The Nicaragua National Police force has charged five members of a religious sect with murder after they allegedly burned a 25-year-old woman at the stake, claiming she was “possessed by the devil.” “God told us He was going to take that evil spirit out of her, and for us to make a little fire, because the devil was going to be expelled from her body,” said the group leader, Juan Gregorio Rocha, who identified himself as a pastor of the evangelical congregation Asambleas de Dios (Assemblies of God), following his arrest.
The crime has shocked a nation where 345 women have been murdered since 2012.
There are two women among the detainees. Eyewitnesses say that Estrella del Socorro Orozco and Tomasa Rocha Romero participated in the burning of Vilma Trujillo García, 25, in El Cortezal, a remote village on Nicaragua’s Caribbean lowlands.
Gregorio Rocha told the media that the young woman fell on the pyre “when the Holy Ghost left her body,” and justified his actions as a way to “cure” her, because she was “possessed by the devil.”
This case takes us back to the worst days of the Inquisition and the witch-hunts
Gioconda Belli, Nicaraguan writer
The victim was undressed, her hands tied, and she was hurled onto the fire. Later, according to eyewitnesses, she was pushed down a ravine, where she remained for nine hours until a relative found her.
Vilma Trujillo García, a mother of two, sustained severe burns on 80% of her body, and died in the early hours of Tuesday at a hospital in Managua.
Her husband, Reynaldo Peralta, told the local media that he had left the village for 15 days because he was helping his mother, who lives in another municipality, with the construction of her home.
This man said that his wife had “health problems and fainting spells,” and that is why they had turned to the religious congregation for help. It was Gregorio Rocha who decreed that the woman was “possessed” and that his congregation would “cure” her.
The Assemblies of God is a Pentecostal group that originated in Hot Springs (Arkansas) in 1914. There are around 12,000 members in Nicaragua, and over 67 million members worldwide, making it the largest Pentecostal fellowship in the world, according to the group’s website.
In Nicaragua, the head of the congregation is Rafael Aristas, who has distanced himself from the incident and said that Gregorio Rocha, 23, is not registered as a pastor with the Assemblies of God.
Political, cultural and religious leaders in Nicaragua have condemned the crime. Vice-President Rosario Murillo said that this incident is “truly deplorable: a sister who was tormented by members of her own community; something which cannot, must not, happen again.”
Feminist groups have accused Murillo of manipulating religion in her official speeches in order to curry favor with voters in a conservative and deeply religious country.
Vilma Trujillo García, a mother of two, sustained severe burns on 80% of her body
Silvio Báez, the auxiliary bishop in Managua and number two official within the Catholic Church in Nicaragua, expressed condolences through his Twitter account.
“I truly lament the death of Vilma Trujillo due to fanaticism and religious ignorance. One cannot destroy a life in the name of God!”
The Nicaraguan writer Gioconda Belli tweeted that “this atrocious crime cannot go unpunished. Nor that of so many women whose bodies keep piling up while impunity reigns.”
Belli said that Vilma Trujillo’s case takes us back to “the worst days of the Inquisition and the witch-hunts.”
The detainees have been transferred to Managua, where legal proceedings against them will take place. Meanwhile, the body of Vilma Trujillo García returned to her home village on Tuesday night for burial.
English version by Susana Urra.