Hugo Torres, Former Rebel Turned Political Prisoner, Dies at 73

Hugo Torres, a former guerrilla leader who helped spring Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega out of jail, only to be imprisoned by Mr. Ortega himself last year, died on Friday at a hospital in Managua. He was 73.

Mr. Torres’s death was announced in a statement by his three children. The cause was not specified.

According to Luis Carrión Cruz, a politician, former Sandinista guerrilla and longtime friend, Mr. Torres began feeling ill in early December after months of living under poor conditions in jail without medical treatment.

“They didn’t take him to hospital until the moment he collapsed completely unconscious,” said Mr. Carrión, who is living in exile in Costa Rica. “We never knew and we still don’t know which hospital he was in, what health problem he had.”

“The government,” he added, “is taking no responsibility.”

In a statement, the Nicaraguan prosecutor’s office said that Mr. Torres had been taken to a hospital as soon as his health began to deteriorate, and that it had “asked judicial authorities to definitively suspend the start of his oral public trial for humanitarian reasons.”

A former guerrilla commander who fought against the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza Debayle, Mr. Torres was jailed last year as part of a nationwide repression campaign waged against opposition politicians, activists and journalists in the lead-up to national elections.

With all credible challengers jailed or forced into exile, Mr. Ortega won an election widely recognized as a sham. Now in his fourth consecutive term, Mr. Ortega has continued his crackdown campaign; the authorities have put several private universities under state control in recent weeks.

“These are the desperate throes of a regime that feels it is dying,” Mr. Torres said in a video posted last June, shortly before his arrest. “I never thought that at this stage of my life I would be fighting pacifically and civically against a new dictatorship.”

Jorge Hugo Torres Jiménez was born on April 25, 1948, in the northwestern department of Madriz, to Cipriano Torres, who served in the National Guard, and Isabel Jiménez de Torres. When he was a young boy, his family moved to the city of León.

Mr. Torres studied law at the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua in León, an institution that was at the heart of the nascent Sandinista movement opposing the Somoza dictatorship.

Mr. Torres joined the Sandinista National Liberation Front in 1971 and later left the university to go underground. He went on to participate in two of the most important military operations against the Somoza family.

The first was the takeover of the Somoza minister José María Castillo’s house, Quant, in December 1974. Mr. Torres, along with several guerrilla commanders, held a group of Somoza officials hostage, using the kidnapping as leverage to secure the release of a number of imprisoned Sandinistas, including Mr. Ortega, and then flee to Cuba.

Mr. Torres, second from left, speaking with President Daniel Ortega, far right, in 1988, when the two were still comrades.Credit…Reuters

The second operation was the seizure of Nicaragua’s National Palace in 1978. The guerrilla commanders held deputies and senators hostage for two days, securing the release of some 60 political prisoners.

After the triumph of the Sandinistas, Mr. Torres was given the honorary title guerrilla commander. He served as deputy minister of the interior and chief of state security and in 1982, was awarded the Carlos Fonseca Order, the highest honor in the Sandinista movement.

He was later moved to the defense ministry and named brigadier general in the Sandinista Army. During the conflict in the 1980s with the contras, the rebel group backed by the United States, Mr. Torres was put in charge of the army’s political training.

“This guy was one of the frontline fighters in a war against imperialist aggression,” said Stephen Kinzer, a former New York Times correspondent who is now a senior fellow in international and public affairs at Brown University. “The ludicrous part is that he’s now being accused of being a tool of that aggression. So turns the world.”

Mr. Torres was also a member of the Sandinista Assembly, a kind of central committee for the party, until Mr. Ortega was defeated in the 1990 presidential election by Violeta Barrios de Chamorro. He retired from the army in 1998 and later became critical of Mr. Ortega’s increasingly autocratic tendencies.

In 2007, he joined the Sandinista Renovation Movement (M.R.S.), an opposition political group, and in 2011 he was elected to the Central American Parliament as a deputy. In 2017, he became vice president of the M.R.S., now known as Unamos.

During the brutal government crackdown on protesters in 2018, when more than 300 people were killed, Mr. Torres was a vocal critic of the Ortega government. He continued denouncing the regime after that.

“He was a very strong, clear voice,” said Mr. Carrión, the former guerrilla leader. “Calling for democracy, for freedom.”

Mr. Torres was arrested in June 2021 and later charged with “conspiracy to undermine national integrity.” He was one of more than 40 critics, journalists, politicians and activists jailed by the Ortega regime in the lead-up to November’s elections.

His death in custody has been widely condemned, including by the Organization of American States, which said in a statement this week that it “considers the fact of keeping political prisoners, with terminal illnesses and without necessary medical assistance, an abominable act, violating their fundamental rights.”

Mr. Torres’s survivors include his three adult children, Hugo Marcel, María Alejandra and Lucía Aracelly.

Despite the worsening crackdown, Mr. Torres did not seem to have given up hope. In his final moments of freedom last year, with the police surrounding his home and drones hovering overhead, he continued to cry out for freedom.

“We must keep our spirits high, because history is on our side,” he said in a video message. “The end of the dictatorship approaches.”

Related Articles

Back to top button