Ret. Sandinista Coronel: “There’s a Crisis Within the Regime’s Forces”

Retired Colonel Carlos Brenes, a native of Monimbo, was a political prisoner for over ten months. Photo: Wilfredo Miranda

“I know retired members of the Army, the party structures and the government who supported the protest and continue to support the regime’s departure.”

By Carlos F. Chamorro (Confidencial)

HAVANA TIMES – Retired colonel Carlos Brenes is the highest-ranking former member of the military to be imprisoned by the dictatorship during the April rebellion. He was in jail a little over ten months in a punishment cell in the La Modelo [men’s prison], after being sentenced in a political trial where he was accused of leading supposed armed attacks against the police in Jinotepe. He was released under the unilaterally proclaimed amnesty law last June.

Originally from the Monimbo neighborhood in Masaya, Brenes fought with the FSLN guerrilla forces during the struggle against the dictatorship of Somoza. In 1979, he was one of the founders of the Popular Sandinista Army in which he occupied important military posts. He retired in 1993 and dedicated himself to farming on land near Jinotepe, while promoting the Association of Patriotic Soldiers with other retired Army veterans.

In this interview for the television program Esta Semana, retired Colonel Carlos Brenes speaks of the role of the retired army members in the April rebellion, and of the deterioration that he feels the dictatorship has suffered among its bases of political support.

Following your detention at Penas Blancas, on the border with Costa Rica, over a year ago, the regime brought you to trial on accusations of having led a military attack in Jinotepe.

Yes, according to them, I was supposedly there for a week, leading citizens in an attack on the National Police. This was a cheap political set-up that had no credibility among the population of Jinotepe, much less in an impartial trial.

Before April, 2018, you were linked to civic political activities in opposition to the regime. What was your participation during the rebellion?

In the first place, I was paying close attention to the situation and in contact with a number of people that are important in such circumstances. I was never linked to any direct action, but, yes, I was taken into consideration in some discussions as to whether the armed alternative would or would not be appropriate in those circumstances. To those people that consulted me, I responded that such would contaminate the civic uprising.

As far as I know, the armed individuals that were there [in the protests] never had anything to do with the organized structures of the rebellion that took place in April. However, there were infiltrated forces of the regime that managed to cause a deep contamination in all the territories, so that it seemed like there really had been an armed attempt.

Carlos Brenes’ arrest

Retired Colonel Carlos Brenes at the time of his arrest. Courtesy photo / Confidencial

The regime also accused former military official Tomas Maldonado, who was imprisoned, plus other former members of the Army and the Interior Ministry, who were accused but managed to escape and go into exile. Why are they accusing former members of the military who come from a Sandinista background?

Maldonado, like me, is a former member of the armed forces, but we have no other ties. There are only two similarities at play: one, the institution we retired from; and two, the territory. Beyond that, there’s no other element that make us alike. However, I believe that the regime found out just how many retired army officials were supporting this rebellion. They numbered in the hundreds and in the thousands, those who have been and still are supporting an end to the regime.

Did they participate in some way in armed actions?

I don’t have any specific information, but yes, some general knowledge. Now that I’m here in Costa Rica, I manage to see some former officials who say that they were offering their criteria to the territories, in different places, in the sense that they shouldn’t get involved in things of an armed nature and that they shouldn’t allow massacres and deaths on the part of the repressive attitude of the armed forces.

There are former police who broke with the regime because they refused to participate in the repression. Is there a fissure within the National Police?

I know of very few examples, but there are some. I know of more examples among the party structures and in the government of people that have been separating themselves, and who supported firmly and massively the popular protest. And I even know of a lot of cases of people who are working with the government and who belong to structures that even include the paramilitary, but who also, despite their position, even in the paramilitary, do support, and continue recognizing the need to back the Nicaraguan people against the regime.

The Nicaraguan paramilitary

Paramilitary under Ortega’s orders in Masaya. Photo: Carlos Herrera / Confidencial

How can they be in the paramilitary and be against the regime?

They may have supported it at one time. I can tell you that while I was in jail, I received greetings from people who worked in the ministries.

What you’re saying is that the political support for the government in the public sector is mounted on bases that aren’t so solid?

Totally. They’re going to suffer a wasting away, and they’re going to turn bad as the crisis continues to deepen. I’m talking about a deep crisis in the Sandinista forces and principally in those forces that are with the regime.

Does that crisis have any political expression or leadership? For example, the splitting off of former Magistrate Rafael Solis in January of last year didn’t produce any crumbling of other figures in the civic or military sector.

I believe that the process continues, but we aren’t going to find out because now the risks are greater internally. So, it can be foreseen that, yes, there’s an important deterioration of what’s left of a social base for the regime. 

The paramilitary hasn’t been dismantled, they’re still armed and acting in coordination with the Police. How can you explain that phenomenon?

The paramilitary didn’t come into existence with the 2018 crisis; the paramilitary have existed for many years before. In Masaya, in the 2011 elections, there were forces made up of hundreds of figures on motorcycles armed with mortars and pistols, and others on bicycles and in vehicles, all of them harassing the electorate.

However, they weren’t equipped with weapons of war, like the ones displayed in public in April. Yes, they had hidden weapons and they were protected by the police.

In the 2018 crisis, the practice was generalized, deepened, and the paramilitary were equipped, armed and protected with combat weapons. For example, in the case of Masaya, the use of the bazooka, the RPK and the PKM, all combat arms, strictly for the Army, appeared in the hands of the police and the paramilitary.  That will have to be investigated. The Dragunov rifles, all those are combat weapons whose use is restricted to the Army.

General Aviles and the Army

Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo with Army General Julio Cesar Aviles during the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Sandinista Army. Photo: Office of the President

How do you see the position of the Army Chief in denying the existence of the paramilitary and aligning himself politically with Ortega in this crisis?  Is this an institutional position or an individual one? Does it permeate the armed forces?

It permeates the army, but you’d have to ask yourself up to what point it represents the expression of the armed institution. I don’t believe that the armed forces would officially back these individuals [the paramilitary]; I believe that [there’s] a lack of professionalism on the part of the Army head, and the institution hasn’t expressed itself, except through its commander. They need to express themselves on these topics, as to what they consider to be pertinent.

There were some officials under your charge at one time, who today occupy positions of command in the Army.  Does the high command of the Army have any ethical or professional commitment?

Regarding the Army, there was a weeding out of all those cadres that they considered not apt for being directed by them under the current circumstances, and not apt to continue in the Army. So, [in the military command] the ones left there are those that they’ve been able to manipulate all these years. The greater part of the forces that had experienced combat and were in the guerrilla were practically excluded, separated out, and the remnant left were less combative, had less experience and less political formation.

In the face of the worsening of a national crisis, in an extreme situation, would that Army under the command of General Aviles be part of a political solution to the national crisis or will it ally itself with the repression?

Definitely, the actions of that Army are going to have either a positive or a negative incidence, but it will be the circumstances, the social pressure and the international pressure that obligates the Army to dissent with the regime and support negotiation as a way out for the country.

Paramilitary allied with the Ortega-Murillo dictatorship after “liberating” Masaya. Photo taken from the government website “El 19 Digital”.

How can the paramilitary groups be disarmed?

Here, there are norms and laws already constituted: there can be no other armed forces except for the Army, the Police and the Penal System. That Penal system, let me say in passing, functioned as a center for training, mobilizing and equipping the paramilitary. Being there in maximum security, we knew this from the common prisoners. That’s where they trained and were mobilized for the attack on Masaya and on the whole eastern region.

What effects did your ten months in jail leave you with?

There were health effects and major economic wear and tear, because by abandoning the productive forces that I had (on the farm), they were left very deteriorated.

The regime’s objective when they capture you, like the other political prisoners, is to break your spirit.

In reality, I don’t feel that my energy, my spirit, my conviction, have been damaged; I believe that they’ve been amplified.  I feel that they committed me before society and before the broad sense of Sandinismo to continue supporting the Nicaraguan cause of its liberation and democratization.

Can such a sense of a broad Sandinismo exist in the margins of the FSLN and the Ortega forces?

Absolutely, it’s going to have life for a longer time than Ortega-ism.

The resistance in Masaya

The main street of the Monimbo neighborhood in Masaya, on June 4, 2018. Photo: Carlos Herrera

We recently witnessed a spontaneous protest in Masaya during the religious procession of San Jeronimo, when people repudiated the Deputy National Chief of Police, Ramon Avellan [the former police chief of Masaya]. What does this expression of the people of Masaya signify?

It’s an expression that the people have already reorganized, restructured themselves and shaken off their fear. I believe that this is like the first wave of the next tsunami if no political accord is developed here. If Masaya breaks open by itself, other departments that were very active in the uprising against the regime could once again rise up.

When you say that Masaya reorganized itself, what exactly are you saying

That the living forces of the city have organized to be able to protect themselves against the possible repression of the regime, because it was known very early on that they had reinforced Masaya. Obviously, they were already organizing these forms of protest that we’d never seen, and they were massive and they were broad-based, and nevertheless the Police could only put forth one young woman as a scapegoat. I believe that if the Police had begun a repressive stage there, the consequences might possibly have been disastrous for this regime.

What is your political future, as a citizen?

My place is in Masaya, beside my people. My place is in function of the country’s interests as it always has been.