Becoming a political prisoner was always a latent threat. It was well known that the National Guard made no distinction between women and men when it came to applying torture. So Vilma Nuñez knew with certainty that if she fell into their hand there would be no consideration. When she was arrested at 40 years old she confirmed this.  

The possibilities of torture were infinite. If the “Guardia” were known for anything it was for the cruel variety of techniques they used to extract information from the men and women political prisoners. When one or another was freed and gave their testimony, the procedures they related became more and more difficult to believe.

Nuñez experienced this first hand when only months before the Sandinista Popular Revolution triumphed in 1979. She was arrested together with her husband in the midst of a huge military operation at four in the morning in Leon, the city in which she was living. “As if we were the most criminal people in the », she says in an interview with another ex-political prisoner, Monica Baltodano for her three volumes called «Memories of the Sandinista Struggle».

Read: Justice and memory: the struggle of the Mothers of April

Unable to see, as she was hooded with her husband’s t-shirt, she was taken to the Acosasco Fort, the biggest military base in the city. This place was known for extended histories of torture, forced disappearances and clandestine executions. Once the prisoners were no longer useful when they had confessed, their bodies appeared on the outside slopes of the base’s walls. 

They separated Nuñez from her husband, took her to what she describes as “a filthy room”, and she was forced by the guards to listen to her small child begging to save her parents’ lives on the radio. «Please give my Daddy back to me, they took my Daddy along with my Mummy”, the little girl said, according to human rights defender Nuñez.

That was only the beginning of the following five days during which she would be “interrogated”, in other words, tortured. The National Guard wanted her to give them logistical information about the actions being planned by the Sandinista Front for National Liberation (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional – FSLN), as well as the names of the guerrillas and their location in safe houses.

The Nuñez house served as a hiding place for several guerrillas and was the meeting place for the high command to organize their attacks, such as Commander Dora María Tellez, who today is a political prisoner of the Ortega Murillo regime. In addition Nuñez was a driver for several Sandinistas who were wanted by the National Guard. She had a lot to hide.

Read: Photos show the physical deterioration and loss of weight of the women political prisoners

For a long time she had maintained the façade of belonging to the Conservative Party and having no relation to the FSLN, of which in fact she had been a member since 1975. But someone connected to the insurrectionary movement had given the Guardia information on several people involved in the guerrilla. This resulted in the massacre of the Heroes of Veracruz in which six members of the guerrilla were killed and a series of arrests were made, including that of Nuñez herself.

Thanks to this informant, Nuñez found herself under interrogation, completely naked with just a hood over her head. The National Guardsmen first treated her in a “nice” way to try to convince her to “collaborate”, but faced with her refusal, they threw her to the floor, doused her with water and repeatedly inserted an electrical cattle prod into her skin. As if that wasn’t enough, they forced her to do squats until she was exhausted.

“I only had the hood on and I was completely naked. That’s the most destructive thing that you can imagine and at that age. I don’t know if it would bother me now, but at that age it did”, Nuñez says in the interview done in 2000. However, they didn’t manage to extract any information from her, as she had prepared ahead of time for this situation during an arduous training process.

According to her testimony, her torturers weren’t the usual Guardia from Leon, whom she knew because of her work as a defence lawyer for different Sandinista political prisoners. They were agents from the Office of National Security (Oficina de Seguridad Nacional – OSN) from Managua, also known as the Police Central Office (Central de Policía). This was one of the most feared places because of the types of torture practiced there.

The torturing of Nuñez was directed by Franklin Montenegro, a military officer described as ferocious and cruel, who participated in different massacres against Sandinista guerrillas, and who responded faithfully to the orders of Anastasio Somoza Debayle, the third dictator of the Somoza family.  

After five days without success for the interrogators, Nuñez was taken to the cells of the high command of the National Guard, then transferred to the Number 21 Prison in Leon and finally taken to an isolated cell in the prison known as El Modelo located in Tipitapa. During this time she was left completely without communications with other political prisoners and was not allowed visits from her husband or daughter. At the same time she was tried by a military tribunal for the supposed crime of arms trafficking, in a trial in which she had no right to defence and fabricated evidence was used. She was also condemned to ten years in prison and forced to pay a fine in the millions. Despite this, on July 11th 1979, she was freed on payment of bail.

Eight days later, the FSLN had achieved the triumph of the revolution and Somoza Debayle had fled Nicaragua. All of the Sandinista political prisoners were freed on July 19th 1979, and members of the Guardia Nacional took their place in jail.

After the triumph, Nuñez was named as a magistrate and vice president of the Supreme Court of Justice, but she resigned in 1987. In 1990 she founded the Nicaraguan Centre for Human Rights (Centro Nicaragüense de Derechos Humanos – CENIDH).

See also: Under persecution: the reality of women human righters defenders in Nicaragua

This organization has now had its legal status removed by the Ortega Murillo regime, at the head of the FSLN party. Its installations have been illegally confiscated. These measures were taken because CENIDH has been one of the main organisations to denounce the violations of human rights committed since the socio-political crisis began in 2018.

The number of women political prisoners under the Somoza dynasty is unknown

There was nothing strange about the National Guard taking women political prisoners and putting them through torture to extract information. In fact, one couldn’t expect any less from this military institution that also murdered old people and children.

The 42 years of the Somoza family regimes (1937-1979) cost more than 50 thousand lives according to official statistics. At least 35 thousand people were killed in the last two years due to the intensity of the guerrilla warfare between the regime and the FSLN guerrilla forces.

The exact number of political prisoners detained, tortured and murdered during this period is unknown and even less is known about the number of women taken prisoner for struggling against the Somoza dynasty.

The only glimpse that reflects the quantity of people who were political prisoners in one period of these times is a 1978 report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). This registers that between 1975 and 1977 338 campesino/a farmers were captured by the National Guard, of whom only 17 were freed. The remaining people are presumed dead. The number of women among these people is unknown. Nevertheless, women made up a considerable part of the population imprisoned in official and clandestine prisons at the time for having been involved in the struggle against the Somoza dynasty’s dictatorship, since women participated in armed combat, espionage and running clandestine messages, advocacy and actions, nursing, domestic support and secretarial roles. Those involved were women farmers, teachers, nurses, housewives and society women, according to the interviews gathering in the book Sandino’s Daughters known in Spanish as «Todas estamos despiertas: testimonios de la mujer nicaragüense de hoy» by Margaret Randall.

These women were persecuted from the beginning by the Somoza regime begun by Anastasio Somoza García in 1937; from which time any dissidence against the dynastic regime could be imprisoned. This was continued by the following two generations by his sons Luis Somoza García and Anastasio Somoza Debayle.

The women political prisoners of this regime were not only FSLN affiliated guerrillas, but also countrywomen (campesinas), indigenous women and members of the Conservative Party even if they weren’t connected with the FSLN, according to research carried out by María Dolores Ferrero Blanco published in her work: “Violence and repression during the decline of the Somozas: prison conditions of political prisoners” («Violencia and represión en el ocaso de los Somoza: las condiciones carcelarias de los presos políticos»).

Ferrero points out that especially women farmers “had been subjected to harassment, repression and punishment for helping the guerrilla movement since the decade of the 1960s and this was used by the National Guard as a tool to demoralize the rebel population in the countryside and the mountains”. Women in the urban areas became involved in political activities in larger numbers only later on. The atrocious persecution that victimised these women was directed by the Police and National Guard, which personally carried out the torture of political prisoners.  

Torture is the order of the day

One of the first women prisoners to denounce this torture was the ex-guerrilla Doris Tijerino, who was «obliterated» by the National Guard according to the newspapers of the time. Tijerino was taken prisoner on three occasions, but the last time was the worst and longest, according to her public testimony. Captured the last time on July 15th 1969, she was brutally beaten and raped, which caused her to haemorrhage. In her trial she publicly denounced her experience, reported in the newspaper La Prensa on August 5th of tat same year.  Sexual violence was one of the main forms of torture used by the National Guard against women political prisoner.

One of the worst forms of torture that could be applied to the women and one of the most common was «la piñata», which consisted of stripping the prisoner naked, tying her by the feet suspended head down, sexually abusing her, beating her and swinging her like a piñata.

This method was described by another prisoner Rosa Argentina Ortiz, who told of her experience through letters written in 1977 that she managed to get out and distribute. “They manhandled me sadistically all over my body, but especially focusing on my most intimate areas”, she says in one letter. While they did this the guards were “laughing with the cynicism that characterises them and accompanied by endless insults”, she said.

See also: Nicaragua, the illusion of gender equality in the region

The torture also depended on where the women were made prisoners. The terror for everyone was the Police Central Office (Central de Policías), where the National Guard carried out all kinds of abuse during interrogations. This pace was also known as “The Bunker”, which was where Doris Tijerino was tortured.

The stories about this place were of atrocities and, as was typical in these times, no one knows how many women entered and how many managed to get out. One of these stories was that people were fed to lions and snakes, according to information given by the Spanish News Agency Agencia EFE.

“The lieutenant of Somoza indicated that the dictator would throw the rebels into a pit of lions and then afterwards would pull them out half-destroyed so they would finish their confessions”, states the report published on July 23rd 1979. But women were also taken to Police stations, command posts and other prisons across the whole country.

Prison conditions were inhumane

According to the testimonies of other women who also managed to get letters out that denounced the prison conditions they were subjected to, the situation went «beyond the limits of human resistance», and affected not only their physical health but also their psychological wellbeing.  They were all shut in and isolated in cells no larger than 2 metres wide, with corrugated zinc roofs and a toilet and washbasin in the same space, so the atmosphere was always hot and humid. Because of this they could barely sleep and a bright light was kept switched on at all times.

The food was based on rice dough that was carried in builders’ wheelbarrows and thenpassed through the bars. Because of this, the food arrived dirty and inadequate.

They were given no visiting rights, only occasionally could they see family on a few Sundays and for less than 5 minutes.

Due to all these conditions the women political prisoners demanded to be sent to the Modelo Prison where there were more guarantees of personal safety.  

They also complained that they did not want to continue hearing the screams of people being tortured, which was one of a long list of practices used, such as electric shocks, extraction of fingernails, cigarette burns, prolonged forced fasting, nakedness, and exposure to the weather among others.

Arbitrary legal procedures, the complicity of the Judicial Authorities

The legal situation of these women was often kept in limbo. According to Ferrero’s research, many women political prisoners could go months or years without any due process or being charged formally with any crime, unless they paid large sums of money in fines or bail.

This especially affected women who had less economic possibilities, which also differentiated them from the men.

A report in the newspaper La Prensa dated 14th of August 1970 “Through written communication to Judge Guillermo Vargas Sandino, the young woman Magda Narváez denounced having been detained for more than six months without charge in cells belonging to the Air Force. She adds that, according to what she was told, she was detained for violating the State’s Political Constitution and other crimes were not specified”.

Large numbers of women political prisoners were accused of “violating the Constitution” or of crimes related to arms. They were tried by Military Tribunals and forced to declare without the presence of lawyers. In addition, they often appeared with bruises and other signs of violence, but their complaints were not heard.

History repeats itself after 40 years

The demands of women political prisoners under the Somoza regime would be repeated 40 years later in the demands of women political prisoners under the Ortega Murillo regime: for the respect of their basic and fundamental human rights and the freedom.

From the very beginning of the 2018 anti-government protests in April that year, the Police and paramilitary groups hunted down and brutalised people who had participate; a situation widely documented by national and international human rights organisations.

Also read: Without judicial and procedural guarantees: the reality of trials against women political prisoners

By the end of 2018, the first year of the crisis, there were 59 women imprisoned for political reasons, of whom three were trans women, according to the Mechanism for the recognition of Political Prisoners.

The detentions were characterised as violent collective detentions, executed without court orders and with actions making people disappear.

The people arbitrarily arrested were taken to the Judicial Auxiliary Headquarters (Dirección de Auxilio Judicial) known as “El Chipote” or to clandestine detention centres including FSLN Offices, Mayors’ Offices or the farms of people loyal to the government, according to the testimonies documented by the Nicaraguan Collective for Human Rights “Never Again” (Colectivo de Derechos Humanos Nicaragua Nunca +).

“The Nicaraguan state was characterised as a state of exception, in which there was a systematic denial of human rights. The people detained were not treated like human beings. The treatment included was crude, hostile and excessive”, affirmed Fernando Guadamuz, lawyer and human rights defender belonging to the Collective.

The women captured in these round-ups were interrogated about “ who financed them”. If they didn’t respond they became victims of practices similar or worse than those committed by the National Guard. The difference was that this time they were carried out by members of the Police or Paramilitaries with the authorisation of the State. Among the cruel, inhuman and degrading practices was the use of sexual violence, beatings with fists or heavy objects, burns, the use of corrosive oil, the use of hoses and pliers. This violence was also applied to pregnant women, which provoked miscarriages.

In terms of sexual violence, this occurred in all the detention centres and the perpetrators were always agents of the State or authorised by the State. According to the testimonies of women political prisoners documented by the Collective in a report entitled “Being Human Again” (“Volviendo a ser humano”) an ex-political prisoner revealed «And (the policeman) told me either you stop fighting or I give you a pill to drug you. He told me to lie on towelling where the table was and he began to rape me. He handcuffed me, I wanted to die (she cries)».

They were also isolated, their sleep constantly interrupted, medical attention was denied,  they were not allowed to meet with their defence lawyers nor receive family visits, they were not given three meals a day, sufficient drinking water or personal hygiene articles.

If the women prisoners managed to get a family visit, the violence was transferred to family members. This mainly affected women, who were forced to strip naked and officers touched them, often in a sexualised way.  

«In other testimonies there were denunciations of the sexual abuse of family members when they came to visit the prisoners, including the abuse of children. This means that the Nicaraguan State, through its agents (police officers and prison officials) is responsible for sexual violence and the violation of human rights», the report affirms.

The regime institutionalises torture

According to Guadamuz, the Ortega Murillo regime institutionalised torture after 2019 with the “Amnesty Law” which gave a range of political prisoners the possibility of returning home.  «The torture is not only physical, but psychological when people’s right to a fair trial is not recognised and when due process is not respected. The Amnesty Law forced political prisoner to accept themselves as criminal when in fact they were victims of the State», said Guadamuz.

As a lawyer Guadamuz pointed out that legal resources, such as the remedy of habeas corpus had no effect, nor did the written denunciations about the treatment underwent by the women. On the contrary, what was evidenced was the complicity of all of the judicial apparatus and the other institutions involved.

In 2019 a series of trials were held against the women prisoners that lacked any semblance of legality. The trials were held in secret, at times without even a defence lawyer and when these were permitted the prisoners were not allowed any prior meetings to establish a legal defence strategy. The women political prisoners were accused of crimes such as theft, arms and drugs trafficking and the murder of police officers among others.  

Moreover, a series of laws were created and used in the charges against women prisoners, such as the «Law against asset laundering, financing terrorism and the proliferation of arms of mass destruction»; the «Law for the Defence of the Rights of the People to Independence, Sovereignty and Self-Determination for Peace»; along with the special Law on Cybercrime.

Another form in which torture was institutionalised was the use of arrest warrants against political activists, student leaders and others, which were carried out last year (2021) during the context of the national elections. These arrests occurred at night and in the middle of the day, with police using disproportionate force and they constituted an action of forced disappearance by the State, since many of those taken prisoner were not shown publicly until three months later. At present there are 18 women political prisoners, of whom only four have unknown identities due to the families asking for anonymity.

Read also: Report says number of women political prisoners rose to 18

Of these women, 15 were detained last year and some are still being held in the Judicial Auxiliary Headquarters (El Chipote), instead of being transferred to the penitentiary system after having been tried and sentenced.  

Demands of women prisoners under Somoza and Ortega

The demands of the current women political prisoner are the same as those imprisoned under Somoza, which were made public through the letters published in the 1970s.

Among the demands are their immediate release; respect for weekly visits; the establishment of mechanisms for communication with family; adequate nutrition; an end to isolation and interrogation; the delivery of blankets to prisoners; adequate periods of exposure to the sun; among other conditions included in the Nelson Mandela Rules, none of which the Ortega regime has respected.  

The consequences are immediately recognisable in the prisoners’ drastic weight losses, the appearance of illnesses, the development of fungi and other diseases of the skin, and their overall physical deterioration among others symptoms.

One of the most worrying situations is the total isolation in which four prisoners have been kept for more than a year: Dora María Tellez, Tamara Davila, Margarita Vigil and Suyén Barahona. Their cells are completely in the dark and they are not taken out into the sun at all. Another demand of the women political prisoners who are mothers is to be able to see their children, who have been denied visits since the time of their mothers’ arrests. Due to the total lack of communication in which they are held, Davila began a hunger strike on the 15th of August this year and was finally granted a visit five days later.

Read also: Tamara Davila begins a hunger strike to be able to see her daughter

Until now, the regime of the Ortega Murillo couple, who fought for the liberation of those imprisoned by Somoza, are holding captive more than 200 people who have committed no crime, only having voiced their opposition to the Ortega Murillo dictatorship.

Women have played an important role in the civilian struggle again regime and because of this they have been cruelly punished and deprived of their freedom. Despite the regime showing no signs of being willing to let them go, their relatives and friends continue to demand their freedom, because one day, they say, this is going to happen.

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La Lupa Nicaragua