Nicaraguan Democratic Force
The Nicaraguan Democratic Force (Fuerza Democrática Nicaragüense, or FDN) was one of the earliest Contra groups, formed on August 11, 1981 in Guatemala City. It was formed to oppose Nicaragua's revolutionary Sandinista government following the 1979 overthrow of Anastasio Somoza Debayle. It merged the 15th of September Legion, which comprised mostly former members of Somoza's National Guard, with the Nicaraguan Democratic Union, an organization of émigrés from the business and professional classes. The new FDN also began assimilating the MILPAS movement, bands led by disenchanted former MAP-ML guerrillas. The FDN military was under the command of former National Guard colonel Enrique Bermúdez. The FDN was heavily backed by the Central Intelligence Agency and the Reagan administration.
The FDN's political leadership was based in Miami, Florida, though critics always questioned how much control the political wing truly had over the military forces.
Originally, the head of the UDN, José Francisco Cardenal, also assumed political leadership of the new FDN, along with Mariano Mendoza and Aristides Sánchez. However, by autumn 1982 he had alienated both the FDN's military command and its Miami political executive committee, as well as the Argentine advisors.
On December 8, 1982, the FDN announced a new political directorate to replace the triumvirate. It included Lucía Cardenal Salazar (widow of Jorge Salazar), Edgar Chamorro, Alfonso Callejas, Indalecio Rodríguez, Marco Zeledon, and Enrique Bermúdez. There was also a seat for Steadman Fagoth of the allied MISURA, and for an unnamed member supposedly still in Nicaragua. Speculation fingered Adolfo Calero, who decided it would be imprudent to return to Nicaragua from a late December trip. In early 1983, Calero joined the directorate, becoming president of the FDN in early October.
On December 28, 1983, the FDN announced the formation of a civic-military board, consisting of Calero as president and commander-in-chief, Bermúdez as military commander, Chamorro as communications chief, and Rodríguez as chief of civil services. Chamorro was booted from the movement in November 1984, and became a critic of the rebels.
In June 1985, the FDN joined the United Nicaraguan Opposition (UNO), headed by a triumvirate of Calero, Alfonso Robelo, and Arturo Cruz. The FDN comprised the overwhelming majority of UNO's military forces, and Robelo and Cruz complained that Calero refused to share real power with them. UNO collapsed in early 1987.
In the fall of 1986, the FDN formed a political party, FODENIC (Fomento Democrático Nicaragüense).
In May 1987, the FDN became a part of the Nicaraguan Resistance. Its directorate announced the dissolution of the separate rebel forces, declaring the FDN to be the "Northern Front" of a united army. Although militarily the practical effect was slight, politically it prevented Calero from dominating the Resistance directorate as he had UNO.
According to the FDN organizational structure, three squads formed a detachment (destacamento) of about twenty men. Three of these combined to form a group (grupo) of around sixty men. In practice, losses, recruitment, and other factors could change these figures. Varying numbers of groups would be put under a task force (fuerza de tarea).
As task forces swelled in size, a new level of organization was created in early 1984, the regional commando (or command, comando regional).
Three regional commandos grew into operational commandos: the Jorge Salazar (widely regarded as the FDN's best troops), Diriangén, and Rafaela Herrera. However, the commanders of the latter two were crippled during the war and unable to take the field, and in 1986 their component regional commandos became independent, leaving the Jorge Salazar as the sole operational commando.
These are some of the FDN's better-known comandantes:
- Suicida – Pedro Pablo Ortiz Centeno. Former Guard sergeant, operated in the Jalapa area. Legendary for his eagerness for battle, but never fully adjusted from conventional to guerrilla warfare. Went into virtual mutiny in the fall of 1983, and was executed for committing atrocities.
- Franklin [Franklyn] – Israel Galeano Cornejo. Regional commander of Jorge Salazar II, considered perhaps the FDN's best commander. Supporter of Tigrillo's pre-FDN band. Helped to lead the late 1989 ouster of Bermúdez and the political leadership. Forged alliances with brother Commandos from ARDE Frente Sur leading to significant battlefield victories.
- Toño – Walter Saúl Calderón López. Former Guard lieutenant, first commander of the Jorge Salazar, later led the Tactical Operations Command. Expelled after supporting a bid to oust Enrique Bermúdez in 1988.
- Mike Lima – Luis Alfonso Moreno Payan. Ex-Guard lieutenant, commander of the Diriangén. Known for the capture of Pantasma in 1983. Left field command for staff duties after crippling wounds.
- Tigrillo – Encarnación Valdivia [Baldivia] Chavarría. Ex-Sandinista, already leading a ragged MILPAS guerrilla band before joining the FDN. Commander of the Rafaela Herrera, roaming Jinotega Department. A charismatic leader, credited with recruiting thousands into the FDN. Chronically resentful of Bermúdez's favoritism for ex-Guardsmen, he backed the 1988 mutiny.
- Mack – José Benito Bravo Centeno. Former Guardsman, commander of the Nicarao Regional Commando, operating in the Ocotal area. Gained a reputation for abuses, coupled with a lukewarm will to fight.
- Rubén – Oscar Manuel Sobalvarro García. Surviving member of the MILPAS movement. Originally took the nom de guerre "Culebra" (Snake), but changed it due to the CIA's public relations concerns. Led the Salvador Perez Regional Commando in lower Jinotega, and became head of the council of field commanders following the late 1989 reorganization.
- Jhonson – Luis Adán Fley González. Former Sandinista and early member of Tigrillo's band. After serving in the Special Operations Command, he founded the 15th of September Regional Commando, in Matagalpa Department's Pancasán region.
- Quiché – Juan Ramón Rivas Romero. Former Guard sergeant, Toño's deputy commander in Task Force Jorge Salazar. He assumed command after Toño left, leading it as it grew into the FDN's largest force, with five regional commandos. In 1988, Bermúdez selected him to become chief of staff.
- Rigoberto – Tirso Ramón Moreno Aguilar. Cattle merchant from Jinotega, and member of Dimas' MILPAS band. Regional commander of Jorge Salazar I, expelled for supporting the anti-Bermúdez movement in 1988.
- Moisés – José Efrén Martínez Mondragón. Guard sergeant who led the FDN's first major strike, the demolition of the Somotillo bridge on March 14, 1982. Made task force commander of the José Dolores Estrada. In 1985, Mondragón sought exile in Mexico, where he was sent back to Nicaragua. Under duress, he urged his former comrades to accept amnesty, but was arrested and murdered in March 1988 after making overtures to return to the rebels.
- Fernando – Diógenes Hernández Membreño. Regional commander of Jorge Salazar III; an evangelical pastor who joined the rebels due to Sandinista persecution of his congregation. After being promoted to the general staff, he became disenchanted with Bermúdez, and was ousted after participating in the 1988 mutiny.
The FDN’s chief of intelligence, Ricardo Lau, had, according to the former Salvadoran intelligence chief Col. Roberto Santivanez, ‘received payment of $120,000’ for organizing the murder of Archbishop Romero of El Salvador in 1980. The fact that a high contra official had assasinated the archbishop of El Salvador did not diminish the White House’s zeal for its fledgling ‘democratic resistance’.”
Like Gilbert, Cockburn writes about the infamous manual issued to the contras by the CIA. She writes that the CIA was encouraging Contra terror and then indirectly by the U.S. government and President Reagan, violating Reagan’s own Presidential Directive.
“The manual, Psychological Operations in Guerrilla Warfare, clearly advocated a strategy of terror as the means to victory over the hearts and minds of Nicaraguans. Chapter headings such as ‘Selective Use of Violence for propagandistic Effects’ and ‘Implicit and Explicit Terror’ made that fact clear enough...The little booklet thus violated President Reagan’s own Presidential Directive 12333, signed in December 1981, which prohibited any U.S. government employee—including the CIA—from having anything to do with assassinations.”
The manual was, according to Dennis Gilbert “apparently part of an effort [by the C.I.A.] to persuade the contras to use terror in a less random, more calculated fashion.” Whether they became more calculated regarding their deeds of terror is unclear, but they remained horrific: “[Benjamin] Linder was out with his crew, knee deep in a stream, measuring the water flow to see whether it was suitable to power a plant for San José de Bocay. Five grenades suddenly exploded around him and his helpers, followed by gunfire. One of the grenades wounded Linder, and as he lay there a contra came up and blew his brains out...’[my son Ben was killed] by somebody paid by somebody paid by somebody paid by President Reagan.’” Linder’s father has a valid point since Reagan himself had stated “I’m a contra too”, compared the contras with the founding fathers and the people in the French resistance, and then spent the money, $100 million in military aid issued just in 1986, to the Contras. There is more: “It was December 24, 1984. My son and his girlfriend had celebrated their wedding at 6 p.m...They took seven bodies out of the truck...three were children—Yolanda’s daughters, twelve, thirteen and fourteen years old.”
With this in mind, Cockburn’s claim seems valid: “The U.S. problem with the contras was that they were by and large the very same group who had been trained by the United States to protect the interests of the Somozas. Methods and techniques developed for a ruthless dictatorship already in power are not necessarily the best way to create a popular insurgency.”
The strong ties to Somoza decreased the potential to gain domestic support for the FDN, and prevented the U.S. guided unification operation, UNO: “The contra war had to be sold to Congress and the public as the struggle of an opposition united against the regime in Managua.” The revolutionary hero and commander of the Contra force of southern Nicaragua ARDE (Nicaraguan Democratic Revolutionary Alliance), Eden Pastora, refused to cooperate with the FDN. When it comes to Pastora, we can see two contrasting images. Pardo-Maurer writes about a problem, a loose gun out of control, someone that has made himself a lot of enemies.
“Pastora, who cherished his independence, was perceived as the biggest obstacle to this plan [the unification under UNO]. His maverick vision made all his alliances unstable, ultimately costing him the support of his commanders... Everybody had an interest in getting rid of Pastora: his commanders, the Americans, the Sandinistas, the other contras.”
In contrast, Cockburn is writing about a very likable man, independent and true to his ideals.
“He [Pastora] was a larger-than-life figure, handsome, provocative, and difficult to pin down. However, while adamantine in his opposition to the Sandinistas, he absolutely refused to have anything to do with the much larger contra group in Honduras, the FDN. The FDN was controlled by former ‘Somocista’ (as Pastora called them) officers and men of the infamous National Guard. Pastora had fought for years [even since the 60’s] against the Guardia, who were now enjoying the lavish support of the CIA.”
Pastora’s stubbornness/determination ultimately led to his officers being bribed to leave him, loss of his CIA support and an assassination attempt at his own press conference at La Penca in 1984. According to Pastora, this happened because “we didn’t want to be CIA soldiers.” The witness of Jack Terrell, a disillusioned American Contra official, corroborates this:
“You’ve got the hierarchy of the FDN sitting there; you’ve got a representative, this guy Owen, from the NSC, CIA. So, you ask me if the U.S. government knew what was going on? They had to know from that meeting.”
Yet, U.S. interventionism reached further than favoring some contras while neutralizing others. In 1983 the CIA decided to create a group of “Unilaterally Controlled Latino Assets”. These UCLA’s would “sabotage ports, refineries, boats and bridges, and try to make it look like the contras had done it.” In January 1984, these UCLA’s performed their most famous, or infamous, operation, the last straw that led to the ratifying of the Boland Amendment, the mining of several Nicaraguan harbors:
“The mines sank several Nicaraguan boats, damaged at least five foreign vessels, and brought an avalanche of international condemnation down on the United States. But from the administration’s point of view, the mines did their worst damage on Capitol Hill [the ratifying of the Boland Amendment].”
This time no one was under the illusion that it was a deed by the FDN; ironically the event came as a surprise for them as well.
“The contras, it transpired, had been informed only after the fact of what the CIA was doing and were instructed to take credit. One contra leader was dragged from his bed at two a.m., handed a press release by a CIA contact, and told to read it over the contra radio before the Sandinistas broke the news.”
After the ratification of the Boland Amendment, the secret supply network directed by Lt. Col. North became active.
“North had coordinated a secret contra supply operation from his office in the basement of the White House, in legal defiance of existing legislation but with the support of senior administration officials... North had also been deeply involved in shaping contra military and political strategy and in off-the-books schemes to pay for the supply flights and the munitions they carried. In Absence of Congressional appropriations, donations were gathered from private individuals and profits were diverted from the secret sales of arms to Iran. But the most significant unofficial funding for the contras came in the form of secret payments from conservative Third World governments solicited by senior American officials. Saudi Arabia alone contributed $32 million.”
However, Cockburn claims that the result of the supply network wasn’t military success but increased living standards for the contra leaders.
“You’ve got estimates ranging between five thousand and thirty thousand tough contra soldiers on this border, yet they do not hold an inch of dirt. The only progress they’ve made is in purchasing condominiums... Why do you stop a war when people are getting very well off?”
This was corroborated by an aid to LT. Col. North:
“ I’ve been in their accounting office. I’ve seen filing cabinets full of hundred-dollar bills, suitcases full of money... They were laundering money...These people don’t know they are even in a war, they think they are running a business.”
There are even sources that say some of the American weapons intended for the contra effort were sold by contra leaders on the black market to the leftist guerrillas in El Salvador—which is ironic since the first reason for American interventionism with the Sandinistas was to prevent them from supplying weapons to the Salvadoran guerillas. It seems that the resources available to the contras were squandered, abused, and used for the personal gain of the leadership. And the resources that actually went all the way to the front line were used on civilian targets in bloody, meaningless acts of terror. The few, successful “contra” operations, such as the harbor mining, were performed by the CIA.
Oliver North came into the public spotlight as a result of his participation in the Iran–Contra affair, a political scandal of the late 1980s, in which he claimed partial responsibility for the sale of weapons via intermediaries to Iran, with the profits being channeled to the Contras in Nicaragua. He was reportedly responsible for the establishment of a covert network used for the purposes of aiding the Contras. U.S. funding of the Contras by appropriated funds spent by intelligence agencies had been prohibited by the Boland Amendment. Funding was facilitated through Palmer National Bank of Washington, D.C. It was founded in 1983 by Harvey McLean, Jr., a businessman from Shreveport, Louisiana. It was initially funded with $2.8 million to McLean from Herman K. Beebe. Oliver North supposedly used this bank during the Iran–Contra scandal by funneling money from his shell organization, the "National Endowment for the Preservation of Liberty", through Palmer National Bank to the Contras.
- Lemoyne, James (February 2, 1988). "Contras' Top Fighter Vows No Letup". New York Times. Retrieved May 20, 2010.
- Cockburn, Leslie. Out of Control: the story of the Reagan Administration's secret war in Nicaragua, the illegal arms pipeline, and the Contra drug connection, London: Bloomsbury, 1988, p. 6.
- Cockburn, p. 7.
- Cockburn, p. 249.
- Gilbert, Dennis. Sandinistas: the party and the revolution, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988, p. 167.
- Cabestrero, Teófilo. Blood of the Innocent: victims of the Contras' war in Nicaragua, Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, cop. 1985
- Cockburn, p. 23.
- Pardo-Maurer, Rogelio. The Contras, 1980–1989: A special kind of Politics, New York: Praeger, 1990
- Cockburn, p. 49.
- Cockburn, p. 75–76.
- Leogrande, Leonard M, Making the Economy Scream: US economic sanctions against Sandinista Nicaragua (Third World Quarterly, Vol. 17, No. 2), p. 340.
- Cockburn, p. 11.
- Gilbert, p. 168.
- Cockburn, p. 71.
- Cockburn, p. 73.
- Military Aid to the Contras from the *Dean Peter Krogh Foreign Affairs Digital Archives
- "The Contras' Valley Forge: How I View the Nicaragua Crisis", by Enrique Bermúdez (with Michael Johns), Policy Review magazine, Summer 1988.