I want to spotlight the case of Marvin Vargas, who recently marked ten years of an unjust imprisonment. He’s doubtless the dictatorship’s first political prisoner. The case serves as a warning; we should all be aware that the cruelties and arbitrariness Marvin has been subjected to have provided a model for Ortega’s current criminalization of his opponents.
The torment of Marvin’s fate hangs over all the political prisoners – those who have already been sentenced, and those who will soon be tried. Below, I outline part of his story. Assuring that it’s not repeated is a challenge all Nicaraguans must face.
Marvin Vargas was born on May 30, 1970. He was president of the Sandino’s Cubs Association [Asociacion Cachorros de Sandino], which grouped together young men who had completed their Patriotic Military Service (SMP) during the [wartime years of the] eighties. In 2011, Marvin led a protest involving thousands of these “Cachorros”, who gathered in front of Nicaragua’s National Assembly demanding funding for a program to help them resolve their urgent needs.
Since 2007, when Ortega returned to the Presidency, he concentrated his efforts on squelching any social movements, organizations or political parties that truly opposed him. In that spirit, he put an immediate end to the movement formed by the banana workers affected by the agricultural toxin Nemagon. In 2011, he stripped the Sandinista Renewal Movement (MRS) of its legal status.
However, the arrest of Marvin Vargas in 2011 inaugurated the government’s new method: criminalizing movement leaders in order to dismantle any groups that opposed his government.
In January 2011, the protests of the SMP veterans’ group began in front of the Assembly. On that occasion, Marvin Vargas declared to the media: “The five thousand active members of the organization and the 150,000 demobilized Cubs are tired of the abandonment they’ve suffered from the government. (…) Remember that we’re children of the revolution and we went out to defend it on the very rock where the tiger lurked.”
In March of that same year, Vargas led an occupation of Managua’s Metropolitan Cathedral to highlight the group’s demands. The government representatives made a series of commitments, witnessed by 22 representatives of the “Cubs” group. However, when these commitments remained unfulfilled, the group began new protest actions.
Days later, Marvin was arrested and his house searched without a legal warrant. All of the organization’s paper and digital files were removed. His mother took his case to the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (Cenidh). For months, the authorities refused to disclose any information about him. In September of that year, a judge ordered him to be presented to the court; another judge then ordered him freed, an order that was backed by Judge Tomas Cortez of the Eighth District Criminal Court. These orders were never obeyed.
In October 2011, Marvin went on a hunger strike, demanding that the order for his liberty be complied with. Shortly afterwards, the Prosecution magically produced a new accusation of aggravated fraud involving three thousand dollars. Marvin had never met the supposed victims.
In February 2012, Marvin went before a judge to denounce the torture, mistreatment and death threats that he was being subjected to. He asked permission to remove his shirt to show the evidence, but his request was denied. He was then condemned to five years, six months in jail. In the course of the sentencing, his mother, Juana Petrona Herrera, who had spearheaded the denunciations of the case to human rights organizations, died without being able to see her son.
In 2015, with some of his sentence served, Marvin had completed the requirements needed to request his conditional freedom. Once again, the judge ordered him freed; once again, the court order was ignored.
On November 7, 2016, Marvin Vargas completed his full sentence. He received the release order from prison judge Roxana Zapata, but once again the Prison ignored it. They continued holding him in jail, with no legal justification. His wife denounced that the repressive measures against him had increased.
On April 30, 2017, nearly six months after his legal release date, he remained illegally imprisoned. Marvin Vargas then was sent back to court for an expedited hearing, accused of internal drug trafficking. He wasn’t permitted his own lawyer, and the witnesses were the prison guards. Another guilty verdict was issued. This time, he was sentenced to twelve years in prison.
Marvin’s family visits were suspended for two years from the date of that second sentencing. Attempts to form a committee for his freedom were blocked by threats and blackmail by the paramilitary, aimed against those close to him. For long periods – up to a year at a time – Marvin has been kept in completely closed maximum security cells, deprived of sunlight and in complete isolation.
His case illustrates the brutal nature of the dictatorship. Not only has he spent years in arbitrary detention, but he has also been a victim of physical and psychological torture. It puts in evidence Ortega’s hatred of all those with Sandinista roots who have subsequently denounced the government, or led social movements that oppose the regime. Tried for common crimes, Marvin was given no right to an adequate defense, nor to due process. All his constitutional guarantees were violated, including totally ignoring on four separate occasions the express orders of judges for his release.
In the same way, those unjustly imprisoned in the wave of arrests that began in June have suffered a special prison regimen of isolation and psychological torture, denying them the basic rights of all prisoners. The majority have already been accused of terrorism, conspiracy to undermine the national sovereignty or of money laundering. All ridiculous charges. But, in the light of everything explained above, it’s clear that the conditions Marvin has suffered threaten all the political prisoners – more so now, when everything is subordinated to the unilateral decisions of the ruling couple.
The liberation of all the political prisoners, beginning with Marvin, is the principle banner and demand that should unite all Nicaraguans. To obtain that objective requires first and foremost conclusive action from the national platforms and the oppressed majorities, who must organize to reconquer their rights. Actions are also needed from the business community – who’ve remained mute – and the Catholic hierarchy, including the Vatican, which has also failed to pronounce.
At the same time, concerted action is needed from the international community to block the flow of money from the multilateral financial organizations, which continue granting resources to the regime’s repressive apparatus. Finally, segments of the traditional left must awaken, since their complicit silence only favors the interests of the dictatorial couple.