John Perry, January 5th 2021
Remembering one of the worst crimes committed by Nicaragua’s violent opposition groups
Interview with Reynaldo Urbina Cuadra
Four years after the violent coup attempt in Nicaragua, some of the victims are able to recount the so far untold stories of how their lives were dramatically affected. Masaya, one of Nicaragua’s larger cities, was the scene of many horrendous crimes when it was controlled by opposition groups over a three-month period in 2018. We talked to Roberto Jose Raydez Garcia (known as “Tito”) and Reynaldo Jose Urbina Cuadra (“El Chele”), who were in charge of guarding Masaya’s municipal depot when it was attacked, ransacked and its personnel beaten and tortured on June 13 that year.
The story begins a month earlier. I’d written in my diary that “Saturday, 12 May 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 and to the adjoining house owned by the mayor’s brother – both old colonial buildings, the former housing Masaya’s Museum of the Heroes y Martyrs of the revolution. Opposition roadblocks which had sprung up in Masaya’s streets in April had been cleared by early May, but they reappeared, preventing traffic movement in most of the city. This meant the roads were controlled by the opposition, especially at night-time. But even so the international media and commentators in the US followed the local right-wing media in blaming the attacks on young Sandinistas or the police rather than on the opposition mobs who were actually responsible.
Over the next few weeks opposition control of the city became total, after the government offered during a “national dialogue” to confine the police to their stations and order them not to return the opposition’s gunfire. Many more buildings were burnt down and the large shops in the centre of Masaya were all ransacked. By early June, the only important municipal building left untouched was the city’s plantel or depot, where all the town hall vehicles were kept together with most of its supplies, including a large store with materials for emergencies such as earthquakes.
The mayor had decided in April that guarding the depot was vital. But it became increasingly dangerous: workers were being attacked in the street on their way to and from work. The core security staff were asked to stay permanently – eating and sleeping on site. They were armed and able to defend themselves. Then a warning was received on June 12 that an attack was imminent. But while the security guards were planning their defence, they received a message that President Ortega had ordered them not to return fire, that they should try to minimise the number of people hurt. So 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 13, a huge mob – hundreds of 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 taken away. 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 Jeronimo 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 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 also taken to the priest’s house, but this time there was a reception committee. It consisted of Álvaro Leiva of Nicaraguan “human rights” group, ANPDH, and two clerics: 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 taken 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, there were eight leaders of the group who 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 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 a 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 where they kept religious relics. He saw large sacks full of mortar bombs, a pile of homemade mortars, and bags full of basic provisions (rice, beans, cooking oil, etc.).
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, his left arm 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 17, 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.
Both Tito and El Chele recognise that in many ways the government’s policy worked – 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. Many of those who took part in the attack on the depot were captured and convicted but were then freed in a government amnesty a year later. Santiago Fajardo now has a home delivery business in Masaya. Some have continued their criminal activities: Cristian David Meneses Machado, known as “Chino Wan,” and Jader Humberto Gonzalez Zeledon, “Comandante Zero,” both involved in the sacking of the Masaya depot (and one also involved in the horrific torture and death of the policeman, Gabriel Vado), were arrested in August 2020 for different crimes.
What angers people in the city, especially victims of opposition violence like Tito and El Chele, is that the opposition are still described as “peaceful” by the international media, so-called “human rights” bodies like ANPDH are still listened to by international bodies like the Organization of American States, influential organisations like Amnesty International ignore the opposition’s crimes, and whenever a new crime is committed and the culprits are caught (like those who killed two police officers in Masaya in December 2019), they are described as “political prisoners”.