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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.
out of his home and shot him 11 times. Then they spray-painted his house with an old Contra slogan: “God, Country, Democracy, Liberty or Death,” as well as the ominous message: “This is the result of stolen elections.”
Four days later, separate armed attacks in the rural north-central mining towns of Rosita and Siuna killed two police officers and left two injured.
In early March, eight people were killed and two others seriously injured in a Contra-style ambush in the rural municipality of La Cruz de Rio Grande.
None of those incidents have been fully resolved. The government blames the violence on cattle rustlers and other bands of delinquents, but insists none of the violence is politically motivated.
Many are skeptical of a recontra insurgency. Some believe the rumors of re-armament to be nothing more than chain rattling by ghosts in Nicaragua’s attic. Doubters say these could be figments of a collective post-traumatic stress disorder, resulting from the brutal 1980s war that left more than 30,000 dead, tens of thousands injured, and families torn apart and impoverished.
Journalists’ efforts to track down the alleged Contra commanders in the mountains have failed to produce any irrefutable evidence of rebel activity. Independent defense experts are also leery.
More from Nicaragua: Non-Sandinistas need not apply
Roberto Orozco, a Nicaraguan security analyst at the Managua-based, independent Institute for Strategic Studies and Public Policy, says a fact-finding team recently went into the mountains to quietly investigate a lead from “a reliable source” who had claimed a new generation of Contra rebels was receiving training, weapons and uniforms. The team came back empty handed after 10 days of searching.
“We don’t think there are rearmed groups,” Orozco says.
The expedition was not alone in the mountains. Orozco says 2,000-plus Nicaraguan soldiers deployed to protect the annual coffee harvest were also searching for Contras.
“The [soldiers] were going door to door in the rural areas asking farmers if they have seen rearmed Contras,” Orozco says.
The Miami rep
In Miami, Nicaraguan exile Enrique Castillo is one of the few public faces of the mysterious anti-Sandinista group. The 55-year-old is known by some as the singer-songwriter who composed “Comandos de la Libertad,” the Contras’ anthem of the 1980s. (The following is a video posted to YouTube probably by present-day Contra supporters.)
Now the longtime Contra collaborator is the US representative for the Nicaraguan Resistance, according to a rebel communiqué, which is ambiguously datelined “From the mountains of Nicaragua.”
Castillo insists journalists, fact-finders and soldiers haven’t been able to find the rearmed rebels because the rebels don’t want to be found — not because they don’t exist.
Castillo’s role, on the other hand, is to be visible. In the past two months he’s sent letters to several Republican lawmakers, including Senator Marco Rubio and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, to inform them about the recontras’ efforts and try to drum up support in Washington. Several US officials told GlobalPost they’ve received overtures from the Contras, but are not interested in repeating the ‘80s.
(In the photo to the right, Enrique Castillo is seen on his cell phone in Miami. Tim Rogers/GlobalPost.)
That hasn’t stopped Castillo and others from trying.
“There are more than 10,000 comandos who want to take up arms but due to the lack of resources and logistical support, they have not ventured to go to war,” Castillo wrote in his letter to Sen. Rubio last May. “I understand that this is a very delicate decision for the US government, which insists on maintaining diplomatic relations with the unconstitutional and illegal Nicaraguan government of Daniel Ortega.”
While Castillo says US law limits his organization from “making war in another country,” he talks about insurrection in Nicaragua as if it’s already a foregone conclusion.
“I want liberty in Nicaragua, and there is no option other than armed struggle,” says Castillo, switching back and forth from English to Spanish, often in the same sentence. “War is the only option in Nicaragua.”
Searching for meaning in the past?
Martha Cabrera is a Nicaraguan trauma expert and author of “Living and Surviving In a Multiply Wounded Country.” She says there are definite indications that many Nicaraguans are suffering from “collective trauma” after a tumultuous decade that sent 100,000 people to war and then skipped a national reconciliation process afterward.
But Cabrera thinks Nicaragua’s condition is “more complex” than that. The country is also suffering from a “collective identity crisis,” the psychologist postulates.
“Tens of thousands of Nicaraguans went from being heroes in the 1980s to being unemployed after the war. Their world fell apart,” Cabrera says. “Now many people are taking refuge in the past to try to make sense of a society that no longer makes sense.”
Yet for all of modern-day Nicaragua’s unresolved childhood issues, Cabrera says she remains hopeful that the country will find a way to shoulder forward peacefully without returning to the past.
“I believe in Nicaragua, despite everything,” she says. “People here are survivors.”