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Life in 'El Chipote' - A Nicaraguan priest's story of prison, torture and exile

Last August, a small group of priests, seminarians, a deacon, and a few lay people were held by police in an unofficial house arrest in the home of Bishop Rolando Álvarez of Matagalpa, Nicaragua, who was imprisoned with them.

The detention came after Álvarez protested a government decision to close 10 radio stations in his diocese. 

Nicaragua: Visits to places of detention
A prison in Nicaragua. Credit: International Red Cross.

After two weeks in the bishop’s house, police took Álvarez into custody, and his seven collaborators were sent to El Chipote, a Nicaraguan prison for political prisoners, where torture is reportedly a common practice.

In February, Bishop Álvarez was sentenced to 26 years in prison, and his collaborators were sentenced to 10 years in prison, stripped of their national identities, and then exiled by the Nicaraguan government to the United States, alongside more than 215 other political prisoners.

The Pillar spoke with a priest who was detained with Bishop Álvarez, imprisoned for six months, and then exiled from his country.

To protect his family in Nicaragua, the priest spoke under the condition of anonymity.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Bishop Rolando Alvarez, right, meets in March 2023 with his siblings, in a photo released by the government of Nicaragua after questions were raised about the bishop’s whereabouts.

On Aug. 4, 2022, you were detained with Bishop Álvarez and other clerics, seminarians, and laypeople in the episcopal residence. How did you end up inside?

I studied at the Nicaraguan National Seminary of Our Lady of Fatima and was ordained a few years before the pandemic. 

Bishop Rolando [Álvarez]  was very close to the people and traveled extensively to the parishes and rural communities. As a seminarian, I accompanied him in his ministry, as the seminarian who carries the crosier, the mitre, the missal, etc. 

Then he integrated me into the pastoral ministry of the cathedral while I was still a seminarian so that I would be fully involved in the pastoral ministry of the parish. Later I was ordained deacon and I continued in the same positions when I was ordained priest. 

Bishop Álvarez asked me to help him with pastoral communication in the diocese, and I began to do media training to help him, because he was also in charge of media in the bishops’ conference. 

So I was working on Catholic media projects, and I lived very closely with the bishop. 

In August 2022, the diocesan media began to be attacked. The government closed all the [Catholic] radio stations in our diocese; we had a lot of radio stations in many parishes where Masses, rosaries, and holy hours were transmitted - we had no political programming, not even national songs, nothing. 

They closed our radios because our bishop is one of the strongest voices of the Church in Nicaragua and, like any prophet, he is not silent and he is not afraid. He always speaks the truth and defends human rights. Bishop Álvarez has always done so, especially with the poor. 

For example, there was a peasant farmer whom the police imprisoned and they tortured him and took him out of jail practically dead. They cut off both his legs. 

Bishop Rolando went to visit him, accompanied the family, and tried to help him in different ways. He has always been like that, close [to the poor]. 

And that is what the dictator does not like.

At the beginning of August, they closed our radio station and I called the bishop, and I told him what happened. 

I thought it was only our radio station [at the cathedral] because it was the biggest one, which has both AM and FM. But after a while, other priests were writing to us saying that their radios had also been closed. 

Once a month, on Mondays, the young clergy of the diocese met with Bishop Rolando. 

We had lunch with him, we had a meeting, and in the afternoon, we would have a Mass in the cathedral…But [in August], at the end of the Mass, the bishop apologized and said he had to say something. 

And there he denounced the closing of the Catholic radio stations, and said that he had gone to the government’s communications authority to show that all the paperwork and radio licenses were up to date. 

Then, on Tuesday, we had a meeting of all the clergy and each one went back to his parish. 

Bishop Rolando returned to the chancery and after that, he did not go out anymore. On Wednesday night he called me to ask me if I would come [to the chancery] the next day.

The bishop had a program called “Pastor in Prayer and Communion” every Thursday, during which people communicated with the bishop from all over Nicaragua  — even non-Catholics sent him intentions and asked him to pray for them! 

During that program, the bishop would answer questions and pray before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. I used to help him with that program when I was a seminarian, not so much after I was ordained. 

But last August one of the cameramen had surgery, and so that Thursday I went to support him and see what was going on — because he was not being allowed to leave the building. 

I arrived outside the chancery at 6:30 in the morning and [the police] wouldn't let me in. 

Some priests and seminarians were already inside with him. I telephoned him and told him that they would not let me in and he told me "don't worry, I am coming out." 

Then, the images that went around the world happened: he went out on the street, and got down on his knees and raised his hands. He asked another priest to go for the Blessed Sacrament and there I began to record everything, these videos where he blesses the policemen with the Blessed Sacrament. 

Bishop Rolando Alvarez. Credit: Diocese of Matagalpa.

At noon, he had a Mass at St. John Mary Vianney Parish, but they did not let him leave. At 4 p.m. there was a holy hour in the cathedral but they did not let him attend that either.

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You then entered the bishop’s house, and you spent 15 days under house arrest with him, some other priests, some seminarians, and laypeople. What was that like?

Well, we prayed the rosary, and we celebrated Mass. 

We were always surrounded by drones. 

But I must say, it was very beautiful, very lovely. We shared everything — One person served the drinks, another one made the rice, and another one cooked. We shared everything.

At lunch, we would sit together in a big room with a huge table where the bishop used to meet with his pastoral groups and there he would ask each one of us about our families, about our spirits. 

He always encouraged us and gave us hope. Bishop Álvarez was like a father to us and he was always joyful.

Were there negotiations with the government in those 15 days?

Not at all. The last thing these people want is negotiation. They do what they want, period. 

They even went so far as to threaten the families of the laypeople who were with us. 

For example, Henry Corbera is a Salvadoran man who fled his country many years ago with his family, because of the situation with the gangs there. He worked in the cathedral, and was in the episcopal residence with us, but the authorities wanted him to leave. 

They grabbed his parents and took them to the Matagalpa jail to interrogate them. [Police] told him that if he did not leave the curia, they would deport his family. He wanted to continue accompanying us but eventually he said he was leaving for his family. 

Of course, both he and we thought they were going to call him in for questioning and that was it, but they immediately put him in a vehicle and took him and his family to the border with El Salvador. 

There were no negotiations, only threats. 

But inside, we were calm. We were praying, hoping that God would free us. And then on August 19, they took us to El Chipote prison.

Tell me about your time in prison. ‘El Chipote’ has the reputation of being a torture center. In what conditions were you incarcerated?

When I got off the bus which took us to the prison, one of the seminarians asked me for absolution, they had us stuck to the wall handcuffed and when I started to give him absolution, [the guards] told me to shut up and insulted me.

First, when you arrive, they put you in a cell called La Chiquita. There they undress you and give you a blue uniform. While I was in that process, an officer arrived and started asking me personal questions. He asked me if my mother died on a certain day, and gave me information about my siblings. He knew everything about me.  

This officer who interrogated me did a lot of psychological damage to me. The torture was more psychological. During the first days, we were interrogated a lot. Sometimes every half hour—and we only left the cell to be interrogated. Sometimes they could keep you there for three hours asking questions and asking questions. 

It went on like that for almost three months. 

They would ask us where Bishop Rolando was hiding weapons, and who was financing him, or they would attack you personally. 

My mother had died shortly before [I was imprisoned] and they told me that she had died because of me because I had made her suffer, or even that I had killed her.

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Was the purpose of that treatment to convince you to accuse Bishop Álvarez of crimes?

Of course. They wanted me to accuse Bishop Rolando.

The first days they told me, “Look, sign this paper where you say what Bishop Rolando does [illegally], and you go free without any problems.” 

I spoke to them about the fidelity that one promises in ordination, to Christ through his bishop, but they did not understand that. 

I told them that I was faithful to the bishop until death, but they did not understand. They asked me the same question and no matter how much I explained it to them, they did not understand. 

But what was I going to tell them about Bishop Rolando? That he is a good person, that he has no weapons, that he is not involved in “terrorism.” 

That’s all I could say truthfully.

At one point they even told me that if I left the priestly ministry or renounced my faith, they would let me go free. So with every priest and prisoner, they were looking for their weak point. 

One was told that his father had been found dead, but that was a lie.

It was all very difficult. 

Sometimes they kept you there for three or four hours sitting handcuffed. You couldn’t move or anything. They would start showing you news photos of priests from other countries who had been tried for rape, or the homilies of priests in Nicaragua who support the government. 

Everything to demoralize you. 

The most degrading thing, which has not been talked about publicly, is that they stripped us naked and made us do squats unclothed in front of many officials. They would take us to the court like that and only there, at the court, they would give us clothes. 

At the beginning, the first month, the food was terrible, it was horrible. They gave us pumpkin soup but they put a laxative in it. So, when they were interrogating you, you would have a stomachache and diarrhea and they would tell you that you could go to the bathroom if you talked. 

They gave us no spoons to eat, no water, nothing to drink. 

We had no deodorant, toothpaste, soap, toilet paper, nothing. 

Just the blue uniform and whatever underwear we were wearing.

After a month, things improved. They gave us good food in good quantities, but they took us to a mess hall and took pictures and videotaped us at every meal. That was the only time we left the cells.

Eventually, they also allowed family members to give us medicines. They would leave them with the wardens, and the wardens would come by 3 times a day asking if we needed any medicine. And then there were visits [from family members] allowed — first one every month, and then every 15 days starting in November. 

But then this was also used as a punishment. For example, if they found you praying the rosary out loud, they could punish you by leaving you without medicine or if you were talking to an inmate from another cell, they would leave you without the next visit, or without the food your family brought you, to give an example.

We were never allowed to have a Bible. I always asked for it, and at one point I did it to annoy the officer, even though I knew they were not going to give it to me. Much less were we allowed a rosary or liturgical vestments — nothing. 

The only thing that allowed us to be calm and full of strength was to meditate on the holy rosary. 

One day, it occurred to me to make a one-decade rosary with some cloth wipes they gave us. I stretched it and stretched it and made the beads, first the Our Father, then the 10 Hail Marys and then the Cross. 

The seminarians and the other priests made them too. 

But we had to hide those rosaries inside the toilet paper, because if they checked and found them, that was grounds for punishment. More than once they searched a cell and found a little rosary. Then we would make another one in the same way.

We never had Mass. 

But once my sister visited me, and she came with an N95 mask in her hand and gave it to me. 

I told her that she couldn’t give me that, that they didn't allow masks there. But she insisted, and told me to look at what was inside. I saw that inside, there was a closed white cloth. I opened it and there was the body of Christ — the Eucharist. 

As I could, half hidden, I received Holy Communion and I felt immensely happy. 

I got to the cell and told the others and everyone said “Jesus is with us, Jesus is with us” and we embraced each other and prayed with great joy together.

But we couldn't do anything. 

Sometimes if they heard us praying the rosary they told us to be quiet, but some officers let us pray, even with other prisoners in the political prisoners' cells. 

That is why our cellblock was called “The Seminary” [laughter], because there were four priests in one cell and another priest with the seminarians and a deacon in the other cell . 

So we prayed with the other prisoners and they came to us to ask for advice, to ask us to teach them prayers, to pray with the Psalms. 

I remember at one point, a prisoner came up to us and said, “Excuse me for what I am about to say, but we are very happy that you are in prison with us because it gives us hope, and we feel that the Church is with us." 

And we told them "don't worry, we are not leaving this place without you," and those prisoners were crying with joy and thanking God. 

And we all left that place free.

Daily, we would say our personal prayer before or after breakfast, then we would pray the rosary. 

Then we would take turns exercising and showering. 

Then came lunch and so on, taking turns to exercise and wash up. 

Then we would take the opportunity to talk a little, pray, and encourage one another. Sometimes, as we could, we would celebrate the Liturgy of the Word. Someone would recite some part of the Scriptures that he knew, another would preach the homily, and another would say the prayer of the faithful.

There were also moments of great silence and sadness. But there was always one who motivated the others.

I remember that many times I thought: “How many times have I preached ‘I was in prison and you did not visit me,’ and now I am here, alone.” 

But well, that is what it means to be a Christian. You can't be a Christian without suffering; the Cross comes to you and you embrace it. It was what the Lord wanted from us at that moment.

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How did you find out you were going to the United States?

In the early morning of February 9, we were surprised. 

We were almost all awake because we heard a lot of noise and people walking from one side to the other outside our cells. And they took us the clothes we wore to receive the visitors, which were clothes that our families had brought us. 

Then, that night they sent us to put the blue uniform and the slippers in a bag and then they took us out of the cells we were in, to a bigger cell with 20 or 30 people. 

The person in charge told us: "Don't ask me or pressure me to know where you are going because even I don't know." 

From there, they put us on some buses covered with curtains and when we got off we saw that we were on the Air Force side of the airport. When we got off the bus they told us that we had to sign a paper and that we shouldn’t ask what it is. 

The paper said little. It was two lines where you put that you were going voluntarily to the United States and they told you that was a gift that President Daniel Ortega was giving to each prisoner.

Then when we got off [the buses], people from the American embassy received us and asked us if we were traveling to the United States freely and consciously. It was very hard for me, but the other priests encouraged me.

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In February, you left Nicaragua for the U.S. 

How do you now live your ministry in exile?

It was very nice to go from being six months without Communion or celebrating Mass, and then we found out that the first Mass we were going to celebrate privately was in a church dedicated to St. John Vianney.

As I told you, our imprisonment began on August 4 when we were locked up in the chancey of Matagalpa and that is the day of St. John Vianney and I knew it was no coincidence.

I am now in a diocese that is a sister diocese to the diocese of Matagalpa, and they have been helping us for years. For example, they helped us to install a mobile hospital that the diocese used in very poor areas. 

So when they sent me here, I contacted the diocese and they welcomed me with open arms. Now I am working in a parish that runs a chapel where Mass is celebrated in Spanish, and there are many Mexicans. 


What do you know about the current situation of the Diocese of Matagalpa?

The bishop cannot oversee the diocese, it has lost 15-20% of its clergy to exile, and the government closed the university that issued degrees for seminarians. 

It is like the rest of Nicaragua. Totally silenced. No Mass can be offered for Bishop Álvarez, all is silence. If a priest offers Mass publicly for Bishop Rolando, they threaten him or take him in for questioning immediately. 

Two or three priests denounced the sentence of Bishop Álvarez in February and they were taken in for questioning and threatened. Some had to change parishes to safeguard their lives. 

But the people of Matagalpa have not stopped praying for their bishop, and there is an increase in the number of people going to Mass on Sundays and Thursdays, when there is Eucharistic adoration. 

The people are hopeful that our bishop can return to govern his diocese. The people know that Bishop Rolando is innocent.

But it is difficult, nothing can be done. 

Even before the pandemic, they did not allow priests to go to the Matagalpa Hospital to anoint the sick. Once they called me to baptize a child in an emergency and I had to go dressed in civilian clothes so the police wouldn't notice I was there to baptize the child. I seized the opportunity and administered the anointing of the sick to those who asked for it.

Many times, processions are prohibited. The officials arrive and say that there is no procession because of "orders from above." 

It is very common that during the Masses there is always someone recording a video or taking pictures, supervising what the priest says. 

How do you live this exile spiritually? What do you think God is asking of you now?

When I celebrated Mass for the first time after 6 months, I saw that the Lord has something very beautiful in store for me. 

I still hope to return to Nicaragua, just as I had the hope of getting out of jail.

I know that [government leaders] say that we are no longer Nicaraguans, that we are traitors to our country, but evil never wins in the end. 

We are going to return.

We must not lose hope. The Lord will help us, like the people of Israel in the Exodus. They never lost hope. They suffered a lot, but in the end, they were free.

But God forbid it should be 40 years.

[Laughter] No, no. It will be soon. The day I was sentenced to 10 years, I arrived at the prison sad, thinking that I was really going to be there for 10 years. The next day I was released.

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