Behind the Birth of the Recontras
"It's not true that [the FSLN] lost the peasants; we never had them."
—Daniel Ortega Saavedra to FSLN Departmental Congress, June 13, 1991, Managua
"The Nicaraguan peasantry's struggle has gone beyond my expectations; although it was counterrevolutionary, it took the FSLN’s political program. The contras... are out there, demanding their rights as peasants."
-Dora María Téllez, envío, September 1991
At the end of August, Minister of Government Carlos Hurtado announced that there were more than 30 groups of rearmed contras in the country making political demands of the government. While he tried to downplay their importance, quoting July statistics that they total only 300 to 500 people, other reliable sources recognize a movement that now approaches 800, and the "recontras" themselves, as well as the army, report a force of 1,000 that is growing fast. The situation in the Nicaraguan countryside has become even more critical with the formation of at least three armed groups of Sandinistas, who say they have been forced to take up arms in self-defense.
The national press has defined the recontras in numerous different ways—criminals, mere pawns of the far Right, extremists, the seeds of a new civil war, fighters for a just cause. But simple phrases offer far from a true picture of the complex situation that has given rise to the rearming of demobilized contras. Like those who took up arms 10 to 12 years ago, the recontras are a social force rooted in the peasantry. They, too, have genuine indigenous demands—this time rooted in the economic crisis—that reflect the peasantry's needs as a whole. And, as before, those demands are being manipulated by the far Right for its own ends. But peasants who joined the Nicaraguan Resistance (the contra umbrella organization) in the early 1980s have emerged from that experience with new attitudes. Few former contra foot soldiers are willing any longer to accept being relegated to the role of the marginalized, forgotten peasants that they were under Somoza. And former contra leaders are even less willing—they know that UNO would not have won the elections without the counterrevolutionary war and demand a quota of power for their role in the victory.
In their statements quoted at the beginning of this article, former president Daniel Ortega and Dora María Téllez were expressing a new understanding, growing within the FSLN, of the demobilized contras. They are no longer simply written off as "the enemy," but are part of the social base of workers and peasants that the Sandinistas hope to more fully represent in the future—the same sectors that the UNO government virtually ignores and the far Right seeks to control for its own interests. If the recontra movement is to be contained and the far right sectors that have taken it under their wing are to be undermined, it is important not to repeat the same error the FSLN made in the early 1980s. The rearming of demobilized contras must be understood from their own internal logic.
This article, therefore, looks at the situation of the demobilized as a whole, and the recontras specifically, from their point of view. While some of their demands are highly politicized and nonnegotiable—such as the dissolution of the armed forces—the recontras have brought attention to the plight of former contras. If the situation of the demobilized is not taken seriously, the recontras' forces will grow. While it is unlikely that their ranks will ever swell to near the size of the US-financed contra movement, they could become a destructive and sustainable force, increasing instability and playing the country into the hands of the far Right.
"We Won the War"The definitive demobilization of the counterrevolution came after UNO's election victory, with the signing of a series of accords between March and June 1990. In those accords, the government agreed to disarm civilians, establish "development poles" and withdraw all security forces from them, reduce the army and guarantee the "physical and moral integrity" of the former contra soldiers.
The contras demobilized with high expectations, in part because they were led to believe they had won the war. While similar to the expectations of peasants who fought in the insurrection in 1979, the premise was more realistic then than now—unlike Somoza, the Sandinistas were defeated at the ballot box, not on the battlefield. The contras' own leaders were undoubtedly the first to instill the skewed impression that they were victorious heroes to aggrandize their own military role and muster pride for the return home. The incoming UNO government, however, fed into it as well. While not explicitly giving the contra army credit for UNO's electoral victory, the government promised the returning contras land, cash, housing, health centers, schools, personal security and support for their full reintegration into civilian life. One of the key contra negotiators, Israel Galeano, known as Commander "Franklyn," said of the development poles, "We're going to build a great city. We're going to have lots of beaches. In a few years, you'll want to come spend your summer vacation there."
But the reality is very different. Some Nicaraguans do, in fact, see the former contras as heroes, but government support has been minimal. Its noncompliance with agreements has combined with the generalized economic crisis to leave many jobless, landless and penniless. This humiliating economic situation takes on exponential proportions when coupled with the humiliation for the officially disarmed former contras of seeing the "defeated" army still armed.
This is especially true for their leaders. Driving through northern towns with former contras, an envío reporter often heard statements such as, "See that guy? Looking at him now, you'd never believe he used to be an incredible fighter with the Resistance." Jorge Osorio Vásquez, a demobilized contra leader in Wiwilí known as "Chepe," wryly remarked that "it would have been better if they'd told us we were the ones who'd lost."
A Peasant Without Land...In 1980, CIERA, at that time the research branch of the new Agrarian Reform Institute, conducted a study of the first bands of peasant contras—one headed by Pedro Joaquín González, alias "Dimas" (who was killed in 1981), the other by a leader known as "Pocoyo." CIERA found that the primary reasons peasants took up arms at that time related to land and the role of the state. Those who had land feared that it would be confiscated by the new, seemingly all-powerful and arbitrary state. And landless peasants and agricultural workers were angry that they had not been given land as promised by the revolution. Especially those who had fought in the insurrection, like Dimas, expected recognition, with land or some other form of socioeconomic advancement in the new revolutionary order. Other peasants joined in large numbers after 1983, when the Sandinista government began to draft their sons for military service.
There are notable parallels with the situation of the demobilized contras today. When they laid down their arms, the contras expected and the government promised that their socioeconomic situation would improve. While those with land no longer fear that it will be taken away, they have received virtually no government loans or other support with which to rehabilitate farmland largely abandoned to the elements for the past several years. As for landless peasant contras, Roberto Menéndez of the Organization of American States' Verification Commission (CIAV) says that only about a quarter have received land so far, including those who have occupied farms illegally. (The figure commonly cited is one half, but Menéndez points out that CIAV' s official land statistics include repatriates as well as demobilized.)
There is a saying in Nicaragua that a peasant without land is like a person without a soul, and numerous groups—armed and unarmed, ex-contra and Sandinista—are fighting for land. Many of the older generation in the Resistance had land to return to, but the younger generation left their parents' farms as teenagers to join the war instead of setting off for the agricultural frontier to search for their own plot the way their parents did. Now they have come back 5-10 years later with their own families and expectation of living on their own.
While the statistics are not completely reliable—there is no official count, for example, of those who already had land, and Resistance leaders claim that a large part of that given out is unusable—there does appear to be a correlation between land security and a decrease in the post-war conflict level.
In Region V (Boaco-Chontales), for example, an estimated 80% of the demobilized contras there have received land, many through the break-up of the state cattle enterprise HATONIC. While experiencing at least one recent armed attack, that region has still been the quietest in 1991 after being a focal point for conflicts last year. In Regions I (Estelí-Nueva Segovia) and VI (Matagalpa-Jinotega), on the other hand, only about 25% had received land by the end of April. It is these two regions that have given rise to a large number of armed groups.
Even those who received or already had land have not been given bank financing to invest in cattle, rehabilitate coffee plantations, rebuild fencing or promote production in general. While the Repatriation Institute lauded the creation of a $4 million credit line for demobilized contras and repatriates to produce corn, rice and beans, only $1 million had actually been loaned out by August 14—a key time for planting.
A Soldier Without a Gun...In spite of their importance, neither land nor credit are among the primary demands of recontra leaders, who consider these secondary to personal security issues and reducing what they perceive as the threat of being murdered by the police, army or armed Sandinista civilians. What good does having land do, asked Chepe, when "it's easier to kill someone in the countryside than here in town?"
Many unarmed ex-contras see themselves as sitting ducks for attacks by armed Sandinistas bent on vengeance. Yet statistics show that more Sandinistas have been killed than demobilized contras. CIAV says it had received complaints of a total of 66 killings of demobilized contras as of August 31, 41 of which have been verified and 3 judged unfounded. Not even all of these, however, were political killings, since CIAV's total includes all killings, including several perpetrated by other ex-contras. (In 17 cases, members of the Resistance accuse authorities from the state security apparatus; in 31 cases, members of the FSLN.)
The findings of a preliminary study by the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights Research (CENIDH) shows 30 former contras and 48 Sandinista militants killed "for political reasons." If one adds Sandinistas who are not party members, CENIDH's statistics show three times as many Sandinistas killed as demobilized contras. One CIAV official reported that a large number of attacks and even some of the killings are actually the result of internal disputes and rivalries within the ranks of the Resistance. CIAV officials also acknowledge that the number of former contras killed by Sandinistas is actually quite low given the degree of post-war polarization and the number of people on both sides who are still armed. Nevertheless, both former contras as well as Sandinistas in the countryside are afraid.
It is this fear on the part of the demobilized veterans that has largely given rise to the recontras and their broad support base. While recontra leaders have capitalized on it for their own ends, the fear itself has not been invented. Part of it stems from the fact that virtually no one has been punished for any political crimes, including murders, since the demobilization. The government has adopted a hands-off policy, apparently believing that pursuing perpetrators from either camp will only make tensions worse. The cases the demobilized most often mention as examples are the unsolved murder of former National Guard Colonel Enrique Bermúdez, the shooting of contra Commander "Chapulín" after he pulled a gun on a joint army-police patrol, and events in Jalapa, where former, supposedly unarmed, contras overtook the police station, initiating an outbreak of violence that resulted, according to Americas Watch, in the death of nine Resistance members, two civilians and one FSLN member.
Bermúdez's assassination weighs particularly heavily on the demobilized contras. Along with the right wing, they publicly accuse the Sandinistas, and many cite his murder as their primary reason for taking up arms. In private, however, one contra commander admitted that blaming the Sandinistas was more "for convenience; it had to have been an inside job, because '3-80' [Bermúdez] never went anywhere without his bodyguards." The investigation into Bermúdez's death has so far been inconclusive.
The effect of these incidents is compounded by the personal threats that some experienced shortly after their demobilization. Mario Martínez Vallerín, known as "Sierra Cinco," in El Jicaro, for example, said that two armed Sandinista supporters had put a gun to either side of his head while he was walking alone. Now he, like many others, no longer walks alone. Once there is some basis for fear, it is not surprising that a simple verbal threat from what the former contras see as their still-armed enemy would make them feel vulnerable. "Maybe it would have been okay," said Chepe, "if they hadn't threatened me in the beginning. Now they don't say anything, but I also don't walk alone."
Leaders also appear to feel more directly threatened than contra rank-and-file. Nicaragua is a small country, and people know which leaders were responsible for what attacks. It is easier to forgive the foot soldiers, who simply followed orders.
It is also true that some Sandinista officials known to have committed human rights violations still hold positions of authority in the police or army in rural towns. Americas Watch reports that some 230 investigations of military officials were dropped after the March 1990 amnesty declaration. Sandinista authorities felt that it was unjust to punish the military for past crimes when contras were permitted to return unpunished, regardless of the severity of their abuses.
Contradictions Within the RanksAlthough Bermúdez was thrown out of the contra leadership in 1988 after a number of commanders demanded his removal, he is said to have still been a charismatic leader; many demobilized contras saw him as the only one able to unite the different factions of the Resistance and specifically to confront "Rubén" and "Franklyn." These two are held largely responsible for the current plight of the demobilized contras because of their key roles, previously as Resistance negotiators with the government and now as government officials.
Rubén, vice-minister of the Repatriation Institute, and Franklyn, director of inter-institutional coordination in the Ministry of Government (which oversees the police), are blamed for not challenging government noncompliance with promises to the Resistance. Some accuse them of having been deceived, others of actually selling out the interests of former contras for a government job, car and house.
Rubén presided a meeting in Managua on June 27 to celebrate the one-year anniversary of demobilization. He presented a document to be ratified by some 600 ex-contras present, which, according to one Resistance commander, recognized the government's errors but also excessively praised the government and simply promised to fulfill agreements in the future. The former contras considered the document very inadequate, and the meeting reportedly continued late into the night with no resolution.
Bermúdez is reported to have been organizing meetings of Resistance members in different parts of the country to demand that the government fulfill its promises when he was killed. "Commander '3-80' would have solved our problems," says Chepe. It is unclear whether Bermúdez was actually encouraging the demobilized to "rearm before his assassination, but clearly many former contras felt their movement was decapitated by his death. Some say it is because of Bermúdez's absence that the only option left for pressuring the government is to take up arms.
There is enormous distrust between factions of the demobilized contras and of their different leaders' negotiating capacity—and integrity. Commander "Douglas," for example, was ambushed and injured by a group of contras who accused him of selling helicopters and weapons back to the US Embassy and pocketing the money. Recontra Commander "Tigrillo" turned down an invitation in July to a meeting to unify demands between different groups of demobilized contras, saying, "We prefer to operate on our own," though he has now united with several other recontra leaders. Some ex-contras do not favor the creation of Rural Police forces (made up of demobilized contras) to replace the National—previously Sandinista—Police and criticize the arbitrary actions of those that exist now. One suggested that the only trustworthy force would have to be composed of people who have never previously been armed.
Important class and attitudinal differences between the rank-and-file and their immediate leaders could also lead to contradictions in the future. Contra leaders were always better off than their foot soldiers. One international observer noted, for example, that when demobilized contras who did not have land were given supplies such as zinc roofing, seeds and fertilizers, they would often sell it to their wealthier leaders, who "came out ahead."
Many Sandinistas have found it easy to forgive contra soldiers who were not in leadership positions, since they lived under harsh conditions with virtually no benefits, at least by the end of the war. As one Sandinista supporter said, "There was nothing to envy, nor to hate; they were poor like us." And while a few ex-contra leaders have begun to work with groups like the National Farmers and Ranchers Union (UNAG)—which has played a path-breaking role in pushing Sandinista leaders toward reconciliation—it is more often those at the base who have cautiously begun to ask their Sandinista relatives or friends to tell them about the revolution. It is clear, says one health worker in Quilalí, that "they don't know anything about the revolution and are interested in what it was like."
The difficult transition to civilian life and the economic crisis has left hundreds of mostly young, unemployed ex-contras living in rural northern towns with nothing to do. The older generation, in addition to more often having land to return to, had also matured as peasants before joining the counterrevolution; it has been easier for them to adapt to farm life again. The majority of the younger men, however, have simply never lived, since childhood, as farmers; some have even lost the desire to farm. Now they, like other Nicaraguans, face the problem of high unemployment and few jobs. But unlike other young Nicaraguans, except perhaps demobilized members of the Sandinista army, those who joined the contras in their early teens have never known any other but military life—the CIA never even gave them literacy courses.
Still other ex-contras, now accustomed to a life of subsidies, have lost the desire to work entirely. Former contras report that in Honduras in the early years of the war, the CIA flooded them with food and provisions, to the extent that soldiers often wounded themselves purposely in order to be sent back to the "good life" there. The subsidies diminished when the US Agency for International Development took over the counterrevolution's financing, and CIAV offered even less after the demobilization. Some members of the Resistance are simply angry that the free goods—often more and better than any they knew as poor peasant children—are coming to an end; neither land nor a job will satisfy their desires.
In addition, joining the counterrevolution served to urbanize a certain sector of peasants, especially contra leaders. For them, managing a column of 100 men or more took the mystique out of rural, isolated farm life. Joining the Resistance was a way of moving up the socioeconomic ladder. When they demobilized, they expected to move up further, not to return to the life of a poor peasant. One serious contradiction between these leaders and the rank-and-file, pointed out one commander, is that "some leaders don't want new leaders to be trained."
The Recontras: In spite of contradictions within their ranks, the class awareness of the vast majority of demobilized contras is minimal. Far more powerful is the discipline and paternalism of the military structure in which many of them were raised; in it, they always knew where they stood and what to do. Those who have no direction now, who feel abandoned, humiliated and desperate, are highly vulnerable to family, friends or leaders who tell them they deserve and were promised better—and should take up arms to fight for it. While some members of the Resistance run from the recontras for fear of being "recruited" and others firmly state that "I just want to work," still others are drawn in by those who offer them a sense of direction and the possibility of rebuilding their self-respect. A gun and an armed organization make the powerless feel powerful again. Highly manipulable, recontra soldiers already repeat the refrain, "Everything will be resolved when the army is dismantled," as if it were a recording.
A Source of Power and Unity
The first two important bands of recontras that organized are headed up by "Indomable" (Untamable) and "Dimas Tigrillo." Though Indomable's group is smaller, estimated at some 60 soldiers compared to Dimas' 300, it has been much more active and, therefore, has gotten more publicity. Indomable took up arms after his wife and child were gunned down in their house by unknown assailants in December 1990. Few contras have as many enemies as Indomable. He is well known for having committed gross human rights violations during the war. Witness for Peace reports that his name was mentioned in a disproportionate number of killings of kidnap victims, and peasants report he had the reputation of being "the worst assassin of all" the contras. Another contra commander, while clearly respecting his decision to take up arms again, admitted that Indomable was "always evil; someday he'll get what's due him."
Indomable himself told Witness for Peace in July that the Sandinistas are communists, and "the only good communist is a dead communist." He has claimed responsibility for several attacks, including one in which San Rafael del Norte police chief Captain José Luis Meza was killed along with his secretary. In negotiations with Indomable, the government has consistently insisted on the recontra leader's trial for Meza's death.
Minister of Government Carlos Hurtado, who heads the government's negotiations with the recontras, told envío that the majority of recontra bands are now grouping around the brothers Dimas Tigrillo and Tigrillo, apparently distancing themselves from Indomable. Several have just united to form a recontra "council of commanders." The different groups, however, have not all unified their demands. Generally, they demand that the government fulfill the demobilization accords signed last year and focus on issues of personal security. Some leaders specifically include the disarmament of civilians, the punishment of Sandinistas who have committed political crimes against ex-contras and the removal of the army and police from a vast northern region. (The accords promised the reduction of the army, which has dropped from 90,000 to 21,000 members, and the removal of all security forces from the development centers—but with broad consensus, the development pole idea was abandoned for logistical and other reasons.)
Periodically, recontra commanders have also demanded the removal of Hurtado himself, Presidential Minister Antonio Lacayo and General Humberto Ortega, head of the armed forces, in addition to the total dismantling of the armed forces—a clear indication of the political hand of far-right sectors like the mayors' year-old Save Democracy Movement. Hurtado claims that his and Lacayo's heads are no longer on the list of demands.
The Far Right: Taking Charge?While demobilized contras clearly have their own reasons for taking up arms, they also serve as ammunition for the far Right—the only sector really benefited by destabilization. Extreme sectors of UNO are committed to breaking the Lacayo-FSLN alliance and destroying the FSLN. It is significant that Azucena Ferrey, National Assembly representative and former member of the contra directorate, and six other rightwing UNO representatives calling themselves the "Group of Seven" have recently declared themselves the "official communication channel" of what Ferrey called the "Nicaraguan Democratic Front-Enrique Bermúdez Varela."
It is unclear exactly what this new recontra organization is or who it represents. Ferrey named this "FDN"—an obvious reference to the 1980s' counterrevolutionary organization—in a press conference apparently following a meeting with Indomable. Several days later, however, recontras grouped around the Tigrillo brothers announced the formation of the "Democratic Force of National Salvation-Enrique Bermúdez."
Ferrey defended the recontras' demands—though they, too, are not consolidated—claiming that they are justified because they were guaranteed in the 1990 demobilization accords signed by the Nicaraguan government. After calling openly for international intervention to see that those agreements are fulfilled, she backpedaled a few days later saying she meant "an international mechanism, like CIAV or ONUCA."
The ties between the Save Democracy Movement, the Group of Seven and the recontras are obvious. Several mayors have organized recontra-government negotiations and recontra leaders have publicly requested the mayors' presence at talks, which they have attended. Seventeen mayors from Regions I and VI recently met with UNO Assembly representative Humberto Castilla of the Group of Seven, in part to report on the situation of the recontras. Both Lacayo and General Ortega have accused the right wing, particularly Managua Mayor Arnoldo Alemán and Vice President Virgilio Godoy, of actually organizing the recontras. Clearly the far Right is trying to capitalize on them. One has only to witness one of Alemán's current 1996 presidential campaign rallies to be convinced of his attempts to rouse anger against the "frentista enemy" and increase tensions in the countryside.
Instability in Nicaragua also serves US interests. After the Panama invasion, the United States provided funds specifically to buy arms from civilians to encourage their disarmament. It talked of doing the same here, including purchasing weapons from demobilized contras. But Presidential Minister Antonio Lacayo told La Prensa that the Organization of American States has not been able to convince the US to provide the aid needed for such a project. Given the relatively small amount of money involved, it seems the US would approve the funds unless it had an interest in keeping the recontras armed.
It is unclear whether the recontras have actually received outside funding; recurring reports of air supply drops from Honduras have been denied by both the Honduran and US governments. Lacayo recently accused Nicaraguan exiles in Miami of funding the recontras; the Mexican news service Notimex reports that Anastasio Somoza Portocarrero is channeling aid from Israel. Another reliable source has reported that Ferrey has organized film crews to make a video of the recontras to send to the United States, probably to raise funds.
"We Won't Be Used Again"While financial needs and some common interests could lead to close ties between the recontra leadership, the mayors' movement and other elements of the far Right like Ferrey's Group of Seven, the recontras are a loose cannon for even them. Some leaders may simply be interested in personal gain and getting their own quota of power, but the recontras in general do not want to be controlled or manipulated by outsiders. Most peasants look upon Managuans with distrust, and class differences create tensions even with the mayors from their own territory.
There is a growing awareness among members of the Resistance that they were used, and then abandoned, by the CIA; that they, as peasants, have their own interests to defend and that outsiders will continue to try to use them in the future. "Antonio," a former contra commander who spoke on condition he not be identified, is one of those who has begun to see across political boundaries and recognize the common interests of the peasants, be they Sandinistas or ex-contras. He also reflects another contradiction within the Resistance, being both vehemently anti-Sandinista in principle, due to his years as a contra leader, and revolutionary at the same time. He is highly conscious of his fellow peasants' class condition and opposes, for example, returning lands to large landowners—even those in the hands of Sandinista agricultural cooperatives.
Antonio also supports the recontras. While not ready to join them himself, he has helped organize regional meetings of former contra leaders in order to overcome differences, unify criteria and "not be deceived again." He favors negotiation, but while maintaining an armed wing in order to pressure for government compliance. He is concerned that the recontras are not a disciplined force and recognizes the right wing's own interests in taking up their cause. He also fears that, like Ruben and Franklyn, current leaders will be "bought off' or "tricked" into laying down their weapons before they have reason to believe that, this time, agreements will actually be fulfilled.
A Peaceful Solution?As this issue of envío goes to press, new armed groups are still forming. And as more people are killed with impunity on both sides, tensions will continue to grow. While no one thought the reconciliation of two opposing armies would be easy, the government could take steps to decrease the strain.
A serious agrarian reform program that provides land for all remaining demobilized contras and other landless peasants who desire it should be coupled with a generous credit program for peasant farmers. This would undermine the recontras support base by giving the necessary resources to all those who want to produce. It is clearly in the government's interest to provide much more substantial credits to this sector, not only for stability but also to promote domestic food production. But ample credit to small basic grains producers, contra or otherwise, is not compatible with the neoliberal economic plan.
Former contras who want to work but not farm should be provided literacy and/or job training. Psychological services could be made available to help with the transition to civilian life in general.
At the same time, all political crimes against both demobilized contras and Sandinistas should be investigated; perpetrators should be tried and punished accordingly. At a minimum, Sandinista security, army and police personnel who have committed human rights abuses in the past should be removed from positions of authority. Former contras who have committed abuses obviously should not be permitted to hold such positions either. This is important in the formation of the new "national disarmament brigades" recently announced by Minister Hurtado. Those brigades will be integrated police forces, made up of members of the national police, army and Resistance, "including recontras," said Hurtado, "if they want to join." Responsible integrated police forces in conflictive zones could be an important step toward reconciliation in a highly polarized climate.
The revolution gave the peasants the impetus and right to defend their own interests and, in a twisted way, led to their taking up arms. Antonio said, "We demobilized without an organization; everyone went every which way. They tried to humiliate us, but they can't any more; we know how to defend ourselves now." But those who feel powerless must be given a different way to rebuild their self-respect than by picking up a weapon. The neoliberal economic plan embraced by the Chamorro government, however, does not offer an alternative for Nicaragua's peasants; under it, they will remain sidelined and poor. At a minimum, this means that the demobilized contras will consolidate as a social base for the far Right. It may also mean that joining the recontras, if they get even minimal funding, could actually become an economic alternative, and that the "law of the jungle," which many say is already in effect in the countryside, will plunge rural Nicaragua further into anarchy.