A Boy In Chains

Photo By: Curt Devine
Written By: Curt Devine

Juan Roberto doesn’t go to school.

He doesn’t watch movies or play sports, and he certainly doesn’t go to parties.

In fact, Juan Roberto has not experienced any of the things that make up the lives of most 16-year olds. Although he is in good physical health and looks like any other Nicaraguan teenage boy, his life is the polar opposite of average.

For the past four years, Juan Roberto has been chained to a tree.

After smoking cocaine-laced marijuana and eating hallucinogenic mushrooms as a pre-teen, Juan began having fits of violent rage and uncontrollable anger. His mind deteriorated as he sank deeper and deeper into crime and addiction. His frail mother, Maria, reached her rope’s end trying to restrain him, so as a final attempt to protect Juan, their family and neighbors, she chained his ankle to a 6-foot tall tree stump.

Now he lays restrained on a small wooden bench in their dilapidated backyard 24 hours a day. Living on the small island of Ometepe in the middle of Lake Nicaragua, Juan has little hope for government intervention or professional care. More than likely, years will pass before he sees the outside world again.

I first heard about Juan Roberto a few weeks ago when I landed in Managua, Nicaragua.

I began a two-month mission’s trip working with a local church and orphanage. A long-term American missionary told my team and I that we should ask a pastor in Ometepe about “the boy in chains,” but I refused to believe that a mother would imprison her child like a wild animal. Still, I wanted to pay him a visit.

A few days later I found myself walking with six of my teammates down a slender dirt road. “Estamos aqui,” our local pastor said, letting us know we had reached Juan’s house, a small cottage made of bricks and sheet metal. We passed through a rusted barbed-wire fence into the backyard.

As we progressed, I saw a white sheet covering something in the form of a human body. Then I saw two arms sticking out of the sides. Finally, I saw a thick, corroded chain attached to a foot poking out of the bottom.

“Hola Juan. Como estas?” the pastor said.

Peering through smoke from a nearby fire, I saw the face of a malnourished teenage boy. He lay naked stretched out on a makeshift bed, covered only by a thin white sheet, which functioned as his clothing.

“Me llamo Curt,” I said, introducing myself with a difficult smile. “Tu quires oir una estoria?” I proceeded to share a story about my life and why we came to visit him. When I finished, I waited for him to give some sort of response, yet he simply lay with his arms covering the shame on his face.


He clearly had little interest in whatever we came to share.

My teammate Tori tried reading from a Spanish storybook to draw him out. She used vibrant hand motions and asked him questions, yet he still lay lifeless, as if his body had become the mere shell of a person. The silence grew heavier.

We left after an hour or so, feeling somewhat defeated and questioning if we could actually impact in his life. After praying however, we decided to consistently visit him for a short time every day. Could he really ignore us forever?

The next day, we returned with few expectations.

We sat around him sharing stories, yet he continued to stare into space with empty black eyes. We tried playing games, painting pictures and giving him toys– all with no response.

Suddenly, I had an idea. It would either fail miserably or get an absurd reaction. I pulled out my guitar and played the one Spanish hit I had learned as a joke– Enrique Inglesia’s Hero. Somewhere between the sappy chorus and the closing line “You can take my breath away,” we saw it. A small grin formed over Juan’s mouth. It grew and grew, then erupted with laughter. He finally opened up.

The boy in chains once again felt what it is to be human.

With the progress we made, our translator Addys asked Juan if he would pray with us.  He subtly nodded, seeming disinterested, yet once the prayer began he repeated every word, asking for more of God’s grace and love in his heart.

Although Juan remains a prisoner in his own backyard, I trust that God will continue to show him greater life and freedom. Next month my team and I will leave Nicaragua and lose touch with Juan completely, yet I know that Christ has the power to break evey chain– whether physical or spiritual. Even in a hopeless situation, hope remains.


Curt went to Nicaragua to lead a college-age missions trip known as the Passport, sponsored by Adventures In Missions. Passporters spend one to nine months working with local churches, orphanages and other Christ-centered ministries throughout Africa, Asia, Australia and the Americas. For more information on available trips, visit www.adventures.org/mission-trips/

  • Michelle

    It is so tragic that this situation has happened. Yet,I am glad that the mother cares for her son and has ‘trapped’ him in this way so that he is safe. Praying that Jesus, who freed the man held prisoner by Legion, will free Juan in His time.

    • Curt

      Thanks Michelle. Interacting with Juan actually made me think of Legion. There’s still a lot going on mentally and physically that I don’t know about, but I know God delights in bringing full healing.

  • http://www.sundijo.com Sundi Jo Graham

    I don’t even know what to say after reading this post. I saddens my heart. Thank you for your willingness to go and do.

  • http://KatieAxelson.com/ Katie Axelson

    What a powerful story! I actually awoke with a Nicaragua story on my heart this morning too (I did a spring break mission trip there in 2011). It saddens me to hear of what Juan is going through but it encourages me to know that people love him enough to allow him to see life as a human again.


    • Curt Devine

      That’s awesome Katie. I’d love to read your story!

      • http://KatieAxelson.com/ Katie Axelson

        Thanks, Curt. I haven’t blogged that particular story (yet) but I have blogged a fair number of other stories from the trip: http://www.katieaxelson.com/tag/nicaragua/

  • Louise

    Wow. Not entirely sure what to write after reading that! It’s amazing that God can break into any situation, no matter how bleak.

  • Joy

    What an amazing story – I am speechless and covered in goosebumps. Thank you so much for sharing this.

    • Curt Devine

      Thanks so much Joy. I was speechless when I first saw Juan, but I knew he had a powerful story…

  • Sarah

    There is so much hope in this story!! It reminds me of Mark 5 (5:4), and Jesus set even him free! Please keep believing and trusting.

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  • Ash

    Its amazing to see how much God loves and seeks out His children!! And so amazing to see how God started to change his heart in such a short amount of time. Love seeing God use you and your music in people’s lives! This is awesomeeee! :)

    • Curt

      Yes! So true.

  • Hilary

    Seeing Juan personally was such crazy and heartbreaking experience… but to witness God’s transforming love after only a few days was incredible. Thanks for writing this article, its a story that deserves to be told.

  • Hannah

    There’s something about the way you write that communicates these issues so well. Even though this can be a heartbreaking story, I think you shed a lot of light into the hope that can come out of a situation like this.

  • Chris

    It’s crazy to think that kind of an impact can be made over the span of a few days after years of being in his situation. I wonder how many stories there are just like this one that we’ll never hear. Regardless, I appreciated hearing about this one.

    • Curt Devine

      Yeah, it really comes down to taking a small step of faith at the right moment. Thanks for your thoughts!

  • Rick

    Wow. I’ve done prison ministry before, but this takes it to a new level. Thanks for sharing.

  • Katy

    Curt, you have an incredible voice and gift of sharing stories, especially ones that aren’t always the easiest to tell but the ones that need to be heard the most. Its amazing how we can see the light of God in these heart breaking situations if we just remember His Spirit is always with us. Thanks for taking the time to share!

  • http://scribingthejourney.com/ Duane Scott

    Curt, I read this last weak and am just now getting here to comment. This was the single best thing I’ve read in a long time. Just loved it! Thank you for teaching the rest of us how we should live.

  • Dale

    I’m sad that you are gonna be losing contact with him though! Maybe you guys could arrive for a local church group to visit with him even once per week to encourage him and pray for him!

  • Jonna

    Did Jaun ever talk? Have you seen him since you wrote this? What did mom think of his reactions to you visiting him? Has she ever seen him happy & act that way after she chained him? What did the community think of this mother & son? I feel like this story is written very good but it has a lot of holes in it. A lot of questions still left to be answered.