The recent execution of rearmed contra fighter Santos Guadalupe Borge—aka “Pablo Negro”— could give new political purpose to the contras’ mercurial and wilted Nicaraguan Resistance Party (PRN).
PRN national secretary Roberto Ferrey says the killing of Pablo Negro and the alleged return to arms of other contra guerrillas is challenging his emasculated party to break from its alliance with the ruling Sandinista Front and assume a stronger leadership role among its more truculent constituents in the so-called “contra corridor.”
“If the Sandinistas continue to close civic spaces, it will boomerang against them and become fertilizer for rebellion,” Ferrey told The Nicaragua Dispatch. “If the PRN runs alone in the 2012 municipal elections, we could offer our people their own candidacies and become the emerging opposition party. This could be the rebirth of the PRN.”
The PRN’s last attempt to run independently ended in embarrassment, when the divided contra party won less than 2% of the vote in the 2008 municipal elections and was unable to elect a single mayor. But given the otiose condition of Nicaragua’s other political parties, the PRN thinks it has as good a chance as ever to harness discontent among former contras and unify its old base into viable political alternative.
If the reports of contra rearmament bruited through the countryside are within the normal margins of embellished, the PRN will have to act quickly to keep discontent from becoming rebellion.
“The situation is getting worse,” Catholic Bishop Juan Abelardo Mata told The Nicaragua Dispatch by phone from his diocese in Estelí. “The campesinos now talk of four rearmed groups, including one that has 60 men.”
Monsignor Mata said the rumors of rearmed contra groups started “after the electoral fraud of the 2008 municipal elections,” but recently “the reports are multiplying.”
Worse yet, Mata says, the rearmed groups are apparently receiving some sort of aid or financing from unknown sources.
“They have to be getting funding from somewhere, because the campesinos tell us that the rearmed men have modern weapons, new boots and new uniforms,” Mata said. “Who is giving them this aid? Who knows?”
In the 1980s, the contras received millions of dollars in training, weapons, equipment and aid from the United States.
The government calls the outspoken bishop’s warnings ecclesiastic exaggeration. Nicaragua’s top brass, Gen. Julio César Aviles, says Mata is spreading “bad information.”
The Army firmly denies the existence of rearmed insurgents in Nicaragua. Aviles insists the armed groups are not guerrillas, rather small bands of bandits and cattle-rustlers involved in extortion, kidnapping and thievery.
“There are no politically motivated armed groups in the country,” Gen. Aviles told reporters last week. “Nicaragua does not have that situation. We have said that repeatedly and I say it again today.”
President Ortega, meanwhile, has not addressed the issue.
The bishop from Estelí calls the authorities’ continued denial a case of “terrible deafness” to the problems in the countryside. But he says increased police and army patrols in the northern zone indicate the authorities are more aware of the situation than they admit.
“The situation is delicate,” Mata says. “The government knows it has generated this problem, but they don’t want to admit it.”
How serious are reports of rearmament?
The ghastly discovery last week of Pablo Negro’s bloated and decomposing corpse has revived speculative claims about how many rearmed contras have returned to the mountains.
Pablo Negro, a former contra fighter who last August returned to arms and his old nom de guerre, was found in a ditch in the Honduran border town of Las Manos, with a bullet in the head and another in the abdomen. His body was identified by family members in Tegucigalpa last Friday, and will be repatriated Monday for burial.
Nicaraguan authorities are reportedly seeking collaboration from their Honduran counterparts to determine what happened.
Pablo Negro was the second rearmed contra killed in similarly murky circumstances in the past year. Rearmed contra commando José Gabriel Garmendia, aka “Yajob,” was shot and killed in Estelí last February.
Both men were allegedly killed in similar setups, after apparently being led into a trap by someone they trusted.
Whether Pablo Negro and Yajob were lone wolves deluded by martial fantasies or legitimate leaders of insurgencies brewing in the mountains is still subject to debate and speculation.
In the countryside, former contras claim there are as many as 3,000 rearmed men skulking about in the mountains, playing cat-and-mouse with the police and army. Gen. Aviles insists that’s bunkum.
Still, in the hills of Estelí, former contra combatants insist the situation is more serious than it appears from the bubble of Managua.
“Nicaraguans don’t want war; we want to live in peace. But when the path to peace is blocked, it has to be opened by violence,” says Felix Pedro Cruz (aka “Comandante Jehu”), a former contra combatant in Estelí who was left crippled from fighting in the 1980s. “Unfortunately, there are groups of men who no longer see any other path other than armed resistance. The political persecution is bad. There is no respect for anyone who is in opposition to Daniel Ortega.”
Roberto Petray, executive director of the Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights (ANPDH), an organization based in Estelí, reports he has information of three rearmed groups: the Democratic Front for Nicaragua’s Salvation-380 (Salvation-380), the Democratic Front for Nicaragua’s Fatherland and the Democratic Coastal Front-380.
Petray says he has been in contact with three other rearmed contra leaders codenamed “Cobra,” “Pitufo” and “Sargento.” He says he has had heard rumors that the various rearmed contra groups are trying to unite into one movement under the banner “Democratic Front-380,” named after legendary contra leader Enrique Bermúdez— aka “Comandante 3-80”—who was assassinated in Managua in 1991, after the war ended.
Retired general Hugo Torres, former head of Nicaragua’s military intelligence unit, says the government’s disregard for democratic advances and abusive use of Sandinista Councils of Citizen Power (CPCs) as mechanisms of social control is stirring unwelcomed ghosts in the countryside, where the memory of repression and war is still fresh.
“Some people may conclude that there is nothing left to do here peacefully because the government doesn’t understand anything other than armed struggle,” Torres told The Nicaragua Dispatch.
Still, Torres says the army and police have very good information-gathering networks, which makes it hard for him to believe that there are any sizable rearmed movements operating in the mountains. But, the former general says, it’s “not impossible” to think that smaller groups led by experienced former contras would be able to evade authorities for a long time.
“These are men with lots of experience in guerrilla activity; they would know how to mobilize and seek collaboration from sympathetic campesinos,” Torres said. “Plus, cell phone technology makes it easier for them to communicate now than it was in the 1980s.”
Though recent efforts to rearm appear to lead to a quick and violent end, Torres says that even a few small bands of rearmed soldiers could have an impact on a small country.
“With this type of phenomenon, you don’t need thousands of men to influence the political life of a country,” Torres said.
Opportunity for political opposition?
In Managua, the PRN’s Ferrey says rearmed groups “have no future” other than violence and death, which he laments.
Still, he thinks the stirring of rebellion in the countryside could give his party an opportunity to change tack and become a viable political alternative by harnessing the indignation of former contras—assuming the PRN is capable of providing such leadership.
By going after their bases, Ferrey said, it could free the PRN of its uncomfortable and opportunistic dependency on the Sandinista Front and rediscover its opposition roots.
“The PRN can become the emerging opposition party,” Ferrey said hopefully. “And that will prevent us from being absorbed completely by the FSLN.”
Perhaps that alone is proof that the rearmed contras—even if their presence is wildly exaggerated—really can have an impact on Nicaragua’s political situation.