Nicaragua: New Regime, Old Methods

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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.

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