Excerpted from Chapter 4
Suddenly the Enemy
I’ll never forget the barking.
I would hear it again in other Nicaraguan prisons, but hearing it now for the first time as the truck pulled through the gates of the Rivas jail, I began to tremble. I could handle the hooting and the shouting, the clanging and banging against the rusted bars of the windows, but what I heard now went beyond anything I could have imagined. And through all that crazy noise, the sound of barking stood out, and I knew instantly that there were no dogs, that these were men I was hearing, men reduced to their lowest, most animal level, barking at me like wild, hungry, rabid dogs. The sound was the most evil thing I had ever heard.
Although it is the capital of the departmento, or “state,” Rivas is a small town. The sight of a nicely dressed Anglo man (I was still wearing the suit from the funeral) being pulled out of a pickup truck in handcuffs must have been shocking to a jail that is full of thugs and borderline psychos. At the very least, I’m sure I looked like a fresh and easy target to them. Occasional shouts of “gringo” would reach my ears. I could see through to one cell, where a young man had leapt up onto the bars and was hanging on and shaking them, as if he were some kind of sick monkey in a zoo.
Even then, I hadn’t been read my rights or told on what grounds I had been arrested. Inside the Rivas station, the anger and fear were boiling over inside me, but I forced myself to keep calm. The guard walked me to a cell—a big holding tank, really—in which about twenty men shuffled around. Some kept to themselves in the dark corners or stood quietly, staring me down and sizing me up. Others were in different states of agitation, pacing or fidgeting around like men who were going mad. Even through my panic, I could tell that I wouldn’t last long in there, but somehow I knew enough to hide my fear. I was innocent, absolutely and completely, but that didn’t matter at that moment. In a place like this innocence is one thing, vulnerability is another.
I’m not sure what made me think to get in that guard’s face just then. Something in me I didn’t completely recognize took over, as if all the tight situations I’d been in had become a part of me without my realizing it. Standing in front of the door to the holding cell, I put my face an inch away from his and as coldly as I could, I said, “If you want to sleep tonight, don’t put me in that cell. I’m not in the mood to be fucked with.”
It may have been an act, but it had the benefit of being absolutely true. Something told me that there would be trouble, and I wanted him to be thinking the same thing. For a moment, he didn’t move. We watched each other, and I could see the wheels turning in his head. Did he really want to get up in the middle of the night, to break up a fight, or worse? Did he really want to have to report some kind of trouble to his bosses? The tension eased just a fraction. His body and his expression relaxed almost imperceptibly, but enough to let me know he was giving in.
He led me away to another cell, the only empty one. He couldn’t budge the heavy metal door that was bent crooked, which I suppose explains why the cell looked like it hadn’t been used in a while. The guard strained against the door, putting all his weight into it, but could not get it to open. I still can’t believe that I did this, but I took a step forward and helped him. I gripped the bars and tugged with everything I had. It may have been my jail cell, but right then it felt like my only chance of getting through the night. Together we pulled and heaved and grunted until the cell door opened.
All of sudden, I was alone in the dark and the cold. The tiny cell was bare except for a concrete slab to sleep on and a hole in the floor for a toilet. No sheets or blankets so prisoners couldn’t hang themselves. Nothing that could be broken or held as a weapon. As the air on this frigid night moved through the decrepit jail built for tropical heat and hit my thin dress shirt, I began to shiver uncontrollably. I took off my shoes and fashioned a little pillow out of them, just something to put under my neck, and lay down. Curled up in a fetal ball, trying to wrap my arms around myself to fight off the chill, I listened to the sounds of the jail that night, the murmurs and conversations, the drug-fueled laughter and screams.
As I lay there shivering, the noise of the other inmates seemed to grow louder in my ears. I tried to focus my mind on something other than the cold and the dark and the solitude and the menace on the other side of the walls. I found it almost comforting to think about some other people I had glimpsed in the cells who seemed as out of place or at least as confused or as frightened as I felt. I remembered some young teenagers, boys really, who must have gotten way over their heads into some kind of mischief. You couldn’t miss them, mostly because they were trying so hard to make themselves invisible. Also sitting off by herself was a grandmotherly looking woman with silver hair, who seemed to be concentrating on keeping her dignity.
At about 7:00 that first evening, I was taken out of the jail and walked a couple of blocks to another location in Rivas for a physical examination. The woman who checked me over was the same woman who had taken samples of my hair and cotton swabbed under my fingernails for the police in San Juan del Sur. Turns out she had also been at the crime scene, performing that first cursory forensic examination of Doris’s body. She was never introduced to me in any way, and here in Rivas, it was hard to tell if she was actually a doctor or medical professional. She worked out of a simple storefront “office” with a plain wooden desk and chair and no sign of medical equipment. The office seemed to double as a makeshift pharmacy, with a few items—toothpaste, combs and brushes, soap and shampoo, and such—in a small display case. She never took any blood from me, either in San Juan or that night in Rivas, but she did examine all over visually, looking, I suppose, for fresh wounds or other signs of struggle that might connect me directly to the murder. This examiner clearly saw the bruises left on my shoulder from carrying Doris’s coffin but never asked me about it. In fact, I didn’t even know they were there. It wasn’t until later I learned that she wrote down in her report that “the injuries were similar to those produced by fingernails, with two or three days of evolution.”
Before I knew it, I was sitting in my cell again but still couldn’t fully grasp what was happening to me. At that moment, it was inconceivable to me that the terrible mistake of my arrest wouldn’t get cleared up in a matter of days, if not hours. I expected that at any minute, someone would walk in and tell me to gather my things and get ready to go. It actually occurred to me that if the real killers were found, the cops would probably bring them to the same jail, and I’d have a chance to see them face-to-face.
At one point in the middle of that first night, the guard who had promised he wouldn’t put anyone in the cell with me brought in a frightened kid who had gotten into a fight in town, and later two more street thugs were thrown in as well. Even as I kept myself half hidden in the corner shadows of the cell and adopted the body language of someone hard and dangerous, I stared at those guys, steaming with the thought that one or all of them might have killed Doris. I remember looking across into the crowded common cells on that next morning, trying to see if anyone gave me a sense that they might be the one. There was one guy about my age, dressed and groomed nicely enough that he seemed out of place with all the hoods in the common cells, who caught my attention. He kept looking at me like he knew something I didn’t. In my mind, hyper with exhaustion, he started to look like the type of dude that Doris might have gotten mixed up with. Of course, I had no clue who or what she might have been mixed up with, and that guy in cell across from me turned out to have nothing whatsoever to do with the case.
Frigid, dark, and covered in filth, the Rivas jail felt like the underworld. You’d be amazed at the kinds of things you can get used to. The first night sleeping on a slab of cold concrete, I would either feel shooting pain through my hips and shoulders and limbs or complete numbness in these parts from the pressure on a particular nerve. Quickly, though, I started to figure out the little tricks— the right way to wrap my shirt or jacket into a pillow and place under one of my joints or how to position my shoes just so under my neck to make the long nights somehow bearable. I even started to get used to the disgusting stench from the vomit and feces smeared around the holes in the cement floor we were expected to use as toilets. Many came in drunk and spent their first couple of hours detoxing over the toilet hole. The men themselves all stank, especially if they had been there a while, with the stale, rank odor of sweat and dirt and suffering.
The guards would bring around a pot of rice and beans twice a day, but you were on your own as far as a plate was concerned. From the first day, I had to figure out how to scramble just to get a few bites of food. Like every prison, there’s a pecking order among the inmates, and there’s always someone who seems to have access to something the others need. The Rivas police jail only houses transients—people awaiting processing or trial for petty crimes or convicted murderers and rapists on their way into the penitentiary system— but even there, you needed to know which guys could get you a plate or something else you needed in exchange for some other favor. Right from the beginning, a prisoner has to negotiate for the most basic things. I felt immediately like that put me at a disadvantage, but strangely that kind of survival mentality forces the inmates to depend on, even while abusing, one another. I was getting just a tiny glimpse of what it was going to mean to be part of el sistema, “the prison system.”
Excerpted from Gringo Nightmare by Eric Volz.
Copyright 2010 by Eric Volz.
Published in April 2010 by St. Martin’s Press.
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