Questions about cell phone use, periodic checks on their participation in governing party activities, a ban on travel outside the country, and even orders forbidding them to attend Mass —the latter issued by the unions— are some of the measures used to control the everyday lives of the 8,116 employees who work nationwide in Nicaragua’s Judicial system. The inner circle of the government party has been exercising such restrictions for months.
In a country full of paradoxes, the situation of the workers who staff the courts is one of them. Persecuted themselves, they also work within one of the main repressive arms of the Ortega regime, a government that up until February 2023 was holding over 258 political prisoners in its jails. The regime owes its ability to imprison its opponents to the efficiency of a machine made up of judges who work shoulder to shoulder with prosecutors, police, and officials from the prison system.
“Sergio” [assumed name], a former Supreme Court employee who worked for more than ten years in that institution, gives an “inside look” at the Judicial System in Nicaragua. Although it may appear monochromatic, he affirms that within the Judicial Branch there are different opinions.
The dictators exercise near-complete domination over the Supreme Court (CSJ), where eight of the ten presiding Magistrates are utterly loyal to them. In addition, the governing party manages a network of influence that extends to the Appeals Courts and the 132 lower courts. Despite this, “Sergio” considers: “It’s a mistake to believe that those in the CSJ are 100% Sandinista. When [in 2018] employees went out to demonstrate at the Managua traffic circles [in support of the government], the higher functionaries of the institution laughed openly at them, saying: “Look where those idiots are going!” Now, of course, they don’t do that any more, because they’d be sent to jail,” declared the former employee, who insists his former colleagues are fed up with the State-Party model.
The growing persecution that Sergio describes intensified last year, causing an “earthquake” among all the public employees.
The hidden file against Roberto Larios
The expansion of terror was a consequence of the official actions sustained in the file registered under case number 002033-ORM4-2023-PN. The file was uploaded to the electronic court system at 2:40 p.m. on February 4, 2023, five days before the defendant, Roberto Larios Meléndez, was banished to the United States, together with 222 of the regime’s 258 political prisoners at the time. However, unlike most of the political prisoners, Larios had been a Sandinista and spokesman for the institution since 2010.
In an act that was unprecedented during the Ortega Administration’s sixteen years of power that began in 2007, the dictatorship declared one of its most enthusiastic militants a “traitor to the homeland.” Roberto Larios was picked up by police and taken to prison on Sunday, October 16, 2022. Despite his current banishment, details of the accusation remain secret.
The three-page document detailing the charges brought against Larios by prosecutor Carlos Espinoza—sanctioned by the United States— has been concealed. The only public information available confirms that the case was sent to the Tenth District Criminal Hearings Court in Managua, presided over by Gloria Saavedra Corrales, one of the Judges who serves in the Ortega regime’s sentencing machinery. These details are known because the cover page of the accusation is public, including an annotation that “explains” that the authorities received the document “outside the system, as part of the contingency plan for technical problems.”
Similarly, the basic data, but not the accusation, can be viewed in the case of siblings Hans and Maria Jose Camacho Chavez, and in that of Moises Abraham Astorga, whose case is in file number 024963-ORM4-2022-PN.The three members of the Supreme Court were close colleagues of the institution’s president, Alba Luz Ramos, until the moment they were imprisoned.
Unlike the other two, Hans Camacho Chavez isn’t a lawyer, but worked a computer specialist. Nonetheless, all three were accused of “spreading fake news via information technologies,” and of “conspiracy to undermine the national integrity.”
Three months after Larios and the former functionaries mentioned above were released and banished to the US, they still haven’t offered their version of the events. Their case had a great impact, not only on their families, but also within the institution. “People were astonished [when this occurred], because there was no way to understand what had happened,” Sergio states.
To this former employee in the Judicial System, many of those inside the institution who call themselves Sandinistas, only feign loyalty to Ortega out of convenience.
“How do those opposing the regime behave within the Court? Keeping very quiet, passing the buck, using the social networks. Not even the judges have always been in agreement, although there are some who have. If they criticize Daniel [Ortega], there’ll be someone who’ll take charge. The persecution is intense. If they see you with your cellphone in your hand, they immediately ask you what you’re doing with the telephone, what app you’re on – WhatsApp or Facebook?” Sergio details.
Surviving amidst silence and fear
Two other sources with links to the Judicial Power also agreed to talk about what’s happening there, under guarantees of anonymity. They agreed with Sergio that it’s an “environment of terror.” “No one wants to talk about what’s happening in the Supreme Court. No one wants house arrest suddenly decreed for them,” lamented one of them.
The other source explained that the unexplained imprisonment of the four employees from the Court System rattled everyone in the institution, because the political secretaries then began to follow up with the functionaries closest to those detained. Then, they continued the persecution by going after those they considered “lukewarm or critical.”
Unofficially, at least 120 people have left their posts in the Judicial System, either because they were fired or forced to resign. That number also includes various judges who left the country and went into exile. The first of them was Roberto Zuniga Martinez, from the town of Puerto Morazan in Chinandega department. That case came out in the media, who informed that Zuniga had fled to the United States.
Sources within the Judicial Branch declared that Judge Zuniga’s contract was cancelled because he utilized the Independence Day vacation break to visit his family in the United States, despite the fact that the Court system forbids its judges to travel outside the country. His dismissal was a direct order from Marvin Aguilar, vice president of the Supreme Court and direct executor of orders issued by Nestor Moncada Lau, in the FSLN secretariat of El Carmen, which doubles as the presidential residency.
Those same sources indicate that Magistrate Alba Luz Ramos continues as Magistrate, even though those closest to her were arrested. She’s been prevented from leaving the country, and although she presented her resignation on three separate occasions, it hasn’t been accepted, according to versions published in the media.
At least 20 other judicial functionaries and employees were stopped in the Managua airport and border stations after attempting to travel outside the country. This supposedly occurred with Huguette Zambrana, former advisor to Gerardo Rodriguez, deposed president of the Managua Appeals Court.
CONFIDENCIAL attempted to contact attorney Zambrana by telephone, but she conclusively refused to talk, snapping, “Find someone else for that!” and hung up.
Dismissal after dismissal
The list of those fired in these months due to the pressures of the Ortega allies include Ruth Tapia Roa and Katia Jaentschke Acevedo, respectively Supreme Court Director of International Relations and Director of Protocol. Their contracts were canceled at the beginning of October 2022, as CONFIDENCIAL reported at the time.
Ruth Tapia was a defense minister and was close to Ortega and had served brief stints as Ambassador to the UNESCO and Ambassador to the OAS. Katia Jaentschke is the daughter of former Vice Chancellor Valdrack Jaentschke, a member of the dictatorship’s diplomatic corps, now based in Costa Rica.
Other surprising dismissals have created similar ripples: Leonidas Tapia, former adviser to the Supreme Court president, was summarily dismissed and barred from entering the high court building. Zacarías Duarte, director of Legal Medicine, was fired after attending a Conference without the dictatorship’s permission in May 2022.
The sources explained that 60 of the 120 workers mentioned were removed from their positions between January and May 2023. “Currently, everyone walks through the Court buildings with their heads down, because they’re supposedly about to fire another 40 employees who tried to leave the country in recent months. They took away their passports and those of their families. They wouldn’t let them leave, and now, they’re just waiting to be fired,” workers from the institution confided to CONFIDENCIAL.
Among the recent dismissals is lawyer Natalia Delgado Machado, whose father is president of the Nicaraguan Mining Company (Eniminas). She served as advisor to the Chamber for Contentious Administrative Proceedings under Judge Yadira Centeno.
Natalia Delgado had also served as adviser to former Supreme Court magistrate Rafael Solís until 2018 [Solis resigned and fled Nicaragua in 2019]. According to sources, her case is under “review” in El Carmen. She was asked to present the copy of the medical report indicating that she urgently needed to see a doctor abroad, her alleged justification for the trip.
Another functionary who was fired is Gary Dominguez Bonilla, son of Yamileth Bonilla, a former deputy for the Liberal party. As with other people who CONFIDENCIAL contacted for comment, the attorney hung up as soon as he learned that the person calling was a journalist.
The repression inside the Court
According to the sources consulted for this article, the repression in the Court system is directed by Nestor Moncada Lau, who’s been sanctioned by the international community. He transmits the orders to Magistrate Marvin Aguilar, who passes them on to Berman Martinez, the Supreme Curt’s general administrative secretary, to carry out.
However, the surveillance of the public employees begins in the Electoral Victory Units, made up of a political commissary, a deputy clerk, and a member of the Sandinista youth, among others. All of them are embedded at all levels of the institution.
“In each judicial seat – the Labor, Civil, Penal Courts, the Courts that specialize in violence, the Public Registry, the Supreme Court – there’s a political secretary who has eyes and ears everywhere. They go around spying on you. If you make a mistake, they fire you or send you to jail. That’s how Dr. Marvin Aguilar or Dr. Ernesto Rodriquez [current president of the Managua Appeals Court] exercises repression,” explains Sergio.
Yader Morazan, specialist in the Administration of Justice and a former member of the Judicial System in Matagalpa, added that the role of Magistrate Rodriguez in the appeals court is more closely related to the operational direction of the political trials that are transferred to Managua.
Cases of that nature occurred on May 3, when 30 innocent people were accused during one fearful night, through a police operation that was deployed in 13 of the country’s 15 departments and two autonomous regions.
Morazan affirmed that new leaders – fanatical Ortega supporters – have also arisen in the departments. One of the ways they’ve acted in the Supreme Court is by denouncing certain members of the Judicial Branch or lawyers when they want to remove these people of interest from the game.
“There are also functionaries within the courts that are assigned to spying, as well as police who focus on that,” Morazan explained.
More cases of abuse, humiliation, and harassment
These are other cases that have had an impact within the Supreme Court, compiled from various institutional sources:
• Ericka Blandino Cruz, head of the Office for Surveillance of Adolescent Offenders, located in the Managua Courts. Her attempt to travel to the United States caused a stir, because she’s the daughter of Auxiliadora Cruz Castillo, one of the Ortega political commissioners. Like the others, she was prevented from leaving, had her passport retained, and narrowly escaped being jailed.
• Magdalena Jimenez, press officer for the Managua Courts. According to sources, she fled her home on October 18, 2022 to avoid sharing Roberto Larios’ fate. Her current whereabouts are unknown.
• Yamileth Cárcamo, former secretary to Alba Luz Ramos: exiled in the United States.
• Maria Concepcion Ugarte. According to the newspaper La Prensa, she was protected at the time by Magistrate Aguilar. She left for the United States in November 2022. She held the position of Judge of the Sixth Criminal Court of Budgetary Surveillance and Execution.
• There have also been at least ten dismissals from the Institute for Higher Judicial Studies, under Magistrate Aguilar’s control. The majority of those cases occurring up through April 2023, have arisen due to differences with Michelle Rizo, adviser to Aguilar. One of the most notable of these cases is attorney Isabel Cubillo, who, according to our sources, was fired after suffering workplace harassment.
Cubillo was the director of post-graduate studies and close to General Commissioner Adolfo Marenco, formerly the Ortega regime’s head of intelligence who was forcibly retired the year before, allegedly after disobeying an order from Vice President Rosario Murillo. In January 2023, Marenco was imprisoned, accused of trying to leave the country and refusing to “work” with El Carmen.
“In all these cases, the fired employees and judicial functionaries were subjected to situations of humiliation, harassment, hounding, misogynist insults and police persecution,” stated one of the sources.
Other areas within the Judicial Branch that have also suffered dismissals include the processing offices of the Appeals court and the Managua Courtrooms. Among the fired are several who were identified only by the first names: “Claudia”, “Coralia”, “Ana Julia”, “Mariela” and “Javier.” These functionaries abandoned their posts “without making a lot of noise.” Most of them are now in Costa Rica or attempting to reach the United States.
This article was originally published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by Havana Times