It seems that whenever Nicaragua’s judicial system manages to administer justice these days, it’s mostly by accident.
Contaminated by politics to the extent that recent court sessions have felt increasingly like Sandinista political rallies, Nicaragua’s judicial system is, in the words of former Central Bank president and risk analyst Mario Arana, “among the worst in the world.”
And that’s being kind.
But if last month’s transformation of the Supreme Court into a Sandinista circus wasn’t convincing enough, a new book by Eric Volz chronicling his surreal decent through the bowls of Nicaragua’s judicial system ought to be all the additional proof one needs to make an informed conclusion.
Volz, 31, was found guilty of the gruesome murder of ex-girlfriend Doris Jiménez, a young Nicaraguan woman who was found raped and strangled to death inside her clothing boutique in San Juan del Sur on Nov. 21, 2006 (NT, Dec. 1, 2006). Volz, who was living in Managua at the time, was fingered as the prime suspect. A Nicaraguan man was also convicted for the crime.
A U.S. citizen who had lived in Nicaragua since 2005, Volz maintains his innocence and insists he was framed.
Since the day of his arrest, Volz became a lightning rod in Nicaragua. During his year-long trial and appeals process, until his eventual deportation in December 2007, public opinion in Nicaragua – informed by a combination of questionable journalism, half-truths, rumors and evidence posted on the Friends of Eric Volz Web page – ranged wildly and sometimes violently.
Some people tried to lynch him, while others tried to free him.
Volz quickly took center stage in the Doris Jiménez murder mystery. Tragically, Jiménez herself became almost a secondary figure. In his new book “Gringo Nightmare,” released last month by St. Martin’s Press, Volz offers a surprisingly readable account of the ordeal. He offers chilling descriptions of life in Nicaragua jail, and equally astonishing accounts of institutional corruption and incompetence on virtually all levels.
Volz also names names. He makes strong accusations of corruption and wrongdoing against government officials and others. And he lays out his theory about who he thinks killed Jiménez and why. If the book ever gets translated into Spanish, there will be many unhappy and uncomfortable people in Nicaragua.
Volz also gives a fascinating account of the inner workings of the judicial system, which he quickly learns is motivated more by political pressure, bribery and favors than any appeal to lady justice. He even explains the unlikely involvement of former President Arnoldo Alemán, whom Volz fondly refers to as “my padrino.”
Volz said once he started viewing himself as a “political prisoner,” his defense team turned to Alemán for help. The former president, apparently looking for an excuse to flex his muscles within a Sandinista-dominated judicial system, instructed one of the three judges on the appeals tribunal to rule in Volz’s favor, according to the book.
Alemán, whose family has been black listed by the U.S. government following his 2002 corruption conviction (which was eventually overturned by his judges), was also apparently trying to win points with Uncle Sam by pulling strings for Volz.
“Helping an American in the clutches of the Sandinistas was also helping the U.S. Embassy solve its own problem, and in doing so would be a substantial step to rebuilding his reputation in Washington,” Volz says of Alemán, whose reputation in Washington doesn’t seem to have benefited from his efforts on Volz’ behalf.
Though he acknowledges Alemán hoped to score political points by getting involved, Volz quaintly assumes the former president’s primary motive was “humanitarian.”
Volz claims Alemán even offered to take him into his home to serve time under house arrest alongside him on his farm, El Chile.
“(The U.S. government) had worked for years to hack Alemán’s reputation to bits, and now we were about to turn him into an American hero overnight,” Volz writes.
While Volz and Alemán living together under house arrest would have made for an entertaining Nicaraguan reality TV show, it was not to be. Volz was deported by President Daniel Ortega after being absolved by the Granada Appeals Court in a 2-1 split decision.
Appeals Judge Roberto Rodríguez, one of the two magistrates who voted to absolve Volz, told The Nica Times at the time that the evidence and courtroom testimony against Volz did not prove his participation in the murder beyond a reasonable doubt (NT, Dec. 21, 2007).
Volz was released from custody and immediately deported. He was never declared to be innocent.
The trial of Volz did, indeed, smell rotten. As someone who sat through the three day trial in February 2007, the guilty verdict came as a shock to me. You don’t have to be a lawyer or have much previous courtroom experience to understand the concept of reasonable doubt. Much like you don’t need previous experience drinking sour milk to know what it is the first time you taste it.
While Volz arguably didn’t get a fair trial due to a combination of incompetence, corruption and political and social pressures, his theory about being the victim of “an organized, institutional kidnapping by the Sandinista government” seems far fetched, even by Nicaraguan standards.
“This wasn’t about evidence of lack of it; it wasn’t about incompetent lawyers or judges or slimy police captains. It was a political hostage taking, pure and simple. We are dealing with an anti-American regime and this is what such regimes do,” Volz writes.
But if that’s what this regime does, it certainly doesn’t do much of it. Volz fails to mention that no other U.S. citizens have been “kidnapped” by the Sandinista government. It would take more than one case to establish a pattern and draw such a conclusion.
Volz overdoes the anti-Americanism and cynicism in a couple other parts of the book. In describing the situation in Nicaragua, he writes, “There wasn’t much that could soften their (Nicaraguans) animosity toward U.S. citizens – except of course, for U.S. dollars.”
Those who knew Volz in Nicaragua say he has a tendency to embellish stories. Former business partner and San Juan del Sur housemate Jon Thompson, whom Volz describes in his book as a former friend, said Volz “always made things seem bigger than they were in real life.”
He said he remembers an instance earlier in their friendship when Volz lost his passport in the Dominican Republic and called Thompson to whisper over the phone that he had gotten himself in the middle of an “international conspiracy” involving the “passport mafia.”
“Eric was always trying to find ways to make himself seem like a person of interest to others,” Thompson said.
Some of Volz’s descriptions of his efforts to publish a magazine – El Puente – seem to fit that pattern. The project originally started as a joint effort between Thompson and Volz to produce a community newsletter aimed at bridging cultures and promoting responsible development in San Juan del Sur.
But after the second pilot issue came out, Volz tried to take the magazine in a new direction. He renamed it “EP,” gave it a glossy finish and included photo spreads on fashion and lifestyle – which he referred to as “edgy elements.” Even by Volz’s admission, the “humble newsletter” that had been Thompson’s brainchild “had evolved into something pretty far removed from his original idea.”
Volz says Thompson “strangely hadn’t thrown himself into” the magazine project, as he had hoped. Thompson, however, says Volz tried to get him to pay $20,000 to continue in the partnership. The magazine ended their friendship, by both men’s accounts.
Volz also said his magazine came between him and Jiménez. “EP’s sudden and exciting growth became one of the contributing factors
to the end of my romance with Doris.”
As EP “got bigger and bigger,” Volz writes, he felt the magazine had outgrown San Juan del Sur and needed to move to Managua, where he rented an office and hired a staff. Then, before coming out with a second issue, Volz said, “the time had come to move the magazine out of Nicaragua” to Costa Rica, because it was a more metropolitan place for his magazine’s headquarters. He also talked about the magazine’s need to find “some kind of political protection” from the Sandinistas.
Even during the murder trial, Volz’s mind seemed to wander to his magazine efforts. During a recess in the court proceedings, he turned to me and said he was looking forward to getting back to work making EP a leading magazine in Central America.
It seemed like a rather grandiose – not to mention oddly timed – comment from someone who had essentially published only one issue. Volz’s ego and visions of grandeur might lead some readers to then wonder about his conclusion in the book: that he was a political prisoner that Ortega tried to leverage in missile-disarmament negotiations with the U.S. government.
Still, Gringo Nightmare is an intriguing read for anyone who followed the murder trial. And it’s sure to cause even more controversy around the man who says he came to Nicaragua to build bridges between two cultures.