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More than 30 years ago, Daniel Ortega led a group of guerrillas to topple Nicaragua's Somoza dynasty. Now, President Ortega has achieved an imposing one-party rule, and some fear he's dragging the country bag to the dark days of dictatorship. With support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, correspondent Tim Rogers led a seven-month investigation into how the Central American country could be repeating its troubled past.
1980s Contra collaborators are reorganizing in Miami to lobby for funding for an alleged rearmed rebel movement in Nicaragua.
Editor’s note: This article is part of the in-depth series “Nicaragua Rewind,” a look at whether the Central American country is repeating its troubled past under the second coming of Sandinista President Daniel Ortega. It is presented in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
MIAMI, Florida, and JINOTEGA, Nicaragua — “Emilio” was only 12 when he joined the US-backed Contras in 1984 to wage war against Nicaragua’s revolutionary government of the Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN) — seen by the Reagan administration as a Soviet ally, and therefore a Cold War foe for the US.
Twenty-eight years later, the former child soldier says a “second dictatorship” of President Daniel Ortega has prompted him to take up arms again.
Emilio says he’s not alone. He says enlistment in a self-proclaimed, rearmed Contra movement has allegedly grown to a fighting force of 1,600 men who operate in small cells throughout Nicaragua since Ortega sidestepped the constitution to win re-election last November.
“We're repeating the 1980s,” Emilio said in a phone interview from an undisclosed location “somewhere along the Nicaraguan-Honduran border.”
“It’s 2012 and we are still fighting the FSLN,” he says.
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Emilio, who was reached on a Honduran cell phone number provided by a Contra contact in Miami, claims to be one of 24 guerilla comandantes. They say they’re organizing covertly in Nicaragua and politically in Miami, where the “Comando Central Resistencia Nicaragüense USA," a Florida-registered nonprofit, is raising funds.
Emilio says the rearmed Contras — or “recontras” — have engaged in a half-dozen gunfights with the Nicaraguan Army in the past seven months. The clashes allegedly resulted in 20 casualties — and an equal number of alleged cover-ups by a government that denies the rebels' existence.
Nicaraguan Army Colonel Juan Ramon Morales denies the claims. He says tales of new Contras are “fantasies” peddled by desperate political adversaries “who don’t understand or accept the reality of the country today.”
Col. Morales acknowledges Nicaragua’s northern border is too vast to patrol completely. “We would have to put a soldier every 10 meters to have total control, and we don’t have that capacity," he says. But he insists the army's intelligence would have detected the presence of hundreds — if not thousands — of guerrillas skulking about in the mountains.
“We have very good sources of information and haven’t picked up any information about armed groups," he says. "We’ve only detected bands of common delinquents."
Others disagree. Roman Catholic Bishop Juan Abelardo Mata has been warning about the reappearance of armed groups in Nicaragua since 2010. The priest says the situation is “getting worse” and that the government’s continued denial of a guerrilla presence represents a “terrible deafness” to the problems in the northern countryside.
“The situation is delicate,” he says. “The government knows it has generated this problem, but they don’t want to admit it.”
“The risk is real,” echoes former Contra commander Guillermo Miranda. “The army and the police are selectively executing various members of the resistance who have opted for armed struggle.”
Some of the Contras’ claims are clearly exaggerated. An infamous YouTube manifesto by someone posing as a rearmed Contra leader appears to be comically counterfeit. But several murders over the past 16 months suggest more may be going on than the government admits.
Two self-proclaimed Contra commanders have been killed. “Comandante Yahob” was a CIA-trained covert operations commando who vowed to “remove Ortega from office with bullets” in 2010. He was killed by an unidentified sniper last year.
Earlier this year, Yahob’s self-proclaimed successor, a former guerrilla known as “Pablo Negro,” was found murdered in a ditch in Honduras.
The Army denied responsibility in both cases and says the victims were “common delinquents” who were killed by other criminals.
The Contras say they’ve since reorganized under the new leadership of a commander codenamed “El Sheriff,” who alternately goes by the nom de guerre, “Walter.”
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Although Nicaragua is considered Central America's safest country, several other incidents have appeared very much like political violence.
In the rural community of Luku Paraska, Mulukuku, last December, eight men wearing rebel uniforms and carrying AK-47 assault rifles dragged Sandinista political secretary Carlos Ali Garcia