Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 441 | Abril 2018



A country’s prisons reflect its social and political reality

As a lawyer, a political prisoner and then a human rights defender, she has known the prisons of the Somoza era, the revolution, the Liberal governments and the present day. The author recalls some of those experiences with Nicaragua’s prison system over half a century.

Vilma Núñez de Escorcia

I want to share not so much a legal or technical analysis of Nicaragua’s penitentiary system as some of my experiencces defending prisoners, given that I was a prisoner myself and have also investigated the situation of prisons to defend the human rights of those behind bars. Only a few days ago I returned from Bogota where the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH) participated in the 167th period of sessions of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), having finally persuaded it to give us a hearing on the grave situation now existing in Nicaragua’s prisons. I use the term grave because we now have an increasingly numerous and repressed prison population.

A particularly tragic case

We returned satisfied because we felt the data we provided allowed the IACHR to see just how serious the situation is. This included details of one particular case earlier this year involving a peasant farmer named Juan Lanzas—a case both the Commission and CENIDH consider torture. The police brutally mistreated this man when they captured him for a crime he didn’t commit, then left him abandoned in Matagalpa’s highly unsanitary police cells following inadequate medical attention to his injuries, which eventually required the amputation of both his feet.

He has yet to receive compensation or appropriate health treatment and we still don’t know what illness he contracted in that place or if he’ll ever be able to walk again, even with adequate prostheses. Moreover, no one has been sanctioned for what was done to him.

An emotionally difficult
review of prison history

Before beginning this historical review of the penitentiary system’s past and present, including the police jail cells, I want to explain that it has been emotionally difficult for me to recall all my experiences with our prisons, reviving painful memories of both my own experiences and those of other prisoners. Nonetheless, while what I’m going to describe isn’t at all inspiring, I consider it necessary.

The first thing we need to remind ourselves of is that the Penitentiary Regime and Sentence Execution Law (Law 478) was not passed and regulated until 2003-2004, during President Enrique Bolaños’ term, finally giving Nicaragua’s penitentiary system solid legal support. Everything done up to that time involved greater or lesser good intentions and agreements that lacked the necessary legal force for such a socially important issue.


Even though it was a long time ago, I can talk about the prison system during the Somocista dictatorship because I experienced it directly, in one case as a prisoner myself.

When the first Somoza came to power in 1934, the only set of prison regulations was one enacted in 1879 together with the Penal Code. It remained in effect nearly a hundred years, until 1974. I don’t know what that first legal set of norms meant in practice during the Somocista period, because it wasn’t a case of having a military command in one place, a police station in another and a prison in another. The National Guard centralized all military, police and prison functions. It controlled everything, and the military command, police station and prison were all in the same place.

Memories of my
dad’s imprisonment

My first contact with a prison came when I was seven or eight years old in Acoyapa, where I was born. The jail and the Guard command post were in the same place and there were no separate police. As my father was a leader of the Conservative Party in the town, he was taken prisoner every time there was any movement against Somoza. That affected all of his children, because we’d go visit him, take him food and beg the Guard to let us see him. I recall the smell of the creosote-based disinfectant in the cells, which were called bartolinas (dungeons) in those days.

Years later when I was a lawyer, I occasionally defended common prisoners in various municipalities of León and Chinandega, including Telica, Quezalguaque and Posoltega. All the jails were just like those I had seen as a little girl in Acoyapa. Each National Guard complex was a mix of Guard offices and corridors with the bartolinas where the prisoners were held.

La 21

When I went to live and study in León in 1958, I finally got a first-hand view of La 21, a prison built in 1921, which the Somocista regime had converted into a reference point of repression. Everyone in León remembered the case of Uriel Sotomayor, the first university leader imprisoned and killed by the National Guard in that prison. I had a close relationship with his mother, doña Delfina, and his brother Humberto. She told me that Uriel was taken prisoner one night and the following day the Guard informed her he had fallen out of bed and died. When doña Delfina went to La 21 with a group of people to get more news, they threw her son’s bloodied body out onto the street from the door of the prison, which was on a higher level.

In 1959 I had the chance to enter La 21 and learn about it from the inside. The young poet, writer and outstanding revolutionary Fernando Gordillo was being held there. He was one of the most brilliant members of what was called “the July 23 generation” for the date of a student massacre committed by the Guard. I can’t recall exactly why the dictatorship was holding Fernando at the time. He was in my year of law school and we were good friends. When he was allowed visitors, I went to see him with his mother, doña Alicia Cervantes de Gordillo, and we were able to slip messages to him from the university comrades who were struggling against Somoza and had information he needed to know.

La 21 had a big reception area with a door that led to a corridor that had a yard opposite it. Beyond the yard, behind very high walls and iron grillwork, were various sized prisoners’ cells. One they called “la Chiquita” [the little cell] was for torturing political prisoners through beatings, electric prods and who knows what other methods… They even tortured as-yet unconvicted common prisoners to get them to confess, and those already sentenced were sent out to sweep the streets of León. Some prisoners told me there had been a huge trough of water in the yard underneath a mango tree… the tree is still there today. The prisoners were tied by their ankles or waist, hung from the tree and lowered into the water. They were only pulled out when there were nearly drowned. They would be dunked like that over and over again until they talked. La 21 was one of the cruelest and most inhumane prisons in Nicaragua’s penitentiary history.

I specialized in penal law
but learned about solidarity

I graduated as a lawyer specializing in penal law, but I began defending common prisoners as a student, even before graduating. I worked in the law office of Óscar Herdocia, and since that wasn’t his specialty he would give me any penal cases that came to his office. I didn’t like being a prosecuting attorney. I can’t recall having accused more than a couple of cases, which I won. But I always listened to the complaints of the common prisoners I defended because they spoke with such force of tortures like the dunking from the mango tree.

Once I became a lawyer specializing in penal law I defended a lot of common prisoners. I also met their family members, who are direct victims of the tragedy a family lives through when it has a member deprived of freedom. I learned what solidarity is from those families. I’ve never known greater solidarity than that which exists between a prisoner and his or her family. Nicaraguans always defend family members when they are unjustly accused, innocent, or at least receive an unfair sentence…

In those years I defended many people—always very poor—who were involved or at least accused of being involved in some offense. Defending the poor has always been an important part of my professional life. Detractors of the work done by those of us defending human rights now call us “defenders of delinquents.” It’s an illogical attempt to denigrate us, because it suggests that delinquents or criminals don’t have human rights that must be respected. Most of the people we find in prison today belong to a forgotten sector of society, victims of the injustices and exclusion that has denied them opportunities and launched them into criminal activity.

I also did some work on criminology, and I don’t believe anyone is born a criminal. I think criminals are molded by the environment in which they develop and the circumstances they’ve had to live with and tough out.

I linked up with the FSLN by
defending political prisoners

I saw a whole different reality when it fell to me to defend political prisoners, whose cases I always took pro bono. One of the important cases was that of Sutiaba people who had taken over land in Las Lomas del Panecillo in the indigenous community of Sutiaba. They were repressed—some were even killed—and all the community leaders were taken prisoner. Several lawyers defended them. The combination of that defense and grassroots pressure in the streets obliged the judges to dismiss the charges of penal responsibility against them and the National Guard to release them.

I wasn’t aware at the time that the takeover of those lands was coordinated and organized by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). Afterwards, Salvador Pérez, a member of the indigenous community, asked me in the name of the FSLN to collaborate with it. That was how I began to build links with the FSLN until virtually becoming the official defender of everyone taken prisoner in León in those years. The pre-insurrectionary struggle found me defending already organized political prisoners arrested while participating in actions the FSLN had organized. At that time I was linked to its tercerista tendency, also known as the insurrectionists.

Prisoners’ visitor
rights then and now

Jumping a bit ahead for a minute, I want to point out from my personal experience that the Somocista dictatorship never prevented any lawyer entering a jail to defend either a common or political prisoner. I can’t recall either me or any of my defense lawyer colleagues ever being stopped from talking to those we were defending, even though we visited them at whatever hour we could make it. It is a right of prisoners to be able to communicate with their defense lawyer at any time, and that was respected during the dictatorship.

The prisons had precarious and unhealthy conditions that didn’t meet any prison norms but all the ones I got to know at the time, including La 21, let prisoners’ relatives enter and take them food three times a day. I still remember the long line of families taking food to the prisoners at noon on the dot in León.

All that changed when Daniel Ortega returned to government in 2007. Now neither human rights organizations nor prisoners’ defense lawyers are allowed to enter the prisons. Even prisoners’ families suffer all kinds of grief today trying to get permission to visit incarcerated relatives. The officials humiliate them, go through the food with their fingers and only sometimes allow them to enter. Disrespect and sexual blackmail of women has become a regular practice during family visits, particularly in La Modelo prison in Tipitapa.

How I knew León’s other prisons

La 21 wasn’t León’s only prison. The National Guard also had a military command post with cells where they detained, interrogated and tortured people. And both the Somocista regime and the revolutionary government used the Acosasco Fortress—built on León’s southern high ground in the late 19th century to defend the city—as a prison.

The prisons I knew best from that period are all in León. I learned about some of the others around the country from reading about them, or from people I’ve talked to. My direct knowledge of the reality in León’s prisons came partly from my relationship with prisoners I defended but also from having been a political prisoner myself in all three of them.

My own prison experience

In 1979, four months before the triumph of the revolution, the National Guard captured me and my husband, Otto Escorcia, for collaborating with the FSLN. First they took us to the Fortress, where they held us for five days in separate cells. Every day they took me to their interrogation room, naked and hooded, and forced me to do squats for hours until I couldn’t continue. They also applied electricity to me on the wet floor three or four times. Few people survived the tortures in that terrible place. A writ of habeas corpus led to Otto’s release and me being moved to the Military Command, where they tried to just leave me. But there was so much pressure to get me transferred out of there that by the end of that same afternoon they took me to La 21, which I was so afraid of.

I can never forget the solidarity of colleagues, friends from many countries and even an Amnesty International campaign initiated right after Otto and I were captured. Finally a military tribunal sentenced me to two years in prison and a fine and they transferred me to La Modelo prison in Tipitapa in a convoy guarded by about 10 BECAP jeeps, which Somoza used to capture and repress people. After several months I was released thanks to a colleague I knew only by name who paid both my bail bond and fine. But the Tribunal’s sentence left the case open by putting me under a “security order” for having “committed crimes against the Political Constitution of the State,” so I was at risk of being thrown back into jail again. By then it was July 1979, barely a week before the triumph of the revolution.

A hint of things to come

Three days after the triumph, I returned from Managua to the city of León, which was by then already being governed by the FSLN. I wanted to learn more about where I had been held in the Acosasco Fortress, so I asked some compañeros to take me there. I recognized the place where I had been, where they had interrogated me. I toured the whole gloomy place. The tunnels were absolutely filthy, with mice running up and down.

To the north of the yard were some closed-off basements. When they lifted the hatches for me I saw stairs going down and a man sitting on one of the steps. I learned that his last name was Espinales. He was one of Somoza’s torturers in León and together with another guy named Chele Aguilera he was the terror of the city and surrounding areas. They had captured him and imprisoned him in that dungeon. Espinales just stared at me. When we left I asked those accompanying me to get him out of there. “You can’t keep him there!” I said. They told me that only Ana Isabel Morales and Carlos Nájar, the State Security chiefs in León, could give that order. I later learned they had killed him, although I never found out when or how.

Why am I telling this anecdote? I only remembered it now, while preparing this history;: I had erased it from my memory. Recalling that regrettable moment it occurred to me that if I hadn’t believed so deeply in the “coherence” of the revolutionary leadership I might well have suspected then what was going to happened in so many places to so many people.

Managua’s prisons

Returning to the Somoza era, Managua’s jails were even more terrible than those in León. I remembered when they captured us in our home and took us blindfolded to the Fortress, the idea of being sent to a prison in Managua triggered more fear in me than being left in one in León. I was consumed by that fear. The news about the terrible tortures and death Somoza was ordering there increased the terror, but it may also have been the mere proximity to the dictator’s power, making those imprisoned in the capital feel more exposed to his repression.

La Loma: Managua had three prisons with a criminal connotation. The worst was La Loma, run by Somoza’s state security. It was located on the rim of the Tiscapa Crater Lake in the center of Managua, where the presidential palace was constructed in the 1920s and first occupied as President José María Moncada’s residence in January 1931.

Anastasio Somoza García and his son Anastasio Somoza Debayle later constructed basements there that became underground dungeons for their prisoners. The site is a clear revelation of who the Somozas were: people with perverse minds who wanted to torture and kill their opponents right under their own house.

Among the many who fought against Somoza and for Nicaragua’s freedom, those who ended up on La Loma included the survivors of the April 4, 1954, attempt on Somoza García’s life and people sentenced by Somoza’s Councils of War. In his book La estirpe sangrienta (The bloody lineage), opposition newspaper director Pedro Joaquín Chamorro told of the various times he had passed through that prison.

One case that moved me deeply in the pre-insurrection period was that of Gustavo Adolfo Argüello, brother of Roberto Argüello, who became the first Supreme Court president during the revolution. Gustavo Adolfo was tortured to the point of death in La Loma, succumbing just hours after his family managed to get him out of there and into the military hospital. Daniel Ortega was also one of the many held in La Loma. There are endless testimonies of the cruelties suffered by all who passed through there. Neighbors reported hearing the roar of the caged wild animals alleged to be in the cells. They said both generations of Somozas either tortured the prisoners directly or watched while others did it.

Fabián Ruiz of the Independent Liberal Party, accused by the dictatorship of having injected poison into the bullets Rigoberto López Pérez used to kill Somoza García in León on September 21, 1956, told me about the tortures he had suffered in La Loma. I can’t remember how he managed to escape… I seem to recall that he bribed some guards. But one way or another he got out, slid down the slopes of Tiscapa Crater Lake, swam across, and made it to the streets of Managua, from where he managed to get back to his home city of León. For whatever reason, they never pursued him further.

El Hormiguero: The second Somocista prison in Managua was El Hormiguero, which was also a terror and torture center. It was located on General José Santos Zelaya’s old coffee plantation, which he called the Field of Death. Other people gave it the name El Hormiguero because the cattle slaughtered there attracted a lot of ants (hormigas). Somoza ordered Sandino’s assassination there in 1934 and the National Guard command, the Military Academy and the US Military Mission were also located in that place.

La Aviación: Managua’s third Somocista prison was La Aviación, where numerous courageous young people who sacrificed their life fighting against the dictatorship were also imprisoned and killed. That was where in 1968 National Guard Major Óscar Morales Sotomayor, the famous torturer known as “Moralitos,” killed David Tejada Peralta, a former National Guard lieutenant turned FSLN militant. His body was then thrown into the crater of Masaya’s Santiago Volcano.

Today a police complex, it is now named for Ajax Delgado, killed there in 1960, eight years before Tejada Peralta. I’ve never forgotten a photo of Ajax’s body tossed out in the prison yard and his mother bent over cradling it in her arms. On May 18 of that same year, Edwin Castro, Cornelio Silva and Ausberto Narváez were killed there as well, having been sentenced to 15 years in prison for their participation in the plot that ended with the execution of Somoza García. President Luis Somoza, who took office following his father’s death, claimed they had been killed trying to escape, using the “flight law” to cover for the real reason: after having been pressured into dictating an amnesty for political prisoners, he couldn’t accept that it would favor those who had helped kill his father.

El Coyotepe: In 1954, Somoza García also made a prison out of the fort General Zelaya had built on El Coyotepe hill in 1892, the year before he became President, to defend the city of Masaya. Somoza’s puppet President, René Schick, turned the installations over to the Boy Scouts, but when his term ended in 1966 it went back to serving as a prison. Among the first anti-Somocista fighters imprisoned there were the doctors Diego Manuel Chamorro and Francisco Frixione, while later ones included Sandinistas captured in the taking of Masaya during the 1978 insurrection. It continued to be used as a jail during the revolution, and in 1990 was again given to the Scout movement, becoming something of a macabre tourist attraction, with Scouts graciously showing visitors the dark stone-walled cells.

The first modern penitentiary

Luis Somoza Debayle created the country’s first large modern penitentiary in Tipitapa, on the outskirts of Managua, in 1958. It was called the Penal Social Rehabilitation Center, more commonly known as La Modelo Jail, and was the last one I got to know during my stint as a political prisoner in the Somocista jails.

As the only woman in a men’s prison, I was held in isolation for 40 days in a cell used for punishing military men. In those times, the only women’s prison was in Granada and didn’t have the repressive fame the rest of the prisons had. As the Criminal Instruction Code established that detained women had to be sent to a prison for women, my lawyer argued that I be sent to Granada, but his request was ignored.

La Modelo was full of Sandinistas, categorized by the prison officials as “bomb throwers.” Among them were Carlos Carrión, who later became the head of the Sandinista Youth and then mayor of Managua. Since I was completely isolated, I had no way of knowing whether the FSLN was aware that I was there. My biggest fear was that Somoza would be overthrown while I was still in there and the prison guards would kill me.

The world started watching

Going back a few months to late 1978, before I was arrested, news of the mounting charges of human rights violations against the Somocista regimen had transcended Nicaragua’s borders. The Organization of American States (OAS), very aware of what was going on, had notified the Somoza government of its decision send the IACHR to report on the situation here. As a result, Luis Somoza’s brother Anastasio, who was President by then, felt obliged to invite the IACHR delegation to Nicaragua to observe “in loco.” As a member of León’s Association of Jurists, I was chosen to accompany the delegation when it visited my city. The Commission concluded that the human rights violations in the country were “alarming” and referred to the penitentiary system as one of the most serious instruments of repression used by the Somocista regime. In October of that year, after the report was published, the 17th OAS consultancy meeting of foreign ministers condemned the Nicaraguan State and called on Somoza to leave office.

It’s worth contrasting all of that with what we’re experiencing today. For the past 15 years we’ve been trying to get the IACHR to come to Nicaragua again. It was never easy, but ever since Daniel Ortega returned to government in 2007 the refusal to invite that OAS authority has been unwavering, and is tantamount to refusing it entry. Moreover, Nicaragua’s representative to the IACHR went to the extreme of declaring at the Commission’s 137th period of sessions that “the government does not have the conditions to attend to the request for an IACHR commission to visit our country.”


I want to divide the events during the revolution (July 1979-April 1990) into two stages: what happened in the beginning of the Sandinista government and what happened following 1981, once US President Reagan initiated the war of aggression against Nicaragua. Contrary to what one might expect, while there were arbitrary actions in both moments, many of them occurred during the first years.

A power vacuum
at the beginning

There was no control right after the revolutionary victory, with many people still armed in the streets doing whatever they felt like. Many stories of Somocistas executed in that stage were true, although a good number were personal vendettas. There were many unjustifiable repressive acts.

The new revolutionary government had abolished the Somocista Constitution and eliminated the National Guard, but it said nothing about the prisons, one of the pillars of the overthrown dictator’s repression. The most serious case in those first moments happened in Granada’s La Pólvora prison. I had just been appointed vice president of the Supreme Court of Justice, and in response to requests by prisoners’ relatives, we were making efforts to ensure respect for the principle of legality and the new laws being promulgated by the revolution itself. We failed, however, in the case of La Pólvora, where some two dozen prisoners accused of being Somocistas were executed indiscriminately and without trial. One of them was a doctor named Francisco Ramírez, whose widow fought for a long time to get his body exhumed and buried properly. I don’t know if she ever succeeded. And it wasn’t only in La Pólvora; there were summary executions in other prisons around the country as well.

Jails sprouted up everywhere

Immediately after the triumph there was a proliferation of jails everywhere. Just in León there was one near my house, another a little further on, one over by El Calvario… The Sandinistas had converted a bunch of houses into jails for known Somocistas and others who weren’t. The most terrible thing to happen in León in those initial stages of the revolution occurred in Quinta Y, a recreational center belonging to a lady named Yolanda Blanco. The Sandinistas took it over and turned it into a jail and State Security office where serious human rights violations were committed against many people.

In addition to randomly turning buildings into new jails, they also began naming them after important people who had fallen in the anti-Somocista struggle. La Pólvora in Granada was renamed Luis Enrique Largaespada, El Coyotepe was renamed Benjamín Zeledón, and La Modelo was renamed Jorge Navarro. They also converted the assembly plants of Managua’s Free Trade zone into a jail complex for National Guard members and Somocistas, naming it “Heroes and Martyrs of Nueva Guinea.” That really irritated me. Why name prisons of all things after people who had given their life for freedom and the struggle against the dictatorship? The worst example in my view was La Loma, Somoza’s major torture center, which they renamed El Chipote, the hill in Quilalí, Nueva Segovia, where Sandino set up his general HQ during the war against the Yankee Marines.

What happened to the
National Guardsmen?

I need to mention another unjustifiable act. When the National Guard leadership surrendered to the FSLN’s armed forces, more than 4,000 Guardsmen took refuge in the Red Cross, others of higher rank in embassies and some in churches. The guerrilla forces descended on the Red Cross and churches to pull them all out and lock them up, some in La Modelo and others in the Free Trade Zone complex. Altogehter, they rounded up more than 6,500 Guardsmen.

They began gradually releasing some of them, starting with 1,760. After a few months, those still locked up in the Free Trade Zone rioted to protest the miserable conditions in which they were being held. Forces of the Interior Ministry, which was led by FSLN founder Tomás Borge, put down the protest on the night of June 27, 1981, killing 16. How could a government legitimated by its victory over such a bloody dictatorship commit horrors similar to those they had fought against?

Another IACHR visit

Another delegation of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights came to Nicaragua in 1981, in response to an invitation by the revolutionary government junta. Now as Supreme Court vice president I again accompanied the delegation, this time not just in León. We visited many of the prisons, both new and old, and I also officially presented the problems we in the judicial branch were observing. The IACHR report included the executions in La Pólovora, and in fact the Commission didn’t drop its complaint about those acts until the revolution was defeated in the 1990 elections. Although the revolutionary government did make some attempts to do justice in such cases, the relative chaos of that period means there wasn’t much to investigate, so the massive violation of the right to life largely remained unpunished.

The IACHR concluded that Nicaragua’s prisons were “instruments of repression” both during the dictatorship and during that initial revolutionary period, suggesting that they be closed. The report also referred to the deplorable conditions in which the prisoners were living, which were “incompatible with human dignity.” The only prison that the Commission considered met acceptable conditions was the women’s prison in Granada, named for Ruth Rodríguez, a 15-year-old student murdered by the National Guard at a concert in Granada in May 1979.

The People’s Anti-
Somocista Tribunals

The People’s Anti-Somocista Tribunals created in that first stage of the revolution also generated both international criticism and critical comments by the revolution’s first Supreme Court justices. Many people accused of being Somocistas, with or without justification and with or without evidence, were processed through those tribunals.

Among other abuses, they committed the legal barbarity of accusing all National Guard members of “association to commit a crime.” I use the word “barbarity” because even though it belonged to a dictatorial regime, the Guard was a state institution and there was no proof that any Guardsman was voluntarily “associating to commit a crime” by merely being employed in it.

Theater, not justice

Some cases were resolved by the “generosity” of Interior Minister Tomás Borge. If someone had a relative imprisoned and had the possibility of talking to him and pleading for his help, Borge would do so if he felt like it, with no legal formalities, no matter what the prisoner might have done. Borge would just show up at La Modelo or any other prison and release whoever he wanted to if he had been begged to do so.

Tomás Borge loved people being grateful for that favor, remembering him for it. I recall accompanying the IACHR to an interview with him. At one point he told us: “And for you to see the revolution’s generosity, I’m going to order the release of 90 women prisoners right now.” And he promptly gave the order, right in front of us. That was theater, not justice. Not long after, given the international pressure on the revolutionary government on the issue of human rights, and with the US war of aggression and the counterrevolutionary war getting underway, the government began giving reprieves and even amnesties every so often, letting prisoners of its choice go free.

The National Penitentiary System
receives international accolades

Two months after Borge’s Ministry of the Interior was created on August 22, 1979, a resolution was issued creating a department within it responsible for what began to be called the Penitentiary System. It did not have a solid set of legal norms to underpin its functioning until October 21, 1986, when the revolutionary government put into effect a “Base document for the penal reeducation of the National Penal System.”

That model established five prison regimes: the adaptation regime, the productive work regime, the semi-open regime, the open regime and the family cohabitation xistence regime. Prisoners began moving through them according to their behavior and the sentence received. This system was internationally recognized as an example for Latin America’s penitentiary systems to follow.

I was working with the Latin American Critical Criminology Group at the time and we held a week-long seminar in Nicaragua on prisons and penal systems in Latin America with participants from all over the continent, during which we analyzed Nicaragua’s model. We visited the country’s prisons, reflected on the five regimes, and even though the world’s best criminologists insist that “the best prison is the one that doesn’t exist,” all recognized the effort that had been made in our country. That recognition was enormous given all the sympathy for Nicaragua’s revolution and enthusiasm for its advances and so much conviction that it was constructing a country different from any we had seen before. The works from that seminar appeared in the October 1986 issue of envío.

From my current perspective and distance, knowing the country we had then and seeing the one we have now, I can’t muster the same enthusiasm with which I then qualified that system, but nor can I detract it totally. I recognize that it was an important effort, but it had its “buts.” For example, the productive work regime was exploitative, because the prisoners worked with leather and other materials but received no income whatsoever.


That effort concluded with the government of Violeta Chamorro (1990-1997), which closed the open regime prisons because the 15 farms on which they were established, confiscated during the revolution, were returned to their old owners.

CENIDH is born

The Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH) was created in May 1990, following the Sandinista government’s electoral defeat that February, by a group of people representative of civil society who were concerned about the defense and promotion of human rights in Nicaragua. In our prison work, we always based our information on direct investigations that involved visiting the prison itself. Between 1990 and 2007 we went and talked to both authorities and prisoners, verifying the real situation according to an ongoing program of visits and oversight in all the penitentiary centers.

Since 2007, when Daniel Ortega returned to power and prohibited CENIDH from continuing those visits, we’ve had to base our work exclusively on denunciations we receive either from released prisoners or relatives who have personally seen the conditions in which they are kept.

La Loma today

I want to fast-forward to the prisons we have today, after more than ten years of the Ortega government. As I said above, I consider that one of the most symbolically serious things that happened during the revolution was not only that they renamed La Loma prison El Chipote, a travesty to Sandino’s memory, but that they didn’t close it down altogether. During the Chamorro government the esplanade where Somoza’s presidential palace once stood was declared a national monument, and today there’s an outdoor museum there. While the cells remained intact, no one knows for sure whether the underground torture cells still exist; some believe they were destroyed by the 1972 Managua earthquake, as was the presidential palace itself.

In any event, that prison is still there, and although it is now officially named the Judicial Assistance Department, everyone still calls it El Chipote. When CENIDH could still enter the prisons, I was allowed to go down a ramp to three cells completely closed off by a wall with iron doors. They say the torture cells were even further down.

There are also other, more external cells in those installations, like little houses, where former President Arnold Alemán was held for a while during the Bolaños government and former Comptroller General Agustín Jarquín was held during the Alemán government. Jarquín had also been imprisoned there during the revolution, in closed cells. All manner of efforts were made to get rid of that prison, but always unsuccessfully.

La Modelo today

I also want to talk a little more about La Modelo, the penitentiary center in Tipitapa, which has served all of our governments for different purposes. It has been a prison for punishing and also for hiding sentences that aren’t executed but instead fulfilled in a situation of privilege.

The special cells in that prison are for people who can’t avoid being imprisoned but don’t want to appear as if they are behind bars. One such case was that of William Hurtado, who worked for State Security in the eighties and in 2004 murdered Sandinista journalist Carlos Guadamuz, apparently for hire, and was sentenced to 21 years in prison. A special cell was built for him with air conditioning and he was released after four years because he was suffering “prison stress.”

The women’s prisons

Conditions have always been better in the women’s prisons, but La Esperanza Penal Reeducation Center, created by the revolution exclusively for women in 1987, has had its ups and downs. In April 1993 envoi did a very good report on that prison, but like everywhere else, the prisoners depend on the solidarity of relatives to resolve the physical limitations and on the solidarity of former prisoners who remember their friends who are still locked up.

The government more recently built a prison for women alongside La Modelo, but we don’t know what the situation is like inside, because we’ve been prevented from entering. The government also wanted to create a special detention center for minors, but never did. It now keeps them in La Modelo, separated from the adult prisoners.

Today’s main prison
problem is overcrowding

The most widespread problem in the prisons today is overcrowding, which is so bad that many sleep on the floor. Nicaragua’s penal population has grown alarmingly. In 1993, the first year we were able to get reliable figures, there were some 3,000 prisoners in all the penal centers. That figure kept growing little by little until in 2006, the year before Daniel Ortega took office again, there were 5,869. The next year closed with 6,701, all of them common prisoners. Ten years later, at the end of 2017, there were 16,855 according to National Police and Penitentiary System data, which is more than three times the country’s penal population capacity of a little over 5,000. How can we explain this increase?

Given the lack of space in the penitentiary centers due to the huge overcrowding, police jails have been converted into preventive detention centers where they investigate, interrogate and also reportedly torture. But the National Police isn’t assigned any budget for feeding those untried detainees, so the families have to beg the police centers to let them bring in food.

How do prisoners live in these conditions with so many physical deficiencies? There aren’t even health installations in the penal centers. The government announced a budget increase for the penitentiary system, but it remains utterly insufficient. Two or three years ago we learned that only 30 centavos (less that a US penny) was being allocated for each of a prisoner’s three daily meals. What can one eat for such an absurdly small amount of money? And all these shortages are aggravated by the decomposition and corruption that has developed among the “jailers,” to the point that they reportedly even charge relatives to bring food to the prisoners or sexually blackmail and humiliate the women.

What does the growth of a country’s penal population reflect? And why are most prisoners poor? Why don’t we find corrupt white-collar criminals in the prisons? Might it be because prisons are the reflection of a country’s social and political reality, as my friend. the Venezuelan criminologist Lolita Aniyar de Castro, always argues? When I was organizing my memories that sentence of hers resonated repeatedly in my mind. Nicaragua’s prisons are indeed the reflection of its reality.

The prison population has changed

Another reality that has further complicated the situation is that the prison population has changed: previously there were only common criminals, but now many prisoners are linked to drug trafficking and organized crime. Rather than prepare the penal authorities to deal with them, however, the penitentiary system lets them act more repressively. That’s why we’ve seen many prison riots recently, and they end in repression of both the rioting prisoners and relatives who come to see what has happened to their imprisoned family member.

Political repression
with no juridical logic

One of the most serious things happening now, which one hardly sees anywhere else in the world, is that prisons have been turned into an instrument of control and political repression that has no juridical logic, in which the penitentiary system doesn’t even respect the judicial branch’s orders to release a given prisoner. Judges in charge of executing sentences issue release orders once prisoners have served their time, but it has been illegally established that the release order must be reviewed and approved by the Ministry of Government, the authority that then decides whether or not the prisoner remains in prison. A good number of people are being illegally detained now even though they’ve served their sentence and already have the release order issued by the judges. I don’t understand the political logic behind that practice, what they are attempting to do, unless it’s to demonstrate the power they have by violating the Constitution.

Galería 300

In addition to common prisoners not being granted their legal release, we in CENIDH consider the prisons to now be an instrument of the regime’s political repression.

The government has said it built a prison called Galería 300 with the money seized from Mexican drug traffickers captured in August 2013 then sent back to Mexico in the “false Televisa” case, which was never cleared up either in Mexico or here. We’ve learned from relatives of prisoners held in Galería 300 that they are maximum security cells, effectively a form of torture. They are reportedly very small and windowless and a light bulb is kept on 24 hours a day. The only ventilation comes from a small opening in the metal door and a couple of small holes in the roof, which also let in a bit of sunlight. A hole in the floor serves as a urinal. The bunk occupies most of the tiny floor space, so the prisoner can only move by hanging on to it.

The government said the cells in Galería 200 are for big-time drug lords and dangerous mara [gang] leaders, although keeping anybody in such inhumane conditions only blocks any possibility of rehabilitation. It also must be said that CENIDH knows cases of what we consider authentic political prisoners being held in those cells.

The rule of law here
is the rule of the ruler

What more can I say? If I had a law practice today I would still defend people, but I would no longer defend laws. As a law professional I know laws have always been an expression of those who have the power. It has been true in all places for all time. Now, when the power is in the hands of two dictators, the laws are one of their instruments. And that means that the rule of law is their rule. They violate existing laws then legalize the illegality committed with a new law.

For example, it used to be illegal to remove a prisoner from the jurisdiction of the corresponding judge. If someone committed a crime in Chinandega they were supposed to be tried in Chinandega. That’s no longer true. The government began transferring to El Chipote in Managua the prisoners it was interested in locking up and torturing, but doing so was totally illegal. The government thus issued a new law that legalizes what it was already doing, so any person accused of committing some offence in any part of the country can be brought to El Chipote and tried in Managua if it suits the government for some reason.

We in CENIDH are now convinced that the repression that existed in both the Somocista prisons and those created by the revolution in its early years didn’t differ much from the current repression in the prisons, despite the “Christian, socialist and solidary” model the government propaganda touts. CENIDH’s position is that there’s no reason whatever for depriving prisoners of their most basic human rights in the eight penal centers. They should be able to serve a minimally humane sentence aimed at rehabilitating them. Instead those who administer the prisons exercise repression and corruption.

Where did we go wrong?

To conclude, I find myself wondering what happened during the revolution to make us unaware of so much arbitrariness. Right up to the end I thought there was coherence, perhaps because the Nicaraguan revolution had been the only one that had started off with weapons in one hand and laws in the other…

And what about now? I frankly don’t know what happened to us before and I don’t know what’s happening to us now. Every time anyone congratulates CENIDH for what we’re doing, it increases my sense of powerlessness. But it also increases my hope that others will find new routes and new paths to make this country better, since we wanted to do things better and failed.

Vilma Núñez Escorcia is the president of CENIDH.

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