Peasants tell of Sandinista abuse
Apantillo, Nicaragua — Alejandro Gonz'alez no longer lives on his farm near this settlement in the rugged mountains 125 miles north of Managua. Instead, Mr. Gonz'alez (not his real name) and his family live in a parish house in the town of San Ram'on because he fears for his life after being threatened by Sandinista State Security for speaking out about the murder of five men here on March 21.
Eight sources interviewed here over the course of a week claimed to know the details of eight murders - the five men as well as three others - and a rape. The incidents appear to indicate a pattern of abuses by the Sandinista State Security and Army troops in the Matiguas region.
In interviews, Sandinista officials denied their troops are responsible for such crimes.
While the incidents investigated by the Monitor all occurred between Jan. 27 and and March 21 of this year, residents of the area say they continue to live in fear of State Security. These residents say no actions have been taken against the alleged perpetrators.
Indeed, although State Security has long had a villainous reputation among many Nicaraguans in the rural war zones, interviews with residents in the area and human rights reports suggest abuses by State Security in the Matiguas region are particularly egregious.
Fr. Richard Frank, for example, a Maryknoll missionary who has lived and traveled extensively in this area for six years, said in an interview last week: The ``problem seems to be in Matiguas.'' He charged that abuses by government forces began to rise in his parish of San Ram'on in 1984, when part of it was placed under the authority of the General Directorate for State Security headquartered in Matiguas. (It is known by its Spanish initials DGSE). Sandinista officials denied their troops have a policy of intimidating suspected rebel collaborators.
But the civilian sources said they had no doubt that the Army and State Security were behind the acts.
While the Sandinista government has been accused in the past of such abuses, it has also prosecuted soldiers for human rights abuses.
According to residents, all of whom but Fr. Frank asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal, the local population became suspected of being contra collaborators once the rebels began moving into the area in large numbers in late 1986.
``One [official] from DGSE told me that the contras could not have infiltrated into this area without the people's help,'' one resident said. ``And they think the collaborators are worse than the rebels'' because civilian supporters hide, feed, and pass information on Sandinista troop movements to the rebels.
``All of these people have had contact with the contras,'' said Fr. Frank. ``They have to'' because the contras were everywhere in the region before last March, when they began retreating to their Honduran base camps. This occurred shortly after US aid was cut off last spring. ``That makes [the Army] suspicious of everyone,'' he said, adding that contact with the contras does not mean collaboration.
Four of the sources who live here said several of those killed were lay workers in the parish with no political sympathies for either side. But they also said that many families have members in the contra ranks, and some have members in both armies.
The Sandinistas are resented by many because of their practice of tracking down draft-age youth. ``They come to the chapel during services and recruit'' for the draft, one resident complained bitterly.
The local residents, Fr. Frank, and human rights reports allege that between last January and March:
Five men were found dead and tortured one day after being detained, March 21, by a large group of Sandinista soldiers.
Cruz Castillo, a 65-year-old man, was detained on March 14 by troops from the La Patriota Army base near Apantillo. His body was found a week later with multiple stab wounds, and the body showed signs of torture.
Socorro Mejia Ramos, a 24-year-old man, was captured either March 11 or 12 by Sandinista troops. He was found dead four days later.
Carmensa P'erez Ortiz and her husband Julio left their home during a Sandinista-rebel fire-fight on Jan. 27. When they returned later that day, they found Sandinista troops in their home. The soldiers allegedly stole 1,800,000 cordobas (about $90), beat the husband and wife, and raped Carmensa while taking the two to the Army base.
Felix Manuel Riza was taken on Jan. 27 from the house of a hacienda of which he was foreman by a group of Sandinista soldiers. His wife recognized a State Security agent with the troops. Riza's mutilated body was found seven days later 1,000 yards from the house.
Perhaps the most damaging case is the first one. Gonz'alez and two other residents said that on the morning of March 21, five men - Mateo Lanzas, Vicente Lanzas, Juan Iglesia, Norvin Perez, and Anastasio Martinez - were arrested by a force of some 50 to 80 Sandinista soldiers from the La Patriota base. They were accompanied by several State Security agents. When local people went to the base that day, they were told the five were not there and that the Army had not detained them.
Several people say they went in search of the men and the next day found their battered bodies on a path between a farm where the soldiers had been seen slaughtering a cow and the La Patriota base. The men had been stabbed and cut with machetes, claimed three sources from the area who spoke with the witnesses who had found the bodies.
According to Gonz'alez, the mother of Juan Iglesia recognized two of the soldiers who took away her son and gave their names to Sandinista authorities. The Sandinistas then held a meeting here on April 17 with the people of Apantillo to announce the results of a DGSE investigation into the killings. The investigation concluded that contras killed the five men, and the case was closed, said Lt. Augusto C'esar D'iaz, head of State Security in the Matiguas area, in an interview last week.
But at the meeting only the three Sandinista officials - D'iaz, Armando Zepeda, and Alejandro Arce Castano - maintained the contras were responsible. Despite the insistence of the local people, the three officials refused to consider the possibility that Army troops had killed the five men, said sources at the meeting. Mr. Zepeda was the top representative of the Sandinista Front in the Matiguas area at the time. Captain Arce Castano was commander of the 361 Light Infantry Batallion, then stationed at the La Patriota base. He is also the younger brother of Bayardo Arce Castano, one of the top nine comandantes who rule Nicaragua.
Another factor that embittered local residents was the presence of at least one former contra who defected to the government and now works with the DGSE.
Juan Jos'e Paez Mendoza Herrera, known as ``El Carpintero'' (The Carpenter) was identified by four sources in the area who knew him as a contra before he went over to the Sandinista side in 1986. El Carpintero was tried and sentenced in abstentia by a contra court martial for participating in a July 1986 triple-murder.
It is the only known case in which the contras have convicted their own members for numerous human rights abuses over the past seven years. Two others were also sentenced. One is serving seven years in a Honduran jail. The other, known as ``El Perico'' (The Parrot), was said by local people, who claimed to have known him, to have also joined the DGSE and later to have been killed in combat.
Along with El Carpintero, two other State Security agents were named by every source contacted in the area as being particularly abusive. The others were ``El Gato'' (The Cat) and ``El Retumbo'' (The Thunder). Neither Gato nor Retumbo were contras, and both may have been subsequently transferred from the area, said sources who knew both men.
The Interior Ministry, which controls the DGSE, denied that its troops or agents were responsible for the incidents. Cpt. Nelba Blandon, a ministry spokeswoman, denied ``categorically'' that any former contras have ever served with the DGSE. A denial contradicted by every civilian interviewed in the Apantillo area.
Since the US-based human-rights group Americas Watch visited Nicaragua in June and spoke with Interior Minister Tom'as Borge, the Sandinista government has set up a special commission ``to prioritize'' the investigation of such allegations, Captain Blandon said Wednesday, in answering a series of questions about Apantillo submitted to her by the Monitor and the Washington Post. ``If they are guilty, we will sanction them.''