MIAMI – Constant fear. Screams and the sounds of torture. Darkness in a small cell with just a hole in the floor for a toilet.
Opposition prisoners from Nicaragua are recounting the months — and sometimes years — they spent in the notorious prisons run by the regime of President Daniel Ortega.
“Those were three terrible years. There were threats, and I thought they might kill us at any moment,” recalled Victor Manuel Sosa Herrera, who was held in three separate prisons. He said water was in short supply, and what little food there was, was often rotten beans.
Sosa Herrera was among 222 opposition figures recently released by Ortega, as had long been sought by his critics. However, Ortega’s government went a few steps further, deporting them and saying their Nicaraguan citizenship would be revoked and their property confiscated — drawing fire as an example of banishment, in violation of international norms.
On Feb. 9, they were flown to the U.S., where they have begun telling stories of the harsh conditions in prison, where visits were strictly limited, or prohibited entirely.
Sosa Herrera, 60, ran a grain and feed business in the northern Nicaragua city of Matagalpa, when he was arrested in early 2020 and sentenced to 110 years in prison for treason and destabilizing the government.
He says he wasn’t an activist in the massive 2018 protests that shook Ortega’s government, but suspects he was arrested for his refusal to join government paramilitary squads that violently put down the protests.
At one prison, the Modelo penitentiary, he was locked up alone in a sunless cell measuring 6 feet by 9 (2 by 3 meters), in the maximum security section known as “El Infiernillo,” or Little Hell. He says that another prisoner in a similar cell believed he had gone blind from years of living in the dark.
Sosa Herrera said he was held in isolation with only a concrete platform to sleep on. Water was turned on for an hour at a time, twice a day. The metal cell door had a steel window that opened just three times a day to pass him a "meal": a spoonful of rice and rotted beans. That was his only daily contact.
His wife could visit him for only 15 minutes each month, and they saw each other through a glass partition.
At night, he said, he could hear other prisoners being tortured.
“The guards put them into handcuffs and shackles, and then beat them and dragged them,” Sosa Herrera recalled. “We heard them screaming.”
The Nicaraguan government did not respond to requests for comment on the prisoners’ accounts.
Ortega has maintained that his imprisoned opponents and others were behind 2018 street protests that he claims were a foreign plot to overthrow him. Tens of thousands have fled into exile since Nicaraguan security forces violently put down those protests.
In some ways, those held in solitary confinement may have been lucky.
Isaías Martínez Rivas, a milk delivery worker, ran an independent online media outlet, of the kind Ortega’s government hates.
Martínez Rivas was arrested in late 2021 in front of his wife, their baby and adolescent son. He was dragged off to a maximum security prison without an explanation or a warrant. Six months later he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for supposed antigovernment activity.
Martínez Rivas, 38, was held at the prison in Chontales, 100 miles (160 kilometers) east of Managua and two hours by car from his home.
He was tossed into a cell with 13 other inmates, all but one of whom were common criminals.
“It was terror, we lived in fear,” he said. The other inmates threatened the opposition prisoners and stole their food, clothing and shoes.
“In prison I was subjected to psychological torture,” he recalled. “They never let me see my family.”
He has only been able to see his youngest, now 2, on video calls from Miami.
Another prisoner who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals against her family, said she still doesn’t know why riot police burst into her home in November 2021, and pulled her away from her family as they were about to sit down to dinner.
A perfume distributor, the 43-year-old woman said she wasn’t a political activist. But she was sentenced to 10 years in prison after prosecutors accused her of plotting to burn ballot boxes and receiving funds from abroad.
She spent 15 months locked in a cell with nine other female inmates, all of them except her in for homicide or drug trafficking. The guards would subject the opposition prisoners to psychological abuse, she said.
“They would try to get at us by telling us we were going to rot in prison, to be eaten by worms," she said.
Indeed, some prisoners didn’t make it out.
Hugo Torres, a former Sandinista guerrilla leader who once led a raid that helped free then rebel Ortega from prison in the 1970s but who later broke with Ortega, died while awaiting trial. He was 73.
Torres was among opposition figures arrested in 2021 as Ortega looked to clear the field ahead of presidential elections in November of that year. Security forces arrested seven potential presidential contenders and Ortega coasted to a fourth consecutive term in elections that the U.S. and other countries termed a farce.