Five years after the violent coup attempt in Nicaragua, the country is celebrating its recovery – peace has returned, the economy is growing, the Sandinista government re-elected in 2021 is investing strongly in public services. But it’s important to remember what happened in 2018 and the enormous, deliberate damage that was done to the country. Nicaragua’s opposition, pushing for support in Washington, expects its horrendous acts to be forgotten. This article describes in detail one of the many incidents of extreme violence. It occurred in Masaya, one of Nicaragua’s most important cities, the scene of many horrendous crimes when it was controlled by opposition thugs for several weeks in 2018.
The story begins a month before the incident I’m about to describe. I live in the city, and I’d written in my diary that “Saturday, May 12th must be counted as the worst day in Masaya since the earthquake in 2000.” During the previous night, opposition vandals had destroyed the house of the former deputy mayor, then went on to set fire to the town hall, an old colonial building that also housed Masaya’s Museum of the Heroes and Martyrs of the Revolution. Opposition roadblocks which had sprung up in Masaya’s streets in April had been cleared in early May, often by local people, but they were rebuilt, halting traffic across most of the city and putting the streets under opposition control. Despite this, corporate media and commentators in the US followed the local right-wing media in blaming the violent attacks on young Sandinistas or on the police rather than on the opposition mobs who were actually responsible.
Soon the opposition’s control of the city became total. During a “national dialogue” hosted by the Catholic church, the government offered to confine the police to their stations and order them not to return the opposition’s gunfire. In return, the opposition were to dismantle the roadblocks, but instead they augmented them. Many more buildings were burnt down, including the tourist market and the main secondary school serving over 3,000 pupils. Shops in the center of Masaya were looted and most closed for business. By early June, one of the few important municipal buildings left untouched was the city’s plantel or depot, housing several offices and where all the council’s vehicles were kept together with most of its supplies, including a warehouse with materials for emergencies such as earthquakes.
The mayor, then in hiding, had ordered that the depot be guarded at all costs. But this became increasingly dangerous: workers were being attacked in the street on their way to and from work. So a dozen core security staff were asked to stay permanently – eating and sleeping on site. They were armed and able to protect themselves. Then a warning was received on June 12th that an attack was imminent: officials had to decide how to respond.
My friends Roberto Jose Raydez Garcia (known as “Tito”) and Reynaldo Jose Urbina Cuadra (“El Chele”), were in charge of security at the depot and take up the story. They told me that while the guards were planning their defense, they received a message that President Ortega had ordered them not to return fire, that they should try to minimize the number of people hurt. So instead, they carefully hid most of the weapons. Staff were given the option to go home but, explained Tito, who was in charge of security, they all decided to stay because “if we were going to die, we were going to die together, with our boots on.”
On the afternoon of Wednesday, June 13th, a huge mob – estimated at 500 people – most with homemade mortars, but also many with pistols, shotguns and AK47s, surrounded the depot on all sides. Several mortar rounds exploded as people burst through the main gates. First, they attempted to set fire to a gasoline tank. Then they pushed all the guards to the ground and began to rob them of everything they had, including the pay they had just received. They took the keys to their personal motorbikes. Tito’s personal pistol was confiscated and later found being carried by opposition leader Santiago Fajardo, when he was arrested two months later.
Tito tried to speak to the leaders. He said that if they were going to ransack the depot, they should leave the vehicles intact, because whoever controlled the town hall in future would need them to maintain the city. He was ignored. They began to dismantle the vehicles, carrying away the valuable parts, including the wheels, but breaking windows and setting some of them on fire. They took away all the supplies in the office and in the storerooms – computers, paper, rice, cement, mattresses for use in emergencies – everything that could be moved was loaded onto the handcarts used by workers when cleaning the streets, and stolen. Tito reckons that 36 vehicles and seven motorbikes were robbed or destroyed. Nothing was left in one piece.
Most of the guards were taken away, but Tito and El Chele, the two managers, were kept behind, and then separated. Tito tells how they began to interrogate and torture him. They asked repeatedly where the mayor was because they wanted to find him and kill him. They began hitting him over the head with a homemade mortar (a steel tube), splitting his head open, and putting guns to his head, including an AK 47.
After getting nowhere with Tito they took him to the San Jerónimo church, still hitting him on the way there, saying they would leave him with the priests. The church was empty and so was the priest’s house, so instead they took Tito to one of the roadblocks and began to discuss whether simply to kill him. Tito says he knew that he would “go with God”: he’d done nothing wrong and would die with a clear conscience.
But instead, one of the group started to treat his wounds, saying he needed to go to the hospital because he was bleeding badly. “If you die in the street,” he said, “this is going to look bad in social media.” The group began to argue as to whether to free him or not, but eventually they did. To reach safety, however, Tito had to pass those manning the roadblocks, so he concocted a story that he’d been attacked by the police. It worked and they let him pass. By 5.00pm, he’d taken refuge in the house of the mayor’s secretary. She called his wife, who brought clean clothes and took him home. It took him eight days to recover from the attack and he can still feel the damage to his skull.
The other guards were also beaten and taken to the priest’s house, but this time there was a reception committee. One member was Álvaro Leiva of Nicaraguan “human rights” group, ANPDH, whose notorious role in the coup attempt has already been described in The Grayzone. The others were Catholic priests: Padre Bismarck Conde and Padre Edwin Román. They asked the guards why they still supported the government and why they didn’t stop working for it. When they explained that they’d been beaten up by the opposition, they were told they must keep quiet about that if they wanted to go home.
El Chele picks up the story from the point when he was separated from Tito. After they had been beaten with steel mortar tubes, El Chele was ordered to show his attackers where the security guards’ weapons had been hidden. He refused. He says that at this point, when he was being questioned, eight leaders of the group were dressed in full military gear, with army boots, camouflage, balaclavas and sunglasses, carrying AK47s, one of them new. They took him to the depot’s meeting room, where they began to question him again, asking “where are the weapons, where is the mayor?”.
Then the torture began – they spread-eagled El Chele on the floor, hitting him over and over again in the left arm with the stock of a shotgun, continuing to question him aggressively as the pain became unbearable. They wanted to know where the Town Hall kept its contract documents, about the mayor’s movements, and about any plans the police had to relieve Masaya (“what shit are the police planning to do?”).
Afterwards they took him out of the depot, watched by a crowd of people who could do little to help. Opposite the depot is a clinic, and a doctor and a nurse stepped forward to offer medical treatment. El Chele refused, saying that they could be attacked themselves. He was taken to see the head of one of the roadblocks, Humberto Macias, who knew him and who agreed to get him a doctor.
He was put on the back of a motorbike and taken to a clandestine medical post. Here they began to question him again, always the same questions, which he refused to answer. They took photographs of him, put them on social media but then – two hours later – took them down again. The posts said his injuries were a result of an attack by a Sandinista mob. Doctors bandaged his arm to stop the bleeding, but parts of the muscle had been damaged so badly they were hanging from his arm and they couldn’t stitch the wound.
He was there from about 3.00 pm until 5.10pm. He had tried to gain time in the hope that negotiations for his release might be taking place. Then Leiva and Padre Román arrived, with other people from ANPDH, behaving as if they were in charge. Again they asked the same questions – where was the mayor? Where are the Town Hall documents kept? Where do they keep weapons?
They put him in a car and took him to the same priest’s house where the others had been held, driving easily through the roadblocks. By then night was falling, and El Chele was worried that if they freed him in the dark, he could run into more danger at the roadblocks. “But you can go,” they said, “remember if they ask what happened that we didn’t do you any harm.” However, El Chele thought that freeing him might be a trap – they could follow him and then attack his family too – so he was left at the priest’s house with the priest (Padre José Antonio Espinoza), a doctor and two altar boys.
At 9.00pm they offered him tablets to control the pain from his arm, but he saw that they were sleeping pills and feared they wanted to make him sleep and then take him to the roadblocks, kill him, and claim that the police had done it. When he pretended to fall asleep, they put him on a bed and tied him to it. At about 2.00am, finding the house quiet, he freed himself, went outside into the garden, and then into a storehouse for religious relics. There he saw large sacks full of mortar bombs, a pile of homemade mortars, and bags full of basic provisions (rice, beans, cooking oil, and so on).
His attackers hadn’t found the phone hidden at the bottom of his trousers, so he made a call and two Sandinista colleagues arrived, managing to pass the roadblocks at an hour when few people were about. He was in hiding for six days, until the police relieved that side of Masaya and he was able to get medical treatment. “They were the six longest days of my life,” El Chele said. When eventually he reached the hospital, it was too late to save his left arm and it had to be amputated.
Masaya was eventually relieved of opposition violence when those controlling the roadblocks were put to flight by a massive police incursion on July 17th, 2018. The police were ordered not to fire directly at their opponents if they could avoid it, and the death toll that day was only five, one of them a police officer. The town hall began work immediately, repairing the roads that had been ripped up to build roadblocks. Municipal services like rubbish collection restarted in August after new vehicles were sent by the government. The depot and its staff returned to work and within two years new offices had been built to preplace those destroyed.
Both Tito and El Chele recognize that in many ways the government’s policy was effective – the opposition were allowed to do their worst in Masaya and other cities, and as a result much of the public support they received quickly disappeared. Nevertheless, many of those who took part in the attack on the depot who were captured and convicted were freed in a government amnesty in 2019. Santiago Fajardo, one of several now at liberty, has a home delivery business in Masaya, appears to keep his head down and was recently accused of splitting the opposition. Some of the perpetrators continued the criminal activities that they engaged in before the coup attempt: Cristian David Meneses Machado, known as “Chino Wan,” and Jader Humberto Gonzalez Zeledon, “Comandante Zero,” are both in prison for drug smuggling. “Comandante Zero” was also involved in the horrific torture and murder of a policeman, Gabriel Vado, at a roadblock in Masaya on July 15th 2018. Others involved, such as Fajardo’s brother Cristian, are among the ex-prisoners now exiled in the US or Costa Rica.
During the violence in 2018, Nicaraguan authorities made repeated but futile attempts to engage with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), Organization of American States and the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) who supposedly were making impartial investigations of events. All these bodies received but paid no attention to evidence of opposition crimes, including a specific submission on the kidnapping and torture of El Chele, made to the IACHR. The UNHRC, which recently hosted the ceremony to award a major prize given to opposition leader Felix Maradiaga, now has a “group of human rights experts” working on Nicaragua. Its first, 300-page report, issued in March this year, has a detailed case study of Masaya: it makes no mention of the attack on the plantel, and dismisses the subsequent murder of Gabriel Vado in a few words. The Nicaragua Solidarity Coalition has published a detailed response and a petition about this report, which has so far been ignored by the UNHRC and its group of “experts”.
People in Masaya, especially the many direct victims of opposition violence, are angry that Nicaragua’s supposedly “peaceful” opposition are now lauded by the corporate media and by international bodies. Influential organizations like Amnesty International, which disregarded the opposition’s crimes, now protest because more than 200 of the criminals have been deported to the US, even though this was with Washington’s explicit agreement. Disappointingly, many on the left in the US and Europe swallow this propaganda, defending ex-Sandinistas such as Dora Maria Téllez who were recruited by the US to organize and finance the terrorism in Masaya and other cities. Their victims – innocent people like Tito and El Chele who were simply trying to protect the achievements of the Sandinista revolution and the benefits it had brought to Nicaragua’s poorest citizens – are recognized as heroes in Nicaragua but ignored by the outside world.