Repeated detentions trap Nicaraguans who oppose the government in a revolving door. The tactic is designed to lessen the “political cost” of the dictatorship’s growing police state.
Por Franklin Villavicencio (Confidencial)
HAVANA TIMES – Lenin Salablanca has been detained four times since leaving prison in 2019. The first time they imprisoned him it was for demonstrating against the government of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo.
The last time the police picked him up was in Juigalpa, Chontales, at the beginning of December 2020. That time they held him for four hours. The officials asked only one thing of him: “They told me to quit screwing with them. In those words.” Salablanca, 38, was then freed, but the harassment didn’t vanish.
“There are key dates and times when the provocations get worse,” he affirms. An example he gives is during his working hours. That situation keeps him from selling his products, because the customers are afraid to approach.
Kevin Monzon, 20, faces a similar situation like Salablanca, but in the Jorge Dimitrov neighborhood in Managua. He’s been detained three times. Each time, his captor’s petition is similar to what they tell Salablanca. During Monzon’s latest detention, on December 16th, a police officer told him to “lower your profile”. Kevin posts satiric videos on TikTok, making fun of Ortega and Murillo.
“They threaten you. They warn me to keep a low profile, because if not the police are going to descend on my house,” he commented.
The “revolving door”
Salablanca’s and Monzon’s stories illustrate the regime’s latest mode of repression. It’s not new, nor is it original. Various human rights organizations are familiar with this repressive strategy, which they call the “revolving door”. It consists of maintaining a constant flow of detentions and releases, combined with police cordons or even house arrest. In the last months, the regime has intensified its use of this repressive strategy.
The term “revolving door” was coined by Alfredo Romero, president of Penal Forum, a Venezuelan organization. The Forum is dedicated to defending the human rights of victims of Nicolas Maduro’s regime. The strategy’s principal aims, Romero explains, is to lower the political cost of mass detentions. Instead, they use brief but repeated stints in jail. With these, they maintain their pressure and social control.
[Cuba has perfected this type of selective repression against anyone opposing the Communist Party government, as well as independent journalists covering the repression.]
The reasons this strategy has been used so vigorously in recent months are complex and variable. The Mechanism for the Recognition of Political Prisoners, comprised of Nicaraguan human rights activists and advocates, proposes one answer. They believe it lets the regime leave a message in the communities where those detained hold some influence. It seeks to demoralize and discredit them. Proof of that is their insistence on forcing activists to “lower their profile”.
Data collected by “Mechanism” counts 25 detentions realized this past December. Of them, 22 of those detained were freed. Since June 2020, the average time in prison has gone from nearly 64 days, to between one and six days.
In December 2020, the average jail time for these detentions was one day. However, there are also exceptions. One of them is the case of Sergio Beteta. On December 21st, the youth exhibited a Nicaraguan flag on a public avenue. He was arrested, and later accused of drug trafficking and illegal arms possession. On January 21, 2021, Beteta marked one month in jail.
“You never know when they’re going to throw you in jail”
Lenin Salablanca lives in a state of constant uncertainty. “They haven’t picked me up for over a month. The police just come by the house and leave again, turn around. The experience is traumatic, not only for me. Many times, you know what you’re facing, what you’re going to confront. The biggest problem, though, are your young children, your family,” he commented.
Despite the police harassment, he has to work and maintain his daily routine. He’s a merchant who sells all kinds of products. However, the persecution he’s exposed to scares away even his regular customers. “For fear of the repression, people don’t even buy from you. They tell you: ‘God forbid they [the regime] should think we’re planning something together’.” Salablanca faces a persistent fear. If he’s already been picked up four times – What’s stopping them from a fifth, and a sixth?
“You live with the uncertainty that tomorrow they could throw you in jail. They could beat you up, or even take your life. It’s very sad, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone,” Salablanca stated.
Lenin Salablanca was in prison for ten months, between August 2018 and June 2019. He was finally released under the controversial amnesty law. That law, which included self-amnesty for the regime, was approved by the Sandinista majority in the National Assembly in 2019. Its primary aim was to close the door on family members’ attempts to clarify and find justice for the hundreds of 2018 killings. These assassinations, which took place during the civic rebellion, remain uninvestigated and unpunished.
Under the provisions of this amnesty law, over 50 political prisoners were freed. They had been jailed during the most intense phase of the repression. Nevertheless, in the months that followed this release, others were arrested. Today, there are more than 100 political prisoners in the regime’s jails.
“They look for a way to shut you up”
The first time that Kevin Monzón was in prison was August 1, 2019. He was released seven days later. In 2020, he was tried for supposedly “attacking a Sandinista sympathizer with a firearm”. “Which is false.,” he states with calm assurance. “It was all because they wanted to shut me up for making videos about their bad government.”
After four months on trial, he was declared innocent on November 18, 2020. Later, he was detained for the third time on December 16. He was picked up by the police while sitting on a bench at a Managua shopping center. They transferred him to the District 5 police station, where he remained for seven days.
“They wanted to pin the blame on me for having marijuana. I told the commissioner that I don’t smoke it, nor do I sell it. Later, they threatened to transfer me to El Chipote (Managua’s infamous interrogation jail),” Monzon recalled.
Kevin Monzon has denounced on repeated occasions the insults and blows the authorities have dealt him. “There are terrible moments, because they look for a way to shut you up,” he explained.
“The regime seeks some way to silence those who speak badly of their government. Now they want to criminalize the social networks, and even silence the media,” the youth noted.
In both cases – that of Salablanca and that of Monzon – the characteristics of the “revolving door” strategy are in clear evidence. The police detain them, then let them go. Let them go along for a while, like the police told Monzon. Later, they repeat the dynamic. The “Mechanism” feels it’s a deliberate strategy. The tactic is aimed at exhausting not only those directly affected, but also their family members and people around them.
Repressive stages of the detentions
The group “Mechanism for the Recognition of Political Prisoners,” divides these detentions into two stages. The first followed the April 2018 protests and consisted in massive imprisonment of demonstrators, activists and community leaders. These detentions accompanied other actions, like “Operation Clean-up” carried out between June and August 2018. That operation was aimed at leveling the barricades and active centers of resistance that remained across the country.
“At that moment, what we saw were massive detentions. There were up to 800 people in jail at one time. A large part of them were tried. The regime arrested people, but didn’t release them,” explained a source from “Mechanism”. Members of the group asked to remain anonymous in order not to hinder the work the group is doing.
“A minimal number of prisoners were let go. At that moment, civil society began to denounce the practice. All that elevated the political cost to the dictatorship of having these people in prison for so long. The human rights violations were evident,” the source added.
Following that, the regime began the process of prisoner releases based on the Amnesty Law. These were intended to mitigate that “cost”. They then went on to the dynamic of the “revolving door”. However, the regime still maintains a considerable group of prisoners in jail for political reasons. At least 106 – of over 1,000 people jailed for dissent at different times – still remain in the regime’s prisons.
Those in “Mechanism” all agree that these “short” detentions have “a political message”. That message isn’t only intended for those captured, but for their entire circle of neighbors or organizations. “It functions like a kind of territorial control,” those from “Mechanism” added.
“What they’re trying to do is intimidate in other ways the political leaders who could be dangerous to them,” the source explained. In many cases, it’s also a way of “increasing the pressure, to the point that they go into exile”.