Torture in the detention centers
The following is a summary of “Going back to being human,”
a preliminary report about torture in the regime’s detention centers
written by human rights defenders in the Colectivo Nicaragua Nunca+.
They originally were part of the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH),
and took exile in Costa Rica during the December 2018 repressive wave.
This important report is the first extended documentation of the horror
that was and still is being experienced by people imprisoned
for opposing the Ortega-Murillo regime after the
April 2018 civic rebellion.
Colectivo Nicaragua Nunca +
When we interviewed Alex Pérez, a former political prisoner, after his release, he answered our greeting, “How are you?” with: “I’m here, going back to being human.” His experience in prison, marked by the abuses he suffered, was stark evidence of the total inhumanity in the treatment political prisoners have received. For Pérez and his children Kevin and Kitzel Pérez Valdivia, who were also imprisoned and released, returning to family and community life after all the torture and confinement will be a difficult process. Many political prisoners, both women and men, will go through the same.
The protests that began on April 18, 2018, against the Social Security reforms and the State’s repressive response, classified as “judicial persecution and criminalization of social protest” by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), resulted in the abduction and detention of more than 5,000 people. As of the closing date this report, May 3, at least 600 were still imprisoned in penitentiary centers, police station holding cells, the Auxiliary Judicial Department of the National PLolice in Managua 2019 or are now under house arrest.
The information we are sharing in this preliminary report is based on 17 interviews with people who were released and information others have given to the media.
All the information gathered reveals cruel, humiliating and degrading treatment and violations of the detainees’ right to due process and legal protection. In fact, even after their release, these people are in legal uncertainty because the government has not allowed them access to the document it forced them to sign without reading its contents.
The IACHR Special Rapporteur for persons deprived of liberty, Joel Hernández, said the Nicaraguan government is not complying with the proper release process, which should be “orderly, speedy, transparent and with legal certainty in regards to the status of those released.”
“It’s been days now and we dream we’re being caught...” All people we interviewed remember with anguish the fear they experienced at the moment of their detention.
Before being picked up, virtually all of them had been threatened and were included on lists. The threats were received personally, through social networks or on written notes left at their homes. In many cases the threats were also against their family members: that they too would be imprisoned, raped, killed, their houses destroyed...
The people who received the most threats were those who had been members of the governing party but had participated in some way in the roadblocks or barricades. Those threatening them were members of the Councils of Citizens’ Power (CPC) and/or of the Sandinista Youth, university students allied with the governing party and, in some cases, neighbors and even their own relatives.
Almost all detentions were accompanied by illegal and disproportionate use of force as punishment for participating in the civic protests. “You have gone against our President and you will pay dear for that,” Chinandega’s police chief said to one person being detained.
Even traffic police had lists on which the names of people detained appeared. One interviewee told us he was detained at a police checkpoint in Cuatro Esquinas, Carazo: “I don’t know how they had pictures of people they were looking for. The police officer asked if I as the one in the picture he had there and when I said ‘yes’ he said to me: ‘You’re under arrest.’”
Most of the arrests between June and September of 2018 were combined operations of police and parapolice/ paramilitaries. When only parapolice were conducting the abductions—we documented three cases—the detainees were taken to clandestine centers.
Both the parapolice and National Police agents used illegal and irrational force as well as firearms during the detentions. The agents frequently exhibited hate towards the people they were detaining: “A woman police officer entered our car and began to insult us... [Once outside the car and forced to lie on the street] when I raised my head, the woman kicked me on the side of the head and shot off her gun saying: Kill those criminal dogs! The bullet hit our driver and shrapnel from the bullet hit my sister’s leg. The driver said: ‘I’m hit, I’m wounded’...and the woman officer said: ‘I don’t give a shit! Die, you jerk!’”
Another person detained during that same operation said: “They hit me so hard with the butt of their rifle that I lost hearing in my left ear, they also hit me in the nose and I have problems breathing; I can only breathe through one nostril. They also knocked out a tooth and the officer loaded her AK, pointing it to my temple.”
All the detentions we have documented involved verbal violence, threats with firearms, and physical violence using fists and kicks, police batons or butts of heavy firearms. The people detained were thrown into the back of pickups “like animals.” There they were ordered to remain with their heads down; to make sure they did, an officer was in charge of placing his boot in their face. Whoever dared lift their head were beaten.
Three people told how during their transfer to the detention centers they were threatened with being thrown off the Cuesta del Plomo cliffs in Managua or from the lighthouse in Granada. Five people referred to threats of rape of either themselves or their relatives. “We’re going to rape your wife!” was one of the threats. People taken to the clandestine prisons were hooded or blindfolded and gagged.
The clandestine prisons
There is evidence in our interviews of the existence of clandestine detention centers. Some were placed in houses known as “zonal FSLN offices,” and others in faraway places.
Parapolice forces were the ones who transferred detainees to those places. They generally operated with hoods and moved around in police trucks or in white or light-colored Toyota Hilux trucks either with polarized glass and/or without license plates. Usually there were eight per vehicle, all with high caliber weapons. “There were foreigners working with the police” identified by their accents.
These operations were characterized by their speed: the person detained was ambushed with guns pointed at them, then were handcuffed, covered with hoods, gagged and, forced into the back of pick-up trucks where they are beaten and threatened with death. Those abducted like that were kept at those clandestine places for between a day and a week, then either freed or transferred to local police cells.
In these clandestine places they were interrogated by parapolice who would use physical violence, gradually increasing it when they didn’t get answers. In the “zonal offices” they used fists, kicks, knives and blunt force weapons. In faraway places they used tasers or cattle prods, hung the prisoner upside down from shackles, gave constant blows to the testicles, applied Russian roulette and other torture methods, and denied food or water. Another method of torture was telling the prisoner they knew their family’s location.
According to our interviewees, one of the clandestine centers is on a farm six kilometers “coming from Poneloya towards León, after crossing a river.” One interviewee was abducted with 12-14 other persons, one of whom was a “blond kid, chubby, tall with tattoos on his arms; they called him ‘teacher’.” When the person interviewed was moved to León he heard that kid had been executed...
The interviewee told us that in that place “they would hang you from your feet and would beat you to unconsciousness.” Another interviewee said he was abducted to the FSLN zonal office in Matagalpa, where he was cut with a knife on his arms, hands, torso, chest and legs and was later “freed” by throwing him out in the middle of a field covered in blood. Another person interviewed was beaten in that same zonal office, according to him, under orders from the mayor, Sadrach Zeledón.
Public presentation of detainees
Analyzing the testimonies of eight people presented in the media as “terrorists,” we found four serious violations of their rights, also committed in many other cases.
They were presented without having been brought before a judge, and after having spent more than 48 hours in detention. They had previously been beaten, tortured and threatened. Firearms were “planted” on some of them to be able to accuse them of carrying weapons. They were presented wearing different clothes than what they were wearing when detained. As one person told his mother: “They changed me into the first shirt they could find because the one I’d been wearing was drenched in blood from the beating they gave me.”
In El Chipote and in the municipalities
Sixteen of those interviewed were detained in the cells of the Judicial Assistance Department in Managua known as El Chipote. All reported that they had been tortured and put in isolation.
We also received reports of similar torture in the police stations of Sebaco, Masaya, Matagalpa, León, Carazo, Chinandega and the ‘Felix Carrillo’ Police Prosecution Center in Granada.
Eleven interviewees were tortured and brutally beaten by police and parapolice in the police station cells of their municipality or in a neighboring municipality before being moved to El Chipote. Characteristics of the local police cells include that the police incite the common prisoners to beat up the political prisoners, crowding is greater and the parapolice who do the torturing are from other places: those from Managua operated in Granada and those from Matagalpa in Sébaco.
Arriving at El Chipote
People are delivered to El Chipote handcuffed. When they enter they are not allowed to look up. First they go through a room: “As soon I entered, the officers start offending, threatening, saying we were better off dead for being against the government...”
They are forced to undress, even in front of officers of the opposite sex and other detainees. They have to do 50 squats. One person interviewed told us: “They told us they were going to put us in a cell so the common prisoners could beat us, that they were even going to rape us in there.”
Upon entry all information from the detainees is gathered and a paraffin test is done to see if they’ve fired a gun. One detained person who was in a clandestine center told us that first they made him shoot a gun and then did the test. They are photographed and their fingerprints are taken. Six people told us they were forced to sign a document accepting that they are “terrorists.”
The next step is the transfer to holding cells: “They keep us there like animals on exhibit.” It’s a cell with bars and the prison workers who pass by offend the detainees and take pictures or videos of them. They are nude or in underwear and are handcuffed with their hands behind their backs, which is very painful. Usually they spend at least four hours in this cell, which is only two square meters and has a cement seat. Even though only one person fits, sometimes up to three are placed in them.
After the detainees leave the holding cells they are taken to interrogation, always accompanied by torture. The interrogation methods vary according to the information being sought and the person being interrogated. Threats towards family, wife and children are constant to try to force them into signing blank documents that later incriminate other people. In nine cases, the detainees were interrogated in underwear or in clothes bloodied from the beatings they received.
The interrogations try to break down the person’s resistance, not only through threats towards their relatives, but also by discrediting their cause, making them feel defenseless, claiming that a given person they trust will not save them. People in leadership were tortured with a special viciousness.
All those interviewed said they were interrogated at least twice a day, even in the early morning, during the first days in tiring interrogations of half an hour or more, usually handcuffed with their hands behind their back, sitting on a stool so short they were practically squatting. They were also interrogated standing up or on their knees.
The interrogations were preceded by beatings, sleep deprivation and other methods to keep the detainees in a permanent state of alert.
We identified several types of interrogations. In one, an investigation officer was in front and two officers, usually hooded, were behind the prisoner. The two in back were in charge of beating the person if he didn’t respond. On some occasions the questions were guided by an officer who didn’t talk to the prisoner, but whispered the questions to another officer. In another modality, two alternating officers act, one pressuring the detained person psychologically and the other physically attacking him, even before any questioning. Yet another modality included practicing torture while asking the questions.
Some of those interviewed mentioned specific areas for torture in underground rooms of El Chipote, in a place known as El Caracol. In that place and in the punishment cells the interrogations were accompanied by more violent torture.
Always the same three questions
Sexual violence and sexual assaults are constant, forcing women and men to undress in front of officers of the same or opposite sex. One of the women interviewed was forced to undress completely and the door to the interrogation room was left open so anybody passing could see her. Threats of rape towards either the detainees or any of their relatives were frequent. The media have published testimonies of sexual violations of both male and female detainees.
Even though the interrogations seek to cause pain more than to obtain information, beatings and sexual attacks are meted out for not giving information, as are threats like being deprived of family visits, sentenced 30 years in prison, bringing harm to their family, having their children taken away and even death … “I never thought I could feel so much fear”, said one interviewed man who was shown pictures of his wife in handcuffs, and threatened that they would also process her also, leaving his children without parents. Another interviewee told us that to take him to the interrogations they would handcuff and hood him and take him out of his cell holding a gun to his head.
“The officers would change, but the questions were always the same.” No matter the place, form, time or who did the interrogating, the same three questions were always asked: Who finances you? Where are the arms? and Where are the leaders? Even though there were never any answers, they insisted with the same questions and always claimed it was impossible nobody was financing them.
At the end of the interrogations, they would be forced to sign a document or film a video accusing other people, accepting the acts they were being accused of or reading something incriminting they were given. Most of the time that attempt was unsuccessful, though they were made to sign a document they weren’t allowed to read.
The interrogation cells
The people interviewed described several different interrogation rooms. Some were interrogated in a clean, totally closed cell of about 6 square meters, with a desk, a chair or a small stool.
Two people mentioned El Caracol as a place for interrogations. One of those interviewed is certain he was there, having to go down steps to get there. Another two interviewees related having been in an underground cell, dirty and dark, where they were handcuffed to a chair and given electric shocks. Once the officer would leave, the room would be filled with water up to the detained person’s knees. Another person interviewed spoke of having heard the testimony of “a gentleman” who was also there.
One person told us it was “cell number 17.” Another mentioned a cell that was “totally sealed, very hot,” with only six small holes in the wall. Other interrogation cells were remembered for having instruments of torture within the detainee’s sight: tasers, firearms, nunchucks, handcuffs, pliers, bats, machetes… Three people told us that the men who did the torturing in these cells had Cuban and Venezuelan accents.
The blows, tortures and unhealthy conditions in El Chipote, added to the negligence in responding to the prisoners’ health problems, have had repercussions on those leaving the prison. Some have been affected with constant pain.
The interrogations are frequently done at dawn and with excessive physical violence and viciousness. Three people mentioned the pliers. One told how on the fourth day of detention they placed a pair of pliers on his clavicle, wet it and applied several electric discharges until he lost consciousness. Some were threatened with having their fingernails pulled out with pliers and it was actually done to one of the people we interviewed. Another explained how they have a rudimentary machine to pull out fingernails, with a needle that is inserted under the nail and then pulled with pressure. They burnt the soles of the feet of a 17 year-old.
Men are also tortured with blows and kicks to the testicles. Two of the interviewees mentioned having their testicles burned with lit cigarettes. One of those interviewed told how one torturer, with scissors in hand, threatened to cut them off. Cigarettes were also applied to other parts of the body.
Political prisoner Olesia Muñoz Pavón was brutally tortured in the Masaya police station for having supported the roadblock in Niquinohomo. “Your family is dead,” they told her when she was arrested. Her relatives charged that in El Chipote they placed a plastic bag over her head to asphyxiate her and often a woman officer with her face covered would come at night to bathe her with cold water, a method used with other detainees.
“There are only guys with balls around here!”, yelled the officers in El Chipote, acting with especially humiliating cruelty several people with different sexual orientations. According to her prison mates, “Kisha,” a transgender woman, didn’t stop crying for two whole days and when she was able to talk between sobbing she just shouted (the only means of communication between cells) that they had done “terrible things to her.”
The detention cells
El Chipote’s detention cells are designed to make detained people suffer. They are remembered as dark, reeking, hot, small and dirty, without minimum conditions. Just to be in them is torture. Except for cell number 33, all hygienic services are just a 4" hole in the floor and a 8"-deep basin with running water for the detainee to bathe in, store and drink.
The water comes on twice a day for 10 minutes: at 4 in the morning and at night. We heard of four cases of detasinees who only got water once a day or as punishment for not “talking” even once during their interrogations. There is nowhere to wash and dry underwear in these cells, so they have to try to wash them and then put back on wet. Women are not allowed sanitary napkins during their menstruation and underwear was taken away from three of them.
All the people interviewed told us that their families would bring them food, water and personal hygiene objects to El Chipote. But to make them suffer, the food and water was given to them two days later and the hygiene objects up to two weeks later.
The officers would conduct searches in all cells twice a day, between 5 and 6 in the morning and between 8 and 9 at night; at midnight on some occasions. During those searches they would have the detained people exit the cell with their hands on their heads. To avoid them taking away their belongings and food in the cell, which is common, the detainees would hide them in the one-square-foot space of the roof with bars. Only in some of the cells did sunlight come in through that space.
Isolation produces “a huge
desire to talk to someone”
Most of the cells have two cement bunk beds; one cell had wooden ones. The prisoners were usually totally alone or with one other person. Family members are separated into different cells. Communication between cells is only by shouting.
Carlos Valle, a released prisoner, told international media: “Our friends were the cats that would come and beg for food from the bars of the roof. We would feed them and even talk with them so we wouldn’t go crazy...The desire to talk with someone was so immense.”
The doors to the cells are “airtight, heavy and locked with locks,” reported one of those interviewed. The door has a space of about one square foot through which they deliver the food. They would also open the doors very early in the morning to shine a light into the cell to interrupt the person’s sleep. Sometimes they would unlock the door, which screeches when opened. One person interviewed said to us: “The terror, the uncertainty of just hearing those keys... It was so horrible, since you thought they were coming to take you out for a beating.”
In “La Modelo” and
“La Esperanza” prisons
When political prisoners are transferred to the penitentiary centers of La Modelo in Tipitapa and the women’s prison, La Esperanza, in Managua, admission would take all day, during which they couldn’t eat or drink and had to bear the pain of being handcuffed with their arms behind their backs. Once inside, they were isolated, and common prisoners were not allowed to talk to them or help them. They were deprived of any physical activity and recreation. They were placed in the Adaptation Regime, which is illegal because this type of regime is for people with an official sentence and previous violent behaviors.
Being transferred to La Modelo and La Esperanca doesn’t represent anything positive for political prisoners. Everyone detained in both centers says the water quality is deplorable, which of course has repercussions on their health. The food is also terrible in both places. Detainees call the rice and beans that comes in a plastic bag “the pacifier.” “It comes with cockroaches, mice turds, pieces of sacks, glass, metal shavings… The rice is mushy, the ‘gallopinto’ and plantains are foul.” One released political prisoner was able to get a bit of that food examined in a laboratory. The results showed that it contained arsenic.
The regime imposed on them only allows them conjugal and family visits every 21 days, not every 15 days, like the other prisoners. The visit, instead of lasting for three hours, lasts half that time and isn’t in person but through a glass with a telephone, with a guard or two close all the time. Officers constantly threaten to suspend their visits.
During visits, family are allowed to bring them food. The rest of the time, the entry of food, medicine and clothes is very strict. Before receiving visits from their relatives, the detainees have to take off their clothes, are forced to do squats and are sometimes beaten. When they get conjugal visits both the men and their partners are undressed, the man’s penis is checked and pictures are taken of both them and their children.
The prisoners are kept uninformed. In both centers access to print and televised media are prohibited. The common prisoners can use a radio, but they must keep the volume low. Sometimes the political prisoners can hear them: “They’ve been talking about our release since October... We’ve been released about ten times... It’s torture.”
They are allowed out to the yard for sun only twice a month for 10 to 40 minutes. Permission is discretionary. Before going out to walk, detainees are undressed and forced to do squats. In the yard they are photographed to show that they have rights. The common prisoners are not allowed to relate to them in the yard.
Some names of the torturers
In El Modelo prison, penitentiary agents are in charge of constantly hounding and harassing the political prisoners.
Eleven interviewees, released from cells 001 and 004, told how penitentiary agents would frequently offend and threaten them by yelling: “Don’t go to sleep! We’re going to machine-gun you, we’re just waiting for orders!” Other times they would come to the doors and pound on them just to make a loud noise to wake them up.
The political prisoners have protested such violations of their human rights. Among the executors of repression against them they particularly mentioned two men, one nicknamed “Tropi¬kong” and the other “Mayorga,” whom they described physically. During admission to La Modelo, First Officer Vladimir Chávez Chávez came to threaten them, warning them that human rights did not exist in there and that he could beat them as often as he wanted. They described him as a tall husky, dark person with little hair.
The crime of blue and white
Anything blue and white was forbidden. So was singing the national anthem and if they did they were repressed. It is why there have been serious repressive acts, for example on December 31, 2018. That day the political prisoners wanted to celebrate New Year’s and “forget for a while.” They wrote what happened in a letter: “We sang a Christian hymn and followed it with the national anthem in honor of those who were killed by criminals with impunity and are free out on the streets. This human gesture was viciously repressed by a group of prison officers headed by Warden Palacios and First Officer Vladimir Chávez Chávez, who entered our prison block aggressively with death threats and obscene language, carrying canisters of pepper spray, accompanied by dogs and AK-47 rifles...”
One interviewee said they came in threatening that “Whoever isn’t in his bunk is a dead man!” This operation was conducted by 200 penitentiary officials, among them agents dressed in black from the Police Special Operations Division.
On February 19 there was another violent operation. According to testimonies, some political prisoners were going to be moved to another blockl due to problems with the showers “under the orders of Venancio Alaniz,” director of the penitentiary system. When it came time to move them, those from the other block, not knowing where they were being taken, started to sing the national anthem. This exploded into repression. The guards beat and injured at least 13 political prisoners, breaking the left arm of one prisoner, again using tear gas, pepper spray and rocks, while the political prisoners defended themselves by throwing oatmeal, corn meal and soap...
The last aggression we heard of happened on March 8. A political prisoner locked up in one of the most inhuman of all cells in La Modelo, known as the “Infiernillo,” described the following: “We were taken from our cells with shackles on our feet and handcuffs on our hands. They stuck us in a punishment cell where they hung us upside down and we were beaten by many cowardly guards... I heard Guevara say, ‘I’m going to show you how a real man punches’. He, along with Ignacio Matus and William Trujillo, attacked us savagely... All the guards who work in La Modelo had the pleasure of giving each one of us a beating... It was like a party for them... The common prisoners were begging them to have mercy on us...”
Political prisoners and
crimes against humanity
All the political prisoners interviewed gave testimonies that they had been victims of torture, put through cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment, more as punishment for opposing the government than for the purpose of obtaining “confessions.”
All people who having been illegally detained and held for a long time then later faced judicial processes went through this as a consequence of a repressive governmental policy that punishes expressing one’s opposition towards the government. This makes them political prisoners. The detentions and torture by which they mistreated them had the purpose of demobilizing the social protest, imposing terror on them and their families.
All the detention centers, be they police stations, penitentiaries or clandestine sites, use torture. Illegal imprisonment and the torture, including sexual violence, directed in a systematic way against political prisoners are crimes at a national and international level. Theresponsibility of those who committed these crimes should be established to avoid impunity.
All the testimonies collected show that the Nicaraguan State is responsible for this policy of repression, persecution, criminalization and discrimination, executed through its institutions. Its officials must be investigated to find truth, justice and reparation, and guarantee that there will be no repetition.
“Going back to being human” is a preliminary report aimed at helping recover the political prisoners’ memory. Documenting this horror they’ve lived through will contribute to knowing the truth, providing justice, promoting reparation and guaranteeing that these horrors are not repeated ever again in Nicaragua.
Edited summary of the preliminary report “Volviendo a ser humano” (“Going back to being human), by Nicaraguan human rights defenders in the Colectivo Nicaragua NUNCA+, published in Costa Rica on May 3, 2019.