Rescue in the night

Rescue in the night

By Denise Dunbar |

A widebody Boeing 767 can carry up to 375 passengers. But when Lance Hegerle, a senior diplomat with the State Department, led a secret mission to Nicaragua on February 9, the 767 that landed on a dark Managua runway at 2 a.m. was empty except for its crew and a small team of fewer than 20 people.

Their mission was to evacuate the more than 200 political prisoners that long-time Nicaraguan ruler Daniel Ortega turned out of his prisons that night. Ortega placed one condition on their release: They had to leave immediately for the United States. The inmates themselves had no idea this was happening. Incarcerated in various prisons around the country, they were awakened by pounding on their cell doors at roughly 10 p.m. on February 8. According to Hegerle, these political prisoners were frightened and bewildered as they were led outside. 

“They were put on Russian-donated prison buses with blankets on the windows and were driven to, they didn’t know where,” Hegerle said. “And each bus was a different story. They maybe guessed early on that they may be going to Cuba. Some thought they were going to a different prison. Some thought they were going to be executed. There was no information given.” 

Hegerle, who was a State Department deputy director for Central America at the time of this interview, said some of the prisoners told him they realized they were going to the airport only when they turned onto the airport runway. 

“Many of them remarked when they saw the plane, they thought it might be the United States. A couple of them said, ‘It’s when I saw you standing there. There’s the fat American. That’s where I’m going,’” Hegerle laughed. 

The U.S. diplomatic team eventually got 222 of the 224 prisoners processed and on board; two opted to go back to their Nicaraguan prisons rather than evacuate. Their reasons are unknown – as is the reasoning behind the Ortega regime’s decision to let the other 222 leave for the U.S. 

The plane was packed and raucous on its return – a striking contrast to the worried tiny team that had made the trip down just hours prior. By early afternoon on February 9, the jet arrived at Dulles Airport, where it was met by family, friends, government workers and the media, all of whom had been notified of what was happening once the plane was wheels up from Managua. 

Many of these former political prisoners have remained in the metropolitan D.C. area – though a significant number resettled in South Florida, with a smattering in California, Texas, Arkansas and other states. 

At least one former Nicaraguan prisoner has settled in Alexandria with their family. Because of safety concerns for relatives still in Nicaragua, they were only able to speak on background for this story rather than be quoted or give details about their political activities. The story of this person’s release, and those of all 222 prisoners, is told from Hegerle’s perspective. 

‘A troubled democracy’ 

To fully understand the February 2023 rescue, one must have at least a passing understanding of political conditions in Nicaragua during the past five years. Hegerle posits that until 2018, the Ortega government was seen by the U.S. as “a troubled democracy.” 

“[There were] a lot of troubling signs, but we had a very different relationship with them [than today],” Hegerle said. 

In 2018, the regime made changes to Nicaragua’s social security program, which sparked peaceful protests. The turning point came when those targeted protests grew into a general outcry against the Ortega regime. 

“The regime responded violently,” Hegerle said. “They killed over 300 protesters, some of them with sniper rifles shooting protesters carrying signs. 

Another U.S. government official, who spoke only on background for this story, said the opposition overreached in going from protesting one specific reform to setting up blockades in Managua calling for Ortega’s ouster. According to this official, Ortega restored order by bringing in Cuban snipers to kill more than 325 Nicaraguans who were on the blockades. 

Hegerle said many of those arrested in 2018-19 were among those released in February. 

“During that time period, the regime arrested a lot of people. A lot. They kept well over 100 in prison that we were tracking. Most of them were low-profile protestors, campesinos. They were usually convicted of trumped up, fictitious criminal charges,” Hegerle said. 

Since then, numerous laws have been passed that essentially outlaw even small threats to the Ortega regime. For instance, a Nicaraguan can be jailed if they criticize the government on social media, which has led to many more arrests. 

“I got there in 2020. … The government put in place a bunch of Russia-inspired laws that outlawed freedom of speech [and] criminalized texts that didn’t support the government. A lot of draconian things,” Hegerle said. 

Fast forward to 2021: When Nicaragua was due for another election, seven opposition figures stepped forward to oppose Ortega for the presidency. According to both Hegerle and the other U.S. official, Ortega’s re-election wasn’t terribly in doubt at this point – despite Ortega polling at only around 20% – because the opposition was so fractured. 

But between May and July 2021, the government cracked down on the opposition, Hegerle said. 

The catalyst for this wave of arrests was the decision by the seven opposition candidates to hold a primary vote so that only one of them would be on the ballot against Ortega in November. Both Hegerle and the U.S. official who spoke on background said Ortega likely would have lost by a significant margin if this had happened. 

So, to preserve his hold on power, Ortega launched another wave of political arrests; in a couple-week span, all seven opposition candidates were jailed, along with dozens of others, including ex-ambassadors and former foreign ministers. 

See the accompanying box, “Nicaragua: A Timeline,” for a political chronology of the years prior to 2018. 

Horrible prison conditions 

When the dust settled after the wave of arrests in 2021, well over 200 political prisoners were being held – and the conditions were harsh. 

“The folks who were arrested in that time period, they were not taken into the regular prison system,” Hegerle said. “They were held in a place called El Chipote, the investigative judicial detainment center. It was never set up to be a prison. Pretty horrendous conditions there.” 

According to Catholic News Service, which in 2022 wrote about several priests who were detained in El Chipote, the facility is a “torture center” where some prisoners are kept in the dark 24 hours a day and others have blazing lights in their cells nonstop. 

CNS quoted Vilma Nunez, president of the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights, as saying there’s a macabre atmosphere inside El Chipote designed to break the prisoners. 

“ … those of us who are on the outside, companions and family members, [also] break down,” Nunez said in the CNS report. 

The former political prisoner who has settled in Alexandria said El Chiopte is a Stasi-like prison, modeled after the notorious Soviet-era facility built in East Germany. 

Once arrested, the prisoners weren’t allowed to see their families for eight to nine months, according to Hegerle. And their “legal representation” was essentially non-existent. 

“When they were tried, they got to see their lawyer a minute or two before the trial started,” Hegerle said. “They were not allowed to speak to them. And they were convicted, surprisingly enough, of treason against the state and sentenced to long prison terms.” 

The U.S. official who spoke on background, the former prisoner who settled in Alexandria and Hegerle all said malnourishment was a significant issue at El Chipote. Many prisoners also developed serious health issues. 

“Most of the men lost 40 to 60 pounds. … They were only allowed to see the police doctors and then their families would get a script from the police [doctor] saying, ‘Here, your wife needs this medicine,’ and they had to provide the medicine and hope they got it,” Hegerle said. 

Prisoners’ parents and other family members died and they were not informed or allowed to attend funerals. 

For a first person depiction of conditions in El Chipote, see: what-prison-is-like-in-a-third-world-country-el-chi pote-nicaragua-4a1cd2bfab9d 

Planning the mission The rescue mission was a complex undertaking that had to be orchestrated furtively. 

“I had the honor of being asked to lead the flight and plan it,” Hegerle, who has served two tours of duty in Nicaragua, said. “We had less than two weeks to organize it and it had to be done in complete secrecy.” 

Hegerle stressed that the decision to release the political prisoners was a “unilateral decision by the [Ortega] regime.” 

“For their reasons they decided they would release the prisoners if we would take them out of the country,” Hegerle said. “They stressed it had to stay out of the media. One of our concerns was if … the story gets out, they may pull back the offer.” 

It was important to secure the freedom of these particular people for both humanitarian and political reasons, according to Hegerle. 

“These are 222 people that have been in horrible conditions. And quite frankly, many of them represent the core of any possible opposition to the regime.” 

Hegerle quietly assembled his team to make the flight down. 

“I picked people who had served with me in the embassy before because a lot of the political prisoners were (former) contacts of the embassy,” Hegerle said. “I knew several of [the prisoners]. One of them was actually in my house with his wife having wine and cheese the night before he was arrested.” 

Hegerle’s exchanges with his colleagues as he went about recruiting people to make the trip were comical. 

“I wouldn’t tell them what they [would be] doing,” Hegerle said. “I said, ‘Look, I want to check, is your dip[lomatic] passport valid?’ 

“Yes,” they responded. 

“Can you come with me starting at noon on Wednesday? I’ll get you back about three o’clock on Thursday afternoon,” Hegerle said he asked. 

“Sure thing. What are we doing?” they responded. 

“Can’t tell you,” Hegerle said he replied. “Want to come?” 

Every single person Hegerle asked jumped at the chance to be part of the mission, as did well over 300 others who worked the reception center, hotel and airport upon the plane’s arrival at Dulles Airport. 

“Knowing me and knowing where we worked, they’re like, ‘I’m in.’ Every single one of them said, ‘I’m in.’” Hegerle said. 

They chartered the plane, lined up the participants and ended up at the Norfolk air base at 10 p.m. on February 8. 

“That’s when I told the crew where we were going, because we had a charter flight with a charter crew. And we had a medical team there. All they knew is they were going to South America to pick people up … somewhere,” Hegerle said. “They weren’t really sure what we were doing until we got to the airport and we had closed the doors and there were no cell phones. We kept it very, very tight.” 

The medical team was on board because the State Department wasn’t sure what type of physical condition the former prisoners would be in. 

“We had a large team of medics who had done similar work with the Afghan refugees,” Hegerle said. “And when they started talking about all of the things that they were preparing for, that’s when I went, ‘Oh my God, what are we going to get into here?’ Because we haven’t seen [some of] these people for four years.” 

The evacuation 

“We flew down on an empty giant aircraft,” Hegerle said. “We landed on the military side of the runway. It was a little after 2 a.m. because [the Ortega regime] wanted us to get them out before people got up.” 

The logistical assistance the Ortega government had promised for the evacuation did not materialize, so Hegerle’s U.S. team improvised. 

“The promised infrastructure, like tables and lights and the local ground crew, weren’t there. It was just us and a ring of military police in battle armor and AK-47s,” Hegerle recalled. “It was a go and come; we didn’t refuel.” 

A particularly poignant moment was when the U.S. team could see the prison buses “kind of slowly coming down the road,” Hegerle said. 

Hegerle got a few flight attendants to use their phones as flashlights on the dark runway. 

“We just improvised a check-in process,” Hegerle said. 

There were important procedures that had to be followed for the evacuation. Everyone had to be scrutinized against a manifest. Every prisoner was pulled aside for a one-on-one conversation with a U.S. official, who asked the all-important question: “Do you wish to go to the United States? Because this plane is going to the United States.” 

“One of the things we really wanted to ensure is that we were not participating in a forced deportation,” Hegerle said. “And so every single person [had to agree]. And some of them were confused. These were people who had been sleeping in a jail cell four hours earlier. And if they were not comfortable, then they were directed over and I would talk to them – I talked to every one of them – to explain the situation. … Tell them what was going on and kind of assuage their questions.” 

“That way everybody who got on the plane wanted to go,” Hegerle said. 

Many of the prisoners who had been incarcerated longer were indigenous farmers who had never before flown on an airplane. 

“One of my friends was helping at the center for the check-in and he said he had to show some of them how to use an elevator,” Hegele said. “You had those people and you had ex-foreign ministers. A lot of these people were like, ‘I want to go back to my farm.’ [I said] I got two options: prison bus or plane. I’d pick the plane.” 

The scene just before the plane departed from Managua was intense. 

“Everybody that volunteered for the flight, they’ve all said some version of [it was the] most emotional thing they’ve ever done,” Hegerle said. “Because these people, some of them were kissing the ground, because they knew they weren’t coming back. Many of them were crying. A lot of them were just hugging people because they couldn’t believe that they were free after four years in prison.” 

On the plane 

Hegerle described the flight home as “wonderfully chaotic.” 

“There were siblings who hadn’t seen each other in years – they were both imprisoned. There were a lot of family reunions on that plane,” Hegerle said. 

It was difficult for the State Department officials to get the needed paperwork done on the flight back.

Lance Hegerle on February 8 at the Managua airport. Hegerle and a small team brought 222 Nicaraguan political prisoners to Dulles Airport. To Hegerle’s right is Ryan Reid, the POL-ECON Chief of U.S. Embassy Nicaragua. Photo/ U.S. Department of State

“We were all going around getting them to fill out some forms to speed the immigration process. Getting them to get out of the isles was almost impossible,” Hegerle said. “But how surreal it was that these people had been in a horrible prison cell at 10 p.m. and at 4 a.m. some nice flight attendant was saying, ‘Would you like the pasta or would you like the chicken?’” 

The former prisoners coped with the sudden chaos in different ways. 

“Some of them were just watching cartoons,” Hegerle said. 

In some ways, that surreal flight home was the easy part for the Nicaraguans who had been abruptly released after up to five years of imprisonment. 

A former political prisoner expresses his joy at arriving at Dulles airport on February 9. Photo/ U.S. Department of State

“When they got [to the U.S.], they were all given a cell phone and other things so they could call their families. But it was, ‘How do you handle what comes next?’ When it gets real,” Hegerle said.

Looking ahead 

Humanitarian and political concerns continue to be intertwined for the former prisoners, the U.S. government and Nicaragua itself. 

It was widely reported at the time of the evacuation the Ortega government stripped the former prisoners of their Nicaraguan citizenship within a day of their release, effectively making them stateless. 

The U.S. official said this move was likely a precursor to the regime confiscating the former prisoners’ property. However, Hegerle pushed back on the significance of the citizenship revocation/state-less issue. 

“They were all paroled into the United States on humanitarian parole,” Hegerle said. “That was the mechanism we used. So the fact that they were effectively stateless didn’t really matter at that point.” 

The political aspect is equally interesting, as two questions loom large: Why did Ortega release the prisoners rather than executing or continuing to hold them? And why did the Nicaraguan government issue passports with expiration dates 10 years out to opposition leaders that they were ostensibly trying to get rid of for good? 

Hegerle had no definitive answer to either question. 

“You can’t really think in the head of Ortega. I don’t much want to,” Hegerle said. 

He cited sanctions from the U.S. government and pressure from other governments in Central and South America as possible factors in Ortega’s decision to release the prisoners. 

“ … the increasingly authoritarian bent of the regime and the things it’s doing to the opposition have really been unpalatable to the other governments in Latin America,” Hegerle said. 

The 10-year expiration date on the passports and the intense desire of many of the former prisoners to bring democracy back to Nicaragua is an interesting combination that’s full of tantalizing possibilities for the future.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken greets former Nicaraguan political prisoners. Photo/ U.S. Department of State

“Of the 222, if you asked them, I doubt more than a couple would say they didn’t want to go back [to Nicaragua],” Hegerle said. “These people are here because they were given the option of staying in prison for eight to 10 more years or leaving the country.” 

“But what they really want is a Democratic Nicaragua that they can return to.” 

BOX: Nicaragua: A timeline

1821 – Nicaragua receives its independence from Spain.
1893 – Jose Santos Zelaya becomes president, which turns into a dictatorship.
1909 – U.S. marines invade, beginning an on and off U.S. presence for almost 20 years amid Nicaraguan civil strife.
1927 – U.S. moderates the Peace of Tipitapa.
1928 – U.S. marines supervise an election won by the liberal candidate General Jose Maria Moncada.
1936 – Anastasio Somoza Garcia elected president. He and his sons Luis Somoza Debayle and Anastasio Somoza Debayle rule Nicaragua through the Nationalist Liberal Party for 43 years.
1972-79 – The FSLN, known as Sandinistas, wage guerilla warfare in Nicaragua.
July 19, 1979 – The Sandinistas capture Managua, proclaim a new government and install Daniel Ortega as its head. U.S.-backed Contras wage guerilla warfare against the Sandinistas throughout most of the 1980s.
March 23, 1988 – Ceasefire signed between the Sandinistas and Contras.
Feb. 25, 1990 – FSLN loses to the National Opposition Union. Violetta Chamorro serves nearly seven years as president, though the Sandinistas still control the army, labor unions and judicial system.
Oct. 20, 1996 – Arnoldo Aleman, whose regime is riddled with corruption, is elected president. Aleman cuts a deal with Ortega to avoid prison and in return lowers the threshold to become president from 50% plus 1 to 35% plus 1.
November 2006 – Ortega returns to power with 38% of the vote against a fractured opposition. Ortega begins rewriting the constitution to maintain and solidify his power.

-Sources: “Nicaragua: Revolution in the Family” by Shirley Christian; Wikipedia; U.S. official who spoke on background.