After the mysterious death of a Contra leader in February, armed groups have reportedly emerged to declare war against Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega. As the election season approaches, the government has attempted to link these groups with common criminal bands.
The first signs of trouble appeared in July 2010, when a former Contra commando announced he was organizing an armed rebellion against Ortega.
Jose Gabriel Garmendia, alias “Commander Jahob,” originally made his presence felt in the northern highlands of Matagalpa. This was once the historical stronghold of U.S.-supported counterrevolutionary forces, or “Contras,” who fought the left-wing Sandinista government during Nicaragua’s brutal civil war in the 1980s.
During a July 2010 ceremony in Matagalpa to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Contras’ disarmament, four youths interrupted proceedings and declared that Garmendia and his followers would fight the president if he tried to remain in power for another term.
National daily El Nuevo Diario estimated at the time that the group was no larger than 140 people. But for critics of the government, the force represented a key voice of dissent, especially as Ortega began his controversial re-election campaign. Opponents have said the move is unconstitutional and would push the country closer towards becoming a dictatorship.
Two weeks after Garmendia released a recording in late January denouncing Ortega’s re-election bid, he was shot and killed in circumstances that remain unclear. According to a police investigation, Garmendia was shot at point-blank range in the leg by a labourer on February 14. The suspect seemingly had a vendetta against the owner of the farm where Garmendia was staying, reported La Prensa. Garmendia apparently bled to death due to lack of medical attention, according to the national forensic institute.
Ortega’s political opponents, many of whom, like Garmendia, are former Contras, criticized the official investigation into the murder. Initial (and unconfirmed) media reports said that Garmendia died after military or police intelligence officials tracked him down, an account that the security forces have denied.
Since Garmendia’s death, other groups have appeared, declaring their intention to continue the “armed struggle” against Ortega. Garmendia’s alleged successor, identified as “Commander Cobra,” told El Nuevo Diario that the government had tried to negotiate with Garmendia before his death, and that the group remained ready to “use bullets” if Ortega stayed in office.
The groups, known as the Armed Forces of National Salvation (Fuerzas Armadas de Salvacion Nacional) and the Democratic Force Commander 3-80 (Fuerza Democratica Comandante 3-80), have so far done little more than release strongly worded statements against Ortega. But, much like Garmendia, they remain an important symbol and voice for Nicaragua’s anti-Sandinistas. The group now calling itself the Commander 3-80 Force takes its name from a Contra unit active during the 1980s, another throwback to the civil war which ended after Ortega and the Sandinista party were voted out of power in 1990.
It is likely that, just as the government did with Garmendia’s alleged rebellion, the security forces will downplay these armed groups as common criminals working with smugglers and drug traffickers near the northern border with Honduras. That such criminal groups exist in Nicaragua is clear. Especially in the south, a contraband organization known as the Tarzanes are known to traffic guns, precursor chemicals, and drugs from Costa Rica.
But there is no denying that the groups rearming in Nicaragua’s northern highlands have clear political aims. In a statement to El Nuevo Diario, the “rebels” made a point of emphasizing that, “We are not criminal bands, we are armed commandos, fighting for liberty, democracy and justice in our country.”
This is propaganda. But by insisting that this Contra-backed groups are in league with drug traffickers, without offering any hard evidence to back up the claim, the Ortega government is also disseminating its own propaganda.
Opposition to Ortega has tried to organize itself through other means, including a protest which was quickly stifled by the police and goverment-mobilized supporters. The political opposition remains divided and so far appears to pose little threat to Ortega’s re-election bid. If Nicaragua’s political climate remains heated and anti-Ortega factions suppressed, the rearming Contra groups may yet do more than just talk.