Central America / Violence

Daniel Ortega and His Sinister Time Machine

Víctor Peña
Víctor Peña

Wednesday, April 17, 2024
Carlos Martínez

This is the final chapter in “2018, An Uprising Crushed”: a special on the birth of the ongoing repression in Nicaragua. It was published in Spanish on Oct. 16, 2018. Read parts one and two.

This is a safehouse, and the four young people who live here are hidden away. They are fleeing the government, stalked by police and paramilitary forces who roam Nicaragua with impunity.

None of them are older than 25, and just five months ago they were university students like any other. Now they refer to each other using pseudonyms, and when talking about their country they play loud music from their phone so that no-one else can hear. They fear that their neighbor, who is a regime employee, may report them and that people will come for them like they have for so many others.

In this house, in a working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Managua, there is no decoration beyond its four inhabitants: Tigrillo, Maca, Zetas, and Doctor Veneno. There is a small stove with two burners, and not much else. Not even beds: they sleep on a few thinly padded mats placed anywhere on the floor of the house. The property belongs to a doctor who wanted to help the youngsters flee. It is part of an extensive network of “safe houses”, consisting of churches, convents, and family residences where young people who dream of toppling Daniel Ortega and his wife and Vice President, Rosario Murillo, hide.

The four youths try to stay under the radar, to be nothing more than four roommates who stay at home and don’t interact with other residents. A neighbor who noticed this strange mix approached them discreetly one day, to warn them that they were living next door to a “rat”. They try to behave normally, but no-one who lives their daily lives in Managua knows how to do so anymore. As time passes, they grow used to living in a state of constant suspicion.

This is not the first safe house they have lived in: Doctor Veneno has moved 15 times in two months, and Tigrillo has lost count. They miss their parents, just like most other young people recently departed from the family home, but they avoid visiting them so as not to put them at risk — in a country that, at the start of the year, was the safest in the region.

They have prepared a half dozen mortars that weigh a half pound each; projectiles that combine gunpowder with ground glass. However, they are missing a rocket launcher that might make the objects useful for their defense. They have a secret weapon, too: a small injection tube containing adrenaline, a dose which they believe would induce a heart attack. Were the police or paramilitary death squads to burst into the house, Doctor Veneno would run for the tube and stab an intruder with the injection and await its lethal effects. All this before the intruder, or anyone with them, were able to beat them up or shoot them. “Either I die, or that son of a bitch does,” he says, as if truly considering defending them with the point of a syringe.

Doctor Veneno,one of those taking refuge in the safe house, pours himself a glass of Coke and lights a cigarette to speak with his student comrades, as they often do to pass the time. Photo Víctor Peña
Doctor Veneno,one of those taking refuge in the safe house, pours himself a glass of Coke and lights a cigarette to speak with his student comrades, as they often do to pass the time. Photo Víctor Peña

It is night. Outside, the streets are empty. The few vehicles who turn on their lights cause the students to leap like meerkats toward the window, casting fearful looks outside. Before we begin to talk, Doctor Veneno turns his phone on full blast and puts it against the window to banish the frog next door.

* * *

April seems distant. The snowball that became an avalanche in Nicaragua moved at too fast a pace. On April 18, a small group of retirees met to protest the government’s pension cuts in León, some 90 kilometers from the capital. Government-aligned henchmen attacked them, breaking up the demonstration. On the same day another group of Ortega supporters beat young protesters in Managua, who denounced the repression of the retirees. The next day, Nicaragua was on fire. Thousands and thousands poured onto the streets, and for months they raised barricades, confronted the police and paramilitaries, took over universities, and challenged the colossal power of President Daniel Ortega. 

In Nicaragua there are no barricades left. There are no more cobblestone walls, nor universities that have been taken over. The youths no longer confront the police with mortars, nor do they knock “chayopalos”, metal tree sculptures symbolizing the Ortega regime, onto the ground. Nobody with any sense still believes that Ortega will fall from power in a matter of weeks.

On July 13 the regime delivered a definitive blow against the young people who remained inside the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua (UNAN), the last bastion of student resistance. The police, backed by paramilitaries, opened fire on students for over thirteen hours. They surrounded the almost 200 young women and men who resisted leaving the campus, forcing them out at gunpoint and cornering them into a nearby church, Divine Mercy, where the walls remain riddled with bullet holes. Francisco “The Bear” Flores was killed immediately before anyone could notice; when they found him, he was already a corpse. Gerald “El Chino” Vásquez died slowly from a gunshot to the head, with the improvised team of paramedics unable to do anything to save his life. Everyone believed they would die there, that they should say their goodbyes. Trapped, they turned to the romantic gesture of singing the national anthem. 

However, members of the Catholic Church were able to obtain a grant of safe passage for the students from the government. They were to be taken in buses toward the Cathedral, where their parents, sick with worry, were waiting for them. They, too, sang the Nicaraguan national anthem. Other less fortunate young people were hospitalized with bullet wounds, or blind in one eye, with burns or broken bones. Others disappeared, were tortured, and were later accused of terrorism.  

Those who escaped the rain of bullets unscathed knew that the nightmare was only just beginning: many were snatched from their houses, their parents unable to do anything, or hunted down on the streets as they queued to obtain a passport to leave the country, or even captured in the airport as they tried to escape. They were taken to El Chipote, a sinister detention site whose cells were previously used by Somoza, that old, familiar tyrant, for the same thing as now: to torture and interrogate political prisoners. Blindfolds, naked bodies, nails ripped out, rapes, beatings, and no legal representation. 

The youths abandoned their parents’ houses and took refuge in safe houses. The most visible leaders of the student movement, like Lesther Alemán —who famously called Daniel Ortega a murderer to his face— have fled the country. Others, like Valeska Alemán Sandoval, were captured and detained in El Chipote. From there she recorded a video in which she informed on some of her comrades. Once freed, she stated that she was tortured into making the video. This was Valeska’s second detention. The first was on June 5, as she was returning with provisions for other students. On that first occasion, hooded men grabbed her and forced her into a vehicle. One torture method involved tearing a toenail from her right foot. On that occasion, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued cautionary measures that the regime hurried to disregard, detaining her for a second time just a month later. 

All the leaders from the first days of revolt are now imprisoned, hiding out in safe houses. Some have managed to flee the country through the regime’s blind spots, making use of clandestine support networks.

The Church of Divine Mercy, pocked by bullets. On July 14, 2018, Nicaraguan security forces attacked and expelled student occupiers of the Managua campus of the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua. Photo Víctor Peña
The Church of Divine Mercy, pocked by bullets. On July 14, 2018, Nicaraguan security forces attacked and expelled student occupiers of the Managua campus of the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua. Photo Víctor Peña

Nor are there mass marches in the capital. The most recent one took place on Sunday, September 23, when around 2,000 people marched to demand the release of political prisoners. Police and paramilitaries surrounded the march and violently dispersed it. Six people had bullet wounds. A sniper hit Matt Romero, a 16-year-old teenager, in the chest. He was killed immediately. The government made their intentions to “normalize” the country very clear — no public display of dissidence would be tolerated. In an official statement, the protesters were blamed for shooting each other.

In the face of all this, three days later, on September 26, opposition groups issued another callout on social media foir a march that would move from the Central American University (UCA) to the offices of the United Nations. Despite the march being scheduled to begin at 2 pm, from the start of the day at least four riot squad units, some 15 police vehicles, and a huge number of police and government sympathizers blocked off every possible route for the march.

Little by little, in a timid trickle, people began to gather on the pavement opposite UCA, taking Nicaraguan flags out their rucksacks as they arrived, using them to cover their faces to avoid recognition. Street sellers took the opportunity to sell masks and noisy klaxons to raise the mood.

They barely managed more than 100 people. With at least one riot police officer per person, they quickly understood that marching would mean a confrontation with police at a clear disadvantage. The march turned into a “sit-in.”

The affair was no mass gathering, but a hundred Nicas willing to cause a ruckus are quite a few Nicaraguans. “¿Cuál es la ruta?” shouted a woman of slight build, with the loudest voice I can remember: What’s the route? “¡Sacar al hijueputa!” The others responded. Remove that son-of-a-bitch! A reference, of course, to Daniel Ortega. They continued, with the woman asking: “¿Qué dicen las putas?” What do the bitches say? The rest responded: “¡Yo no parí a ese cabrón!” I didn’t birth that asshole!

“Ladies, gentlemen, don’t be indifferent, they’re killing people right in front of your eyes!” 

“They weren’t terrorists, they were students!” 

“Protest is a right, repression is a crime!”

And the repurposed Sandinista battle cry, increasingly desperate: “¡Que se rinda tu madre!” Us, surrender? Let your mother surrender!

Vendors sold patriotic trinkets and water; young people scrawled phrases on the university walls with some shocking crimes against grammar; a police drone hovered over the march. Someone painted the name of Matt Romero, the boy murdered three days before, on the street.

Most of the vehicles that passed in front of the university honked their horns in support, their drivers briefly appearing at the windows with a thumbs up. Their gestures thrilled the crowd. A few young men stopped the buses to daub a slogan across the back: “Ortega is a kiler”. One bus driver asked them to paint not just on the back but for slogans on the front, too. A while later he returned with his bus and requested that the boys decorate it all over.

Javier Espinoza arrived on the scene to great fanfare, his truck decked with loudspeakers. “Welcome, welcome!” he shouted to the crowd who formed a queue to embrace him. Espinoza is a regular in the struggle: he arrives with his truck and speakers, offering them up free to dial up the commotion even further. Ten days prior, on Sunday, September 16, police appeared at his door with no warrant and took him away, claiming he had had a collision with a police vehicle, even though Espinoza had never crashed his truck. He was taken to El Chipote. He claims he was not tortured, but that they carried out chemical tests to check for gunpowder on his hands. They came out negative. He was released two days later, and here he was again, receiving a hero’s welcome. A woman danced, her face covered, dressed in a traditional outfit. She sang “Nicaragua, Nicaragüita,” the country’s second hymn, whose author is exiled in Costa Rica.

Then, the police closed off vehicle access.

A group of around 100 people at a protest in front of the UCA in Managua on Sep. 26, 2018. The Police blocked the street to cut off the path of the anti-government march. Photo Víctor Peña
A group of around 100 people at a protest in front of the UCA in Managua on Sep. 26, 2018. The Police blocked the street to cut off the path of the anti-government march. Photo Víctor Peña

The block where the protesters were was completely surrounded. Everyone swallowed and held their breath — or at least, I did. Bulletproof vests and helmets have become a trend among colleagues, despite recommendations from local reporters not to use them to cover pro-government protests. Ortega’s followers, it seems, are offended at the sight of reporters dressed as if going to war, in a country in which —they insist— nothing is afoot. Using the items can result in being beaten up, or having stones thrown at you. But I missed them.

The riot police advanced. The block shrank.

The protesters understood the signal, and bit by bit the gathering began to disperse. They passed the police line with their faces covered, their eyes downcast, walking hurriedly. In just a few minutes there was no-one left in front of UCA. The occupation lasted little more than two hours.

At night the government’s chayopalo sculptures shine alongside the huge outline of General Sandino. The metallic, tree-shaped structures are a power symbol for the Ortega couple; they glisten, luminous, almost happy, on a rainy and deserted night. 

* * *

Tigrillo is playing cards with Maca, the only woman in the group, while Doctor Veneno cooks, complaining non-stop about being the only person who takes care of the domestic chores. This morning some women stopped by the house offering their domestic services, and Maca told them that they already had someone. “Who were you referring to, Maca? To Tigrillo?” says Doctor Veneno, posing the rhetorical question in a high-pitched voice, feminine, for the others’ benefit as he carries on stirring a bean soup that is taking a while to be ready. His hair is curly and dyed chestnut color.

Tigrillo is the alpha male here. He is whip-thin, with expressive hands that dance furiously as he talks. He goads Doctor Veneno, who he calls “Excelsa” (your excellency, in feminine), incessantly. “When’s that soup going to be ready, Excelsa?” and the other replies, with mock anger: “You should wash the dishes”. And Tigrillo answers slowly, without revealing his cards, “Caaalm down, Excelsa.” 

Maca celebrates winning another round of cards and reminds her opponent of what they had staked: a banquet of steamed rice. It’s something that maybe no-one follows through on. Doctor Veneno prepares deep fried plantains and pescozones —fried chayote squash stuffed with cheese— rice for the soup, and bits of fried cheese. The house fills with the scent of Nicaragua.

Doctor Veneno was studying for his second degree when chaos interrupted. An anesthetist, he was in his third year of dental school when they decided to take over UNAN. He was one of the leaders in his faculty and was demanding that the leaders of the National Students’ Union of Nicaragua (UNEN), the pro-government student organization that has opposed protests from the start, step down. When they realized that UNEN would not heed any of the rebels’ demands, they decided to occupy the university on May 7. “We just told the administrative staff that they should leave,” recalls Doctor Veneno. “A woman who works there told us she supported us and I said, Ah, thank you but get out, get out. And we took over the university. It was weird, I’d never slept there before.” 

Doctor Veneno remained in the facility for the duration of the student occupation, until the police and paramilitaries forcefully evicted them on July 14, after many hours of violence.

Doctor Veneno speaks of the 72-day occupation of the campus as turbulent and full of intense discussions, struggles over leadership, and intrigues. But he describes days of splendor, too, where a few hundred teenagers became adults and dreamed of making history amid shootouts and smoke bombs. At the beginning, he says, they established places to receive medical care, a purely intuitive process. These became essential as the paramilitaries began to attack. In the end there were six medical stations and Doctor Veneno was responsible for all of them.

His work involved keeping these functioning; making sure that there was someone with some level of knowledge of treating hemorrhages and wounds, able to do stitches without butchering a patient. He put together inventories of medicine and provisions donated by other Nicaraguans, juggling them around to keep each station stocked. If the “medics” on any of the stations didn’t seem to have the agile and alert attitude that Doctor Veneno felt that the situation needed, they would be reprimanded or expelled. Children becoming adults.

On July 13 —the day that the regime began to “cleanse” the UNAN— he knew they were under attack when he was told that a young man had a bullet wound in his leg. He did what he could to contain the hemorrhage, but it was obvious that none of the medical stations had sufficient preparation to remove a projectile. He shouted for a vehicle to come and take the wounded boy to a public hospital; they put him inside and left the university as fast as the car would go. But that wasn’t very fast; the vehicle had been destroyed by the first round of bullets. So they got out and ordered a taxi. Finally, they managed to bring the young man to the Vivian Pellas Hospital, a private clinic that treated the students who were wounded. “You couldn’t take him to a public hospital, because if they attended to him, they would call the police and they’d detain me on the spot, too,” he explains.

It was a little after 11 am when the government siege began to envelop the university. Battles raged at every entrance. Unequal battles: young people with mortars and one gun, sheltering behind piles of stones, against police and paramilitaries armed with smoke bombs, pistols, and assault rifles. Doctor Veneno, who was responsible for the medical stations, was trapped at Pellas Hospital. After a few minutes, other youths carried off another wounded person in a small white van that they had managed to take possession of in the university parking lot. He decided to go back together with others in the bed of the pick-up, but by the time he arrived the gunfire was already raging. Hearing bullets whizz by, he clenched his stomach against the metal, hoping that no stray bullet would find him.

They managed to enter, only to find more wounded, among them a young man who was shot in the back, with everything indicating that his left lung had been punctured. The projectile had left no exit wound and he feared he might drown in his own blood. Doctor Veneno loaded the young man into the van-turned-ambulance, but the attackers began to shoot again, and they had to abort the mission. They dragged the wounded man, with the help of two other young doctors, to a medical station to see what miracle they could concoct. Another boy appeared, his back covered in shrapnel wounds, bleeding as if he had been flogged.

At the medical station Doctor Veneno managed to give the first patient a blood transfusion, in an attempt to stabilize him with one of the other doctors, while the other tried to remove the pellets out of the other wounded person’s back. But that small room was no surgical theater; it was a makeshift clinic, closed-off with mesh, similar to a mosquito net, for walls. Bullets penetrated it easily. “We had a few stands with saline solution, alcohol, and a few other things, and I saw how everything was broken and liquids were falling on the floor and the stands were broken. We got on the floor and watched as bullets destroyed the walls. Luckily, we had the patient on a smaller children’s table. It was very low, so no bullets hit him”. At that moment Doctor Veneno pauses the story and lit a cigarette, helping him not to cry. He hums his phone ringtone, a song in English, looks to one side and searches his mind for some other memory that might bring him far from the fear. He smiles as much as he is able, sitting there, hiding away on a mat on the floor. Alive. He recomposes himself. 

In a safe house on the outskirts of Managua, four youths share a meager meal of bean soup, noodles, and vegetables. By October 2018, the young people who took to the streets and occupied universities from April to June, clashing with state security forces and paramilitaries, had either been abducted or gone into hiding. Photo Víctor Peña
In a safe house on the outskirts of Managua, four youths share a meager meal of bean soup, noodles, and vegetables. By October 2018, the young people who took to the streets and occupied universities from April to June, clashing with state security forces and paramilitaries, had either been abducted or gone into hiding. Photo Víctor Peña

They had to get far away from there, fast. The person who was most seriously wounded wouldn’t last long, so he decided to evacuate him. Three boys who did security offered to cover him, throwing mortars against the attackers to give him a chance to escape. The wounded boy’s legs carried him as if on automatic mode, and he walked like the dying person that he was, slumped on Doctor Veneno’s shoulder. But the boys with the mortars were no guerrilla fighters, nor were they experienced in combat. They were just a few students holding tubes that spit out paper bags full of dust and glass. They were immediately overpowered and ran away to save their own lives. It was clear that it wasn’t random bullets flying around them, but some scumbag who had trapped them between a rock and a hard place. They wouldn’t get out of there peacefully. Doctor Veneno had only managed to move a few meters forward, thrown onto the ground, trying to camouflage under some banana leaves with the young man who was fading, both covered up to their hair in blood. “I told him: I’m going to have to drag you by your shoulders. It’s going to hurt but it’s all I can do for you.” He dragged him, like a sack of potatoes, out of their executioners’ way. Some other students managed to put the wounded boy into one of the few usable vans that was left on campus. They managed to escape from the university before the siege had been fastened into place.

Amid the clamor, Tigrillo and his friend Zetas had arrived at UNAN, their backpacks stuffed with mortars. They were unaware the university was under attack. In fact, they had gone to seek reinforcements —“ninjas”, in Tigrillo’s words— to try and take over another university. When they saw the racket, they joined the shock team. “I told one of the lanzamorteros [mortar launchers] not to worry about caramelos [munitions], that I had a full backpack,” says Tigrillo, seemingly aware of just how gruff that sounded.

After 13 hours of pandemonium, the students’ resistance was overcome, and the university was taken over by government forces. In the stampede Tigrillo watched as a bullet hit one of the doctors who had attended to the boy with shrapnel in his back. 

All of the wounded who Doctor Veneno treated that night survived. The first young man, who had a bullet in his leg, was captured weeks later and is currently in prison on terrorism charges. 

When these young people remember that day, their eyes glisten with something bad, a liquid shine. They clench their teeth and try to hide the fear inside. They weren’t friends before all this began. “We’re not the same anymore,” Doctor Veneno says, without pride or nostalgia. They smoke. They cast a few pleading looks at the rum I have brought them.

* * *

In May anything was a possibility. The rebellion had begun just one month prior. The number of people killed was, at that time, between 40 and 60, according to those keeping count. But that felt like too many already. The government brutality, the brazen mix of police and hitmen in civilian clothing, the erosion of the regime’s international image, and the thousands and thousands of protesters all created the impression that Daniel Ortega had been cornered. Those who had been killed —40 to 60 too many— hadn’t died in vain. Their deaths would prove fertile. But that was back in May.

That litany of naiveties appeared again to make sense when, on May 16, Daniel Ortega himself agreed to participate in talks with various opposition sectors: from the ambiguous Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP) to the five militant student organizations who formed during the April revolt. These were talks where a student from UCA, just 20 years old, did what had not been done in over a decade: he silenced the all-powerful President, ignored protocol, and spoke without permission, and in doing so entered history:

“This isn’t a round-table dialogue, it’s an occasion to negotiate your stepping down. And you know that well, because it’s what the people have asked for… In one month, you’ve wrecked the country. It took Somoza many years… But in less than a month you have done things we never imagined; many have felt let down by the ideals that haven’t been stuck to… How many mothers are crying over their children, sir.” Ortega looked on with an empty gaze, while his wife-slash-vice president attempted a disdainful laugh. On that day every camera was turned toward that young man, Lesther Alemán, and all the headlines concerned him. Meanwhile, the “highest leader”, the “commander”, swallowed his words.

From that day on, Ortega seems to have understood that he did not have the words. He didn’t attend any further meetings with the rebels. He avoided exposing himself to being made to look ridiculous by a boy, and from then on made sure that the only voice to speak, the only admissible orders, were his.

A little over four months have passed since that naïve set of talks. The students in attendance have all been scattered, hidden in safe houses, exiled, or imprisoned. Lesther Alemán disappeared from the public eye to show up in mid-August in Miami, without anyone knowing how he managed to make it through Nicaragua’s borders.

Now, after almost seven months of social tumult, no-one can claim to be the opposition’s sole representative; not even of the student movements, plagued as they are by internal mistrust and victims of urgency. No single set of demands has consensus, partly because of the lack of clarity on with whom such a consensus should be struck, or who is responsible for bringing it about. Even Lesther Alemán’s demand, that sounded so crystal clear at the time —“We’re here to negotiate your stepping down”— has become hazy: Stepping down, just that? Early elections? Early elections with or without Ortega as a candidate? Who would be the candidate for the whole opposition? Should each sector of the opposition have their own candidate? A governing committee? Who would elect them? While the opposition tries to survive their own questions as well as regime persecution, Ortega still has all, or almost all, cards in his hand: he manages the police (his son’s father-in-law is the director), the army, paramilitaries, judicial power, the electoral court and parliament, practically everything.  

The two main opposition organizations, Civil Alliance and the Articulation of Social Movements —made up of student, feminist, LGBT, campesino, and political organizations— managed to reach an agreement on Thursday, October 4, to form a single unit to be called the National Unity of Blue and White.

Following several weeks of discussion, intense debate, proposals and counterproposals, spokespeople for the two big opposition organizations stated that they had put their differences to one side and come together around a minimal consensus, which Mónica Baltodano, the Articulation’s leader, stated as being “that Ortega and Murillo should go, one way or another.” Although it is undoubtedly a start, the opposition do not seem close to having an immediate plan of action, and even less so for anything further away in time, such as any shared idea about the way in which the president and his wife should “go”. Much less still is there any idea about who may be a good candidate to substitute them.

A lone student protests in front of Central American University on Monday, Oct. 1, 2018. Some 20 people attended the demonstration, surrounded by hundreds of police officers. Photo Víctor Peña
A lone student protests in front of Central American University on Monday, Oct. 1, 2018. Some 20 people attended the demonstration, surrounded by hundreds of police officers. Photo Víctor Peña

In Nicaragua time has gained a strange quality. May seems very, very far away, a separate series of days that held within them very different futures. Today, the deaths are counted in hundreds —300, 400, 500, according to those keeping count— and for young people, at least in the minds of Tigrillo, Doctor Veneno, Zetas, and Maca, there is the question of how fertile a corpse can be.

* * *

China didn’t want to leave Nicaragua, but her mother begged her to at least get a passport, to have options if things grew more complicated.

China was holed up inside the UNAN on the day that the regime launched Operation Cleansing. She saw a close friend, Gerald “Chino” Vásquez, die. Before everything changed, Chino and China were dancers of Nicaraguan folkloric traditions. She saw him bleed to death, unable to do anything, while the police and paramilitaries fired at the Church of Divine Mercy.

Once a delegation of priests had managed to get them out alive, and move them to the Cathedral, she spent several days moving from one safe house to another, following the recommendations of various human rights organizations. Her mother was inconsolable, always fearing the worst. China agreed to obtain her passport on Tuesday, July 31. She went with a friend who paid for the document. They were due to go and collect it the next day, but Wednesday was a holiday. On Thursday she was ready to go to the passport office at 2 pm.

She is small and dark-skinned with short hair, dressed like Mafalda in jeans and All Stars. She greets me with a smile and speaks in short phrases, as if taking care of business without drawing her gaze away from some distant place. She begins to tell her story:

The passports are distributed at 2 pm. I was in Carazo, and the bus from Carazo drops me in the UCA. There was a protest there because the government cut UCA’s funding by six percent. I met Chino [Geraldo Vásquez]’s mother there and she asked me to dance. She was dressed in traditional clothing, and she asked me to put it on. I wore it and danced ‘Managua, beautiful Managua’. Then we left on the march which was moving toward the Plaza de las Victorias, and a man who we call Double Wheels, because he’s always in a wheelchair, invited us to go and eat chicken. After, two young men accompanied me in the taxi to the passport office. It was a little before 2 pm. The taxi dropped me a block before the passport office. There were police everywhere. Here there are four groups of people: the police, the paramilitaries, the riot squads, and the Sandinista Youth. The paramilitaries were wearing balaclavas.

I saw the truck with people in hoods and I thought: they’ve got me. Right away I grabbed my phone, which was new and nice, but had photos, videos, contacts, conversations with the other kids, and broke it. I thought they were coming for me because the hooded men were very close, and I had a feeling they were going to get me. I was wearing boots, so I put my boot over it and broke it. 

They got out of the truck when I broke my phone. They didn’t say anything to me, they just grabbed me and put me inside. “We’ve got you now,” they said. They did something to my head, I think they hit me, and knocked me out. They covered my face. I didn’t see their faces. I don’t know where they took me. I don’t know if they took me to El Chipote. But I think they took me to a house, because they got one of my colleagues with other people, and they took some to El Chipote and others to a clandestine house. But another friend, who they took to El Chipote, described it and it seemed like the place where I was. So I don’t really know where they took me.

When they took me out of the van they told me: “You’re going to say everything”. 

Inside UNAN there were infiltrators who kept track of who was there and who interacted with donors, and who were the leaders at the entrances. “You’re going to say everything,” they told me. “But you know everything already, what can I tell you?” I replied. And they got angry. The place was dark and not a sound could be heard; it was very silent. There were three or four voices. After that they asked me about the leaders, about who Erasmo was, as well as Armando, who was one of the people who made a lot of money from everything we went through, by stealing donations. I did name Armando and a young woman who goes by the alias Pancha. I had to say her name. I had a long dispute with Pancha because she stole money from UNAN. She would make things up, make videos, and instruct people to ask for money, and I would always get angry because she wouldn’t give us money, not even to buy gas. She pocketed it. Molotov [Valeska Sandoval] also talked about her. 

Honestly, I don’t regret selling her out because she was a bad person. Then I mentioned other names that I made up, or I would change things. They told me that Valeska had said that Pícoro was the leader at entrance four. The questions were constant. They kept me disorientated, they wouldn’t let me sleep, they gave me only water and bread. They told me they were going to kill me and my family, too.

It was always the same man who would question me. Whenever he asked me things, I could hear the others’ voices. When I didn’t give them the answer they wanted, they would punch me. They beat me. They took photos. They forced me to get naked —“take off your clothes,” they said— and they photographed me. “We’re going to take pictures of you,” they told me. I didn’t cry when I was with them; I thought to myself, I’m not going to give them the pleasure of seeing me cry.

They left and when it was just me alone I would cry a lot, pray, and hold onto a little medallion I had with me. I thought about my family a lot. I had no notion of time. My poor mother, I thought to myself.

They only took that thing off [the hood] at night. I never saw faces. They left me alone in a room at night.

I was there from Thursday to Sunday. On the last day they carried on asking questions and they asked me who provided all the supplies. They wanted me to tell them that it was the MRS [Movement for Sandinista Renewal]… even the CIA [she laughs]. Because I wasn’t telling them what they wanted, they said, “We’re going to rape you.”’ 

They did it. They were… I don’t know… It wasn’t just one person. They were very rude.

—For the first time, China pauses. She has told her story at breathless pace. She bunches up her mouth, like a child, and cries. I don’t know what to say. I am silent. She comes back, her gaze fixed on some distant and invisible place, and continues.—

They were interviewing me. I was wearing clothes. “We’re going to rape you,” they said. One man said, “Leave the poor girl.” Maybe they were thinking about killing me. I thought they were going to leave me on Lead Hill, where El King’s burnt corpse appeared without a tongue. That’s why I thought they were going to kill me there. 

The day they raped me they released me. It took them maybe an hour to decide to take me out. I thought they were going to kill me. At that moment, I wanted them to kill me. I think it took about 40 minutes to get to the place where they let me go, in Bello Horizonte.   

I had been there with a group of other kids who were with us at UNAN. I went to a friend’s place. I got in the shower and washed. They gave me the number of a doctor who always supported us. She gave us sandals, clothes, food… She really did support us a lot. She came by for me on Monday. On Sunday I slept, I ate, and I slept. She took me to Baptist Hospital and they looked at where they had hit me and said they hadn’t harmed any internal organs. I had bruises on my back, shoulders, legs, chest. The doctor took me to a safehouse and said, “Stay here while we get you seen by doctors and you file a report.”

On Wednesday I went to the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center. Once I was inside, I told them everything that had happened to me. They didn’t tell me what they were going to do with the information. At least there is some documentation. 

After that, the same week, they took me to see the gynecologist in the Vivian Pellas Hospital. A woman gave me a medical assessment, and when the results came I didn’t have any infections. That doctor took me to a psychologist.

I felt that it was my fault for not having taken precautions. In my visits to the psychologist, she made me see that it wasn’t my fault. She gave me tasks and asked me to write essays and gave me goals. I like writing essays.

Again: In Nicaragua time has taken on a strange quality. One day the sun is coming out in 2018 and, as time goes on, while waiting in the queue for the passport office, some hooded men transport you into the darkest days of the 70s, into the sepia tales of a generation and their memories of safe houses, interrogation and torture, exile, groups of hooded men who would kidnap young people to terrorize them in sinister barracks.

Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo addressed the public on Sep. 29, 2018, a day after the regime prohibited protests against the government. Since April, state repression had caused the death of more than 500 Nicaraguans. Photo Víctor Peña
Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo addressed the public on Sep. 29, 2018, a day after the regime prohibited protests against the government. Since April, state repression had caused the death of more than 500 Nicaraguans. Photo Víctor Peña

China was studying Social Work. She was completing the fourth year of studies when they expelled her from UNAN for joining the barricades. She has left the safehouses and moved to her mother’s house. The police have only looked for her once, while she was out. They turned the house upside down and took her niece’s tablet. They showed no warrant.

The doctor who treated her prescribed Psicosoma, an anti-anxiety medication. “Now, I eat and sleep… Maybe I sleep too much, maybe it’s not good to sleep as much as I do,” she says.

She hopes to be able to get her passport and leave Nicaragua to study elsewhere. 

* * *

On Saturday, September 29, it was announced that Commander Daniel Ortega would give a speech on Avenida Bolívar, near the Hugo Chávez roundabout, at night. The president had previously been thought to be in New York, attending the 73rd General Assembly of the UN, where he would be the penultimate speaker. But no; the relationship between the Nicaraguan regime and the U.N. has seen better days. 

In August, Ortega expelled the U.N. Human Rights Commission from the country. They had published a devastating report against the regime, which Ortega accused of being false and lacking in impartiality.

On that same Saturday, the opposition announced another march — the “self-summoned, the Blue and White”. It was planned to leave from the Cristo Rey roundabout, to protest the abuses committed by pro-government forces. This march was going against a ruling: on the previous day, Friday, the police communicated via official press statement that from now on they would consider such protests illegal. They announced that now —just now— they would take action against anyone who organized or attended them. 

“The National Police will hold organizations and individuals who have organized, and who organise, these illegal and entirely unpacific activities, for any threat, harm, or risk posed to the lives or individual dignity, as well as for property damage affecting individuals or the state. Organizers are responsible, and will face criminal proceedings, for the threats, criminal activity, and aggression that occurs during these events,” reads the statement. Opposition organizations and the non-government press interpreted the announcement as a formal declaration of a police state and criminalization of the resistance. The U.N. Human Rights Commission agreed with this interpretation, saying that the order violated “the standard of rights to free and peaceful assembly.” As each day goes by in Nicaragua, the words of the U.N. and their commissioners are increasingly futile.

A storm was brewing overhead — and this was no metaphor; dark clouds were gathering slowly in the sky over Managua, warning of imminent rain. 

At times like these, reporters flock together through an unspoken principle of mutual assistance and, to be sincere about my own case, to disperse some of the fear. We, too, gathered our troops in a hotel near the Cristo Rey roundabout, where the opposition march would depart from. We left for the gathering in a group, listening to a radio that was transmitting what happened as it happened. One reporter was interviewing protesters when he announced to the studio, shouting and agitated, that they would have to suspend the transmission in order to flee. In the background explosions could be heard.

The opposition were never able to gather at Cristo Rey. It was taken over from the beginning by Ortega’s supporters, protected by National Police officers. They congregated around 100 meters away.

The practice of occupying possible meeting points for protesters even has its own verb associated with the action in Managua: “rotondear”, “to roundabout”. From daybreak each day, the city’s most emblematic roundabouts are occupied by people waving the red and black flags of the Sandinista National Liberation Front, invariably protected by police officers on motorcycles.

When the police approached to order the protesters to leave, and they refused to, so began the brawl: The riot police threw smoke bombs, fired riot control guns as well as some small and frightening cans, known here as aturdidoras, or “stunners,” that let off a sound like bombs going off.

By the time we managed to arrive, the protesters had fled in a stampede into the streets of the El Riguero neighborhood, made up of modest houses. The access points to the area were already blocked off by various riot squad units. We got out of our vehicles and ran toward the sounds of explosions. The police allowed us to enter El Riguero, watching us from behind their shields and riot gear with an unfriendly gaze.

Confusion reigned: people scattered in different directions, shouting any and every kind of instruction, an explosion, then another, smoke coming from who knows where. When the group of journalists with their cameras, flak jackets and microphones went by their houses, people praised us as if we truly had the possibility of doing something useful: “Tell them, tell them what they’re doing to us”; “record them”; “they took some kids away”. And then, suddenly, a group of people running towards us: “Run, run they’re coming!” More explosions. A neighbor opened her door for us to hide inside while the police went past. Without really knowing how, five reporters ended up inside one of these modest houses, where a man was saying prayers, asking the Virgin María for help. The sounds began to calm. We peered our heads out again. Multiple police trucks sped past, full of officers. Again, the voices: “they took those kids, they took them”, and “why are they doing this to us?”; “we have the right to protest”. The most experienced reporters got the worst of it. The police snatched away one CNN reporter’s camera and broke it. They also stole his bulletproof helmet. Another cameraman simply had his legs beaten. That was the moment that I realized that Victor Peña, El Faro’s photojournalist, wasn’t in the group.

Víctor got held up putting on his bulletproof gear, and when it came to entering El Riguero the riot squad would not let him through. He was left in full journalist attire and separated from the rest of the contingent. He was sizing up a wall, to see if he would be able to jump it, when a truck drew to a sudden halt beside him. Two women opened the door and shouted, “Get in! Don’t go around here by yourself, they’ll fuck you up,” and rescued him from the situation. On the way, his benefactors also scooped two women into the truck, as they were fleeing from the police charge. From the truck Víctor managed to photograph the police pursuing protesters.

Police dismantled the march organized at the Cristo Rey roundabout in Managua in the afternoon of Saturday, Sep. 29, 2018. The day before, the Nicaraguan Police prohibited protests against Daniel Ortega. Photo Víctor Peña
Police dismantled the march organized at the Cristo Rey roundabout in Managua in the afternoon of Saturday, Sep. 29, 2018. The day before, the Nicaraguan Police prohibited protests against Daniel Ortega. Photo Víctor Peña

Finally, we were able to regroup, and move toward the hotel where correspondents from various international news agencies were letting the world know what was happening. The opposition never managed to draw in a crowd. The memory of Matt Romero, the young man who was killed, and of the six wounded by bullets on the march prior, was still fresh. The regime used the attempt at protest to establish a precedent: any trace of tolerance was now over. The gathering of people lasted less than half an hour before being overcome by the violence of police and paramilitary.

The time came to go and cover the pro-government protest, which had marched a full six kilometers in the afternoon, from the Jean Paul Genie roundabout to the Hugo Chávez roundabout, accompanied by the police for the full route. In the afternoon a crowd prepared to listen to Commander Daniel Ortega.

The atmosphere was festive. At least a dozen buses of supporters were flooding into the crowd. It was a carnival on the main avenue, Avenida Bolívar: a group of musicians on a stage livened things up with cumbia; the streets were full of food stands, selling sweet and savory wares; Nicaraguan flags were being waved alongside those of the ruling party and groups of young people were dancing enthusiastically, taking turns to show off their best moves in the center of the ring. From the stage, between songs, speakers kept things lively: “Death to Somocismo!” “We keep going, for the victims of Somoza-supporting coup leaders.”

We made our way to the front, by the stage where Ortega would speak, when those big dark clouds fulfilled their promise and released heavy rain. One of the speakers on stage announced that “true Sandinistas” wouldn’t be put off by a few drops. The rain was “a blessing”, they said. By that point we were all soaking wet. As if the cheering had been insufficient, they announced: “Our true leader and comrade Rosario is on her way!” There was fanfare from the crowd, rejoicing, and cumbia sounded through the speakers while young men dressed in red danced like there was no tomorrow. 

Suddenly, the band was left without a sound system. With no notice, it was disconnected, and a version of Give Peace a Chance came on, adapted for such events: “What we want is work and peace,” went the lyrics, ad infinitum. This was the entrance music as Rosario Murillo came onstage. In real life, she is a striking image: like an American tourist in her visor, each finger adorned with huge rings, her necklaces, her face made-up, a sleepy smile. Accompanied by her two grandchildren, she made a “Victory” gesture and moved to the rhythm of her entrance song.

The main act was still to come. When it did, Daniel Ortega did not emerge from backstage. He moved among the masses, entering from the area in front of the stage, among the crowd who held out their hands; he cuddled children, smiled, and bestowed affection on the front rows of the crowd, all the while remaining under the vigilant eye of a large and visible contingent of bodyguards who opened his path and controlled the enthusiasm of his followers. He climbed onstage, where he was welcomed by his wife-vice president, his grandchildren, and a group of young people whose act included waving flags and casting admiring looks at him. The background music died down as he took the microphone. Silence: the Commander was about to speak. The producers left some instrumental music running in the background, to bring some additional gravitas to his speech.

“September twenty-ninth: here we all are. We have come to the last day of this victorious September.. the people are victorious, and the first Monday of October will be another victorious October, and so will every month this year…” His supporters quivered on each word, as if each one was of inconceivable genius.

Ortega continued for almost forty minutes, his voice rehearsed, dragging on each phrase, gestures solemn as Murillo looked on. He talked about poverty in New York, about the mortal threat posed by snow, about how the misery of that city had impacted the poet Rubén Darío. He said that the United Nations are not at all united, and that the world is divided between rich and poor. He said that “the oldest known empires”, since ancestral times, have tried to conquer others in order to make themselves stronger. He sent greetings to the presidents of Venezuela, Bolivia, and Cuba. He talked about the two world wars, the atomic bombs, the contamination of seas and forests. He assured the crowd that Hitler’s first rebellion was a coup d’état that was clear from the start: “What a coincidence, a coup d’état against the whole Left, backed up by the Right”. He made fun of the threats of sanctions coming from the United States Congress and invited them to remember their failure in enslaving “the people of Africa”.

Young supporters of the Ortega-Murillo regime held a demonstration near the Hugo Chávez roundabout in Managua on Sep. 29, 2018, on the same afternoon that the police attacked anti-government protestors. Photo Víctor Peña
Young supporters of the Ortega-Murillo regime held a demonstration near the Hugo Chávez roundabout in Managua on Sep. 29, 2018, on the same afternoon that the police attacked anti-government protestors. Photo Víctor Peña

There I was, trying to follow the Commander’s rhythm, when I realized I was surrounded by multiple officers in civilian clothing, their shirts bulky underneath. They were communicating with others through microphones between their lapel and ears. There were at least four. I wasn’t sure when they had appeared. From among the whole press contingent, for some inexplicable reason, they felt it necessary to come and interrogate me. It began as expected: they wanted my name, what media outlet I was working for, and they took photos of my press pass on both sides, then my photojournalist credential. From then on it was impossible to pay attention to Ortega’s speech, with the agents still there. It dawned on me that among the crowd there were many more agents than I had thought, including a huge woman who a few minutes earlier was dancing in the rain with a toy in the shape of a frog. When it came to questioning me, she snatched my credential from my hands with a martial arts-like movement. 

It felt like a good moment for us to leave. Luckily, the rest of my colleagues thought the same. We made our way through the crowd and walked down the Avenida Bolívar, followed —openly— by officers in civilian clothing who were talking to police in uniform and gesturing at us. Some of them even escorted us to the outskirts of the crowd, as the Commander was coming to an end on his crowd-pleasing updates.

* * *

I left Nicaragua on Monday, October 1, two days after the Commander’s speech. On my flight back to San Salvador was also Carl David Goette, a U.S. freelance journalist who usually writes articles for The Washington Post and The Guardian. The regime even threw him out of the country.

That same day, at around 11 am, police burst into Carl’s house —in typical fashion, without a warrant— and took him with only the clothes on his back. He wasn’t wearing shoes at the time, so he was left with none. They handcuffed him, put him into a police vehicle and drove him to an interrogation center, where he remained for hours. “They didn’t hide that this was down to my journalistic work. They never hid that they felt that my articles were negative about the government,” he remembered later.

They asked him for his friends’ names, and the name of his girlfriend. He did not give them any. They ordered him to unlock his phone. He refused. They warned him that if he continued to refuse, they would take him to El Chipote. “They said that the conversation we would have in El Chipote would be very different.” They made allusions to torture and when they grew tired of this gringo who said no to everything, they put him on a plane and deported him. Before throwing him out the country, a police officer appeared with a rucksack containing trousers, underwear, and shoes. The police had gone to the trouble of raiding the journalist’s house and choosing the clothes he would be deported in. They also put a lot of trash into the rucksack. “I don’t understand why they put trash in there,” said Carl, fear still in his voice.

He had lived in Nicaragua for three years. The police broke his phone and stole his memory card. He doesn’t know where most of his notebooks, computers, and hard drives are.

Since I left Nicaragua, the regime has been continuous with its zero-tolerance strategy. Every time someone has shown signs they may protest in public, the response is a hail of riot squads with no distinctions made over arresting students or the elderly.   

On rebel WhatsApp groups photographs and names circulate of many young people who are abducted by hooded men traveling in private vehicles without license plates. Some are released after a few days, others are accused of terrorism in courts controlled by Ortega. Others remain disappeared.

While I was still writing this story, on the morning of October 14, the police captured at least twenty people who were gathering in order to try, again, to express their discontent with a march. Images show the police dragging one woman along the ground to force her into a police vehicle, or carrying a man between several of them to put him in the back of a pick-up. The regime says that any protest against them is an act of terrorism.   

* * *

Rum is lighting up these youths’ eyes now. Even shy Maca, so careful with words, has let her hair down and started telling stories. The day the police razed UNAN she was in Monimbó, offering medical services to other students in revolt.

Maca had a few months left to complete her degree. She won’t be returning to her campus, she says, as that would mean it had all been in vain. On top of that, of course, is the possibility she will be disappeared on her way out.

In one of the three rooms of the safe house, the four youths have laid out a slim mattress, one of their few possessions. Photo Víctor Peña
In one of the three rooms of the safe house, the four youths have laid out a slim mattress, one of their few possessions. Photo Víctor Peña

Doctor Veneno takes huge gulps and winces as he bites a lemon. He curses the teachers who abandoned them amid the chaos and, like Maca, knows he cannot return to his university.

Drink has brought out Tigrillo’s sensitive side, and he mumbles that he can’t see a way out. His eyes turn watery, and he repeats this personal mantra —I don’t know if for me, or to himself— that he fears, above all else, that he hasn’t done enough.

Sometime after midnight the young men and women make themselves comfortable on their mats and fall asleep. Silence falls in the hideout.

This chronicle, translated by Ali Sargent, is the third and final installment in a series on the birth of the 2018 repression in Nicaragua. Read parts one and two.

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