The Ex-Contras and Recontras

Nicaragua Table of Contents

The Nicaraguan Resistance was unable to establish itself as a political presence in Nicaragua after the 1990 elections, despite its part in bringing them about. The Chamorro government found little place in its government for the fighters and leaders of the Nicaraguan Resistance, described as the largest peasant army in Latin America since the Mexican Revolution, outside of national-level organizations set up to deal with the Contras' resettlement. Part of the reason for this exclusion was that prominent individuals within the new government, such as Alfredo César Aguirre, had served as part of the rival Southern Front, which disintegrated in the mid-1980s after the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) withdrew its aid. The expulsion also has of the Contraas been attributed to social factors because the Chamorro government is largely made up of Nicaragua's old elite and the Contra leaders are from the middle and lower classes. In addition, the restriction of the Contras was a political move: incorporating ex-Contras into the government would alienate many Sandinistas and make more difficult the reconciliation envisioned by Chamorro's government. Whatever the underlying reasons, the rationale stated by supporters of the Chamorro government is that even though the Contras were important to the electoral outcome, the victory was not a military one but an electoral one, and those who waged the electoral battle are those who are entitled to govern. A year after the election former Contras who felt abandoned by the new government and unable to influence it within the system began rearming.

Obstacles to the establishment of a Contra political presence in Managua began with arrangements for demobilizing and resettling the Contras set forth in transition agreements signed shortly before and after the Chamorro government took power. The first of the documents was the March 27, 1990 Toncontín Accord between the Nicaraguan Resistance and members of the UNO government-elect signed in Honduras. The Contras committed themselves to the concept of demobilizing and promised that all Contras remaining in Nicaragua would hand in their weapons by April 20, 1990. The definitive peace accord between the outgoing Sandinista government and the Nicaraguan Resistance was signed on April 18, 1990 and took effect at noon the following day. The agreement provided that all Nicaraguan Resistance forces would immediately begin to move into security enclaves under the protection of the UN Central American Observer Group, a UN peacekeeping force. The government was to withdraw all military, paramilitary, and security forces to a point at least twenty kilometers from the enclave borders by April 21.

These agreements seemed to be in trouble just hours after the Chamorro inauguration. Contra leaders, protesting President Chamorro's decision to retain General Humberto Ortega as chief of the army, stated that there would be no national reconciliation and that none of their troops would disarm as long as General Ortega remained in that post. Shortly thereafter, however, the Chamorro government and the resistance issued a joint Managua Declaration stating that the Contras would begin the process of turning in their weapons on May 8 and complete the process by June 10. In turn, the government announced on June 10 its plans to reduce the size of the army and to guarantee the Contras' safety.

The subsequent disarmament process was again halted in May when Sandinista unions went on strike and resistance leaders stated that the strike confirmed the Chamorro government's lack of control. Nevertheless, most of the rebels had surrounded their arms by the June 10 Toncontín deadline. Under separate arrangements, the remaining rebels agreed to hand in their weapons--the Yatama Contra forces by June 21 and the Southern Front rebels by July 25, 1990. Demobilized Contras received a change of civilian clothes, farm tools, a US$50 cash grant, rations of rice and beans, and a promise of land.

Within months, however, these agreements had broken down, and violence resumed as the ex-Contras were unable to settle on the land they had been promised in development areas, saw their economic prospects evaporate as the economy worsened, and felt their security threatened by the continued Sandinista presence in the military and in the police. The first incident occurred in July 1990, when some fifteen to twenty armed Contras, led by Commander Rubén (Oscar Manuel SobalvarroGarcía), briefly occupied the central bus terminal in Managua and exchanged fire with Sandinista labor union strikers.

A dozen members of the UN peacekeeping force negotiated the Contras' withdrawal. However, this incident was followed in 1990 by ex-Contra attempts to seize land held in Sandinista cooperatives and by their blockage, together with local peasants, of the Managua-Rama road, the country's major east-west highway, for eighteen days.

Incidents increased in 1991 as conflict between ex-Contras and Sandinista police and army officials continued. About the time the ex-Contras formally announced that they were taking up arms again (and were promptly dubbed the Recontras), the OAS cease-fire monitoring forces had documented the murders of some thirty-five former Contras. For some Contras, the February 16, 1991, murder of former Contra leader Enrique Bermúdez Varela in a Managua hotel parking lot underscored the state of insecurity and exacerbated their distrust of the Sandinista police. Bermúdez, who had taken up residence in Miami after the war, had been visiting Managua to conduct personal business and to urge the government to treat the ex-Contras better. The police allegedly handled investigations in a manner suggesting negligence, ineptitude, and a cover-up, although Sandinistas countered that Bermúdez may have been killed by disaffected Contras.

The Bermúdez murder came just as ex-Contras, as well as other peasants, were increasing pressure for access to land before the May planting season. Thousands of the some 18,000 to 20,000 Contras who had turned in their weapons had not received the land promised them under the demobilization agreement, and many others found they could not farm the land they had received because of a lack of promised tools and infrastructure. In early April, Commander Dimas (Tomás Laguna Rayo), one of several rearming commanders, claimed to have 200 newly rearmed Contras in the hills around Estelí who intended to take over territory to use as leverage to make demands on the government. Incidents between Recontras and Sandinista officials continued throughout the year with no major clashes. Estimates of Recontra strength increased from a few hundred to an estimated 1,000 personnel with assault rifles. By the end of the first year of demobilization, the OAS had verified fifty-two slayings, often of Recontras, about half attributed to Sandinista military or police.

The Recontras' first major action occurred in late July 1991, when eighty Recontras attacked a local police station in Quilalí and battled for six hours under the leadership of Commander Indomable (José Angel Morán Flores). In August 1991, Minister of Interior Carlos Hurtado Cabrera met with Indomable and Dimas to discuss Recontra demands: the disarming of Sandinista farm cooperatives, the removal of army bases from areas of Recontra activity, removal of police and army officials known to violate human rights, investigation of the killings of ex-Contras, and indemnification of ex-Contra families.

For several months thereafter, although the Recontra activities centered on disruptive rather than violent activities and there were few major battles, the Nicaraguan countryside threatened to return to violence. However, by early 1992 the government seemed to be gaining control of the situation. The uncertainty created by the Recontras was exacerbated in late 1991 by the formation of Recompas, rearmed former Sandinista soldiers. The Recompas, many of them junior officers, acted to bring attention to their demands for land and to respond to Recontra activities, including the assassination of a Sandinista police chief and his secretary. Eventually, there were reports of both groups working together on behalf of one basic demand: land and the equipment to work it. The government countered by ordering the Sandinista People's Army not to engage in combat and retaliatory actions and by offering to meet some Recontra demands. The OAS observer group played an important role in mediating disputes and calming tempers. In early 1992, the government offered Recontra leaders money to retire, offered both Recontras and Recompas from US$100 to US$200 for each weapon turned in, and promised both groups houses and land. That offer led to a surprising 20,000 weapons being turned in under OAS supervision, although estimates were that some 30,000 to 80,000 weapons were still held by civilians.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress