MANAGUA, Nicaragua — When Nicaraguan paramilitaries stripped him naked and pushed him into a gravelike hole, Marco Noel Novoa assumed his life would end soon.
The 26-year-old student was an active participant in the protests of Nicaragua’s powerful president, Daniel Ortega. He helped occupy a university. He collected money for the opposition. And he was an American citizen — born in Macon, Ga. — in the middle of a conflict for which the State Department has denounced Ortega’s government and demanded an end to state-sponsored violence.
With guns trained on him, Novoa said, he cried out in desperation, hurling insults at Ortega and calling for a free Nicaragua.
“I was thinking I was going to die,” Novoa said in an interview weeks later. “And those were my last words.”
Nicaraguans have watched paramilitaries — plainclothes militiamen who appear to be working in close coordination with government security forces — fight pitched battles against protesters since an uprising against Ortega’s government began three months ago. They have burned homes, businesses and university buildings. But there is a less visible side to the violence: These roving bands of masked gunmen have quietly kidnapped and tortured dissidents like Novoa. Some 600 people have been captured by armed groups and have disappeared, according to the Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights.
Novoa spent seven days in captivity in late May, and he said he endured regular beatings, electric shocks, mock executions and waterboarding. The torture reached its most severe point, he said, when his captors sodomized him using a metal mortar tube of the type that protesters have been firing at government forces during the past three months of upheaval in Nicaragua.
“They took my humanity,” he said.
Novoa’s account could not be independently verified but was corroborated by his father. His medical reports, viewed by The Washington Post, were consistent with the injuries he described. Novoa and his family fled Nicaragua and are in the United States. Ortega has denied that paramilitary forces are carrying out violence on behalf of his government. Nicaragua’s National Police did not respond to a written request for comment about Novoa’s case.
His story is echoed in reports by human rights groups and other victims of abuse and torture at the hands of pro-government forces. In some places, the paramilitaries have gone house to house hunting protesters and participated in “illegal detentions, forced disappearances, and executions,” the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights said in a July report.
“It is impossible that [paramilitaries] could operate without the direct participation of the state,” said Gonzalo Carrion, the legal director of the organization. “They are an apparatus of repression and terror.”
The Trump administration has been increasingly critical of Ortega’s government as the conflict has progressed. In July, the Treasury Department imposed sanctions against three top Nicaraguan officials. On Monday, the White House said in a statement that “President Ortega and Vice President Murillo are ultimately responsible for the pro-government parapolice that have brutalized their own people.”
So far, human rights groups estimate that as many as 450 people have been killed since the protests began in April amid a groundswell of anger over social security reforms and general frustrations that Ortega’s government had eroded democratic institutions while enriching himself and his family. More than 2,800 have been injured, according to the Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights.
Ortega, a former Marxist guerrilla during Nicaragua’s civil war who is in his fourth term as president, has denied collaboration between the government and the paramilitary forces and has referred to these gunmen as “voluntary police.” Ortega has said in televised interviews in recent weeks that these forces are organized by other political parties, including opponents of the government, and receive funding from drug traffickers and the United States.
“They are not paramilitaries,” Ortega told CNN on Monday. “They are citizens defending themselves.”
Felix Maradiaga, a Harvard-trained academic and former top Nicaraguan government official, was leading a focus group discussing nonviolence inside a restaurant in the town of Leon when a few dozen men marched into the room. Maradiaga had been accused by a top police commander of being a mastermind behind the protests, something he denies. The militiamen who entered the restaurant July 11 began shouting “assassin” at him.
“They began to throw glasses, tables, chairs,” he recalled.
The men pounced on Maradiaga and dislocated his jaw, broke his nose and injured three fingers.
On Twitter, Francisco Palmieri, principal deputy assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs at the State Department, condemned the assault on Maradiaga and the “brazen gov’t-sponsored violence & intimidation.”
Maradiaga said that the government’s public criticism of him is terrifying.
“It’s basically a death sentence,” he said.
Nicaragua’s paramilitary forces are a motley band of current and former soldiers and police, ex-Sandinista combatants from the 1980s civil war, local officials, neighborhood-level party loyalists, and Ortega supporters young and old, according to security experts and human rights groups.
The paramilitaries travel in convoys of trucks, at times flying red-and-black flags of the ruling Sandinista party, and brandish AK-47s and other guns. Those who have seen them say that their organized patrols, on foot and in vehicles, and their familiarity with weaponry suggest prior military or police training.
“It’s difficult to pin down their numbers, but they have a national presence,” said Roberto Cajina, a security expert in Nicaragua.
Paramilitaries ransacked Catholic churches in several cities after government supporters accused churches of giving refuge to protesters, whom the government considers criminals and terrorists.
“They get to act totally outside the law,” said Tanya Mroczek-Amador, chief executive of Corner of Love, a religious organization based in Washington state that imports medicine to Nicaragua and whose church near the northern city of Matagalpa was shot at by paramilitaries during a recent service. “They’re hunting down doctors and people providing medicine.”
On the facade of the ransacked Basilica of San Sebastian in Diriamba, a city south of the capital, someone scrawled in graffiti a slur against priests and the phrase “my commander stays,” a reference to Ortega.
After Nicaragua’s uprising started in April, protesters set fire to the town’s police station, attacked the mayor’s office and put up brick barricades intended to keep out government forces. In July, the paramilitaries cleared the city in a battle that left several dead.
“Thank God the population rose up and took away the barricades,” said Abbali Barahona, an official in the Diriamba mayor’s office, as he waited in the town plaza for a pro-government caravan to begin. The protesters, he said, are “lazy criminals.”
As he spoke, a couple dozen masked militiamen carrying rifles took up positions guarding the basilica and central plaza before escorting the caravan on its journey.
“Paramilitaries don’t exist here,” Barahona said.
The paramilitaries came for Novoa as he was collecting money. On the evening of May 24, he recalled, a few dozen masked gunmen surrounded a house in Managua where Novoa had been told that a friend’s father wanted to make a donation. He was quickly captured, beaten, blindfolded and gagged with a chemical-soaked rag that was duct-taped in place, he said.
“They throw me in the truck. They put a pistol on my neck. And a pistol on my back,” he said. “They tell me if I move, I’m going to get shot.”
Novoa grew up all over the world — the United States, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Australia, Malaysia. The son of a tobacco company employee, he moved back to Nicaragua for high school and college. He was about a month away from graduating from American University in Managua when the protests began.
He joined marches along with classmates, but his conviction deepened when he saw pro-government forces attacking students and volunteers inside the Managua Metropolitan Cathedral with guns and tear gas.
“We were trying to protect ourselves. They were shooting at us with real bullets,” Novoa told me when I met him in April inside the Polytechnic University, which he and other student protesters had seized at the time. “It’s like Tiananmen Square.”
When he was captured later, Novoa said, he was taken to a place he came to believe was a private prison on a farm somewhere near the capital. He was kept naked in a small, dirt-floored cell, and he could hear several other prisoners. In moments when his blindfold slipped, Novoa said he identified policemen along with the plainclothes gunmen inside.
During his days in captivity, Novoa said he was regularly doused with water and shocked with a stun gun. During one session, a guard broke his right ankle with the butt of a rifle. During another, his captors waterboarded him, he said, strapping him to a wooden contraption, his feet elevated, and poured water over his mouth and nose.
Later, he said, a group of guards came into his cell, threw him against the wall, and shoved a metal mortar tube into his rectum.
“And they kicked it inside until I bled,” he said. “I was crying. I was saying — I remember the words — I was saying: ‘God, why are you doing this? Why do I deserve this?’ ”
Novoa said he was dropped off on the side of the road in Managua on the evening of May 31. He stumbled to a nearby security guard, called his parents and was taken to the Vivian Pellas hospital. His hospital report notes his broken ankle and effects of “psychological and physical aggression” due to kidnapping.
Now that he is out of Nicaragua, Novoa thinks that his status as an American citizen, from an upper-class family, may have been the only thing that saved his life.
“I’m a U.S. citizen, and that’s what I got,” he said. “Imagine just being Nicaraguan.”
Ismael Lopez Ocampo in Managua and Gabriela Martinez in Mexico City contributed to this report.