Nicaragua's Fortaleza El Coyotepe
Updated: Nov 25, 2019
Article by Brent Robillard & Photography by Caroline Bergeron
Even from a distance El Fortaleza Coyotepe appears foreboding—a concrete bunker ensconced atop a dusty hill of low-lying brush and sunburnt vegetation. The fortress takes its name from the Nahuatl for “hill of the coyotes,” and certainly, although myths and fabrications abound, the location has borne witness to more than one period of bloodshed and torture.
Indeed, the history of Nicaragua is steeped in such events—not the least of which unfolded a year ago in streets and on university campuses around the country.
Coyotepe, then, is both symbol and monument to the generational struggles which have plagued Nicaragua.
This is the fourth article in a short series we are publishing on Nicaragua this Spring in the hope that peace soon returns to the country.
A popular legend maintains that the structure was build by President Zelaya in 1893. The hill where it sits allowed his troops to view the approach of enemies and offered a commanding view of the road to Granada. Its strategic position cannot be argued, and most surely it was the site of a historic battle in 1912 between US Marines and General Zeledon—now a national hero and martyr.
However, it is unlikely that any structure existed on the hill at that time. American reports of the battle make mention of fortified trenches, but no fort.
What is more probable is that the structure was built sometime between the two World Wars. It is well documented that Anastasio Somoza, who ascended to power and established a hereditary dictatorship which lasted 70 years, used the hill as a political prison. Unofficial numbers claim that as many as 800 such prisoners were kept here at a time. Evidence of the overcrowding still exists in lower levels of what is commonly referred to as the “dungeon.” The hallways were retrofitted with makeshift cells, no more than the width of a man’s outstretched arms. Rumours of sadism, torture, and depravity are rampant. And indeed, the remnants of torture chambers and sensory deprivation rooms are visible today.
At some point in the 1960s, the building was vacated and eventually donated to the Boy Scouts, who used it for their annual jamboree until it was damaged in the 1972 earthquake which levelled the capital of Managua.
It was then resurrected as a place of cruelty in the mid-seventies during the Sandinista insurrection—first by Somoza, and then in the early eighties by the victorious Sandinista government.
Eventually the building was once again given over to youth. This time the Association of Sandinista Children, but by the late 1980s—lacking funds--the structure was abandoned completely. During this period it was vandalized and ruined with graffiti.
Today, it is once again the Scouts who have taken control of the fortress and have opened it to tourists. For $2, a guide will take you through the lower levels by flashlight. The atmosphere and its storied history provide for an eerie experience. The facility has not been restored or rehabilitated. The graffiti—some left by teens, and some by the original prisoners—remains scrawled across the walls in paint and primitive carvings. You have to be careful as you wall its corridors not to trip over the fragments of rusted iron bars, sawed off close to the floor. Bats navigate the air above your head. It is dark and cool and quiet.
In a way, its dilapidated state contributes to its sinister atmosphere. A more sanitised facility might misrepresent the brutality that took place here.
Outside, and in the sun of the prison’s courtyard, it is difficult to image the tales of barbarity. From the ramparts a panoramic vista opens up over Masaya and its lagoon. The volcano is visible, and on a clear day, so is Lake Nicaragua.
With a little luck, and the continued resilience of its people, perhaps Nicaragua will one day emerge once again into the sun and throw off the yoke of oppression once and for all. Coyotepe and its horrors will then fade into the past and all visitors will have trouble imagining such stories amid such beauty.
For now, it is an important site, if you are looking to understand Nicaragua and its current state, in the same way that Ireland's Kilmainham Gaol communicates something tangible--but unquantifiable--about that nation's people.