An early morning shootout between police and two local campesinos on a misty farm in the rural foothills of Jinotega brought a violent end to the life of Victor Manuel Granados, 45, who reportedly went down firing a .38-millimeter revolver at the circling cops.
The other suspect, Manuel de Jesus Rosales, 32, managed to escape into the woods, according to the police report. One officer was injured in the firefight.
The incident, which occurred around 5:30 a.m. on Feb. 29 (but has been kept out of the media until now), prompted a hurried investigation by the police’s internal affairs division. The investigating officer filed a report the following day—without interviewing the 15 officers involved in the incident and before the forensic medical report was conducted—concluding no excessive use of force was employed in the killing of Granados.
But the real question is: Who was Granados?
The police’s internal affairs report, of which The Nicaragua Dispatch has obtained a copy, makes Granados and his confederate Rosales—who apparently is still at large—appear like a couple of drunken braggarts who dabbled in delinquency. Testimony from Rosales’ family members claims the two men would often drink together, plot mischief and boast the law would never catch up to them.
But other residents of Jinotega insist Granados—better known by the nom de guerre “Comandante Byron”—was the latest leader of a re-armed contra unit that is being methodically hunted down and killed in a campaign the government denies exists.
“Byron was part of the same group as Yahob,” says a former contra collaborated who asked to be identified only as “El Norteño.”
Yahob, the codename of José Gabriel Garmendia, was a former U.S.-trained special forces commander for the contra in the 1980s. He was killed mysteriously in February 2011, seven months after declaring what appeared to be a quixotic one-man war against the government of President Daniel Ortega.
Former contras claim Granados’ death last month is part of a continued crackdown against other re-armed contras who have followed in Yahob’s footsteps.
“The family knew Byron was a re-armed contra, but they said he was a drunk and a thief because they are scared of the police,” El Norteño told The Nicaragua Dispatch. “And the police put two empty bottles of booze next to his body to make him look like a drunk, but everyone knows that’s not true.”
The source says Granados—who is also identified as “Byron” in the police report—is the fourth re-armed contra leader who has been killed in the past year. “Pablo Negro,” or Santos Guadalupe Borge, whose bullet-riddled corpse was found in Honduras in January, was apparently the third. The second was allegedly killed late last year, but his identity is unclear and his death was never reported in the press, according to sources in Jinotega.
Opposition leaders claim there are others who have been killed quietly.
“Those four are the ones that people have heard about, but you’d be surprised at how many other contras have been killed. These are political assassinations,” charges Byron Chamorro, the coordinator for the opposition Independent Liberal Party (PLI) in Jinotega. “If we don’t denounce this, it will continue.”
The government firmly denies there are any political assassinations or persecution of the opposition in Nicaragua.
State security officials claim there is no secret extermination campaign because there are no re-armed rebel groups operating in the mountains. Those who make such claims about “re-contras” are simply perpetuating old fantasies of war, Nicaraguan army authorities say.
“There are people who still don’t understand or accept the reality in which we Nicaraguans live today,” Coronel Juan Ramon Morales, spokesman for the Nicaraguan Army, told The Nicaragua Dispatch.
Morales says the rumors of 300 or 400 re-armed contras operating in the mountains are a “dirty argument” against the government to “create political anxiety.”
“They say there are armed groups, but that is totally false,” Morales said.
The Army spokesman insists individuals such as “Pablo Negro” were common criminals who were falsely “elevated to the status of a great rebel leader” after leading lives of delinquency.
The Night of Feb. 29
A Nicaraguan security expert consulted by The Nicaragua Dispatch says if Victor Manuel Granados (a.k.a “Byron”) and Manuel de Jesus Rosales were indeed considered to be common criminals with a taste for hooch, the police must have considered them extremely dangerous individuals given the type of operation mounted to stop them.
According to the internal affairs report, the police deployed a 15-member team that included the chief of police intelligence for Jinotega, a chief inspector, and a member of the police’s elite Rapid Deployment Group (GIR), or the equivalent of a Nicaragua SWAT. The elite cops were accompanied by 12 other heavily armed officers.
The 15-member unit arrived at the farm house at 1:30 a.m. to wait in the night shadows until 5:30 a.m., when they were going to raid the house with a warrant, the report says.
But after an hour of waiting in the dark, Manuel de Jesus Rosales reportedly exited the house around 2:30 a.m. to urinate in the bushes. The police report says Rosales saw the police hiding in the shadows and opened fire. The police returned gunfire, but Rosales allegedly rolled into a ditch and escaped in the night fog.
Police did not give chase, but rather kicked down the door of the house and entered looking for Granados. Instead, they only found a frightened woman and her three children, ages 6, 12, and 16. The police searched the house, then waited for Granados.
At 5:30 a.m., Granados reportedly arrived at the house with the first light of day in search of his conspirator. Instead, the former contra known as “Byron” discovered several police officers guarding the perimeter of the house, and spun on his heels to walk away. The officers in the yard saw him and shouted after him to stop, apparently prompting Granados to draw his weapons and start shooting.
His gun, however, reportedly jammed, giving the officers a chance to surround him in a “U” formation, according to the police report. Granados finally managed to get off a shot, injuring officer Mauricio Lanzas. The other officers returned fire and shot Granados dead.
Community members who believe Granados was a member of a re-armed contra group claim state intelligence apparently caught whiff that he planned to come down from the mountains and meet with Rosales on Feb. 29, so they scrambled a police operation to wait for him in the shadows near the house.
Security experts say there is a glaring contradiction between the police’s claim that Granados was a common drunken delinquent and the type of specially trained police unit they deployed to capture him.
“This is very weird; it was an extreme amount of force for the situation,” said a top security expert, who wished to remain nameless.
Chamorro, the regional PLI leader, says it has become the police’s modus operandi to label opponents of the government as drunks and delinquents, knowing full well they are re-armed contras.
“They say that about everyone, but the people in the community know who these people are,” Chamorro said. “Even kids in elementary school don’t believe what they are saying about these guys.”
Chamorro says he has never seen any re-armed groups operating in the area, but his party members in the rural communities he visits tell him there are men in the mountains.
“The risk is real,” insists former contra leader Guillermo Miranda. “They are selectively executing various members of the contra who have opted for armed struggle.”