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Nicaragua: New Regime, Old Methods

8 minute read

A defector’s firsthand account of massacres and torture

When the Sandinistas toppled Anastasio Somoza Debayle and seized control of Nicaragua in 1979, many in the country hailed the victory as an end to the tyranny of the Somoza years. Yet over the past year evidence has surfaced showing that the Sandinistas are equally capable of repression and brutality. According to Nicaragua’s Permanent Commission on Human Rights, the regime detains several hundred people a month; about half of them are eventually released, but the rest simply disappear. Roberto Guillén, 23, served as deputy chief of military counterintelligence for the Defense Ministry, but grew so disenchanted with the tactics of the government that last August he fled to join Edén Pastora Gómez, a hero of the Sandinista revolution who defected in July 1981 and is now based in neighboring Costa Rica. Guillén’s parents subsequently sought refuge in the Venezuelan embassy. In an exclusive interview with Mexico City Bureau Chief James Willwerth, Guillén detailed the secret jails, torture methods and unprosecuted murders committed by the Sandinistas, including the systematic killing of Miskito Indians in the northeast department of Zelaya. Guillen’s account:

In the beginning, we were trained to work against terrorists and spies from other countries. But then we were instructed to work against comrades within the Ministry of Defense. Every individual who was not in agreement with the politics of the Sandinista National Liberation Front was considered to be an excessively dangerous element. For example, people who had disagreed politically with the National Directorate [the nine-member body that oversees the ruling three-man junta] began to face trumped-up charges of theft, even murder.

Clandestine jails are organized by zone, distributed among the different security organizations. In Managua, for example, military counterintelligence has a mechanics shop eight blocks south of the Casa del Obrero, a union headquarters. Behind the store are two cells against a wall. Each cell is less than a meter wide and a meter deep and two meters high. The prisoners inside were always handcuffed, gagged and blindfolded. They were usually put in these cells for softening up, or for depersonalization. Sometimes they were foreign spies: Hondurans, Guatemalans, sometimes intelligence agents from the United States. I recall two U.S. agents who were shot. One was Puerto Rican; the other was from New Orleans. The Puerto Rican had been captured trying to get information on arms traffic between the Soviet Union, Cuba and Nicaragua. It was not so difficult to catch U.S. spies. The U.S. intelligence services always underestimated the Nicaraguan counterintelligence capacity.

In the basement of a onetime military academy in Managua, there is a dark, unventilated underground prison that can hold 20 people. At the Montelimar military base, there are several underground jails dug into the rocks. They are at sea level. At high tide, the water enters and comes into the cells up to the chest level of the prisoner.

Physical torture has two forms. One consists of beatings, electric shocks, blows to the testicles, and so forth. The methods proved to be more effective by the KGB and Cuban intelligence are both more complex and simpler for obtaining information. The Soviets and the Cubans have found out that violent methods are often counterproductive. People will stick to the principles for which they fought. But if you depersonalize a person, he will lose his social standards, his principles. One method is to change the body metabolism. You shut a man in a room with no light or a lot of light 24 hours a day. You interrogate him constantly, off and on. You bring him food every two hours, saying it is mealtime. After two days you lose your sense of time. The constant food brings you to a state of desperation. The mind, upon receiving so much pressure, comes to a point where it is blocked. You are questioned constantly. The mind is so exhausted, it has no defense. There are many medical ways to make a person practically unconscious.

In a more general sense, the pressure begins the moment a man or woman becomes a prisoner. There are seats that have a very uncomfortable backrest. The individual has to maintain an erect position and he has to look straight at his interrogator. If you try to get comfortable, they’ll hit you.

Another method is to put you in a small room, completely white. The only furniture is your chair, the interrogator’s chair and a desk. In the middle of the wall, going all around the room, is a black stripe. As the interrogation continues, the individual begins to feel that the black line is closing in on him. Sometimes people are locked in a cell so small that they can only sit down, not stand. Then the prisoner is photographed, made to squat for a drug search of his anus. If the prisoner is skinny, he is issued a baggy uniform. If he is fat, it will be too tight. You feel ridiculous. From then on, they address you only by number. Interrogation begins, which can be either very intense or very relaxed. Your cell will always be very bright or very dark. It has no windows, only a door. It is usually designed to echo. Everything echos. You are completely disoriented.

I went to Cuba to study counterintelligence. When I returned in April of 1982,1 was assigned to Zelaya Norte. After arriving there, I began to discover barbarities that were being committed against the Miskito people by reading the Ministry of Defense reports. Here is one entry which I copied in my notebook: “On Feb. 8, 1982, at 8:45 a.m., a troop of border guards fired at civilian persons on the Rio Coco at the point of the community of Bilwaskarma.” The report explained that the people were traveling in canoes at the moment the troops fired upon them. One man survived. Reading this, I could not understand why the chief of counterintelligence for the area had not brought this to trial. I couldn’t understand also why the soldiers would kill a pregnant woman in the canoe.

The Directorate had published an article in Barricada [the official government newspaper] boasting that Sandinista soldiers had killed counterrevolutionaries coming out of Honduras. This was the same shooting I was reading about. The report I was reading said the people were searching for food and lived in Nicaragua. They had gone from Waspán [a town on the river] to Bilwaskarma in their canoes. I couldn’t understand this. I fought against the barbarities Somoza committed against the Nicaraguan people. But as the revolutionary process increased, the level of class hatred increased. Among the officers, an attitude was created that one should kill rather than forgive.

The Miskito populations began to rise up. The Ministry of Defense said in its propaganda that the people who were fighting us were former national guardsmen [Somoza supporters], not Miskitos. On June 5, I participated in a firefight that was said to be with guardsmen, but it was really with Miskitos. They lost no one. We lost 19 men, officers as well as enlisted men. Twenty-two more were wounded. Only I and one other man were not hurt or killed. The regional chief of staff and his escort staff ran when the fighting started. When he decided to leave, he defended this by saying that he could not afford to die like any ordinary soldier.

There were large-scale arrests of Miskitos. About 800 people were detained. A second lieutenant saw an Indian woman among the prisoners and raped her. When this was investigated, the chief of staff pardoned him and transferred him to another unit in Kambla. It was interpreted as a promotion. I was transferred to Managua in August. I was now determined to leave Nicaragua.

But on Aug. 8, state security called me to a meeting in the Ministry of Defense building at Chipote military base. There they proposed to me that I provide the logistics, the guns, trucks and soldiers to physically eliminate the 800 Miskito prisoners. The state security people said they would have to be killed, and it should look as if they died in combat. When this was discussed, I practically went into a state of shock because of the moral conflicts it caused within me. It made me sick. They wanted me to provide soldiers to dig the graves, guards to control the Miskitos while they were being shot, trucks to transport them. I don’t know if this massacre actually happened or not. On Aug. 10, I left Nicaragua.

The Sandinistas fired off an accusation of their own last week. This one was aimed at Francisco Fiallos Navarro, who quit his post as Nicaraguan Ambassador to the U.S. last month after the Sandinistas banned the publication of an interview with the Managua newspaper La Prensa in which he expressed growing disenchantment with the revolutionary regime. Nicaraguan officials now claim that Fiallos, 36, embezzled $618,000 from the embassy’s account at Riggs National Bank before his resignation, and vowed to take legal action against the onetime diplomat. Fiallos, who returned to Washington last week after conferring with anti-Sandinistan Edén Pastora Gómez in Costa Rica, proclaimed his innocence. “I deny I stole the money, completely and absolutely,” he said. The former ambassador contended that the Sandinistas had trapped him into withdrawing the funds, but he was notably fuzzy about the whereabouts of the cash. At week’s end a lawyer representing Fiallos was busy trying to reach an out-of-court settlement.

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