Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 239 | Junio 2001



Siuna: A Hundred Years of Abandonment

Siuna has always been governed by the law of the gun. The rearmed groups affecting the municipality and the crisis currently experienced there have their own history: a hundred years of solitude and abandonment.

José Luis Rocha

Siuna is rife with neglect and terror. Development program promoters have indefinitely called off their field visits and merchants bite their nails as they watch the trickle of customers arrive with little money and even less desire to buy. The poor and well-off, professionals and the illiterate, ranchers and wage earners alike all predict more hunger and fear for Siuna. Only a scattering of guests can be found at the hotels and flop houses, which take whatever security measures they can to reduce the risk. At the very least, they note down their guests’ identity in their registration books. The large army contingent, which has already been billeted too long in the area, stays out of the mountains and the nerve-stretched soldiers glance suspiciously at transients, as if whiffing the gunpowder of the rearmed groups.

The indolence of the resigned, the weariness of the pursued and the tension of the surrounded spread like a contagion in Siuna. The locals are sick of the internal grudges and the deteriorated image burdening their area.

Where the rearmed groups
refuse to disappear

Granted the status of municipality on August 22, 1969, Siuna covers 5,039 of the 13,000 square kilometers comprising the area known as the "mining triangle"—the municipalities of Siuna, La Rosita and Bonanza. It also accounts for 13% of the population and 28% of the area of the entire North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN).

In recent years the mining triangle, with Siuna in the lead, has been in national headlines for extended periods. Its armed groups with their social demands and rearmed bands with no well-defined ideologies, its paramilitary groups, marihuana cultivation and a corridor through which marihuana and other drugs are moved towards the North have made the area feel like an outpost of Colombia. The zone is hardly attractive to would-be investors, except those dedicated to predatory activities, including perhaps shady deals with the rearmed groups.

Siuna is just 75 kilometers east of the site once occupied by the notorious Mulukukú military base, which served as a training school for young people carrying out their military service with the Sandinista Army during the eighties. The towns of Lisawe, Sarawa, Santa Rita, La Bodega, El Guineo, Labú and Tadazna on the road from Mulukukú to Siuna have witnessed many military confrontations as well as political and family vendettas. The surrounding area is still sown with mines, including abundant Soviet-built anti-personnel mine called PMNs and even a few of the famous "jumping" mines, a particularly nasty type that flips into the air before exploding, damaging anything in a 360-degree sphere.

The rearmed groups appear to understand that no law holds in this region except that of the gun. The institutional dry rot confirms it: an outgoing municipal government that took even the chairs with it last year, a judge nicknamed "five thousand pesos" for the amount of the bribe typically required to buy him off, Forestry Institute officials implicated in illegal lumber trafficking and an as yet unknown number and kind of people involved in drug trafficking. All of this provides a breeding ground for the continual reemergence of rearmed groups, who increase their numbers with both forced and voluntary collaborators. Following a military operation initiated on October 1, 1999, after the Andrés Castro United Front (FUAC) kidnapped a Canadian engineer who worked for the HEMCO mining company, the army announced that it had dismantled 26 of the 45 bands operating in and around the mining triangle, capturing 440 of their members. A year and a half later, the armed groups’ activities have still not died out, and at times they acquire a ferocious virulence.

The gun rules

According to official Siuna Police figures, 5 civilians have been injured and 18 killed, including a 15-year-old, so far in 2001. In addition, 7 soldiers have been killed in combat and 5 police officers killed and 1 wounded. The murder of Agustín Mendoza and 4 members of the Herrera family, all identified Liberal Constitutionalist Party activists, was enough to trigger an intense round of political polarization in April during what is already proving to be a tense election year. The political machinery recycles this "settling of scores" over land conflicts and family vendettas, or sometimes over suspected collaboration with a certain rearmed group or with the police, to produce party martyrs or imaginary persecution, sow paranoia and wheel out the ghost of the 1980s war and military draft. This tactic, viewed by some as a very successful political tool, only intensifies the violence, the deaths, the number of armed elements and the lack of economic viability in the desolated municipality of Siuna.

None of the army’s strategies has put an end to the armed groups’ activities but they have all helped perpetuate the municipality’s militarization. In the words of one promoter from the Peasant to Peasant program who is fed up with troop movements and having to subordinate his program’s activities to a military agenda, "In a militarized zone, the officers call the shots." According to the government, 1,100 soldiers are in the area, but this does not include the rural, or auxiliary, police: groups of peasants armed by the supposed "agents of order" without receiving any military or police training. In their paramilitary guise, they wreak personal revenge with complete impunity. Such consecration of family grudges by the apparatus of legal violence is another part of the violence.

Another recent irresponsible army tactic was to offer 150,000 córdobas for the head of José María Marenco and 100,000 córdobas for that of Domingo Quintero, alias "Darkness," two leaders of the remnants of the FUAC. After the FUAC signed agreements governing its demobilization in December 1997, these men and others remained in the mountains to guarantee that the agreements would be honored. The group’s social base of peasants, who enable it to survive the adverse circumstances, as well as some the rearmed elements themselves, could easily react to the offer of such a reward not by turning in the two wanted men but by "cleaning" the area of possible informants.

Inflammatory words
over a Molotov cocktail

President Alemán’s lightning visit to Siuna on May 16, his first to the mining triangle this year, revealed the kind of policy the government has designed for this area: more of the same unfulfilled socioeconomic promises (credit, improved social services, technical training institutes) and an inflammatory threat to wipe out the rearmed elements. A few days later, in a complete turn-around, the government offered to honor the agreements made to the FUAC two years ago. After all, the big-stick stick policy also requires the offer of a few carrots.

Siuna, now a militarized citadel, provides a good case study of the paranoia so typical of caudillo politicians, which inflates out of all proportion conflicts that would be much easier to handle with a modicum of sense and negotiating skill. The current situation is the result of age-old socioeconomic and cultural connections intensified by government corruption and ineptitude. Abandonment, unending immigration of poor peasants from the Pacific, the agricultural frontier, the huge profits reaped by foreign timber and mining companies but not shared with the locals, the well-honed armed tradition, the limited capacity of local government and the dysfunctional judicial system are the ingredients of a continually exploding Molotov cocktail.

"Place of unhealthy waters"

History appears to have singled Siuna out for this arduous destiny. Old place-names indicate that the Mayangna people—disrespectfully called Sumus—were the area’s first inhabitants. Although some tribes settled there in the pre-Colombian period, their numbers were swollen by other groups driven there by Miskitos who allied with pirates, privateers and buccaneers and pursued the Mayangnas to exchange them for arms, rum and other "treasures." Legend has it that the whites and mestizos were attracted to the area after a Mayangna in Bluefields caught the attention of a local shopkeeper because he was using gold nuggets as fishing weights and had a golden sight on his rifle. Guided by the native, the mestizos navigated the Río Prinzapolka until they reached a stream called Siuna. Some believe this is a Mayangna word meaning "place of unhealthy waters" or "unhealthy place," while others maintain that it picked up this meaning due to its similarity to the Spanish word suampo, or "swamp."

Written documents confirm that the municipality’s rich gold deposits were discovered at the end of the 19th century by José Dámaso Valle, a prospector from León who discovered 14 gold mines and registered them in his name in the Bluefields Registry Office. By the time he died in 1931, he had amassed a fortune that included mining properties in Siuna and Wani and urban properties in Siuna and Matagalpa.

Gold fever finishes off the Mayangnas

The activity of the mining industry brutally interrupted the Mayangnas’ traditional secluded life. At the time they were living in small settlements consisting of family groups and had only a very vague idea of the Nicaraguan state. The closest authorities were several days journey away, but the Nicaraguan government gave the mining entrepreneurs its consent to move into Mayangna territory to extract gold without the least respect for the indigenous traditions and rights.

Between 500 and 800 immigrants arrived in the Mayangnas’ ancestral territories in 1892, bringing the Nicaraguan state with them. The first police station was established in Siuna in 1896, the police chief being first and foremost a collaborator of Valle, the owner and founder of La Luz mine, located in what is now one of the most populous neighborhoods of the city of Siuna. The traditional complicity between state authorities and mine owners dates back to those times. In this context of rapid transformations, the Mayangnas soon found themselves on the bottom rung of the social ladder. By 1904, the village of Wani had 200 inhabitants, all of them mestizos or foreigners. This led evangelical missionary Reichelt to write: "The Sumus are in the process of disappearing and the Mission has arrived too late for the funeral." In 1905, a German traveler called Grossmann visited a district of Siuna and observed that the chemical products the companies used to extract gold were polluting the rivers. Thus, Siuna continued to live up to its bad name. Meanwhile, the invasion of new products distorted the consumption pattern of the Mayangnas, who had previously been self-sufficient. Consequently, they were obliged to work in the mines to pay off their debts with the traders.

Fatal destiny at the crossroads of history

In the first decade of the 20th century, US citizens acquired certain mining properties—including La Luz mine, which had some of the most important gold deposits. Women, oxen and mules transported the gold to the ports for the first exports to the United States. La Luz turned into a typical foreign enclave for plundering the country’s natural resources. In 1905, it became part of the Los Angeles Mining Company, which belonged to a Pittsburgh consortium. By that time, almost all of Nicaragua’s mining industry had fallen into US hands. In the first quarter of the 20th century, US companies invested some US$20 million into this activity. Following a general crisis in the mining sector, however, La Luz was one of only six major companies to survive in Nicaragua.

The La Luz mine acquired greater symbolic value because a man called Adolfo Díaz worked there as an accountant. He used his position to establish excellent contacts with the United States, which in turn allowed him to play a leading role in the 1909-1910 civil war and become President of Nicaragua in 1911. During Díaz’s term in office, US officials managed Nicaraguan finances, US Marines occupied the country and the Chamorro-Bryant treaty was signed, granting the United States the exclusive right to build an inter-oceanic canal through Nicaraguan territory. At the time it was said that US Secretary of State Philander Knox—whose ominous and unappealable letter, the famous Knox Note, caused Liberal President José Santos Zelaya to resign in 1909—held shares in the consortium that owned La Luz. From then on Siuna was to suffer the deadly destiny of being located at the crossroads of history.

The Sandino era: In the eye of the hurricane

The symbolic value of La Luz mine plus its financial importance made it a military objective in the war waged by Sandino, who finally decided to destroy it in 1928. Since the end of 1927, Sandino’s army had been enduring incessant bombardment of its headquarters in El Chipote, Las Segovias, a long way from Siuna. Some fourteen hundred Marines were stationed in Nicaragua and had forced Sandino’s guerrilla columns to retreat northwards.

La Luz was a remote but militarily unprotected target. Located 150 kilometers from the nearest highway, it was possible to get there only using dugout canoes then hiking through thick mountain vegetation. It was thus relatively easy for a column of Sandino’s men, helped by Miskitos from Bocay and the Río Coco, to take the mine on April 12, 1928, and blow it to pieces using 25 boxes of dynamite. They confiscated the money and gold and mercury reserves they found there, the value of which was calculated at $50,000.

The Marines arrived at the mine on May 9, long after the dust from the dynamite had settled. The note left there by Sandino warned, among other things, that "North Americans will make no profit in this country until the government of the United States orders the retreat of those pirating our territory." It was a reasonable statement. Sandino was not prepared to allow US companies to continue financing the war by exploiting Nicaraguan wealth. The attack on La Luz was the first action by Sandino’s army in Nicaragua’s Caribbean region and dragged Siuna into the eye of the hurricane.

The decline of gold mining
for transnationals and panners

La Luz reopened in 1938, years after the end of the war waged by Sandino, who was assassinated by Somoza on US orders. This time it was owned by Ventures Limited, a Canadian Corporation that sold it in 1962 to Falconbridge Nickel Mines Limited, another Canadian company that owned the mines in neighboring Rosita. In 1968, mining activities in Siuna became impossible when the hydroelectric dam that supplied the processing plant burst, so the company concentrated on its copper extraction in Rosita. Over 60% of Siuna’s 1,100 employees were laid off and turned to gold panning or incipient ranching and farming activities for survival or else migrated to other areas of the country in search of better opportunities. By the mid-seventies cattle ranching had become the most important productive activity in the municipality by far, followed by the growing of basic grains and coffee. Mining was relegated to fourth place and has never recovered.

In 1973, Rosario Mining of Nicaragua, a subsidiary of the US-owned Rosario Resources Corporation, acquired La Luz and the mine in Rosita. It turned out to be a bad decision and before long the company was in financial straits, with accumulated losses for 1974-78 amounting to over US$3 million. Rosario Mining had planned to reverse this situation by renovating La Luz, but the nationalization of the mines decreed by the Sandinista government in 1979 took the company by surprise before it could complete its project. Since then, the only gold-related activity has been the small-scale processing of surface ore by the gold panners.

In addition to nationalizing the mines, the Sandinista government created PEMIN (Small Mining Company) to control this local gold production. PEMIN established commissaries to stimulate the search for gold by supplying the population with basic necessities, but the low prices the government paid panners made it impossible to control production and a large proportion ended up on the black market.

The war: terror for the people
and a respite for the forest

In 1988, the closure of PEMIN left over a hundred workers unemployed and mining continued to decline. By 1983, the emphasis had turned from economics to war, which became the new main force in Siuna’s agitated history. There was, however, one advantage: the war put a halt to the advance of the agricultural frontier, thus saving what is now the Bosawás biological reserve.

The municipality of Siuna includes a good part of the splendid and very valuable Bosawás reserve, named after the Bocay, Saslaya and Waspuk rivers that delimit it. The reserve has a total of 20,000 square kilometers, or 7% of Nicaraguan territory, making it the largest tropical rainforest in Central America. The Sandinista Army’s military strategy in the eighties involved evacuating all of the inhabitants from that general area across from Honduras and relocating them in agricultural cooperatives benefited by the agrarian reform, which served as a security cordon. This military frontier also acted as an environmental frontier delimited by the Río Kum and the highway connecting Siuna and Waslala. Peasants unwilling to be relocated migrated to Makingale, Kinowás, the mines or Honduras, or else joined the Resistance (contras) to fight, run messages or guard rest camps in the forest. The area around Siuna and the thickly vegetated and inhospitable mountains of Bosawás provided shelter and the contras created corridors through it to reach Matagalpa and Chontales.

If the war brought a respite for the forest, it brought terror for the human beings involved. The militarization polarized identities: one either submitted to the demands of the Sandinista Army or was labeled a contra and vice-versa; neutrality was not an option. The peasants who joined the cooperatives formed reserve battalions, but since they found themselves involved in military activities almost all the time, without wages, many decided to officially join the army. Most happily left immediately when Violeta Chamorro’s government set about reducing the army during its first years in office.

Peace brings a demographic explosion

Before the eighties, when there was no highway, it was a real feat to reach Siuna and think of setting up there. With the signing of the peace in 1990, thousands of veterans and returning refugees were attracted to the area by accords that conceded members of the Nicaraguan Resistance control over certain spaces, resources for their security and help reintegrating into economic life. Mulukukú was one of the "Development Poles" in the municipality of Siuna where this policy was applied and many demobilized combatants ended up there. A number of people who had been displaced by the war also returned to recover their lands, while many others arrived from all over the country.

In the last decade, Siuna has received an avalanche of immigrants attracted by the promises of social services and the chance to reconnect with former military chiefs and brothers in arms. In the past 23 years, the population density went from 2.13 inhabitants per square kilometer to 12.5. The 1977 population of 10,714 inhabitants tripled to 36,000 in 1991, only 14 years later. According to the Nicaraguan Institute of Statistics and Censuses, it reached 53,218 by 1995, while the Supreme Electoral Council estimated it at 63,092 in 2000 (10,113 in urban areas and 52,979 in rural areas).

In a region with such intense land tenure insecurity, this demographic explosion triggers repeated social eruptions. It has rapidly rearranged social positions and redistributed the weight of different ethnic groups in favor of the mestizos. For now, 98% of Siuna’s population is mestizo, 1% Miskito and 1% Mayangna. The Mayangnas live in the community of Sikilta near what is now the Bosawás reserve.

The resulting demographic pressure activated aggressive "pioneer fronts" that severely increased the depredation of the forests and are currently advancing on the Bosawás reserve. The previous pushing back of the agricultural frontier, halted by the war, was thus reactivated with a new determination. In this context, the 1991 presidential decree that turned Bosawás into a natural reserve further complicated the already complex and largely tense relations between the different political and ethnic groups that coexisted in the area. In addition, despite having been placed on UNESCO’s world heritage list in 1997, the reserve is already in danger, particularly the 12,000-square-kilometer buffer zone—the nucleus consists of another 8,000 square kilometers.

Penniless municipal government

The municipal government is supposed to provide services to this exploding population but has no way to do so. In 1999, the year’s entire income was equivalent to roughly US$152,000, of which approximately a third came from the central government. With such a meager budget—less than $2.50 per capita—what power does local government have in relation to the army, what legitimacy with a population facing so many needs and what capacity to monitor natural resource exploitation in its jurisdiction?

The central government adds to this financial weakness by bypassing local authorities when offering mining exploration and exploitation concessions and timber extraction quotas. In turn, the local authorities, seeking to grab whatever part of the booty they can—regardless of the cost to the municipality—grease the cogwheels of illegal timber trafficking and enjoy the sleep of the unjust cushioned by impunity. This would explain why Liberal mayor Rufino Chow’s dismissal for participating in such trafficking was never enforced; he continued to plunder the municipal coffers right up until leaving office at the end of his term at the beginning of this year.

Corruption apart, the financial vital signs of Siuna’s municipal government barely make a blip on the screen. Its income is barely half the annual salary enjoyed by Luis Durán, Technical Secretary of the Presidency and designer of the Poverty Reduction Strategy, and less than half the annual income raked in by Central Bank president Noel Ramírez. Yet the municipal government is supposed to provide services to 60,000 people with this income.

No light, water, health or education

The budget size alone is enough to explain the faltering state of local services. The electricity service is not connected to the national grid and the 74 generators cover only about 12% of the population. Those in the city of Siuna had been down for ten days when President Alemán visited in April, and when he left, the one that had lit up the city for the few hours of his visit left with him.

Piped water does not reach many of the neighborhoods that even have the necessary infrastructure. Ana Lazo, a former RAAN Regional Council member, stated that during the 14 years she has lived in her neighborhood not a drop of water has ever been supplied. The pipes—most of them installed in 1940 and with the capacity to service 1,500 people—are permanently dry, a silent monument to inefficiency. The little water that does arrive anywhere is blackish and muddy; according to the health ministry it has a 98% contamination level.

As to be expected, Siuna’s health system is minimal and inefficient. There is no hospital, and just one health center in the municipal seat, with a staff of 32—in other words, one health aide for every 297 inhabitants. This coverage cannot cope with epidemics such as the 10 to 15 cases of hepatitis a week that the population suffers. The education system is just as pathetic, with the schools only absorbing 20% of the school-age children.

Precarious economics, precarious ecology

Siuna has reaped bitter rewards for its starring role in Nicaraguan history. According to Emergency Social Investment Fund (FISE) figures, 84% of the municipality’s population currently lives in poverty. Between 1994 and 1998 over 75% of the territory was licensed to seven foreign mining companies: six exploration concessions and one for exploitation, yet, as always, Siuna’s locals will get only crumbs from this transnational table.

Siuna’s primary productive activity is cattle ranching, making it the biggest cattle-ranching municipality in the RAAN. In 1998, it had a total herd of over 30,000 cattle and 36% of the municipality’s total farming area was pastureland. Given the anti-peasant bias of national credit policies and the lack of liquidity affecting producers, however, many small ranchers have had to sell off part of their herd. To avoid depleting it entirely and ending up with nothing, the only other way for these ranchers to get any working capital is to strip their land of timber and sell it. That is as true in the Bosawás buffer zone as anywhere else.

Siuna has recently witnessed the emergence of combined cattle ranching and coffee growing entrepreneurs who are accumulating agrarian reform properties from the peasant and cooperative sectors suffering decapitalization. These land hoarders come from across the political spectrum. They include people whose lands were confiscated, large-scale producers who abandoned their farms in the 1980s, agrarian reform officials from both the Sandinista and Chamorro governments, offspring of the agricultural bourgeoisie and people capitalized by the Sandinista "piñata" or the plundering of the National Development Bank (BANADES) and other institutions.

"Strip mining" the forest:
Record ecological devastation

Before the seventies because there was no highway, and during the 1980s because of the war, the deforestation rate in Siuna was very slow and even came to a standstill. The migration that started up with the signing of peace in 1990 put the municipality’s forest cover under increasing pressure. The growing population started devouring the trees at the perimeter of the agricultural frontier and in just 10 years has shaved Siuna clean, a record of ecological devastation.

In 1997, Siuna’s forests were being officially exploited by two big companies authorized to extract 183,206 cubic meters of timber and by a group of 63 small lumber dealers who had permission to extract a total of 6,582 cubic meters. The most exploited areas are in the northeast of the municipality, but there is no institutional capacity to monitor and control compliance with the concessions’ management plans. This accelerated deforestation has made the area more susceptible to forest fires; in 1997, a particularly bad year, 85% of the territory registered between 82 and 107 separate fires.

According to official data, apparently from the National Forestry Institute (INAFOR), is than an average of just over 7,313 cubic meters of timber are cut down every year, 90% of which is transported to municipalities in the Pacific, mainly Managua. But seemingly contradicting itself, INAFOR was reported in the newspaper La Prensa as claiming that 35,000 cubic meters of cut timber are currently awaiting shipment in Siuna, while a similar amount may have been cut down illegally. Was this a bumper year for felling trees? Is it accumulated lumber from previous years’ cutting? Or, more likely, is the first figure a fiction?

All of the timber is sold as whole trunks. There is not even the most minimal industrial processing project to generate added value. In fact, despite this high volume of extraction there is only one sawmill in the whole municipality, located in the city of Siuna. Amazing as it might seem, the boom in the exportation of uncut wood coincides with the decline of the wood industry.
Because the forestry activity is only aimed at extraction, the forest is being exploited as though it were a strip mine, in other words as though trees were not a renewable resource. Despite bold attempts by the Peasant to Peasant Program and other institutions to foster sustainable natural resource management, tree planting is an activity engaged in only by a few cultural mutants. Traditional farmers have neither the long-term consciousness nor the short-term incentives to conserve trees to so much as make a dent in the temptation to increase their liquidity by selling wood. There are also no incentive-based forestry management counterproposals to put the brakes on extraction that do not fall into orthodox forestry conservationism.

Meanwhile, cutting endorsements and permits are handed out wholesale and illegal charges for them are multiplying. Despite charges by the Office of Comptroller General, corrupt officials are not removed from their posts. Some are even promoted, as was the case with Rosendo Meléndez Blandón, a PLC regional councilor who worked as an INAFOR delegate in Rosita and was promoted to forestry inspector for the three mining municipalities. At the end of their terms in office last year, PLC mayors were also awarded jobs in the mining triangle’s INAFOR delegation as a prize for their successes in increasing the illegal trafficking of wood. In the words of Antonio Flores Hernández, who comes from the area, "With some exceptions, the appointments made by the National Forestry Institute are based on political criteria without taking candidate’s professional formation or work experience into account. The PLC wants its supporters in key posts to exploit the advantages they can offer during election campaigns."
Thus it is that precisely those officials most linked to illegal timber extraction end up working in the institution that should be responsible for halting deforestation. On those few occasions when things work out badly and the evidence against them is irrefutable, the corrupt officials who have falsified extraction endorsements face a maximum penalty of only three years in prison and are always given the option of requesting bail. By greasing the palms of the judicial system’s greedy representatives, they can go right on operating with the most shameless impunity. Thus the mining triangle is turning into a kind of Bermuda Triangle where the forest is disappearing into a black hole, thanks to a combination of rearmed groups, lumber merchants, army and police officers, and officials from INAFOR and the municipal government.

A gold mine that is running out

For over half a century, Siuna’s great attraction was gold mining. Siuna experienced its gold fever, which is now dropping to normal, leaving both the big international companies and the local gold panners reluctantly cured. In 1991, the 5,800 panners from the three mining areas—3,600 of them from Siuna—produced 2,000 grams a week, the equivalent of 66.67 ounces, for which they received 70,000 córdobas and contributed $21,334 to the national economy. Their annual contribution of nearly $1.34 million took a huge amount of effort because the industry is being squeezed by the high environmental costs of contaminated rivers and the mounting financial and physical costs caused by decreasing yields of gold per volume of ore.

The situation appears to be little better for the large-scale transnational mining companies. The mines reopened in 1995, but exploitation was only industrialized in Bonanza. Most of the concessions in Siuna are exploratory. The Chamorro government assigned nearly 5 million hectares to the Hunt Exploration and Mining Company (HEMCO) in an exploration concession between 1992 and 1996. Registered on April 4, 1994, this Canadian company operates throughout the mining triangle and is the one whose engineer was kidnapped in September 1999 by rearmed remnants of the FUAC.

The concessions made during the nineties have been used largely to speculative ends. The companies only explore in the areas also conceded to them for exploitation, while they seek to improve their position on the stock exchange to attract more capital. Perhaps they are also being somewhat cautious given the descending yields. In 1968, it was calculated that Siuna’s reserves amounted to 3 million tons of gold ore in the subsoil, with an assay value of 0.09 troy ounces per ton, and 3.5 million tons of ore in open cast deposits, valued at 0.06 troy ounces per ton. At the beginning of the eighties, INMINE, the state mining company, worked the open cast deposits, taking out what was exploitable at the time, and it is currently estimated that the assay value of the open cast reserves has dropped to an average of 0.04 troy ounces per ton.

If the yields are declining, so is production. While production gradually increased over the last decade from 34,000 troy ounces in 1990 to 62,000 in 1997, a longer-term perspective offers a more pessimistic picture. In 1954, production stood at 232,200 troy ounces; by 1968 it had dropped to 190,100 and by 1978 to just 62,600. Despite the colossal sizes of the concessions, current production is similar to 1978 levels. In Siuna, as in the mining triangle in general, mining is divided between the giant speculators and the micro-scale panners who use the gold as a source of capital for other investments. In both cases, the long-term trend is toward a reduction of labor. Now that the gold fever has died down, the temperature of jobless is beginning to spike.

Men of the mountains:
No farewell to arms

"There have always been armed groups in Siuna," stated Fabián Saavedra, who has personally experienced the seduction of weapons and the power they provide. Tired of working for others, he joined the Sandinista Popular Army in the eighties and was promoted to First Lieutenant. He was recently stabbed by Eugenio Ortega, one of the leaders of the most recently formed armed group, on a main street of the city.

"The army’s in charge around here," continued Fabián. "We say that they got rid of the US jungle boot and brought the coarse Nicaraguan boot down on us." Whether trampled by boots or donning them themselves, Siuna’s inhabitants have a long history of coexisting with arms.

The mountains call for hard men. Taking up the theme of geographic conditioning as a long-term causal mechanism, French historian Fernand Braudel has compared the characteristics of men from the lowlands with those from the mountains to highlight the indomitable character of mountain folk. According to Braudel, while historians have lingeringly entertained themselves with the activities of the plains, they have ignored the mountains, removed from the cities and their archives, where "man sprouts like an enduring, rebellious and sometimes diabolical plant." The towering historical mountains are a breeding ground for bandits rebelling against the system of the modern state. They form a barrier to laws and a refuge for those not governed by them. It is no coincidence that the countries famed for vendettas, such as Corsica and Albania, are mountainous. The Middle Ages could not take root there, could not penetrate with their ideas of feudal justice.

"Gunslingers" and the law of the gun

Siuna is such a mountainous area, covered in jungle and impermeable to the law. In the extreme northwest, 15% of the municipality is covered by the Bosawás reserve. The rural population is mainly scattered through the northern area, and is divided into 135 communities near the Waslala-Siuna-Rosita highway, most of which have fewer than 500 inhabitants. The environment selects the migrants, those pioneers who clear mountains and acclimatize to the virgin land, only allowing the fiercest to survive. The mountain also favors the law of the gun. That is why some people in the area see themselves as "gunslingers," veterans of one army or the other in which they survived the crudest form of armed existence: being constantly in the line of fire.

As mentioned above, many of the peasant cooperative members who benefited from the agrarian reform were first reservists and then joined the Sandinista army. The cooperatives served as a military cordon to contain the Resistance. With the signing of the peace accords another group of gunslingers arrived in the municipality—the former Resistance members, or contras, who benefited from the Development Poles.

But the government’s failure to actually develop the poles with duly legalized lands, water, electricity, telephone lines, education, health, roads contributed to a general feeling of political disenchantment. In addition, the sudden entry of a market economy into a country that was unprepared for it and could only compete at a total disadvantage meant that a number of veterans from both sides returned to the activity they knew best and the one that gave them pride of identity: gunslinging. The 3-80 Northern Front for the contra side and the Andrés Castro United Front for the Sandinista side were the largest and most active groups, but even before the FUAC appeared on the scene Siuna was riddled with criminal armed bands with no political creed. The FUAC, in fact, helped eliminate them, which was part of what earned it support from the beleaguered population.

Having discerned the distorted and predatory nature of the invisible hand of the market, the law of the gun, undisturbed by the distant hand of the state, was rapidly reinstalled along with a wartime morality. Traditional behavior ceased to be regulated by social convenience and the rules of a life or death game in which violence is activated through a thousand different mechanisms were reapplied. Thus peasants seek the collaboration of rearmed elements in personal vendettas over land conflicts, cattle rustling or rape, while paramilitary groups exploit their position to punish both political and personal enemies. All of this is further fueled by waves of migration that trigger property conflicts and a sense of rootlessness, weaken the traditional social fabric and create fragile new forms of tactical solidarity.

A frontier society

Siuna has all the characteristics of a frontier society, in both the military and the agricultural senses of the term. In his collection of essays titled Primitive Rebels, British historian Eric J. Hobsbawm describes such societies, plagued by armed bandits and rebels with or without a cause and where women only serve to be raped and bear children.

According to Hobsbawm, the following characteristics typify a frontier society: a breaking up of the traditional world; an undefined nature of property; the pending delimitation of communal lands; sudden socioeconomic transformations; an agricultural frontier; mountains that demand fierce men for fertile lands and offer somewhere to flee, camouflage oneself and survive; a weak and bribable judicial system; a small police apparatus that cannot cover the territory; an intense immigration level; a rural middle class seeking upward social movement, forcing its way through the social jungle and acquiring or conserving land at gun point but excluded from the great benefits provided by natural resource exploitation. Siuna matches this description in every particular.

In this frontier, those who risked their necks to defend the territory in the eighties are now losing the status they earned at gunpoint, are being excluded from the growing benefits extracted from the zone and are even seeing the legitimacy of their possessions questioned. It would be strange indeed if Siuna were a peaceful place, with no violence and removed from social convulsion.

In this frontier society it is logical that groups should form that, without going so far as to be revolutionary, translate into a code of violence the general feeling of unrest born of abandonment, uncertainty and lack of opportunities. Armed groups with such consciousness prosper in areas like Siuna where the great socioeconomic changes favor the latest to arrive, the powerful and foreigners.

Land tenure:
Who owns Siuna?

Siuna’s accumulation of historical problems goes a long way toward explaining its current crisis. The population understands the unrest as the effect of the increasing population density. Many Siuna inhabitants see the avalanche of immigrants, many of whom have a dubious past, as the root of all their problems. Criminals, people with "debts to the authorities," have come to Siuna, they say. This unease in the face of a growing flow of outsiders, who are hoarding land to boot, reflects an increased and not fully grasped pressure on the land in a region where possessing anything over 85 acres has been traditionally viewed as contemptible.

With so many people arriving, the question is who owns Siuna? Who is ending up with the land? In an atmosphere electrified by this question, people tend to resort to bullets, because arming oneself is still the best way to get and keep land in Nicaragua, given the country’s recent history and the fragile legal status of so many properties. The cooperatives know that legal review of their disputed lands will remain on the back burner as long as the rearmed groups continue to hog the media headlines. And with rearmed groups in the area, it is more attractive for claimants to demand compensation than the return of confiscated lands.

The Miguel Martínez cooperative in the rural district of Uly has 1,734 acres of legalized land and 166 acres of non-legalized land that were the result of confiscations, while the Siuna Heroes and Martyrs Agricultural Cooperative Union consists of 19 such cooperatives—several of which border the Bosawás reserve—totaling 31,234 acres of legalized land plus 5,403 acres of non-legalized land being claimed by former owners. In 1996, the union of cooperatives had 1,086 partners, of whom 300 were women and 786 were men. There are probably now around 1,500 willing to defend their right to the land at gunpoint and not waste any more words.

Given the pressing practical need to legalize and legitimize such properties, Siuna has not proved fertile ground for the apocalyptic rhetoric spread by many Protestant denominations. The unadorned eloquence of bullets is worth a thousand words to people there. Millenarian fundamentalism has a hard time getting a toehold in an area dominated by regionalism, an identity based on territory rather than ideology.

Terrified, buried or banished

Not everyone is cut to the size of the mountain men. Siuna’s current crisis, based on rampant violence, insecurity and militarization, has checked the immigration and increased the population living in the urban area. Much of the population is terrified and it is said that some 229 families have fled their lands in fear and migrated to the city to live in precarious conditions. Like the typical image of the Latin American population of the seventies, the population of the city of Siuna is now made up of displaced, terrified and banished people. In such conditions there is no lack of people who think, like Che Guevara did then, that the only way out of all this is to create one, two, three…many Vietnams. In this case, they argue, the only way to get the Managua government to listen to the clamor of the people is to create one, two, three…many mining triangles, many Siunas. The myth of the guerrilla warrior as hero and the myth of arms as a tool for acquiring power and an obligatory first step toward negotiations are deeply encrusted in Nicaraguan culture. It is time to break such a corroding tradition, and it is worth reflecting long and hard about how and why we should do so.

The surroundings or the people?

With respect to the current situation in Siuna, it is also worth asking the same question Hobsbawm asked about the rebellious movements in Europe at the turn of century. "To what extent do they represent a general collapse of the traditional values in areas subjected to an exceptionally rapid social transformation or to exceptional tension, and to what extent do they just represent the exceptional concerns of men who have been, as they were, cast into a void by the rapid changes in their old and firm universe?" Looking for an answer to this question takes us from the social environment to the impact of that environment on specific individuals. It invites a reflection that is essential for a country so small and fragile that one burst of AK gunfire can be enough to destabilize it.

We will attempt to penetrate the tangle of hypotheses raised by this and other questions in next month’s issue, examining step by step the evolution of the FUAC, the identity that distinguishes it from other rearmed groups and the unfortunate role played in this drama by the Liberal government.

José Luis Rocha is a Nitlapán-UCA researcher and a member of the envío editorial council.

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