Silent War in Nicaragua: The New Politics of Violence

September 25, 2007

At 2:30 p.m. on June 15, 2000—more than ten years after the U.S.-sponsored Contra war officially ended in Nicaragua—a guerrilla unit of rearmed ex-Sandinistas and ex-Contras surrounded the small campesino home of Guadalupe Montenegro in the rural municipality of Siuna. Without saying a word, the men opened fire indiscriminately, killing Montenegro and all ten members of his family before burning the corpses and torching the house.

The rebels reportedly belonged to the Carlos Ulloa Regional Command—a splinter group of the now defunct Andrés Castro United Front (FUAC), which agreed to a disarmament accord with the Nicaraguan government in 1997. Three years earlier, Montenegro had been a rebel soldier in the FUAC; but when he agreed to abide by the disarmament accord and turn in his rifle to the army, he was marked as a traitor by the career guerrillas who refused to lay down their weapons and give up the eternal armed struggle against the government.

Perhaps nowhere else in Central America are the problems of demobilized soldiers, weapons left over from the Cold War and poverty more obvious than in the rural area of north-central Nicaragua—a region where the war that began in the 1980s has still not ended.

In what the Minister of the Interior recently dubbed "the Colombianization of the country," various residual groups of ex-combatants, some of whom are known by the government to be involved with international weapons and drug smuggling cartels, have started to take control of parts of the socially and economically isolated Caribbean region of Nicaragua. Initially dismissed by the government as "hotheads," "groups of delinquents" or "dogs of war" left over from the 1980s, the rebel groups appear to be anything but a rag-tag army.

According to testimonies from local sources, the rearmados are well-armed, expertly trained, equipped with modern methods of communication, and tied into an enormous intelligence network that is thought to have infiltrated the government. And considering that the leaders of the different rebel groups are career soldiers with 20 years of guerrilla combat experience—men like Pilar Lira (a.k.a. Tyson) and José Luis Marenco, both of them ex-leaders of the former Popular Sandinista Army—it should come as no surprise that the rearmados pose a formidable military threat.

In response to increased rebel activity in a gold and silver mining area called the "Mining Triangle" (Siuna, Bonanza and La Rosita), the Nicaraguan Army declared a military offensive "without quarter" last June and deployed 1,400 troops and military advisors to the conflict area. While the army was quick to announce triumphs during early confrontations with the insurgents, press releases confirmed the death of only one guerrilla during the first month of the military offensive.

Although the war in Nicaragua disappeared from the headlines of international newspapers when the U.S. funding for the Contras ran dry in 1990, a "silent war" between different rearmed rebel groups, the army, police, and state-sponsored right-wing paramilitary groups has claimed more than 2,000 lives during the last decade. But the human toll of the war is much greater than the death count alone would suggest. As the army continues to militarize the countryside in a cat-and-mouse effort to hunt down the rebel bands, the perpetual violence in the region continues to displace thousands of impoverished farming families who are caught in the crossfire between the warring factions.

"A month ago the rearmados killed my two sons-in-law, Francisco Joya and Feliciano Herrera, in the community of Campo Dos," said 80-year-old refugee Antonio Hernández Martínez. "This is why I had to leave my farm, along with my ten children and grandchildren."

By the first week of last summer's military offensive, 1,500 campesinos had fled the conflict zone to take refuge in temporary church shelters or to emigrate to the misery belts of nearby cities, while another 100 soldiers and civilians were reported killed, and 400 injured, according to the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights. Those who chose not to abandon their plots of land and remain in the region live in fear.

"The soldiers from the army are going around asking where they can find the rearmados," a campesino from Siuna recently told the local press under the condition of anonymity; "but the people are afraid that if they reveal any information, they will be murdered and decapitated by Tyson's rebel group."

The seeds of war that the U.S. helped to sow in Nicaragua have grown strong roots in a countryside that is fertile with poverty. Although Violeta Chamorro's victory over the Sandinistas in the "democratic" presidential election of 1990 promised to bring an end to both the U.S. financed war and the U.S. economic embargo, the illusions of a workable peace and an economic recovery were short-lived for most Nicaraguans.

The first year after the war officially ended saw increases in unemployment (according to a 1990 Association of Nicaraguan Economics report, more than 700,000 Nicaraguans, or 60% of the total workforce, were without work during the first year of Chamorro's Presidency), major cuts in government spending, the discontinuation of vaccine programs that were started under the Sandinista regime, the privatization of state-owned markets, and inadequate land reform. The Nicaraguan daily La Prensa reported in November 1990 that only an estimated 3,000 of the 20,000 demobilized Contras received the land that they were promised after the war. These changes undermined the national peace process and the broadening of democratic rule in Nicaragua.

Disillusioned with a so-called national "democratization" that was plagued by worsened poverty, disease, death and a legacy of mutual mistrust between Sandinistas and Contras, it did not take long before many ex-combatants began to rearm. In a country with no history of formal democratic rule, the move to take up arms—the only time-proven means to bringing about structural change in Nicaragua—was politically motivated.

By June of 1991—a year and a half after the Contra war ended—an estimated 30 different groups of rearmed ex-Contras, or recontras, had begun to launch regular attacks on rural northern towns, ransacking public institutions and farming cooperatives before escaping back into the mountains. Using violence and civil unrest as a means of political leverage with the government, the recontras' demands were always the same: a plot of land, housing, government credit, amnesty, the formation of a new rural police force that included ex-Contras (not just Sandinistas), and the removal of former Chief of the Sandinista Popular Army, Humberto Ortega, from his new role as head of the armed forces.

As the Chamorro government continued to drag its feet with land distribution and meeting the material demands of the former combatants, the number of recontras grew. Led by José Angel Morán (a.k.a. El Indomable or "the indomitable one")—an infamously violent man who reportedly spent much of the Contra war imprisoned by his own forces for human rights violations—the wave of political violence in the countryside became more coordinated and widespread, eventually contributing to the rearmament of hundreds of ex-Sandinista soldiers who were being targeted by the recontra guerrilla attacks.

Calling themselves recompas—from the word compañero, or comrade—many former Sandinista soldiers, who had lost their jobs in 1990 when the army cut its wartime forces from 96,000 to 15,250, began to remobilize into small guerrilla units to defend their towns against the threat of the recontras. Facing the post-war non-economy of Nicaragua, lacking civilian job skills, and under attack from bands of recontras, many ex-Sandinista combatants had little choice but to rearm and resume the fighting in the countryside.

With violence escalating throughout the early 1990s in the rural Caribbean region of the country, the Chamorro Administration intensified negotiations with recontra and recompa leaders and continued to issue disarmament ultimatums to the different rebel groups. But without an economy or popular culture that was capable of supporting a peace process, the government's efforts at negotiating disarmament of ex-soldiers were met with only limited success.

In February of 1992, the Chamorro Administration was finally able to sign a truce with El Indomable, who eventually agreed to suspend attacks on recompas, the police and civilians in exchange for his men's incorporation into the Special Disarmament Brigade—a unit charged with collecting weapons from civilians as part of a national disarmament plan. However, because the agreement did not meet the basic material demands of the demobilized soldiers, most of the recontras did not agree to the provisions of the disarmament accord and formed different splinter groups to continue with the armed struggle. Such has been the case when the government was able to negotiate disarmament accords with numerous other rebel commanders during the last ten years; certain elements within each guerrilla unit would disagree with the government's concessions and form their own insurgent group to continue the fighting.

By the summer of 1993, following a six-month military-police offensive to quell the increased violence attributed to the rearmed bands of guerrillas in the Mining Triangle, more than 705 politically motivated murders—a majority of which were of civilians—had occurred during the "silent war," according to the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights. However, while campesinos continued to be terrorized by fighting in the countryside, not all of the post-war violence can be credited to the rearmados.

"We can affirm without any doubt that in the great majority of police processing centers, torture and physical and verbal mistreatment of prisoners are used as an investigative method," reported the Managua-based Permanent Commission on Human Rights in its 1992 annual report.

With a predominant culture of violence being manifested in both state-sponsored repression and increased guerrilla warfare, Nicaragua, although supposedly on the road to democracy and lasting peace, was becoming engulfed in a black hole of violence and ungovernability.

Aside from the recontras, recompas and institutions of state repression, rearmed groups of anti-Sandinista Miskitu Indians identifying themselves as YATAMA and bands of revueltos—or "scrambled" guerrilla units of impoverished ex-Contras and ex-Sandinistas fighting together for land, homes, government credit and amnesty to reintegrate into civilian life—all added to the national panorama of violence and further complicated any prospects of a peaceful transition to democracy.

"We are nearing an anarchistic and uncontrollable social explosion," FSLN leader Henry Ruiz warned the Sandinista Assembly in March of 1992. "The Sandinista Front does not have the power to take charge of this situation, and neither does the government." Archbishop Miguel Obando y Bravo also pleaded for peace, adding, "we cannot provoke another war, because Nicaragua does not have enough soil to cover the graves."

As the twenty-first century begins in Nicaragua, the current right-wing administration of President Arnoldo Alemán is sick with many of the same societal ills that infected the 45-year-long Somoza dictatorship and spawned the Popular Sandinista uprising in the 1970s: a growing maldistribution of wealth, lack of access to public services, corrupt government officials who repress the poor to "protect" the interests of the elite ruling class and a lack of political channels available for popular participation in the formal democratic process.

In fact, one of the most notable differences between the past and the present is that unprecedented numbers of Nicaraguans are now living below the poverty line. Thanks in large part to the debt-driven, neoliberal economic policies that have been implemented to varying degrees by the last two presidential administrations, not only have more people been made poor, but the actual levels of poverty in which they live are more extreme than ever before.

According to a study carried out last year by the Secretary of Social Action, as many as 90% of the inhabitants of Nicaragua's north-central region are living in conditions of extreme poverty. In this area of the country, which is home to a majority of the nation's indigenous population, most of the people have limited or no access to potable water, adequate housing, employment or health and educational services. Given this socio-economic reality, it is hardly difficult to understand why civilian life may not look so appealing to many career soldiers whose résumés include war, and whose only current means of economic survival is stealing, kidnapping, extortion, and the trafficking of drugs and weapons.

While the actual number of rearmados today is unknown, the government estimates that more than 230 rebels are operating throughout the countryside in small bands of 5 to 10 soldiers. The various rebel groups—recontras, recompas and revueltos alike—fight under the control of different central command units, the largest of which is called the Carlos Ulloa Regional Command. Historically motivated by the lofty political ideals of land, housing, agricultural credit, and access to government services for the poor campesinos living in the Caribbean region, it appears that many of the rearmados have drifted away from the political struggle and have become more involved in the trafficking of contraband during the last two years.

"We have known about the drug-trafficking corridor [in north-central Nicaragua] since 1998," said Congressman Steadman Fagoth of the ruling Liberal Constitution Party. "What has happened is that the government, especially the Congress, has not wanted to admit that we have fallen into the hands of the drug cartels."

According to Fagoth, himself a former YATAMA leader in north-central Nicaragua, narcotrafficking has gradually won the support of the poor indigenous and campesino communities due to lack of government services, medicine and food in the region. However, recent increases in the number of refugees fleeing the countryside to escape the violence of the rearmados suggests that many of the rebels, although once claiming to be champions of the downtrodden, have since lost what little base of popular support they had among the rural poor.

Aside from increases in the trafficking of cocaine and heroin to secret processing factories that are reported to exist in different parts of the countryside, the trafficking of illegal weapons through Nicaragua is also on the rise. According to an investigative report published last June in the Costa Rican daily La Nación, bands of ex-Contras, located in north-central Nicaragua, are increasingly involved in the illegal trafficking of weapons to Colombian rebels. Using pick-up trucks, vegetable trucks, and river boats, organized cartels in Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia have formed clandestine networks dedicated to transporting various types of weapons to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Most of the firearms being smuggled are Cold War relics left over from the Central American wars during the 1970s through the 1990s: AK-47s, M-16s, RPG-7 grenade launchers, C4 plastic explosives and various types of "SAM" (surface-to-air) missiles.

The earnings from weapons trafficking are comparable to profits gained by drug trafficking. For example, the investigation found that an AK-47 assault rifle can be sold for $50 to $100 on the Nicaraguan-Costa Rican border, resold for $300 to $700 in Panama, then sold again for $2,000 to the FARC in Colombia. The guns are thought to be paid for in cash or in drugs.

The legacy of war and violence in Nicaragua is both heart-breaking and angering. In the recent history of the country, violence has always been answered with more violence. During the U.S.-backed Somoza dynasty the state-sponsored repression of the poor by the National Guard was answered by the violence of the Sandinista Revolution, the triumph of which led to the violence of an eight-year-long, U.S.-funded war. And the current legacy of the Contra war is a countryside littered with landmines, an economy that marginalizes a majority of the population and a ten-year-old "silent war'' that has been acted out by people who are too inculcated in a culture of violence to consider peaceful alternatives.

"In Nicaragua, we have never believed in either laws or institutions," former Sandinista revolutionary commander Henry Ruiz told the Managua-based monthly Envio during an interview earlier this year. "In our history, conflicts have always been resolved through guns, through violence."

As destructive as the continued war and violence have been in Nicaragua, they are only symptoms of a larger problem: poverty. Although not always articulated as such, most of the violence in Nicaragua is political in nature because it is in defiance of unjust political and economic systems that trap people in poverty. And until honest and radical measures are taken to reinvent just institutional structures that are able to adequately deal with the national problems of poverty and underdevelopment, the politics of violence will continue in Nicaragua.

Tim Rogers is a journalist for Mesoamerica, the publication of the Institute for Central American Studies in San José, Costa Rica.

Tags: Nicaragua, violence, rebels, paramilitaries, militarization

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