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Independence Day

by Stephen Newton

Nothing about the early hours of September 15, Independence Day, prepared me for what was to happen later. The sky was clear, promising fine weather for Chinandega’s Patron Saint Festival of Villa Nueva. The streets were crowded with locals and tourists. So many strangers in town would make it easier for me to follow Isai Vargas, a 24-year-old Miskito male from the capital city. Vargas was arrested for vagrancy two days earlier, and held for questioning in connection with some petty thefts. That was only a ruse. A police informant had reported that Vargas had ties to a new gang of transportistas, the Heros, formed in the wake of the fall of the Cachiros, who once controlled a prominent drug route to North America.

Up until the moment Vargas walked out of headquarters after his release, he was only a name and a mugshot to me. He was taller than I expected, with the lean muscular frame of an athlete. Instead of looking the part of a vagrant, he was dressed like a university student, wearing a clean white shirt tucked into jeans, expensive running shoes, and a rucksack slung over one shoulder.

Vargas set off down Calle Central Este, crossed NIC 50 and continued to the entrance of Parque Central de Chinandega. Once he was in the park, I closed the distance between us. I could not afford to lose sight of him in the festive crowd. Several times, I was so near, I could have reached out and touched him. He never once looked over his shoulder, and continued at a fast pace to the North end of the park, where he crossed Calle Norte and entered Parroquia Santa Ana. I hurried in after him.

The church felt cool compared to the humid, sun-struck morning outside. Peddlers, mostly barefoot children, rushed up to me and tried to sell me candy and gum. I gave them a few centavos each to get rid of them, escaping just in time to see Vargas enter the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. I entered a minute later.

He was sitting with a young woman. They spoke quietly, but urgently, and much too low for me to understand their conversation. That they were lovers, I had no doubt. Whatever they were discussing, they were too distracted to notice me. Even if they did, I was just another middle aged tourist snapping photos with his iPhone.

The young woman, whom I identified later as 21-year-old Omara Perez, was also from Managua. She was barely 5 foot tall, quite thin, and wore a sleeveless yellow blouse, jeans, and a pair of leather sandals. Her long black hair was done in a single thick braid that fell over one shoulder like a pet snake.

While I pretended to take artful pictures of the Sangre de Cristo, I heard enough of the couple’s conversation to know they had been arguing.

“There is nothing you can do, my love,” Perez said. “Alma has made the arrangements. She says, the sooner the better.”

Vargas closed his eyes and sighed. “Just wait one more month, that’s all I ask.”

“And then…?”

“We will have enough money to get married, to raise a family.”

Perez turned away, and for a moment, our eyes met. Then, she turned back to Vargas. “What is the good of money, if you lose your life in the bargain?”

Vargas took both her hands in his. “How can we make a new life in Costa Rica without money? Already there is talk of the border closing to Nicaragüenses like us. We are economic refugees—worse than parasites in their eyes. And what chance does our unborn child have as a poor Miskito halfbreed? No, Mari, I must do this. In one month it will be over, and we will be free.”

Perez bowed her head in defeat. I could hear her sobbing.

Vargas stood abruptly. “Will you give me one month, or no?”

“One month, not one day more,” Perez said, rising to stand beside him.

She touched his cheek and walked away. Vargas watched her leave the chapel, picked up his rucksack and took out his phone. He gave me a suspicious look, so I decided to leave with a small group of American tourists.

Suspecting Vargas had made me, I called police headquarters and asked my unit to send a colleague to pick up the tail on him before he left the church. In the meantime, I followed Perez outside, and into the park.

The crowds had dispersed to the center of town for the start of the festival parade, leaving the park nearly empty with the exception of a street food vendor, where Perez purchased a tiste and a quesillo, and carried them to a small table. The savory smell of the cheese filled corn tortilla made me hungry, so I ordered the same things for myself, and strolled to her table.

“May I join you, señorita?”

Perez smiled, and nodded her head.

“Are you a local?” I asked, as I took my seat. “Or, here for the festivities?”

“Neither,” she said. “I came here to meet a friend. And you, Señor, are you here for the celebration?”

“Yes, exactly. I’m writing a travel book about Central American festivals. I was in Corinto last week.”

Perez rewarded my lies with a friendly smile. “It must be very nice to get paid to travel, and flirt with young women.”

I laughed. “I have to admit that, at my age, flirting never gets me anywhere, but it keeps me young in spirit. Permit me to introduce myself.” I extended my hand. “Ariel Sanchez.”

She hesitated a moment, and then took my hand in hers.“Omara Perez.”

There was about Perez a quiet strength that revealed itself in her candid nature. I liked her and was beginning to think Vargas was a lucky man if he had this young woman’s fealty. In another time, she would have fallen in love with a rebel, and willingly died at his side for what she believed was a noble cause. “So, you are a city girl? Am I right?”

Perez nodded. “Yes, Managuan born and raised,” she said. “My fiancé is in university—or was. He wants us to move to Costa Rica, where he hopes to find work as a surveyor.”

“Ah, so you are already taken?”

Perez blushed. “Sí, you are much too late, Señor Sanchez.”

I held up my empty glass. “Shall we have another tiste?”

I had just returned to the table with our drinks, when Perez’s phone buzzed. She picked it up and read the message, and was thumb-tapping the virtual keys with a sureness and speed that never ceases to amaze me in the young. She sent her text and waited, staring at her phone’s screen as if her life depended upon a reply. A minute passed. She turned off her phone, and put it her handbag. With a quaver of fear in her voice, she asked, “Who are you, really?”

My guard went up. Whatever news she received, had made her suspicious. I ignored the question and did my best to show an innocent concern. “Have you received some disturbing news?”

“It’s my fiancé. He’s been arrested.”

It was my turn to be alarmed. Vargas was to be followed, not arrested. “On what charges?”

“He did not explain. His phone is dead.”

“If he has been arrested, he will be at police headquarters, not far from here.”

“I don’t care, I’m not going to see him,” Perez said. “I don’t trust the police. I am sure he has done nothing wrong. Once they discover he is innocent, they will release him.”

“Perhaps I can be of help? Make some inquiries on your behalf?”

“Who are you? I’m sure I saw you earlier in the chapel. I thought you were a tourist, but, now, I’m not sure I can trust you.”

“Believe me, I’m only an underpaid travel writer.” I opened my wallet and handed her my bogus business card. “But, sometimes, in this part of the world, a man may be of help in situations where a woman would have little influence.”

Perez read my card and dropped it into her handbag. “Then, forgive me, please. As I told you, I trust few people these days.”

“Then, you will permit me to assist you?”

Perez nodded. “What do you suggest?”

I reached for my phone. “We’ll start with a call to the police,” I said, tapping in the familiar numbers of my chief’s direct line. He answered on the second ring.

“Capitán Morales a su servicio!”

“This is Ariel Sanchez, may I speak with someone in charge about a recent arrest?” Someone in charge was code for “I’m being monitored.”

In the nick of time, before saying it myself, and revealing that I already knew the answer, I asked Perez her fiancé’s name.

“Ah, lieutenant, thanks for taking my call. I’m inquiring about the recent arrest of a university student named Isai Vargas. Of course, I’ll wait.” To my surprise, Perez lit a cigarette, and offered one to me. I declined.

On the other end of the line, Morales told me the news. “We have not heard from our operative since he took over for you. Who the hell told you the kid was arrested in the first place?”

“His fiancée called me to ask for my assistance. I am a friend of the family.”

“Ah, so you are with Omara Perez? Stay close to her, detective,” Morales said. “Vargas and our man were most likely kidnapped by transportistas. If they were, it’s more than likely this woman is in danger as well. Take her to the safe house in El Realejo for the time being, and wait till I call you.” Morales rang off.

Perez was staring at the burning end of her cigarette as if it represented the immolation of her fragile future. I am trained to dissemble and deceive, but I can also detect when a suspect is lying to me. There are certain tell tale signs— none of which I saw on the comely face of this beleaguered woman. I felt she would speak the truth no matter the price.

“The news is not good,” I said. “In fact, it is very grave, indeed.”

“Isai is in jail?”

“No. Much worse. The police believe he’s been kidnapped by transportistas, probably a gang called the Heros.”

Perez closed her eyes, and made the sign of the cross. “Do you believe in God, Señor? I pray, but to no avail. My life only gets worse, not better.”

It was time for me to confess, to tell her the truth. “Omara, look me in the eyes and listen carefully. Today, of all days, you must trust a stranger. The Heros will force Isai to do their will by threatening to kill someone he cares for. I have no doubt they will come for you next. Each moment we remain here in Chinandega, puts you in great danger, but I promise I can help you. I am a special agent of La Policía Nacional. Do you believe me?”

She seemed to take my confession in stride, or perhaps she was too numb by then to care what happened to her. “I have no choice, do I?”


We left the park and hailed a cab, which took us to a private parking lot, where I kept my car. As we pulled onto highway 24A and headed in the direction of El Realejo, I explained that I would do everything to ensure her safety. For most of the 20 minute drive, she stared out her window at the passing landscape, and said little. If she was afraid, she gave no outward sign.

A few kilometers outside of El Realejo, I spotted a black SUV in the rearview mirror. I had been speeding, so I slowed down to 45, the legal limit. The SUV did not try to pass, but kept its distance until I turned onto NN-276 at El Realejo. Then to my great relief, the SUV, a new Toyota 4Runner, continued on 24A toward San Isidro.

El Realejo was once a major sea port centuries before the construction of Corinto, Nicaragua's principal port. The safe house was a small villa on the banks of the Estero Paso Caballos, an estuary that twists and turns its way through the wetlands to empty into the Pacific. Not far from the villa, we stopped at an outdoor bar and grill with a view of the ocean. The tables were arranged under a pavilion, open on all sides to the coastal breezes, a welcome contrast to the steaming streets of Chinandega. There were only a few customers, more than likely, all locals. We ordered two glasses of Macuá and a plate of nacatamales, and then we hurried to the baños.

As I washed my hands, I worried about the suspicious black SUV. Of course, to fool me into believing they weren’t following us, they continued on. The Heros no doubt had their own informants within headquarters, and knew exactly where we were going. I had been a fool to relax my guard. We could already be at the safe house. Years of experience had taught me to pay attention to my instincts, and the SUV raised a bright red flag, which I ignored. I unfastened my shoulder holster. I’ve survived by practicing the axiom: Expect nothing. Be ready for anything, But sometimes being ready isn’t enough.

When I returned to my table, I knew we were in trouble. The other customers had disappeared. In fact, the whole place was deserted, except for some chickens pecking at the dirt floor. Before I could warn her, Perez appeared and started for the table. I stood up and pulled back a chair for her, as I whispered a warning. To her credit, she smiled, thanked me, and sat down, as if there was nothing wrong. I returned to my seat, removed my weapon and held it in my lap. My car was parked outside on the now empty street, only some 30 yards from where we sat, but it would be suicide to make a run for it.

Years of hardship and poverty had made Perez strong, and now, in the face of what appeared to be insurmountable obstacles, she simply looked resigned and not in the least fearful. She knew, as did I, that there was no way out, and nothing to do, but wait for the inevitable. In the course of a morning, our lives had changed.

While we waited for something to happen, Perez continued to sit with her hands folded on the table, as if she were calmly waiting for our meal. “The service here is terrible,” she said.

Despite our dire circumstances, I laughed, which made her smile. “Let us make a promise never to come here again,” I said.

She laughed. “Everything is suddenly so funny,” she said.

“Gallows humor?”

We both started laughing. I had not laughed so openly, so freely, in years. It was if we were on holiday. I realized then, that regardless of what happened, I would defend this brave young woman with my life. Indeed, it felt as if that single day was the sole purpose of my hapless existence thus far. On that day of Independence, I, Ariel Sanchez, became truly free.

A rooster crowed somewhere. In the silence that followed, a black SUV turned off the street and drove into the dining area, stopping less than a meter from our table. I could feel the heat emanating from the engine. As if choreographed, the rear doors flew open at the same time, and two gang members in paramilitary dress stepped out. One of them held his AR-15 in the air, and fired a round. “You with the gun,” he shouted at me. “Kindly hand your weapon over.”

I held up my Glock-19 by its barrel and handed it to his comrade, who then ordered me to stand while he patted me down.

A second SUV pulled in nose to nose with the first. Again, both rear doors opened together, only this time, Isai Vargas stepped out, his hands cuffed behind him. Before he had taken two steps, another gang member placed a semi-automatic pistol against the back of his head and marched him to the table, and pushed him into a chair. The driver’s door of the second SUV opened and a heavyset man in his forties stepped out and sauntered toward us.

“I am known as Jefe, Detective Sanchez,” he said, offering me his hand, which, considering the circumstances, I had little choice but to take in mine. His was not the callused hand of a working man, but it was as strong. Like the others, he wore black paramilitary gear. A jagged scar ran down his left cheek to the corner of his mouth, as if someone had tried to cut off his face. Outside of this disfigurement, which must have been attended to by a plastic surgeon of great skill, the gang’s leader could have passed for banker, but with soul of a madman.

To show us he meant business, Jefe took up a position behind Vargas, grabbed a fist full of his hair, and jerked his head back, making him cry out. He smiled, and patted the top of Vargas’ head. “These Miskitos are tough. My men are all tough like him. Vargas will be a good soldier one day, unless of course he has already betrayed us. He is young and stupid, but he will learn. Next time, perhaps he will not allow himself to be arrested for sleeping in the streets like a dog. Now tell me, detective, can he be trusted?”

I told him the truth. “He said nothing, that I know of.”

“So, you vouch for him, yes? Then, tell me, if Vargas said nothing, why were you and your very unfortunate colleague assigned to follow him?”

“The police use informants the same as you,” I said. “I’m sure they received a tip from one of our many paid sources that Vargas was about to be initiated into the Heros, and hoped to turn him to spy on you. Otherwise they would have never arrested him in the first place. If a man must sleep in the streets these days because he has no home, the police will not add to his hardship by throwing him in jail. Believe me, Jefe, Vargas said nothing to betray you. If he had, I doubt we would be sitting here, while our drinks turn warm and our tamales grow cold. You and your cronies would already be in custody, and not here threatening us.”

There was a long tense silence, but in that silence, reason prevailed. My argument made sense to him. He snapped his fingers. “Bring them food. Vargas, as well. In fact, all of you, eat and drink.”

Throughout all of this, Perez and Vargas said nothing to each other, but kept their heads bowed, like children, too shy to acknowledge each other. I guessed that once Vargas knew Omara was pregnant, he jumped into the fire with the Heros, hoping to improve his chances to start a new life with a nice nest-egg. I also doubted he was ever honest with her about what he was prepared to do for the Heros.

Jefe was a congenial host, but spent most of the time on his mobile. I knew that much of the illegal money from drug transportation was laundered in legitimate businesses and industries, which employed thousands in our poor country. In waging a war on drugs, we have lost the war on our souls.

Before we left, Jefe gave a wad of cash to the frightened proprietor of the bar and grill, who took it with profuse thanks. I’m sure it must have been more than he would have made in a year. Such practices of generosity were how the gangs won the loyalty of the people.

When it was time to leave, Jefe invited us to join him in his SUV. I sat in the back with Vargas, while Perez sat in the front with Jefe, who drove. We drove for about 30 minutes before Jefe pulled off the main road onto a narrow trail, which led to the Estero Paso Caballos. We drove to the mouth of a small inlet and stopped. Jefe ordered us to get out.

The sun was setting as we marched to the water where a motor yacht was moored at the end of a floating dock. Perez and I took our places aboard, while Vargas remained behind in the SUV.

In the boat with us was the heavily armed captain at the helm, and a boy of no more than 16 or 17 dressed in black, who, if Jefe gave the word, would think nothing of emptying his AR-15 into us. The Hero removed the dock lines, and the captain steered the boat into the estuary waters. Jefe watched us from the shore, his mobile still pressed against one ear. When I looked back a few minutes later, he and the two SUVs were gone.

Perez sat beside me with her head in her hands. There was no way I could comfort her. The Hero had already warned me twice to be silent. After nearly an hour, the estuary widened considerably, and I could hear the faint sounds of civilization. It was impossible to see anything in the darkness, but I could smell the acrid smoke from the Empress Energetica de Corinto chemical plant. The port was close, possibly less than a mile. Had I been alone, I would have tried to swim for it.

The captain throttled down, and turned the boat into a lagoon, setting off the startled cries of herons, disturbed by our passage. Before long, we pulled alongside a wrecked freighter. Surrounding it were the rusting hulls of other boats. Apparently, the quiet lagoon had become a ship’s graveyard, the boats salvaged for spare parts by poor fisherman.

As we drew close, the Hero grabbed a rope ladder hanging off the stern of the freighter and secured it to a cleat on the yacht. He motioned with his rifle for us to climb the rope to the ship’s deck. I held the rope for Perez until she was midway up, and then I started up after her. When I reached the top, I found her sitting on the deck, her back against the hull.

“I can’t get a signal,” she said, holding up her phone.

“I’m afraid there’s no one to call.”

A few seconds later, Hero appeared on deck, his rifle slung over his shoulder, and a powerful lantern in one hand. “This way,” he said, and led us down the deck to the ship’s galley, where he told us to go inside and sit on the floor with our hands behind our heads.

He aimed his light at an ice chest on the floor. “There’s food and water in there for a couple of days. If Vargas does what we want, I will return for you before sundown tomorrow, and set you free. If he doesn’t, then you will remain here and die. The port authority plans to blow this stinking graveyard up the day after tomorrow.” He laughed. “They want to turn it into a bird sanctuary. Can you imagine?”

The heavy metal door clanked shut behind him. I heard the metallic ring of his footsteps on the deck, and then, a few minutes later, the sound of the yacht leaving.

“This is my fault,” Perez said. “I hope you recall, after this, how much trouble flirting can get you into. So far, you are not much of a knight in shining armor, Mr. Sanchez—if that’s your name. But, nevertheless, I think you are a good person.”

“I will get us out of here alive,” I said, making a silent prayer to whatever God protected aging policemen. “You know him best, Omara. Is Vargas capable of murder?”

“What he is capable of doing, I cannot say. I think he cares only that in 7 months, a father’s burden will fall on him. Sometimes, we must do terrible things to stay alive.”

“Sadly, it is true,” I said. Somewhere miles away, in another world, life and death decisions were being made that would seal our fates.

Somehow, we both slept through the rest of the night. Just before dawn, I woke to the sound of Perez vomiting into the slop bucket. Morning sickness, I thought.

“How far along are you?”

“I’m not sure exactly,” she said. “The clinic was crowded with so many seriously ill patients, that the doctor only confirmed my pregnancy. There was no time for an exam, or even a sonogram. My menses was late for several weeks before I was tested.” Perez touched her still flat belly. “Perhaps three months?”

As the sun rose, light streamed through a grease covered portlight situated about a foot above the galley range. The porthole was easily a half meter wide. I climbed onto the stove and cleaned the portlight with a rag, and peered out. A gull sat on the gunwale, drying its wings in the morning sun. I could see herons wading along the grassy shoreline. Bobbing on the surface of dark water below was a buoy flying a yellow banner: ¡Muy Peligro! ¡No Entrar!

I tried to open the portlight, but it must have been welded shut from the outside.

Perez was watching me struggle with the latch. “We’re sealed inside like sardines in a can.”

I gave up trying and jumped down. “Then we need a can opener,” I said. “If we can get that porthole opened, I’m sure you can crawl out, and save the day.”

She looked hopefully at me. “What kind of a can opener do you need?”

“I’ll know it when I see it.”

For twenty minutes, we searched the galley from top to bottom, opening cupboards, drawers, and hatches. For our efforts, we netted a depleted fire extinguisher, an axe with a broken handle, a half empty propane tank, a deck of cards, and a few centavos in loose change. At the bottom of a locker, inside a rolled up copy of an ancient Playboy magazine, I found a working flare. I gave up a silent prayer of thanks.

Perez looked exhausted. “Now what?”

“Now, we perform a miracle.”

I hoisted the propane tank onto the stove near the porthole, and then I climbed up beside it with the flare. “If I can heat the thick glass with the flare, and then cool it rapidly with the freezing propane gas, it might shatter with enough force,” I said. “Stand by with the axe and fire extinguisher.”

When Perez was ready, I lit the flare and held the flame against the portlight until the glass glowed. When the flare expired, I opened the valve on the propane tank, and aimed it so the escaping gas would cool the already fissured glass. When the tank was empty, I took the fire extinguisher from Perez and swung it at the portlight like a battering ram. After my third try, the glass shattered. A cool ocean breeze and the cries of gulls rushed into the galley. I chipped away the remaining fragments of glass with the axe, and then stuck my head out of the opening. It was less than a meter’s drop to the deck. I gave Perez a thumbs up. “If you take your clothes off, you might get through,” I said.

When she was ready, I lifted her up, and helped her feet first through the opening. There was not a centimeter to spare, but she made it. Seconds later, she dropped to the deck, and unlocked the galley door. She had cut her feet on the glass fragments, but we were free. When she was dressed, we grabbed two bottles of water from the ice chest, and looked for a way off the ship.

Our luck stayed with us. Suspended by a single cable, a lifeboat hung only a few inches above the water. We held hands and jumped over the side into the slick, oily water, and swam to the lifeboat.


The next morning, I said goodbye to Omara Perez at the Corinto Migración office. Through my police connections, I was able to expedite her immigration papers. She was leaving within the hour for Costa Rica, where she had been granted asylum.

Unfortunately, Morales told me that Vargas’ body had been discovered on the street in front of police headquarters at midnight. His tongue had been cut out before he was shot in the head.

Although Omara had been told the news about Vargas earlier, neither of us spoke of him.

When it was time for her to go, she looked happy. “Whether I have a boy, or a girl, its name will be Ariel,” she said, as we embraced. “And I promise you, my Ariel will honor your name.”

“I have no doubt, Omara,” I said. “You will be a fine mother.”

I waited until her taxi was out of sight, and then, I made the journey home.


About the Author

Stephen Newton is a writer and independent filmmaker based in Southern Appalachia, where he retired after an award-winning 40-year career as a communications professional.

For the past decade, he has been writing fiction and making feature length documentaries about critical social issues, such as mass incarceration (the US imprisons more people than any other country—2.4 million) and the causes and consequences of homelessness in the richest country in the world.

Newton studied creative fiction under the novelist James Leigh at San Francisco State University in the 1960s, but was sidetracked by life until he started writing full time after retiring.

Newton’s most recent fiction appears, or is forthcoming in, The Monsters We Forgot, Part 2, Vol 2,Two Sisters, Drunk Monkeys and Cagibi.

His first documentary, “Outcasts: Surviving the Culture of Rejection,” was released in 2014. The film was selected for screening at US film festivals, and was aired on East Tennessee PBS twice. The film is available free for online viewing at

“One Night in January: Counting the Cost of Homelessness” Newton’s second documentary, was released in 2020. The film was awarded a Best Writer award by the 2020 Toronto Couch Film Festival and selected for screening at the 2020 London Lift-Off Film Festival, UK, and the 2020 YES! Film Festival, Columbus, IN. The film may be viewed free online at

Newton is currently at work on a novel based on his short story, Independence Day, which was inspired by a prompt from The Ice Colony.

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