, pressured by his torturers, Bonilla asked to be killed. He heard a counter-order to send him to his cell and also to stop the beating, because “this son of a bitch wants to be a martyr.” Luxana's name has stuck in his mind not just because it’s not common. Bonilla affirms that she went to court to accuse him of the murder of a policeman in the context of the protests. He even has a photo of officer Luxana on the stand, dressed in civilian clothes.

According to file 011393-ORM4-2018-PN, the only officer with the name mentioned by the victim is Lieutenant Luxana del Socorro Dávila, who effectively appeared as a witness in a trial that ended with a 90-year sentence for the accused. 

Lieutenant Dávila spent these five years in the shadows, as her colleagues do, under the DAJ's low profile. On April 23, 2023, however, she was promoted to head of the Special Crimes Department in the same agency. Luxana earned a promotion in a series of appointments of female police officers that were publicized by Vice President Rosario Murillo as ensuring “female leadership” in the institution.

Bonilla was left with the memories of his experiences after he was deported and banished on February 9, 2023, as one of the 222 political prisoners who were declared “traitors of the homeland” and sent by the Nicaraguan executive branch to the United States.

Bonilla was imprisoned on two occasions. The first time he was behind bars from July 2018 to June 11, 2019, when he was released as a result of Ortega’s self-amnesty. He was recaptured on January 18, 2020, and kept imprisoned until that surprising February day in 2023, when he was forced into exile.

The murdered policeman, for whom the first trial was opened, was Hilton Manzanares, originally from Leon. The second time he was charged with illegal possession of weapons. When he was days away from being released for this last case, he claims that drugs were planted on him in the maximum security ward known as "La 300", located in Tipitapa on the west side of the Jorge Navarro penitentiary complex known as La Modelo. He was sentenced again for another ten years in a case for which he blames deputy warden Roberto Clemente Guevara Gómez, also accused by several prisoners of being a torturer.

Getting into the mind of someone who enjoys hurting others is complex. According to the book Anatomía de la Tortura (Anatomy of Torture), written by Miguel Ángel Pichardo, torture is a method of rational and instrumental application that pursues various objectives: not only to destroy the subject but also, through terror, to paralyze a society. 

In March 2023, a group of United Nations human rights experts (GHREN) denounced that "crimes against humanity" had been committed in the Central American country, comparing these crimes to those committed by the Nazis in World War II.

The report describes the mistreatment to which the prisoners of conscience were subjected. This includes unsanitary conditions, humidity, and lack of ventilation. These practices of the authorities and bad conditions were all aimed at "punishing and breaking people."

Sleep deprivation, causing anguish to family members by withholding information about their incarcerated loved ones, and the prohibition of reading and writing in El Chipote were arbitrary practices denounced by human rights organizations and by the independent press as violating the United Nations minimum standards for the treatment of prisoners known as the "Nelson Mandela rules."

At least two prisoners of conscience died in the custody of the authorities. Lawyer Eddy Montes was killed on May 16, 2019. He was shot with an AK rifle in the Modelo prison of the National Penitentiary System. Retired Brigadier General Hugo Torres Jiménez died as a political prisoner in February 2022 in the El Chipote prison. Years later, both cases remain in impunity.

CONFIDENCIAL spoke with three of Ortega's former prisoners to recall their days in Nicaraguan prisons. In their accounts, they mention experiences in El Chipote Viejo (near the Tiscapa Lagoon), the Evaristo Vásquez, or “Nuevo Chipote”, complex (in the Memorial Sandino neighborhood of Managua), and the La Modelo prison complex in Tipitapa where there is a maximum security ward, known as "la 300" or "the Hell Hole," where the bishop of Matagalpa, Monsignor Rolando Álvarez, remains incarcerated.

The accounts of the three former prisoners offer detailed descriptions of the terrible prison conditions as well as of the fanaticism of the torturers. "During my first time, I had constant anxiety, waiting daily for my freedom. I was clear about my innocence, despite the 90-year sentence they imposed for the case of the policeman," Bonilla recounts.

Ortega has said publicly that prison service is "service in adverse conditions." During the 41st anniversary of the Ministry of the Interior, which oversees the prison system, the President said that the doors of the penitentiaries are open for family members to visit their inmates. "When it is said that they are being tortured, that they are dying, that their lips are sewn shut, well, I would like to see them with their lips sewn shut. They invent so many things simply to create a negative image of Nicaragua," he complained. 

Kevin Solis: "Roberto Guevara pulled out my toenail"

The former prisoners’ accounts are at odds with Ortega’s statement. Four months after he was deported and banished, law student Kevin Solís, 23, says that he clung to God when he was “alone with his soul” in a cell in the maximum security cellblock "la 300." In that place, according to his words, the only one authorized to carry out torture and to order it is deputy warden and head of maximum security, Roberto Guevara.

Solis recalls a litany of abominations carried out against him and other prisoners by this high official of the Penitentiary System: Guevara beat him, pulled out his nails, fractured his ribs and spine, limited his food, prohibited him from contact with his family members for nine months, and during three years in prison Solís only received 60 minutes of sunlight, at a rate of twenty minutes for every 365 days. Guevara put the prisoners in shackles and sent them to a day of punishment that the officer called "reflection time."

The area where prisoners were beaten was called "the tunnel."  Solís was taken there at 2:00 am one night in 2021 after his lawyer publicly expressed concern about his health situation. Guevara was unhappy about "the stupid things" that he said Solis’ family members were saying.

SUBSCRIBE TO THE DISPATCH

Get the most prominent news about Nicaragua, every Wednesday, directly to your inbox.

"They grabbed me.  He [Guevara] came back with a tweezer and pliers. He pulled my toenail up, left me until dawn, and told me he wasn’t going to let me go until I ‘cried Uncle’. I spent the whole night crying. I wasn’t brave. But I didn't ‘cry Uncle’,” Solís recounts.

The aggressions continued. When Solís went on a hunger strike, Guevara found a hose and forced it into his mouth to feed him an oatmeal drink for at least three days to "deactivate" any possible effect of Solís’ protest on his health. Other guards also beat him on another occasion, after receiving Guevara's authorization. He was then hit in the ribs and head. Solís became so afraid that he says that whenever he heard the door of his cell open, he’d immediately climb onto the bunk bed.

Moisés Leiva: "It’s hard to breathe in El Chipote Viejo"

Moisés Alfredo Leiva, from Matagalpa, was sent to cell number 15 in the El Chipote Viejo facilities, where he became cellmates with a man from his hometown who he didn’t know, the lawyer Eddy Montes Praslin.

Those cells were small. Leiva remembers that they were about one meter wide. The two prisoners were kept without food until dawn, after being subjected to interrogations by the police every fifteen minutes. "The old Chipote is the worst. It’s hard to breathe, it’s very hot, like 35 to 40° C [95-105° F]. It’s suffocating, you can’t breathe, you don’t even get a sheet. A soda or water bottle serves as a pillow to sleep. You’re naked, with only boxer shorts on a cement platform. It is the most terrible prison I have ever been in in my life," Leiva says.

Leiva can also testify about La Modelo prison in Tipitapa. He was transferred there on November 25, 2018 and remained there until April 5, 2019. He was recaptured on September 28 of that same year and was imprisoned until the mass deportation and banishment of political prisoners to the United States.   

Leiva spent his last incarcerated months in Waswali prison, in Matagalpa, in northern Nicaragua. He has not forgotten the name of another torturer there: the director Donald Pérez Garay. On February 9, 2023, when the die was cast and the political prisoners were to be deported and banished, Pérez Garay did not want to tell Leiva about what has happening, instead mockingly warning him that he would be going to a better place: "la 300."

Those were big words. He already knew “la 300”, because he had been held there in isolation in December 2018. In that place he remembers other authorities who mistreated prisoners: Roberto Guevara, Marlon Luna, Vladimir Chávez Chávez, and Darling Iván Morales Duarte.

"This gentleman [Morales Duarte] told me many times that he wanted to kill me, that he wanted to shoot me 30 times, poison me, and that he would be doing the country a favor if that happened, because he was a Sandinista. He would often torture me like that, and sometimes I would go six or seven days without eating, because I didn't want to eat the food he was giving me. I lived on water and crackers," recounts Leiva, whose brother, José Alfredo, was killed in the protests.

Prison left him with several visible marks. "I have scars on my nose, three head wounds with seven stitches. They kicked me good. They buckled my nose, injured my knee. They tortured me in a dungeon," said Leiva.

The former prisoner from Matagalpa is calling for the release of his sister, Reina Isabel, who he says is also being detained for political reasons. He carries posters of her at demonstrations in the United States.

Gonzalo Carrión, coordinator of the Nicaragua Human Rights Collective “Never Again”, led a team that systematized 158 cases of torture. They ranked the perpetrators of abuses in both the National Police and the General National Penitentiary System Administration.

According to the complaints received by “Never Again”, the police chain of command in these cases is presided over by its chief, First Commissioner Francisco Diaz Madriz. The leadership is also made up of nine general commissioners, seven major commissioners, a deputy commissioner, six captains, two investigators, three lieutenants and 33 low-ranking officers. But the torture system includes other officials.

Ramón Jáuregui: "Torture is the tool of the tyrant"

Former European parliamentarian Ramón Jáuregui has a formed opinion about the El Chipote prison, which he visited in 2019. For him, the cells are "medieval".

"Torture is the tool of the tyrant. They detain, imprison, and torture, because they can only stay in power on the basis of repression. They could not govern if the citizens had freedoms. Torture is despicable, cruel, inhuman, internationally condemnable", said Jáuregui.

The former European parliamentarian says it’s necessary that the democratic opposition organize itself into a unitary platform and present itself to foreign ministries, raising its voice with all the democratic institutions of the world, so that the international community gets involved with the Nicaragua situation, based on, among other things, the terrible conditions of the prisoners.

The last day that Kevin Solís was in prison, he had no idea he was going to be sent by plane to the United States. Other former political prisoners thought they were going to be shot, while others, with black humor, thought they were going to be taken out of the country and sent to Russia, China or Cuba, allies of the regime.

The head of maximum security, Roberto Guevara, personally handed clothes to Bonilla, so that he could change into the blue scrubs characteristic of those accused of alleged terrorism. "They put zip ties on our hands and put us on the buses. The vehicles had curtains. We couldn't see, and there were two guards inside," he says.

Months later, Solís and Bonilla are both thinking about Nicaragua. Bonilla describes the persecution of the Catholic Church as regrettable. Solis says that there are no longer any constitutional rights in the country, that human rights ceased to exist long ago and freedom of expression is a crime that Ortega makes people pay with detention, torture and death.

"Thank God, I harbor no hatred. I am not saying that they will go unpunished. Whoever committed crimes is going to pay for it. Personally, though, I don't think it's worth harboring resentment. They [the prison officials] are going to open their eyes just like so many others who are realizing what is happening in Nicaragua," Solis says with conviction.

Leiva adds that he doesn’t believe that all the officials of the Ortega and Murillo regime are bad people. He maintains that in fact it was a "good" prison official who was the key witness in the case of Eddy Montes Praslin’s assassination. That official had to flee the country.

There is a short video, recorded by inmates on the day Montes Praslin was killed, that was shown on the television program Esta Semana. In the prison yard, some alarmed inmates are shown not knowing what is going on and then one of them exclaims, overcome: "They killed one of them!", denouncing the prison guards. This is how political prisoner Eddy Montes Praslin died, under a system dominated by mistreatment against those who think differently from the regime. 

This article was originally published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by our staff.

PUBLICIDAD 3M


Your contribution allows us to report from exile.

The dictatorship forced us to leave Nicaragua and intends to censor us. Your financial contribution guarantees our coverage on a free, open website, without paywalls.



Octavio Enríquez

Octavio Enríquez

Periodista nicaragüense, exiliado. Comenzó su carrera en el año 2000, cuando todavía era estudiante. Por sus destacadas investigaciones periodísticas ha ganado el Premio Ortega y Gasset, el Premio Internacional de Periodismo Rey de España, el Premio a la Excelencia de la Sociedad Interamericana de Prensa, y el Premio Latinoamericano de Periodismo de Investigación del Instituto Prensa y Sociedad (IPYS).

PUBLICIDAD 3D