Eric Volz was an upwardly mobile and adventurous 27-year-old when he went with a friend to Nicaragua a few years ago to found a magazine that he hoped might serve as a bridge between that country’s native population and English-speaking readers who shared his own interest in Central America’s culture, lifestyle and history. The Spanish word for bridge is puente, and that gave his magazine its title. El Puente was an instant success when first published in the beach resort community of San Juan del Sur where Volz had set up shop.
Volz’s personal life also hit a new high when he met and fell in love with a local beauty, Doris Jiminez. Their idyll did not last, however. Volz decided to move his magazine to Nicaragua’s capital city, Managua, partly for business reasons and partly because he and Jiminez were drifting apart.
Then came the phone call in November 2006. Doris had been brutally murdered on the premises of the fashion boutique she opened. Shocked and bewildered, Volz drove to Managua to find out from friends and the girl’s family what had happened. Within days his life turned into a nightmare. Everyone in town --- police, the press, people on the street --- seemed convinced that he was the murderer, despite the fact that he had been some 70 miles away on the day of the crime.
GRINGO NIGHTMARE tells the grim story of his arrest, arraignment, trial, imprisonment and eventual release. It is a Kafkaesque tale of police corruption, anti-American prejudice, press-fomented public hysteria, prison brutality, denial of fundamental rights, and politically contrived injustice in the courts.
After some preliminary scene-setting, Volz begins his story with a useful summary of recent Nicaraguan political history leading up to the rise of the anti-American Sandinista regime under President Daniel Ortega. As an American seeking to do business in Nicaragua, Volz was distrusted by almost everyone, an easy target for framed “evidence” in a trial in which his carefully assembled evidence of innocence was largely ignored both by those trying him and the press covering the proceedings. He was a “gringo,” and that was enough for all but a few courageous Nicaraguans who stood up for him against the mob crying out for his conviction. He could hardly move about the streets without endangering his life and was once very nearly lynched by an enraged mob. One of his most implacable enemies was Doris’s mother, who vilified him constantly in the newspapers and on television. His defense lawyers were largely ineffective and perhaps of suspect loyalty themselves. With one honorable exception, officials from the American embassy were little or no help. Two other obvious suspects in the murder were never charged.
Volz, obviously a savvy media operator, did get the word out beyond Nicaragua, but with mixed results. Friends and family at home drummed up political and media support, but a Washington DC law firm that interested itself in his case was virtually useless.
One thing became obvious as the case evolved: Volz was a pawn in an international political impasse between the US and Nicaragua. Washington wanted the country to get rid of a large cache of missiles it was holding supposedly for its own defense. Ortega wanted to keep them and found Volz a useful bargaining chip --- so long as he was trapped in that series of miserable prisons. Volz characterizes his whole nightmare as “an organized institutional kidnapping by the Sandinista government.” He was in effect a political hostage.
Convicted and given a 30-year sentence, Volz entered the murky world of Nicaragua’s prison system, which he describes in sickening detail. He could trust no one, his health deteriorated and he began to reconcile himself to rotting away in a foul Nicaraguan dungeon. He credits the eventual reversal of his conviction to two courageous appeals court judges and one true-believer official from the American diplomatic corps.
But even his final departure from Nicaragua turned into a tense minute-by-minute melodrama. Press and public were outraged by his release, and extraordinary means had to be used to get him onto a plane and out of the country before the emotional powder-keg on the ground exploded into violence.
Volz’s conclusion is that this kind of politically-inspired railroading could happen to any “gringo” who ventures into Nicaragua without knowing how the country really operates. His story will do nothing for the tourism industry in Nicaragua, but it could save Americans who go there --- for whatever good reason --- a lot of grief.
Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com) on January 22, 2011