(This article was originally published on Jan. 27, 2020, on https://www.casabenjaminlinder.org/navigatingnicaragua/managuas-bloody-lead-hill)
The capital city of Managua is a good lens through which to view Nicaraguan history. Its expansive views, shaded buildings, and streets with no name give us physical places to anchor our stories of colonization, injustice, insurrection, revolution and resilience. This is the first in a series about Managua.
The “Cuesta de Plomo,” which rises up a steep incline on the main road heading west out of Managua to Ciudad Sandino and León, is one of the bloodiest sections of highway in the country – and not just because of fatal traffic accidents that happen frequently on its grade. When I first learned it was called “Lead Hill,” I imagined the name came from leaded gasoline exhaust that vehicles expelled in black plumes while struggling to climb the slope. Later I found out its official name is Martyrs’ Hill, and the “Lead” in its nickname refers to bullets, because the Cuesta de Plomo [sometimes called Cuesta del Plomo] used to be a dumping ground for the bullet-riddled bodies of victims of Somoza’s Guardia Nacional.
When Nicaragua finally got out from under 300 years of colonialism from Spain, it didn’t take long before it was subjected to a series of occupations by the Marines to protect U.S. business interests. In 1933 when the United States pulled out all Marines stationed in Nicaragua after a long occupation, it needed to create a native proxy force to do its bidding in absence of U.S. troops – a practice it continues to this day wherever it’s ending a long-term occupation. In Nicaragua, the U.S. created the National Guard, la Guardia Nacional, and hand-picked Anastasio Somoza García to head up the force, effectively beginning the Somoza dictatorship which passed from father to son to brother and ruled the country until 1979.
Throughout their reign, the Somozas made no effort to provide the Nicaraguan people with health care, clean water, electricity, or education, but they certainly focused on increasing their own power and wealth. By the 1970s, the Somozas controlled most of the country’s economy and a huge portion of its arable land, owning cattle ranches, coffee plantations, cement and cardboard factories, the airline, even a company that sold blood plasma to the U.S.
As opposition to the Somoza dictatorship began to gain momentum in the 1960s and 70s, dictator Anastasio “Tachito” Somoza Debayle tightened his stranglehold, using the Guardia to harass, kidnap, torture and kill suspected members of the developing insurrectionist movement, the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional, the FSLN. During that time, families looking for missing loved ones in Managua and Ciudad Sandino would go scour the scrub brush on the steep slopes of the Cuesta de Plomo, a preferred spot for the Guardia to dump bodies. Members of the FSLN often tattooed their initials on their arms so families would be able to identify them even if their bodies were brutalized beyond recognition.
When I first came to Nicaragua, I had the opportunity to hear about the tactics of the Guardia first hand from a man I was working alongside in Ciudad Sandino. While we built houses for victims of Hurricane Mitch, he told me his story.
Juan was 15 years old in 1978, his family lived at the bottom of the Cuesta de Plomo. His sister had been kidnapped by the Guardia, raped, and her body was thrown naked with its hands tied over the edge of the Cuesta de Plomo.
“At that time the Guardia was hunting young people – it was illegal to be young, they would screw with the youth and students,” Juan told me. “They killed four of my brothers, and since I was the only boy left in the house, I had to leave because they were looking to kill me.” He was headed out of town on a very full bus when the Guardia stopped the bus and made everyone get out – this was a common occurrence at the time. The Guardia lined the women up on one side and the men on the other, going down the line looking for people with scrapes on their knees and elbows, or signs they’d been carrying a heavy pack, because that was supposed to be a sign they were training with the FSLN guerillas.
“That was the first time I was afraid, my heart was beating with fear. They pulled a 20 year old kid out of the line and started shooting him. His girlfriend, who was just 21 years old and pregnant, ran to help him shouting, ‘Don’t kill him!’ but the Guardia turned on her and uh-uh-uh-uh-uh they shot her and the child in her stomach, like a blender.” After the Guardia had killed many, they handed shovels to the surviving passengers and had them dig a hole and throw the dead in the mass grave.
“There were many, their hands were tied, they were naked. Afterwards a machine came to bury them quickly.” The spot Juan described was at that time a cattle ranch owned by the Somozas. Years later, mass graves were uncovered on the property.
The National Guard took Juan to jail and kept him there for five days where they tortured him, putting him in a tank of water up to his chest. “I survived because I was 15 years old, still very young and strong. I thought that with all that abuse, they were surely going to kill me.” One day his torturers had Juan outside digging his own grave when he saw a chance and ran. He got away down to the lake where some fishermen hid him in the bottom of their boat and took him out of town.
“That was the end of my life as a civilian. I took up a gun and went to the mountains to learn to defend myself, because they were going to kill me anyway.”
Juan and thousands of other FSLN guerrilleros overthrew the Somoza dictatorship in 1979, the National Guard was disbanded and no more bodies were discovered on the Cuesta de Plomo…until 2018.
From April through September of 2018, Nicaragua suffered its worst political violence and upheaval since the end of the U.S.-backed Contra war of the 1980s. Extremely polarized controversy persists about what caused this conflict, how it developed and what is means for Nicaragua’s people now. Once again, the Cuesta de Plomo helps us unravel a bit of this painful new story.
On May 26th, 2018, the body of a young man, Keller Pérez Duarte, was found with signs of torture on the Cuesta de Plomo. When the news hit Ciudad Sandino, where I live, the terror was immediately palpable. “It’s happening again,” people told me. “They are killing our youth again and throwing them over the Cuesta.” At the time, nobody knew who “they” were.
Later, Keller’s killers confessed that they were paid by opposition leaders to torture him and dispose of his body on the Cuesta. In the trial of “El Viper,” one of those responsible for Keller’s death, the prosecutor showed that the killers were following the instructions of opposition leader Felix Maradiaga, who explicitly ordered them to sow chaos among working class families in Nicaragua. Throwing Keller’s tortured body over the Cuesta de Plomo was a very effective terror tactic, playing on the fears of Nicaraguan society’s lived trauma. Let’s hope it’s the end of Lead Hill’s painful past.
By Nan McCurdy
Military Hospital among Best in Region
The international healthcare accreditation organization in Canada called Accreditation Canada reported on Jan. 28 that the Alejandro Dávila Bolaños Military Teaching Hospital maintains its international diamond level accreditation in all areas. The Hospital also received the “Excellence in Safety Quality” award. The Military Hospital is the only one in the region certified as an active member of the Global Network of Green and Healthy Hospitals. Accreditation Canada rigorously validates compliance with international standards in health services and grants three levels of accreditation: Gold, Platinum and Diamond, the latter being the highest category.
Dr. Jodie Taylor, director of the international organization said, “I would like to congratulate the Military Hospital for the excellent results of its evaluation. Once again it has demonstrated its ability to achieve our highest level of excellence: Diamond, in all areas. Achieving this status is a tribute to your hard work and we look forward to your continued diligent pursuit of quality to reach this level in your next accreditation assessment. I also want to acknowledge that you have received the Excellence in Safety Quality Award, which demonstrates your excellence in patient safety and care. We commend you for your rigor, especially in light of the challenges facing the world today.” (Radio La Primerisima, 28 January, 2021)
Vaccines to Arrive Soon
The Health Ministry announced that the World Health Organization COVAX Mechanism will be sending to Nicaragua its first batch of vaccines against COVID-19. Nicaragua will be receiving 504,000 doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine that represents 18% of the vaccines allotted to Nicaragua through the COVAX Mechanism. With these first vaccines, 252,000 will be vaccinated prioritizing the elderly, people with high-risk illnesses, teachers, and healthcare personnel. (Nicaragua News, 2 February 2021)
New Law Strengthens Protected Areas
On January 28 the National Assembly approved a law declaring and defining the Nicaraguan Caribbean Biosphere Reserve as an area containing coastal and marine ecosystems of high ecological value in the Caribbean region. The law strengthens the biological reserve and expands the protected areas on the Caribbean Coast. With this law, almost four million hectares will be safeguarded, preserving ecosystems and food sovereignty. “With the creation of the Nicaraguan Caribbean Biosphere Reserve the Government took an important step in the defense of its maritime territory,” said Dr. Carlos Argüello, Nicaragua’s representative to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. The diplomat explained that the creation of this reserve is in compliance with the ruling issued by the World Court on November 19, 2012, which establishes a new maritime border between Nicaragua and Colombia. “We are creating a new reserve within the legislative system. We are protecting 44,000 square kilometers, a very important area of our maritime territory. We are creating the largest reserve in Central America, an area that deserves to be protected, and we are completely within the International Court mandate,” Arguello indicated. (Radio La Primerisima, 2 February, 2021)
2021 Budget is the Biggest in History
2021 will be the year of economic reactivation and growth that was abruptly cut in 2018, asserted Ivan Acosta, Minister of Finance and Public Credit. “The National Plan to fight poverty includes the fair redistribution of taxes, and all resources will be directed to generate employment, attract investments, maintain macroeconomic stability, increase exports, and restore the industrial parks of the free trade zones to reach 130,000 jobs,” he said. He explained that US$300 million from the Central American Bank for Economic Integration is for the Nicaragua Solidarity Plan to strengthen the health area, production, the trade system, the bovine and pork program, and roads, among others. From the International Monetary Fund, more than US$185 million is for financial stability, balance of payments and social security. Acosta stated, “The government has in its portfolio more than US$900 million to promote programs for social and public investment. It is making efforts to focus resources on social investment. We are going to increase the 2020 budget from US$ 2.3 billion to US$2.96 billion in 2021.” He said a priority is to work on the recovery of the livelihoods of people affected by the hurricanes, especially in the fishing sector. “Resources will be provided so that the productive base can contribute to the GDP growth of 3.5% projected by The Economist: This will mean more investment in economic infrastructure, roads, energy, drinking water.” US$30 million through the Zero Usury program will be for the sectors excluded by the private banking system and will assist another 160,000 women for their small businesses and to generate jobs.
To guarantee more and better health for Nicaraguans US$77 million will be spent. With support from multilateral organizations the government has the resources to purchase vaccines against COVID-19. Acosta believes that with mass vaccination and citizen security, the world will see that Nicaragua is one of the safest countries in the region and this will help attract investment and tourism. (Informe Pastran, 29 January 2021)
Boats for Haulover Families
Forty indigenous families from Haulover, in the North Caribbean, were given 40 fiberglass boats on Jan. 31 by the Institute of Fisheries and Aquaculture (Inpesca) so that they can return to their livelihood. Haulover was one of the communities most affected by hurricanes Iota and Eta in 2020. See photos here: https://radiolaprimerisima.com/noticias-generales/destacado/entregan-cayucos-de-fibra-de-vidrio-a-familias-de-haulover/ (Radio La Primerisima, 1 February 2021)
School Lunch Program
School Year Begins
The school year kicked off on February 1 with an Education Ministry curriculum that will contribute to recovering material that could not be covered in 2020 due to the pandemic. A rigorous biosecurity protocol will be followed in all educational centers to prevent disease. The inclusion of English language instruction beginning in the fourth grade is one aspect of the free and quality education. All fourth graders have a new textbook and 300 new teachers who are trained to teach the English language at European standards.
Esther Kuish, UNESCO representative said “We congratulate all the government and school authorities, teachers and educational staff for their efforts to maintain learning during this very difficult period.” Antro Ameida, UNICEF representative, added, “Education and health authorities will be working to make schools safe, but we also invite parents to support their children to follow the recommendations.” He also stated, “More than one million school packages are being delivered in all schools, packages that have stickers, notebooks, pencils, and more, and as of today more than 1.2 million plates of food daily will support learning.” (Canal 8, 1 February 2021)
University Education in the Countryside
More than 4,000 students are enrolling in the University in the Countryside program. Seven state universities are setting up different career programs prioritized for different parts of the country. Last year UNAN-Managua began to offer a degree in Medicine in El Tuma-La Dalia, and in 2021 it will reach Susucayán, in Nueva Segovia, Nueva Guinea and San Juan del Sur. This year Universidad en el Campo begins in the North and South Caribbean, where they will offer a program in Education. This is part of the government’s efforts to strengthen capacities in the countryside and provide conditions so rural youth don’t have to migrate to urban areas to study. (Radio La Primerisima, 3 February 2021)
Mobile Clinics to Benefit 80,000 People
As part of the “My Hospital in my Community” Health Campaign, medical brigades and mobile clinics from departmental hospitals will carry out 56,747 medical consultations and do 1,103 surgeries in communities during the week of Feb. 1, benefiting 80,981 inhabitants. The initiative is part of the Family and Community Healthcare Model. (Nicaragua News, 27 January 2021)
Loans for 3,000 Women
This week, the “Zero Usury” microloan program allocated US$1 million to finance 3,000 women in 95 municipalities for small businesses. The financing is part of the Plan to Strengthen Productive and Organizational Capabilities of the Creative Economy Model. (Nicaragua News, 27 January 2021)
Health Ministry Weekly Covid Report
The week of Jan. 25 to Feb. 1 there were 35 new registered cases of Covid-19 and 37 people recuperated. Since March, 2020 there have been 5,027 cases, 4,811 people have recuperated and 170 people have died. (Radio La Primerisima, 2 February 2021)