Nicaragua: The Story of an ex-Sandinista and Army Officer Accused of Treason
He grew up in the ranks of the Sandinista Front, he was in the military, and up until a couple years ago he thought that Daniel Ortega.
To followers of Daniel Ortega, Roberto Cruz became a traitor. And that’s a crime that party loyalists know you pay for in spades. Roberto knew this too, but, even so, he was willing to pay for his rebellion by going to jail.
He’d always been a Sandinista. Even a month before they arrested him, he’d remarked to his wife: “[Daniel Ortega] could have left office as Nicaragua’s best president.” He really believed that, since he’d grown up following the ideals of his father, who died fighting for the revolution in the 80’s. For that reason, Roberto supported the Sandinista Front (FSLN) in all their political activities and electoral campaigns. He never received anything for it, he did it all out of conviction.
When Roberto completely divorced himself from the party, he had problems with his family, who were historically Sandinistas. On one occasion, he even crossed paths with his mother in a countermarch: she was with the Sandinistas, and he with the self-organized opposition. Afterwards, he sent her a message in which, among other things, he reproached her: “Mother, it’s unbelievable that you’re going around with a party that’s killing our people.”
Roberto Cruz is from Matagalpa, in the north of Nicaragua. He’s 35 years old and one of the 767 political prisoners, according to data from the Committee for Political Prisoners. Today, he’s facing three separate judicial proceedings. He was abducted by the paramilitary, together with Francisco Castro, Nelly Roque, Solange Centeno and Eduardo Manuel Tijerino, on June 26, 2018. That day, he heard that they were going to kill them. They desisted because one of those captured was the great-nephew of Doris Tijerino, a revolutionary heroine, his mother was told later.
As of this date, two trials are complete, and he’s already been sentenced to a total of 43 years. Prior to the April rebellion, he was studying law and had a small store where he sold eggs and chicken, as well as transporting goods in his vehicle. But his great love has been his two children: a girl and a boy.
The dream of being in the military
From the time he was little, Roberto Cruz dreamed of becoming a soldier, even though his mother, Jaqueline Altamirano, didn’t agree. “When he went off to join the Army, I told him: “Roberto, you have to study,” but he said, “I want to follow the ideals of my father,” Altamirano recounts.
He was in the Army for a total of 12 years, but at different times. The first time he joined the ranks, he was about 18 and hadn’t graduated from high school. On that occasion, he was there for just five years, because he hurt his knee and that kept him from having a full military career. He decided to leave the army to heal, finish high school, and later return to try again.
Four years later he went back into the army, and this time things went better. He earned the grade of third sergeant, and they transferred him to Managua to offer courses at the “Sargento Andres Castro” National School for Sergeants. He remained there until 2015; during that year, he resigned when they refused him permission to go see his daughter who was sick.
“Leaving the army was hard for him, but they didn’t want to respect his rights as a person, as a father. He had only asked to be able to use some vacation days to go see our daughter, and they wouldn’t let him go,” his wife, Maskiel Hernandez, states.
After that, he wouldn’t renew his contract, although they asked him several times to return. His history in the Army ended there, but not his time with the Sandinista Front.
Love for the Sandinista movement
Maskiel Hernandez and Roberto Cruz met in elementary school. At the time, they spoke to each other, but they weren’t sweethearts. When he joined the army, they stopped seeing each other and they didn’t come into contact again until he returned. He would come to her family’s bakery early in the mornings to pick up bread to sell on the Matagalpa streets. That’s where their love was born.
Politics have always been a divisive factor in their relationship. Roberto never hid his affinity for the Sandinista party, nor did Maskiel disguise her rejection of that party. He joined the Sandinista Youth, was involved in the electoral campaigns, attended the Sandinista marches with his mother, worked on the electoral tables in the polling places, and even after he had joined the April 19th movement in Matagalpa during the rebellion he told his wife:
“It hurts me that they’re burning the red and black flag the way they’re doing.”
“It’s only a flag,” Maskiel responded.
“Yes, but it’s the flag I was brought up with. It’s the flag with which they taught me about the Revolution: that this flag was going to get Nicaragua ahead. And the day that Ortega won [in 2006], I said: ‘Nicaragua is going to be different. Yeah, it’s different alright, but not for the better.”
Maskiel remained silent, but she understood the weight of those words. The divorce between Roberto and the party he loved was sealed.
She believes that the brutal repression finished opening his eyes. She recalls that at some point he told her: “There’s nothing to salvage from this, there’s nothing to be done.”
He was filled with anger and indignation upon seeing how some Sandinista mobs beat up the elderly people who were protesting the Social Security reforms in Leon, and he said, “I’m going to join the kids.”
After his decision, Roberto argued with his mother and with his paternal family, who didn’t agree with his decision to “cross to the other side of the street”.
By May of last year, they had begun to call Roberto Cruz a traitor. A smear campaign against him began on social media, and they even put a price on his head.
“He came to me saying, ‘Look, honey, they’re offering three thousand dollars for my head. That’s very cheap. You can’t even buy a little piece of land with that.” Fifteen days later, he told her that the price had now gone up to five thousand dollars.
In an attempt to avoid his being killed, his mother met with Matagalpa’s Sandinista mayor, Sadrach Zeledon. Zeledon told her: “No, Blondie, don’t worry.” But bad times were imminent. Two weeks before he was abducted, a person close to him who belongs to the FSLN offered him whatever he wanted to abandon the struggle. He answered: “my dignity can’t be bought.”
“It’s my fault that that man [Ortega] is sitting there”
Roberto Cruz was one of the first political prisoners to be arrested. The day he was detained, he told his wife he was going to Managua to drop off some assistance, and when he returned, he’d accompany her to have an ultrasound, because they suspected she might be pregnant. But they weren’t ever able to go. Around 3 pm on June 26, friends came to advise his wife that the paramilitary had grabbed him.
That same day, his mother, Jaqueline Altamirano, recalls feeling very moved by a television clip showing the mother of a political prisoner from the town of Nagarote; at that moment, she thought: “It can’t be that the party I’ve fought for is doing all this.” She never imagined that the next day it would be her crying for her son at the gate to the infamous El Chipote interrogation jail.
“The day that they trapped Roberto, I wanted to die, because it’s my fault that my son is a prisoner. I worked on the campaigns, I worked on the electoral tables in the polling places, so that man could be sitting [in the presidential seat] today,” she says amid her tears.
“The day that I arrived at El Chipote, the first thing I did was to hug that woman that I saw on television. I remember that she asked me: ‘How come you’re hugging me? Do you know me?’ I told her, ‘No – yesterday I saw you on television, and I never imagined that today I’d be here for my own son,’” Jacqueline recalls, without being able to control her sobs.
The first time they were able to see Roberto was on June 30. He had been beaten, was using clothing that wasn’t his own, and in the short interchange of words that he was allowed with his mother, he managed to tell her. “I can only tell you that I found a father here.”
Worsening health in prison
From the moment that Roberto Cruz was captured, he was severely beaten. The beating they gave him left him nearly unconscious for a number of hours. It fractured his ribs and dislocated his shoulder. Weeks later, he was transferred to the La Modelo prison, and there his health worsened.
“On October 16, they moved him to a punishment cell on gallery four. They took him there because he demanded medical help for Dilon Zeledon (a political prisoner who lost his hearing due to a beating). No light enters that cell, it’s a cell made to hold four people, and there are twelve there. They’re sleeping on the ground, there’s hardly any ventilation, and they take them out to get sunlight only once or twice a month,” his wife denounces.
Roberto has also had problems with his blood pressure that he didn’t have previously. According to his wife, a few months ago he suffered a paralysis of half his body. Despite all that, he wasn’t seen by a doctor until the beginning of this year.
Of all Roberto’s family members, his two children are the ones who have suffered the most. Their mother has had to explain to them why their Dad isn’t with them, and for her part she’s had to spend her pregnancy alone, coming and going between Matagalpa and Managua to see him.
“How can you explain to a child that their Dad – their hero – is in jail because they’ve classified him as a terrorist? How do you explain this to a little girl, whose father is the love of her life? My kids have been so badly affected that they don’t go to sleep until the early morning, asking for their Dad. They’ve had to leave school,” Maskiel says.
“I had to tell them the truth, because they’re not stupid. My seven-year-old daughter questioned me: “If my daddy’s working, then how come two policemen are beside him there (on television)? If my daddy’s working, how come he doesn’t call me?” Maskiel says tearfully.
The same thing happens when they go to visit him in the El Modelo jail. The little girl doesn’t want to leave without her Dad. “I can be strong through everything, but when I talk about the harm to my children, that’s when my voice breaks. It makes me very sad, keeps me from sleeping many nights, thinking about everything that’s happening to my children. It’s not fair. You can ask them, and what they’ll say is: “My Daddy wants Nicaragua to be a free country. My Dad is a hero and he’s there for that very reason,” she concludes.
Three separate trials
Roberto Cruz is one of the few political prisoners of the dictatorship who has had three judicial proceedings.
The first case was for organized crime, aggravated theft with intimidation, kidnapping with extortion, illegal arms use and possession, illegal carrying of firearms and munition. He was sentenced to 23 years for these charges.
Second case: terrorism, obstructing public services, aggravated theft with violence and intimidation, kidnapping with extortion, torture, psychological harm and menacing with arms. For these, he was sentenced to 20 years.
Third case: aggravated theft, fabrication, illegal traffic and possession of restricted arms and artefacts. His trial for this hasn’t begun.