“El Chipote is, according to former inmates, one of Nicaragua’s oldest and most infamous torture centers.” – Jose Luis Rocha
The actual entrance was a large, cross-iron bar design, opened with an over-sized key from the jailer’s belt. It creaked as it opened, just like a scene from a horror movie as a rat scurried past our feet. My jailer didn’t even flinch. We continued down a dungeon-like corridor six feet across that serpentined around for the length of a football field. As we walked, it occurred to me that this place was even more horribly sinister than I could possibly have imagined, and I should be concerned about the criminal psychopaths housed within. The entire prison was, of course, made of cinderblock, held together by a thick film of filth covering the walls and ceilings. The hallway was flanked by large, heavy insane asylum style doors every eight feet, reminding me of medieval justice.
The parallel stuck me immediately, as if heading to the gallows. The middle ages, when great families fought vicious wars for fortune and glory and rivers ran red from greed. They too were chasing destiny, creating dynasties, while giving no thought to the nameless and faceless. Mere pawns to be played as part of plans for domination, while powerful legacies were etched into history books. An endless chain of destruction when heads on the chopping block far outnumbered those wearing the crown. I’m curious if they too wondered whether it was all worth it, during dire times of doubt as to how things might turn out.
This was the moment at which I was finally consumed with gut-wrenching fear, but I steeled my nerve, knowing better than to show any kind of weakness. It doesn’t get any more freaking real than this. There are no time-outs, no rights, no one to save you. I’d need to utilize every God given ounce of wit I had to survive at the mercy of the brutal criminal element and sadistic, indifferent guards.
We stopped at cell seventeen and I heard a blood curdling scream from off in the distance as the guard pulled the chain of over-sized keys from his belt. He tested three before getting it right and struggled to open the immense, screeching door one-quarter of the way. A thin ray of light from a lone bulb dangling in the hallway pierced the pitch-black crypt, rousting its occupants awake. I could make out three human shapes and what appeared to be four bunks, bolted two each, onto opposite walls. The bottom two were occupied and the third person was oddly on the floor, unnaturally close to the second bunk. I thought perhaps I’d interrupted an interpersonal interaction but was too exhausted to give it additional thought. What happens in El Chipote stays in El Chipote. I was uncuffed and the guard shoved me in as he rushed to close the door.
“Is this bunk open?” I asked my new roommates, pointing to the top left. They appeared merely as formless shadows and were barely conscious.
I climbed up onto two rotten, wooden, bug infested, rectangular planks, bolted into the wall, with nothing but the clothes on my back. I laid face-down, cradling my head in my arms and soon passed out as sheer exhaustion overwhelmed my panic and terror. Two hours later, I was awoken by another horrifying scream.
I woke shortly after dawn, or at least so it seemed. I’d lost all concept of time, but it was light outside, birds were chirping in the distance and the heat of the day had still not quite taken hold. I sat up and took a moment to survey my surroundings. Last night everything seemed so much more…. benign, as I was protected by the veils of darkness and fatigue. The damning light of morning now painted a much more disturbing picture.
The room was a tiny 72 square feet of pure filth, in aged layers like an archeological dig, seeping into the cement block walls, which was the entirety of the cell, except for a massive black metal door, standing sentry, preventing our exit. Four metal frames were bolted into the walls, two on each side, one above the other, with each holding, rectangular, splintering, wooden planks, serving as our beds. On the far wall, there were nine brick-size openings as vents, but blocked on the outside by an outer cement overhang, preventing any view and undermining the whole point of ventilation. At mid-cell, was a three-foot square opening in the ceiling defended by one-inch thick metal rebar rods, fused together in a cross-hatch crisscross of three in one direction and five in the other, covered six feet overhead by a sheet metal roof, providing protection from the elements but also blotting out the sky, magnifying our imposed sensory deprivation from the real world. In the front corner of the cell, beside the door, was a three-foot square shower area, with two of its walls formed by the cell corner, and a four-foot-high half-wall covered in soap scum, blocking it off from the rest of the cell. A three-inch-high lip at its entrance guided the water to the gaping six-inch round hole in the floor that doubled as drain and toilet. While the lip kept water from streaming into the cell, it did little to prevent the inevitable splash and spray as water jettisoned downward from the ceiling hose onto our bodies, dancing off in every direction like mist from a sprinkler. The pale blue walls matched the building’s exterior but were impossibly even dirtier and grimier on the inside. Printed on the walls was grayish brown graffiti from the ghosts of prisoners long forgotten, Ricardo from 1992, Chato who marked off 17 days’ worth of lines, and various expressions on the theme of “Jesus Saves”, among others. The massive front door was etched with a cross, a none-too-shabby likeness of Jesus and various expletives sacrilegiously juxtaposed against the Son of God. I rolled onto my side, facing the wall, lost in tortured thoughts, paying no regard to my three fellow cellmates.