Kevin Zeledon and Lester Treminio frequently travel from their homes in Austin to Nicaragua.
The cousins, both U.S. citizens, spend time living and working in Austin for a while, then head to Nicaragua to pitch in at their family’s dairy farm in Matiguás, in the center of the country, sometimes for months or years at a time.
But a recent violent encounter there with a paramilitary group amid rising political tensions forced the men flee for their lives. They are safely back in Austin but had to leave their families in Nicaragua behind, at least for now.
“I feel like a coward being here,” Treminio said. “I left my wife and daughter there. (Zeledon) left his wife. I had to.”
The cousins were caught up in a backlash against a series of protests against the Nicaraguan government. Police and armed pro-government civilians recently have led several violent campaigns against those resistant to President Daniel Ortega’s government.
The protests began in mid-April, when rallies against cuts to the social security system became broader calls for Ortega to leave office. Zeledon, 25, and Treminio, 27, say they have had nothing to do with political action on either side but got caught up all the same.
On July 6, Treminio had just arrived at Zeledon’s house and was having a bowl of cereal while Zeledon finished getting ready for a day on the farm.
Zeledon said several trucks came roaring up to the house. Men in fatigues jumped out and hopped over a tall, spiked fence and rushed them. There was nothing they could do.
“All of the sudden we were surrounded by the paramilitary,” Treminio said. “I don’t know how they got in the house.”
Such violence is on the increase throughout the country. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said that the Ortega government sent police and government-aligned armed groups to attack anti-government residents in the town of Masaya on Tuesday. Residents of Masaya rose up against strongman Anastasio Somoza in the late 1970s as part of the Nicaraguan Revolution led in part by Ortega himself.
“Reports suggest that at least three people have been killed and dozens have been wounded,” Nauert said. “The Ortega government’s brutal campaign of violence against their own people must stop immediately.”
Alvaro Leiva, director of the Nicaraguan Pro-Human Rights Association, told The Associated Press this week that there were widespread reports of youths being hauled away by pro-government fighters.
Video footage of Zeledon and Treminio being taken is circulating online. It shows a group of people in military fatigues with their faces covered, many armed with assault rifles, rounding people up and throwing them into the backs of trucks.
The pair soon found themselves locked away in a small cell with eight people. They were beaten and doused with water when they tried to sleep. They both said they thought they were going to die.
“I just hoped they hit me in the head and did it quick,” Zeledon said. “I hoped they didn’t torture me. All you can do is accept where you’re at and get right with God.”
“They had us in a hole for about four days; they didn’t give us water to drink — no more than what they poured on us when we tried to fall asleep,” Treminio said.
They were freed July 9 or 10 in Matagalpa, which is more than 45 miles from the farm in Matiguás. But they had to dodge other paramilitary groups as they made their way to a church, where they called their families. Their captors had ransacked Zeledon’s house, flipping furniture over, rifling through drawers and stealing several thousand dollars, he said.
Treminio said the pair traveled for days to Managua by bus, sleeping where and when they could, to catch a flight to the United States on July 13.
Both Treminio and Zeledon are American citizens, but their wives are not, so they have to get visas before they can join their husbands.
“I worry about my daughter and my wife all the time,” Treminio said.
Violence in the country has escalated since the pair left. Nauert said the assault on Masaya on Tuesday is another glaring example of Ortega’s efforts to hold on to power in the face of protests.
“Since April, attacks on university students, journalists (and) clergy have killed hundreds, and the international community is uniting in its condemnation of the heinous act,” she said.
Treminio said he left everything in Nicaragua. He came to Austin without even a phone and is staying with relatives while he and Zeledon try to get their wives out of the beleaguered country.
“I already said that if I see that my government won’t help my family, me being American, then that will change my opinion,” said Treminio, whose daughter just turned 5 and is a not U.S. citizen. “I will have to go back. I will have to. If I can’t have my wife and daughter here with me, what’s the use in being here?”