Completely dark cells measuring three meters by two and a hole in the floor to make a bathroom. Shouts from the distance of prisoners tied with chains. Threats. Rationed water and beans in a state of decomposition.
Little more than a week after being exiled and stripped of their nationality, some Nicaraguan opponents begin to narrate what they suffered in prison for months or years just for opposing or criticizing the government of Daniel Ortega.
In interviews with The Associated Press, three of them described being incommunicado with their families, lack of hygiene in the cells and torture. The vast majority arrived in the United States without family members and fear for the safety of their loved ones in Nicaragua.
"They were three terrible years," recalls Victor Manuel Sosa Herrera now from freedom. "I thought they would kill us at any moment," he said, referring to the threats from prison guards who identified themselves as Montes, Juancito and López. "You feel anger, anger against injustice."
THE PRISONER WHO DID NOT SEE THE LIGHT FOR YEARS
It is a memory that haunts him. Whenever she can, Sosa Herrera, 60, assures that one of her prison mates went blind for having spent years alone and without light, in a cell just like hers. Unlike him, who was released, the other prisoner was detained.
Both were in "El infiernillo", as they call the maximum security area of the La Modelo prison, in Tipitapa, on the outskirts of Managua, where they keep some of the political prisoners along with murderers and drug traffickers. Catholic Bishop Rodolfo Álvarez, sentenced to 26 years in prison one day after refusing to be released and sent to the United States, is now believed to be being held there. The president said that Álvarez was transferred to the Modelo prison, although he did not specify what type of cells.
After the release of the 222 opponents who arrived in the United States, human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch have indicated that some 30 opponents have still been detained in similar conditions.
Sosa Herrera spent three years confined alone and without any type of communication in a space of about three meters by two, calculated gropingly because he was always in total darkness. Light only entered the cell when food was delivered to him through a small window in the metal door that was opened three times a day.
They left him a ration of food equivalent to a spoonful of rice and beans that looked rotten, he said, and it was the only time he saw other people: the prisoner in the cell across the street and the guards.
He had no mattress to lie on, just a concrete bunk. For his physiological needs there was a hole in the floor of the cell and he had access to water from a tap twice a day for one hour. It stayed like that for three years.
From his cell, he remembers being able to hear the suffering of other prisoners chained up all night on what inmates knew as the "meditation bench." He feels lucky not to have been one of them, although he suffered from just listening to them. They were details that he shared with other prisoners in his pavilion, speaking through the space that separated the door from the apartment.
“The guards put handcuffs and shackles on them, dragged them and beat them,” said Sosa Herrera, who couldn't see from her closed cell but says she heard what was going on. "We heard the screams," she expresses with her voice breaking at times.
His wife could only visit him for 15 minutes each month and they saw each other through glass. That was the only day that she left her cell and received some light through the small internal windows of the corridor that led to the visiting room. He has not seen his two children and grandchildren since he was arrested at the beginning of 2020.
Sosa Herrera, who had a grain buying and selling business in Matagalpa, some 130 kilometers northwest of Managua, says he was charged with treason and destabilizing the government and received a 110-year prison sentence. The merchant assures that he was not a political activist and suspects that he was arrested for refusing to be part of the paramilitary forces that repressed opponents and for having published criticism of the repression against the elderly on social networks.
The Nicaraguan government did not respond to AP requests for information and comment.
Ortega has said that the opponents who are imprisoned are "terrorists." According to the president, they have been financed by foreign governments and worked to destabilize his government after huge street protests broke out in April 2018.
THE SITUATION IN NICARAGUA
The persecution of political opponents has increased in Nicaragua since the beginning of 2021, when Ortega sought to pave his way before the presidential elections in November. Seven presidential hopefuls were arrested and Ortega obtained a fourth consecutive term in elections that were delegitimized by the United States and other countries, considering them a farce.
Nicaraguan judges sentenced several opposition leaders, including former senior officials of the ruling Sandinista movement and former presidential candidates to prison terms for "conspiracy to undermine national integrity."
Human rights organizations have denounced repression and arbitrary detentions against critics and political opponents.
“Many of these detainees were held incommunicado for weeks, suffered isolation for long periods of time, and were prevented from exercising their fundamental rights,” said Juan Pappier, deputy director for the Americas at Human Rights Watch. “They were convicted for exercising their fundamental rights through abusive criminal proceedings that violated basic human rights guarantees and lacked any kind of credible evidence.”
THE WOMAN WHO STILL WONDERS WHY SHE WAS ARRESTED
A 43-year-old woman, who has asked not to appear with her first and last names for fear of reprisals against her family still in Nicaragua, was arrested in November 2021 when she came home from working distributing perfumes and in a restaurant.
Six riot police officers entered his home without a warrant on the evening of November 1 as he was preparing to sit down for a family dinner. They told him they needed him to come with them to the police station, bring money for the taxi back, but he never came back.
They left her in custody without explaining why. Within days they told her that she was being investigated, after asking if she knew any critics of the government or people who spread false news. She was tried without the right to an independent lawyer -she had one appointed by the State-, accused of receiving money from the United States and planning to burn ballot boxes in the elections.
For three months, while they investigated her, she did not have any kind of communication with her family. Her husband was staying up all night in front of the police station where she was first detained and saw when she was taken out chained by the wrist to another prisoner to transfer her to a prison.
"They didn't know what to come up with," the woman told the AP in a recent interview at a Miami hotel. “I don't understand where they got our names from, why are they arresting me if I never did anything against them,” she said, referring to the Ortega government.
The woman now released said that she never participated in opposition marches and that she did not even express an opinion on social networks. She, however, remained in a penal jail in the department of Chontales, about two hours by car from her house.
She was sentenced to 10 years in prison and to pay a fine equivalent to about 1,000 dollars. She spent 15 months incarcerated in a penal prison, together with women who had been sentenced for murder and drug trafficking. In each cell there were 10 prisoners, only one of them for political reasons and the rest criminal, she said.
“The abuse was above all psychological. They provoked us by telling us that we were going to rot in jail, that we were going to become wormy, ”he said about the threats they received from the guards.
Fearing that she would be poisoned, she asked her family to bring her food, and she herself cooked in the cell. Once a week she had the right to call her family and buy food. Unlike criminal prisoners who went out to see the sun four times a week, she only did it twice. Every 21 days she could receive visitors.
THE ACCUSED OF SPREADING FALSE NEWS
Isaías Martínez Rivas was a distributor for a dairy company and also had an independent digital media outlet. He was detained for two years, accused of treason and spreading false news, charges he denies.
In front of his wife, his newborn baby and his adolescent son, he was detained by armed riot police who arrived at his home in three patrol cars and without a warrant or explanation they took him to a maximum security prison, one day before the elections of the November 6, 2021. After six months, without access to a lawyer, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
"In jail I was psychologically tortured, they never gave me permission to see my family," said Martínez Rivas, 38, in a recent interview with AP. He hardly knows his baby, who is now two years old. She saw him again now, after her release, and only through a video call from Miami.
Most of the time, Martínez Rivas remained in a prison in Chontales, some 160 kilometers west of Managua and more than a two-hour drive from his home in San Carlos, in a punishment cell with common criminals who harassed them. they stole her clothes, food and shoes, she said. “It was terrifying, we lived in fear,” he recalled. There were 13 in his cell, but only he was a political prisoner.
Other prisoners did not manage to get out.
Hugo Torres, a former Sandinista guerrilla leader who in the 1970s led a raid that helped free then-rebel Ortega from prison but later broke with Ortega, died while awaiting trial. He was 73 years old.
Torres was among the opposition figures arrested in 2021 as Ortega sought to secure a new presidency.
Among those who were released, there are still some who can't believe it.
“It seems to me that I have come out of a nightmare,” said Sosa Herrera, the prisoner who did not see the light for three years, sitting in a Nicaraguan restaurant in Miami. "Sometimes in the morning, when I wake up, I wonder if it's true or not."