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Masaya In Flames – Five Years Afterwards

Above photo: “Peaceful” protesters in Masaya on the first day of the coup attempt, April 18, 2018.

An interview with Randall, a “historic fighter” from Nicaragua’s revolution against the Somoza dictatorship, about the attempted coup in 2018.

And how the violence affected his neighborhood.

During the attempted coup in Nicaragua in 2018, Masaya was one of the cities most affected by the violence and by the widespread use of roadblocks to control the streets, many manned by armed youths. The violence began on April 18 and lasted until July 17, when police and Sandinista volunteers moved in to clear the roadblocks. Overall, in Masaya some 36 people died during the coup attempt, including three police officers (and two more were trapped and murdered after the coup attempt ended). Randall, the subject of this article, lives in Monimbó, the neighborhood or “barrio” where the violence in the city began.

Randall is one of Masaya’s “historic fighters,” a veteran from Nicaragua’s revolutionary war against the Somoza dictatorship in the 1970s. Now 63 years old, he has lived in Masaya, one of Nicaragua’s largest cities, for more than 40 years. His old house, of comfortable size and built traditionally of adobe with a pantile roof, is in the center of the historic neighborhood of Monimbó, which was the part of Masaya that served as the center of operations in the 2018 coup attempt against the Sandinista government.

Randall began our discussion by remarking that at the beginning of 2018, before the coup attempt, Nicaragua was prosperous: the economy was growing, people had jobs, new businesses had opened, and the future seemed secure. He emphasizes how frustrated he felt when he realized that some people were out to destroy the country’s economic prospects.

Randall explains that he understands with hindsight that preparations for the attempted coup began years earlier: he thinks that some local people were being trained and prepared for the coup perhaps as much as five years beforehand. Randall remembers that in the months before the coup began he was struck by messages given as part of the sermons in the local Catholic church, when the parish priest started to refer to political matters. He recalls in particular that Bishop Silvio Baez (who was to be a key figure in the coup attempt), made an explicit call in one sermon for a “higher level of democracy” in Nicaragua; Randall says he had no idea at the time what they were talking about or referring to, but it soon became clear. Another sign that subsequently seems important is that suddenly, prior to April 2018, people started to buy camouflaged or military-style clothing, and he recalls at one point hearing someone comment in public, “We’re going to put an end to this shit.”

Before the coup attempt began, in early April, Randall said that “calm reigned” in the neighborhood. But money was already circulating in preparation for the coup. People were starting to buy food in anticipation of what was coming. Randall heard that one of the local leaders of the breakaway “Sandinista Renovation Movement” came to advise some residents of the neighborhood to leave town, and they left (in anticipation of the “debacle” that was coming). At that point Randall began to realize that combat centers were being set up in various parts of Masaya, including Monimbó.

Randall described the opposition marches that took place immediately after April 18, led by opposition leaders such as Dora Maria Téllez (who was seen, before and after April 18, “walking freely in the streets”), Mónica Baltodano, General Noguera, Fernando and Carlos Brenes (ex-soldiers), Roberto Samcam and others. They began to set up bases, for example, in the car park of the hotel Rinconcito del Amor and then in the INATEC technical school, which soon became a torture center. They also occupied the cemeteries as bases. It was from Masaya that responsibilities were divided for different parts of the region – Masaya was the center of operations. Randall mentioned two people from the area who were in charge of bringing in and distributing weapons, not only for Masaya but for the surrounding areas (one of these people now lives in Spain).

The (Catholic) Magdalena church, in the center of the barrio, was used as the main warehouse to store weapons and supplies.

On April 18, around 7:00 p.m., the opposition launched an attack against members of the Sandinista Youth who were in the historic “Comandito”, a small house that had been used as a command center during the revolutionary war and had become a symbol of the revolution. The opposition was armed with mortars, stones and weapons, and the young people who were there were forced to flee. In Nicaragua where, as Randall said “peace reigned”, it was an incident that nobody thought could possibly happen.

Destruction of the historic “Comandito” in Masaya, April 18, 2018.

Soon the opposition started using larger homemade weapons, such as mortars that could fire a round for as far as two street blocks. They brought in truckloads of chemicals and explosives to make munitions. Later, of course, they started using conventional firearms. It was quickly obvious that these were not just political protests, but an attempted coup. Those fighting hoped to take advantage of a decision by the government (during the “national dialogue” that had been set up in a agreement between the government and the Catholic hierarchy) to order the police to stay in their police stations.

Randall relates one of several violent incidents that affected him personally during the three months of the coup attempt. It was June 18, he was walking with his son past one of the local cemeteries: they planned to free the chickens they kept in their yard, which they could no longer feed (it had become difficult even to buy normal food supplies). Opposition thugs accosted them, identified them as Sandinistas, tied them up, forced them to kneel and started to beat them with heavy metal tubes. Those attacking them carried bundles of rope, cut to lengths to use when tying up people they captured. They told Randall and his son that they were going to kill them. Randall says that he replied that they had not come there to surrender as captives, that they were proud members of the Sandinista Front, and that if they died those who killed them should not assume that only they would die, that five or six of the opposition would die as well. At that moment they thought they were finished. A woman who was part of the group came out of a small store nearby, carrying a syringe containing a yellow liquid, which Randall and his son imagined must be a lethal injection. But instead, she made an announcement, without any further explanation: ‘The man says, “release them both”.’ They were then released, and were able to return home.

Randall explained that the roadblock where they were captured was outside the cemetery on the south side of Masaya, where people returning to the city from outlying areas passed by on their way home in the evenings. If those trying to pass the roadblock were discovered to be government workers or Sandinista sympathizers, they were likely to be stripped naked and painted with blue and white paint. They would then be forced to run in this state down the hill towards the center of Monimbó, where (Randall said) people came out of their houses with water and towels to help the victims wash and to cover themselves. This happened on many occasions, to both men and women. Those carrying out these humiliating acts raided hardware stores to steal the paint they used. Randall said that in a two-story house located on the corner opposite the St. Sebastian Catholic Church, people were tortured and could often be heard screaming. At another nearby house, women who had been kidnapped were raped.

One day, a local opposition member named Chilo Marimba was passing by one of the streets with a group of delinquents. Outside one of the houses was a group of children playing Nintendo. He mistook the device for a camera, and accused the family of trying to take pictures of them. He then attempted to evict them from the house. There was another example nearby of an attempt to evict people from a house, where the people stood their ground, armed with machetes. But the opposition managed to seize several houses and, of course says Randall, many were ransacked or set on fire, such as that of Dr. Alejandra Ortega (a well-known doctor from the Masaya hospital, unrelated to President Ortega).

On June 30, at around 8 pm, a group of about 17 armed thugs broke into Randall’s family home. They were carrying AK47s and a variety of other weapons. Among those who entered was “La Loba,” one of the local leaders, Chino Juan, another known as “El Burro” of the Porroncones gang, and several others whom he recognized even though their faces were covered. Some of them have been deported, but many of them still live in the neighborhood. They started firing their guns into the roof because they were looking for Randall, not caring that there were children and women in the house. They left, assuming Randall was not there.

Randall spoke briefly about the torture and murder of 23-year-old police officer Gabriel Vado (killed on July 15 on the outskirts of Masaya). The opposition attackers captured him, tied him up, beat him, wounded him with machetes and, when they finally set his body on fire, he was barely alive.

At the end of June, the opposition thought that Monimbó was ready for insurrection, but in reality the people had turned against them. They realized that they were delinquents, drug addicts and criminals. Randall described one of the local youths involved in the violence as coming from a broken and violent home, and that the opposition leaders were looking for people with violent backgrounds, who had dropped out of school early, who were drug users, because they could use them as cannon fodder for their violent attacks. Most of those involved were people with anti-social backgrounds of some kind, who could easily be manipulated by the opposition.

Randall explained that on the day this part of Masaya was liberated (July 17), the national police and volunteer police started to enter the barrio very early in the morning. He says that most of those who entered from the east met no resistance until they reached the part of the neighborhood where he lives, because those who were at the roadblocks simply fled when they realized they were outnumbered. But at other nearby roadblocks, those manning them fired back at the police and volunteer policemen who, he said, responded with shots in the air, warning the criminals that they were about to be attacked in force. At that point this section of the opposition also fled, throwing their weapons onto rooftops, down sewers and other places where they were later discovered.

By that date, after three months of violence, most people were delighted that Monimbó had been liberated and that the coup attempt was over. Randall sums up his feelings: “We were all living a long-running nightmare in which criminals were in control of the neighborhood. At last it came to an end.”

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