This afternoon we visited a former political prison — El Coyotepe. Some of us fought back tears. Some of us felt shame at the new-found knowledge that the United States government supported the dictatorship that tortured an unknown number of Nicaraguans right where we stood. All of us were moved.
Today, Coyotepe is preserved and operated by Nicaraguan Boy Scouts. Our guide, who works as a volunteer for tips, (again, with Lucy as our interpreter) took us through the two levels of dark cells, explaining what is known about what happened in the place unknown to even most Nicaraguans for many years.
Coyotepe, which means “coyote caves” in a local indigenous language, was originally built originally as a fortress to protect the community of Masaya.
In 1944, the Somoza government began using it as a political prison. That continued until the Revolution in 1979, when the Sandonista prisoners were liberated and the guards and other Somoza supporters were jailed there.
The Sandonista government improved conditions in the prison, adding bathroom facilities and electricity. But they continued to use it as a prison until 1983.
During the Somoza dictatorship, three levels of prison cells were used at Coyotepe. The bottom level collapsed in the 1970s. Our guide said there are theories that Somoza had it destroyed to hide an unknown number of dead prisoners. Another theory suggests dead prisoners were dumped into the nearby Masaya Volcano. Many believe the place in haunted.
It is believed that more than 600 people were held at Coyotepe at a time, 90 percent of them men.
In one of the cells on the second level, used for more “serious suspects” — likely suspected to assassination plots or other efforts to overthrow the government — we could see markings on the wall likely made by the prisoners.
“Mi quiera morir!!!” or “I want to die” is scrawled into the wall in one place. In another, the Spanish for “only Christ saves” is scratched with the date 1978.
“Aldo was my best friend because he held my hand the whole time,” Tara said. “I hung on to my St. Christopher (medal) the whole time.”
It was hard to be there, to know what happened so recently, and to confront the reality that it may be happening somewhere else in the world right now.
Reflecting as a group later on, Deanna said: “People talk about what Hitler did. This is kinda the same. I’d never even heard about all of this until now. This affected their entire country.”
Kata reminded us of the prison we learned of yesterday, in the lower levels of the Somoza palace.
Wyatt spoke of how “Medieval” it all was, but occurring as recently as 34 years ago.
“I’m glad we know that history,” Meghan said. “I can’t believe it was this recent.”
And the questions poured from us. What did the tour guide think of us? What else does our government not want us to know? How can we get the information we deserve as concerned global citizens?