The powerlessness, weariness and fear of the state employees working for the Judicial Branch in Nicaragua are ever more obvious. In the face of the brutal repression unleashed since 2018, and the police state imposed by the regime of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo, raising their voices to express unhappiness with the FSLN and its control over their jobs and lives isn’t possible. Many have opted to suffer in silence the ever-growing demands of the government party and limit themselves to exchanging whispered complaints with someone they trust.
That’s the panorama that “Sergio” describes, a functionary of the Judicial Power for over a decade. Using the alias of “Sergio”, and with his voice disguised electronically, the employee recently offered an interview to Confidencial and the online television news program Esta Semana. During the interview, he assured that the principal arms of the tight controls over all employees are the magistrates, judges, and union leaders. However, they themselves aren’t immune from the new prohibitions against traveling out of the country or attending Masses and processions of the Catholic Church.
Sergio shared that even though they can no longer express any dissenting opinions in public, many functionaries of that State power – including some who hold high positions, -do consider that the regime and the FSLN have committed serious errors, among them the persecution and jailing of the Catholic priests, and isolating Nicaragua internationally.
This is his testimony, offered under guarantee of protecting his identity to prevent reprisals.
You’ve been working for the Judicial Branch for over a decade. How did you get into public service?
I began in public service some twelve or thirteen years ago, with the help of a political letter of recommendation. You may be well educated, with a bunch of postgraduate degrees, Master’s degrees, but if you don’t have a political endorsement, you’ll never get hired. That’s the necessary requirement to be able to work in any of the State Institutions, not only the Judicial Branch: being a militantk member of the Sandinista Front.
What was the atmosphere like for carrying out your professional duties before 2018, and what’s it like now?
It’s always been the same. You always put the Sandinista Front first, no matter what. You always have to comply with your party labors. The Sandinista militants must pay a monthly quota to the party, depending on what you earn. It’s well known that the judges and magistrates pay 500 cordobas (just under US $14) monthly, and so it goes – from the judges, the political secretary, down to the janitors and the drivers, you pay a quota according to your listed salary.
What other obligations do you have as a party militant?
You have to go around and keep an eye on those who oppose the government. They order you to participate in the (pro-government) marches on Saturdays, they send you to clean the parks, but you’re not doing this out of conviction, but because you’re under obligation. You better keep in mind that you have a salary, and a lot of people in your household are depending on it.
After 2018, were there more obligations or pressures to demonstrate loyalty to the party?
Yes, the pressures have definitively increased. Many of us in the Judicial Branch follow events on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram (…) It was a great joy for us – a lot of people from the lowest positions to the highest, including judges, were celebrating – when Arturo McFields [at that time Nicaragua’s ambassador to the OAS] rebelled and unmasked the regime.
We felt very happy, because it gave us a voice of hope in that moment, seeing a high State functionary expose the arbitrary actions (…) It was a voice that yelled in our absence, because we don’t have a voice, we can’t express anything because the political secretary, who’s generally a judge, is looking over your shoulder, watching you.
There’s a lot of suppressed emotion. Everyone’s unhappy, people are in disagreement with all this. People comment, not publicly, but you see people whispering about what happened in Masaya, for example with the procession for Saint Jerome [the government prohibited the traditional procession]: “These guys (the government) are donkeys. Why are they doing this? They’re destroying the party’s image.” I’m telling you that Sandinistas who are more Sandinista than Daniel [Ortega] say this.
What other obligations do the workers have with the party or the government?
At the beginning of the year there was a new phenomenon: they began to control and fill out new party files. You had to go before the person in charge of party organization. They have a record of all your data, your address, your e-mail.
The judges and magistrates from the Liberal party were also forced to register as Sandinista militants. Now they’re all Sandinista militants, like it or not. That was part of the conditions imposed in order to keep your post: you had to fill out your application as a militant.
Is there some kind of reprisal for those who don’t integrate or participate in the party activities?
They’re ever quicker to transfer the people who don’t toe the party line. If you’re called to attend an activity on Saturday and you don’t go, they begin right away to brand you. When you come to work on Monday, they tell you: “Hey, you’ve been transferred somewhere else.” The political secretary reports to Dr. Marvin Aguilar or Dra. Alba Luz Ramos, so right away you’re transferred to a lesser position or to an area where the workload is a lot heavier. The objective is for you to decide to quit. They try to force you to resign, or maybe you just leave and abandon your position.
The political secretaries, who are mostly the judges, are the ones that are at your backs, watching. The ask you what (social media) group you’re in, what information you have access to, and what posts you forward, in order to keep you under control: where you’re from, what you’re doing, where you’re going. Now you can’t even post a status on WhatsApp that you’re at the beach, that you’re here, that you’re there, because they begin to watch where you were. The discomfort is general, no one is happy with this.
What’s your experience with the fallout from what happened in Nicaragua in 2018? Were there consequences for those who participated in the protests, or for those who repressed?
The consequences were obvious. People began to resign; those who didn’t resign were fired. The political secretaries began to spy on the [social media] groups, they’d call you, they began to investigate, to build a database. By then they had a whole profile of you, in violation of any right to privacy. They knew where you lived, everything. They began to fire people with no regular process, simply: “Aha, you’ve been talking badly about the party, about the Comandante, on social media – you’re fired.” And they began to run all around [doing this], to all the court complexes, all the offices of the Judicial Branch, be it the Court, the Family Tribunals, the Labor Courts, the civil courts, the criminal courts. There were even judges whose appointments were cancelled from one day to the next, and someone else put in their place.
In some institutions, there were cases of employees denouncing that their colleagues had participated in the repression in some way. Were there cases of that type in the Judicial Branch?
The objective was to denounce the people who were participating (in the protests), so a hunt was organized. Those people (the snitches) were rewarded with a better job: maybe they were just custodians or drivers, but now with that information they confirmed, the person [who had demonstrated] was fired, and the person who denounced them went on to occupy their position.
We saw that many of the police and paramilitary who had been involved in the repression, beating the students and members of the opposition, immediately appeared in new positions, from one day to the next. We asked each other – “And these people, who are they?” “And these people, where did they come from?” They were people now earning the same salary we were, even without being professionals in the area where they were required to be.
We’ve seen a growing flow of Nicaraguan migrants to the United States and Costa Rica. The population is opting to leave the country regardless of their political affiliation or social class. What have you observed in the Judicial Branch with respect to this?
If you resign, there are problems, because they begin right away to investigate: “Where are you going?” “Why are you resigning?” They start asking you a ton of questions, because their fear is that you’re going to the US “You’re going to expose us, you’re going to denounce us.”
The resignations have been generalized; others merely abandon their jobs. For example, right now, when we returned after the September vacations that were ten days long, some people weren’t there anymore. Suddenly, you notice that nine or ten of your colleagues are missing. Some who had a visa left for the United States. Others who didn’t have visas went to Spain or Costa Rica, or simply decided to start some small business. Others who spoke English went to Sitel or Ibex [call centers].
In the independent media, we’ve denounced the fact that some functionaries are under “country arrest”, because the regime won’t allow them to travel outside the country. Is that happening in the Judicial Branch?
The judges have to ask permission to leave the country. They know that they can’t go to Costa Rica, or El Salvador or the U.S.
Marvin Aguilar, the political secretary of the Judicial Power, has the job [of deciding]. When a judge comes with: “Give me permission to go to the US, to El Salvador. I’m going for vacation,” Magistrate Aguilar immediately asks: “Why? Where are you going? How long are you going to be outside [the country]?” Then, he immediately tells you NO.
They have to issue you a document, an exit permit. When you get to the airport, or any of the border posts staffed by Immigration, that’s the first document [they ask you for]. “Where’s the authorization from your political secretary to leave the country?” Without that authorization, you can’t leave the country.
Just now, a number of judges and magistrates had the intention of leaving, but they told them absolutely no, that there was no permission to leave the country, worse to go to the US. In the end, no one went. That was a bombshell. Everyone was talking, using expletives, saying things like “What a crock! why can’t they leave?”
What do the workers in the Judicial System think about the political prisoners, the accusations, and the conditions they’re being kept in?
It’s horrible. There are women colleagues who have political prisoners in their families. There are mothers there who are Sandinistas, and their sons are prisoners. Once a week, they must ask permission to go to the prison centers and bring them food. These mothers say they have to bring food for the guards who are on duty, so that they’ll deliver the other food they bring to their sons. The mothers must pay 20 cordobas a day [US 50 cents] just so their child is allowed to drink water.
Some of the same militants began saying: “Those mothers need to be fired. If your son is in jail, it’s for being a dissident and you must be one too.”
We in the media have also reported on denunciations of corruption, of nepotism, of abuse of power in the government institutions. Do you know of cases in your immediate environment?
Part of the abuses is the nepotism in the Judicial Branch. For example, we see magistrates who have hired their own children, their relatives to be there. It’s well known that many magistrates appoint their whole families [to positions]. People come around and tell you: “Hey, I want you to put in my relatives.”
What was your experience with the Presidential vote last November?
The November voting was highly controlled. Right now, for example we know we’re going to be mobilized [for the upcoming municipal elections]. If there are 25 or 40 people in a work center, there are already some twelve workers for the Judicial Branch who aren’t in their offices, because they’ve been mobilized. They’re preparing the way: checking what they have on hand, where they’ll sleep, who’s going to feed the people who’ll be arriving to watch over the vote.
Starting right now, they’re making us verify our data. The heads of the UVE (Unidad de Victorias Electorales, a Sandinista political group active within government workplaces) come and say: “Ok, line up. Call this guy to see me; call so-and-so (…)” You give your id card number, your complete name, the information comes up on the computer and they then say: “OK, Sergio, you’re assigned to vote in such and such a school polling place.” They take a screenshot of the information that came up on the computer.
[For last November’s election] a pretty irregular situation arose. At the hour when you were exercising your vote, even at six in the morning, you picked up your ballot, grabbed your cellphone and made a video where you said: “I’m voting in the second box (the FSLN slot on the ballot), all positions.” I imagine that it’s what they’re going to do now, with the municipal elections. And you sent the video to the one in charge. Every judge in the Judicial Branch has a group of eight to ten people assigned to them. Worse yet, you had to show your ink-stained finger (upon voting in Nicaragua, the person’s finger is marked with indelible ink) that you’d gone to exercise your right to vote.
What opinion do your colleagues hold of the persecution against the Catholic Church and the imprisoning of priests, including Rolando Alvarez?
It’s left a very ugly feeling. Some magistrates have privately issued some pretty ugly comments.
There are Catholic magistrates, like the case of Dra. Juana Mendez, who commented to certain people that the Sandinista Front is putting their foot in it: “We’re going too far, we’re not in agreement with this.”
Many Catholic judges who work in the Judicial Branch have felt uncomfortable. Carlos Alberto Lopez Tinoco, who’s the union head, threatened the courthouse staff, saying that as members of the union you’re forbidden to go to Mass, and especially to the [religious] processions. That was the case in Masaya, for example. The inhabitants of Masaya who worked in the Judicial Branch were forbidden to go to the church, and they couldn’t attend the processions. You feel spied on, and you say: “But what’s going on with my religion?” and “Why is it now a sin to be Catholic? Why can’t I go to Mass?”
It’s an extreme level of mistrust, of sadness. You feel impotent because you can’t do anything. From the magistrates to the judges, people say: “This is getting ugly”. Sandinista militants tell you: “I don’t know what we’re going to do when this comes to an end.”
How do you see the future of Nicaragua under the current regime?
Everybody’s worried. Even when you’re chatting in the corridors, the topic of sanctions comes up.
There are some pretty veteran workers in the Judicial Branch. Many people already lived through a blockade and know what it is to have to get in line to get a rationed pound of sugar, a piece of meat to eat. Everyone’s afraid of just that.
No one wants them to sanction the country. People are afraid of more sanctions, they’re afraid that Nicaragua is isolating itself internationally. Nicaragua’s largest trade partner is called the United States, and if the United States sanctions Nicaragua, everything here is finished, the economy is done for. If there are a lot of migrants now, even though they haven’t sanctioned Nicaragua because the sanctions imposed have been personal, [against the regime’s high functionaries], a sanction of [a more general] type will make the migration much worse.
Do you think there’s a way out of this crisis?
I don’t believe so. They’re going stop at nothing. They’re going to seek a way to sink Nicaragua. Daniel [Ortega] doesn’t have any kind of economic necessities, the deputies don’t have any kind of economic necessities.
It’s incredible how right now – even though we’re supposed to practice austerity, they’re still paying for a ton of gas coupons for the magistrates and judges, assigning them vehicles. A new fleet of Nissans recently arrived for the judges. They don’t want to understand that if sanctions are put on Nicaragua, all this is over and done.
They [the regime] don’t have any needs. The one to suffer is the people, the one to suffer will be the poor guy who’s going out every day to try his luck: the vegetable seller, the money changer, the guy wiping windshields. Those are the people who are going to suffer.