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The Contras is a label given to the various rebel groups opposing Nicaragua's FSLN (Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional) Sandinista Junta of National Reconstruction following the July 1979 overthrow of Anastasio Somoza Debayle. Although the Contra movement included a number of separate groups, with different aims and little ideological unity, the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN) emerged as by far the largest. In 1987, virtually all Contra organizations were united, at least nominally, into the Nicaraguan Resistance.

From an early stage, the rebels received financial and military support from the United States through the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), initially supplemented by Argentina. At other times the US Congress wished to distance itself and withdrew all support.

The term "Contra" comes from the Spanish la contra, short for la contra-revolucion, in English "the counter-revolution", an expected byproduct of many revolutions. (Many references use the uncapitalized form, "contra", sometimes italicizing it.) Some rebels disliked being called Contras, feeling that it defined their cause only in negative terms, or implied a desire to restore the old order. Rebel fighters usually referred to themselves as comandos ("commandos"); peasant sympathizers also called the rebels los primos ("the cousins"). Later, veterans recalled their movement as la resistencia.



Following the July 1979 fall of dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle and official take over of the Government by the Sandinistas, the National Guard disbanded. Those in the higher ranks had the means to escape and find a route to exile. The others (thousands) surrendered to the victorious Sandinista revolutionary forces and put in captivity in concentration camps awaiting for trial. Most were killed on the spot with no chance for a trial. Many jails from that time are still being found today along with mass graves. There are some in Granada, now covered up by the Sandinistas as well as near the airport in Managua. The Sandinistas have purchased most lands where they buried the thousands executed, so that no investigations can take place. Others who had reasons to fear arrest (for war crimes committed) remained at large and were persecuted, sometimes killed. Pablo Emilio Salazar (Comandante Bravo), an ex-National Guard's commander, hoped its escaped remnants could be regrouped as a unified force. But he was himself chased and assesinated cowardly in October 1979 by Sandinista "intelligence" (which consisted of a now defunct prostitute as a lure, and a couple of murderers from South America), and the remainder of the National Guard disintegrated again. A minority formed groups such as the Anti-Sandinista Guerrilla Special Forces, the 15th of September Legion, and the National Army of Liberation. However, these groups were small and conducted little active raiding into Nicaragua.[1]

Meanwhile, some of the Nicaraguan middle class, whose discontent with Somoza had led them to back the Sandinistas, soon became disillusioned by Sandinista rule. Businessman José Francisco Cardenal went into exile and founded the Nicaraguan Democratic Union (UDN), centered around fellow Conservative Party exiles, with the Nicaraguan Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARN) as its armed wing.

The earliest Contras inside Nicaragua were the MILPAS (Milicias Populares Anti-Sandinistas), peasant militias led by disillusioned Sandinistas. Founded by Pedro Joaquín González, the Contra Milpistas were also known as chilotes (green corn). Even after his death, other MILPAS bands sprouted during 1980-1981. The Milpistas were composed largely of the campesino highlanders and rural workers who would later form the rank and file of the rebellion.[2] [3][4][5]

Main groups

The CIA and Argentine intelligence, seeking to unify the anti-Sandinista cause before initiating large-scale aid, persuaded the 15th of September Legion and the UDN to merge in August 1981 as the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (Fuerza Democrática Nicaragüense, FDN). Based in Honduras, Nicaragua's northern neighbour, under the command of former National Guard Colonel Enrique Bermúdez, the new FDN drew in the other rebel forces in the north. The core leadership was initially dominated by former Guardia NCOs, but MILPAS veterans rose through the ranks during the war, and Bermúdez was ultimately replaced by Milpista Oscar Sobalvarro. A joint political directorate was created in December 1982, soon led by businessman and anti-Sandinista politician Adolfo Calero.

The creation of the Democratic Revolutionary Alliance (ARDE) and its armed wing, the Sandino Revolutionary Front (FRS), in September 1982 saw the opening of a second front in the war. The group was founded in neighboring Costa Rica by Edén Pastora (Comandante Cero), a former Sandinista and participant in the August 1978 seizure of Somoza's palace. ARDE consisted largely of Sandinista dissidents and veterans of the anti-Somoza campaign who opposed the increased influence of Soviet Union, Eastern bloc and Cuban officials in the Managua government. Proclaiming his ideological distance from the FDN, Pastora nevertheless opened a "southern front" in the war.

A third force, Misurasata, appeared among the Miskito, Sumo and Rama Amerindian peoples of Nicaragua's Atlantic coast, who in December 1981 found themselves in conflict with the authorities following the government's efforts to nationalise Indian land. They had a number of grievances against the Sandinistas, including:

  • Unilateral natural resource exploitation policies which denied Indians access to much of their traditional land base and severely restricted their subsistence activities.
  • Forced removal of at least 10,000 Indians from their traditional lands to relocation centers in the interior of the country, and subsequent burning of some villages. [6]
  • Economic embargoes and blockades against native villages not sympathetic to the government.

The Misurasata movement led by Brooklyn Rivera split in 1983, with the breakaway Misura group of Stedman Fagoth allying itself more closely with the FDN. A subsequent autonomy statute in September 1987 largely defused Miskito resistance.

Unity efforts

U.S. officials were active in attempting to unite the Contra groups. In June 1985 most of the groups reorganized as the United Nicaraguan Opposition (UNO), under the leadership of Calero, Arturo Cruz and Alfonso Robelo, all originally supporters of the anti-Somoza revolution. After its dissolution early in 1987, the Nicaraguan Resistance (RN) was organized along similar lines in May. Splits within the rebel movement emerged with Misurasata's April 1985 accommodation with the Sandinista government, the formation of the Southern Opposition Bloc (BOS) under Alfredo César by those excluded from UNO, and Pastora's withdrawal from the struggle in May 1986.

Mediation by other Central American governments under Costa Rican leadership led to the Sapoa Accord ceasefire of March 23, 1988, which, along with additional agreements in February and August 1989, provided for the Contras' disarmament and reintegration into Nicaraguan society and politics. The agreements also called for internationally-monitored elections which were subsequently held on February 25, 1990. Violeta Chamorro, a former Sandinista ally and widow of murdered anti-Somoza journalist Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Cardenal, defeated Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega and became President with the backing of the center-right UNO. Some Contra elements and disgruntled Sandinistas would return briefly to armed opposition in the 1990s, sometimes styled as recontras or revueltos, but these groups were subsequently persuaded to disarm.

Human rights controversies

The Sandinista government, its supporters, and outside groups such as Americas Watch frequently accused the Contras of indiscriminate attacks on civilians. The Contras and their backers, especially in the Reagan Administration, dismissed these accusations as a propaganda campaign and accused the Sandinistas of the same crimes against humanity.

The Catholic Institute for International Relations summarized contra operating procedures in their 1987 human rights report: "The record of the contras in the field, as opposed to their official professions of democratic faith, is one of consistent and bloody abuse of human rights, of murder, torture, mutilation, rape, arson, destruction and kidnapping."[7]

An influential report on alleged Contra atrocities was issued by lawyer Reed Brody shortly before the 1985 U.S. Congressional vote on Contra aid. The report was soon published as a book, Contra Terror in Nicaragua (Brody, 1985). It charged that the Contras attacked purely civilian targets and that their tactics included murder, rape, beatings, kidnapping and disruption of harvests. Brody's report had been requested by the Sandinista government's Washington law firm Reichler & Applebaum and the Sandinista government had provided his facilities in Nicaragua.[8] In a letter to the New York Times,[9] Brody asserted that this in no way affected his report, and added that the newspaper had confirmed the veracity of four randomly chosen incidents.

A Sandinista militiaman interviewed by The Guardian stated that Contra rebels committed these atrocities against Sandinista prisoners after a battle at a Sandinista rural outpost:

Rosa had her breasts cut off. Then they cut into her chest and took out her heart. The men had their arms broken, their testicles cut off. They were killed by slitting their throats and pulling the tongue out through the slit.[10]

Americas Watch - which was subsequently folded into Human Rights Watch - stated that "the Contras systematically engage in violent abuses... so prevalent that these may be said to be their principal means of waging war."[11] It accused the Contras of:

  • targeting health care clinics and health care workers for assassination.
  • kidnapping civilians.
  • torturing civilians.
  • executing civilians, including children, who were captured in combat.
  • raping women.
  • indiscriminately attacking civilians and civilian houses.
  • seizing civilian property.
  • burning civilian houses in captured towns.[12]

American news media published several articles accusing Americas Watch and other bodies of ideological bias and unreliable reporting. The media alleged that Americas Watch gave too much credence to alleged Contra abuses and systematically tried to discredit Nicaraguan human rights groups such as the Permanent Commission on Human Rights, which blamed the major human rights abuses on the Sandinistas.[13]

In 1985, the Wall Street Journal reported:

Three weeks ago, Americas Watch issued a report on human rights abuses in Nicaragua. One member of the Permanent Commission on Human Rights commented on the Americas Watch report and its chief investigator Juan Mendez: "The Sandinistas are laying the groundwork for a totalitarian society here and yet all Mendez wanted to hear about were abuses by the contras. How can we get people in the U.S. to see what's happening here when so many of the groups who come down are pro-Sandinista?"[14]

In 1987, New York Times reporter James LeMoyne wrote a series of articles chronicling human rights abuses by the Sandinstas in the southeast of Nicaragua.[15][16] At various times throughout the war, thousands of campesinos were uprooted from their homes with no warning and forced to move to "resettlement camps". According to the New York Times, this was due to "pervasive" support for the Contras. According to a June 28, 1987 article in the New York Times "Refugees in Government camps in Costa Rica and peasants interviewed two weeks ago in southern Nicaragua were unanimous in accusing the Sandinistas and not the rebels of human rights violations. Many, but not all, of the refugees and peasants said they supported the contras."

After the new Chamorro government took office in 1990, several people came forward to report previously unknown killings by Sandinista forces, a phenomenon that journalist Shirley Christian observed, "rais[ed] doubts about the long-held perception by Sandinista defenders outside Nicaragua that the Sandinistas were not as brutal as their opponents." In one incident in November 1984, a Sandinista special forces unit masquerading as Contras recruited dozens of volunteers around Bijagua, then massacred them.[17]

A 2004 article in the Washington-based peer-reviewed academic journal Demokratizatsiya describes many human rights violations by the Sandinistas, both during and after their period in power, like that Sandinista security forces assassinated more than two hundred Contras commanders who had accepted the terms of the United Nations-brokered peace accords and had laid down their arms to join the democratic process.[18] Among other sources (29 out of 103), the article uses interviews with Lino Hernández, director of the Permanent Commission on Human Rights, leading opposition politicians, reports produced by the US State Department during the 1980s and the conservative Washington Times.

U.S. military and financial assistance

A key role in the development of the Contra alliance was played by the United States following Ronald Reagan's assumption of the presidency in January 1981. Reagan accused the Sandinistas of importing Cuban-style socialism and aiding leftist guerrillas in El Salvador. On November 23 of that year, Reagan signed the top secret National Security Decision Directive 17 (NSDD-17), giving the CIA the authority to recruit and support the Contras with $19 million in military aid. The effort to support the Contras was one component of the Reagan Doctrine, which called for providing military support to movements opposing Soviet-supported, communist governments. The CIA distributed to the civilians The Freedom Fighter's Manual, meant to teach them simple sabotage methods (not going to work, damaging light bulbs, putting nails on roads, etc.) and more dangerous ones (how to make a molotov cocktail).

In 1984, Sandinista-run Nicaraguan government filed a suit in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) against the United States (Nicaragua vs. United States), which resulted in a 1986 judgment against the United States, calling on it to "cease and to refrain" from the "unlawful use of force" against Nicaragua, through such actions as the placement of underwater mines by CIA operatives and training, funding and support for the guerrilla forces. The court concluded that the United States was "in breach of its obligations under customary international law not to use force against another State", "not to intervene in its affairs", "not to violate its sovereignty", "not to interrupt peaceful maritime commerce", and "in breach of its obligations under Article XIX of the Treaty of Friendship, Commerce and Navigation between the Parties signed at Managua on 21 January 1956." Regarding human rights violations by the Contras, however, the court stated that the United States could be held accountable only for acts the Contras committed in connection with the United States, and therefore the "Court does not have to determine whether the violations of humanitarian law attributed to the contras were in fact committed by them." The Court found that the United States "has encouraged the commission by them [the Contras] of acts contrary to general principles of humanitarian law; but does not find a basis for concluding that any such acts which may have been committed are imputable to the United States of America as acts of the United States of America" The United States was ordered to pay reparations. [19]

The United States, which did not participate in the merits phase of the proceedings, maintained that the ICJ's power did not supersede the Constitution of the United States and argued that the court did not seriously consider the Nicaraguan role in El Salvador, whose intervention the court would not accept. The latter argument was affirmed by the primary dissenting justices -- notably U.S. Judge Schwebel, who claimed that "Nicaragua does not come before the Court with clean hands." [1] Nicaragua then took its case to the UN Security Council, where a resolution supporting the ruling of the ICJ was vetoed by the United States. Nicaragua then went to the General Assembly, which passed a resolution supporting the ruling of the ICJ 94-3.

Direct military aid by the United States was interrupted by the Boland Amendment, passed by the United States Congress in December 1982. The Boland Amendment was extended in October 1984 to forbid action by not only the Defense Department and the Central Intelligence Agency but all U.S. government agencies.

Administration officials sought to arrange funding and military supplies by means of third-parties. These efforts culminated in the Iran-Contra Affair of 1986-1987, which concerned contra funding through the proceeds of arms sales to Iran. On February 3, 1988 the United States House of Representatives rejected President Reagan's request for $36.25 million to aid the Contras. According to the National Security Archive, Oliver North, an important official in the Iran-Contra affair, had been in contact with Manuel Noriega, the military leader of Panama later convicted on drug charges, whom he personally met.

The issue of drug money and its importance in funding the Nicaraguan conflict was the subject of various reports and publications. The contras were funded by drug trafficking, of which the USA was aware.[20]. Senator John Kerry's 1988 Committee on Foreign Relations report on Contra drug links concluded that "senior U.S. policy makers were not immune to the idea that drug money was a perfect solution to the Contras' funding problems." [2] On the other hand, the 1989 book, Kings of Cocaine, alleges Sandinista involvement in cocaine smuggling. Barry Seal, a Medellin cartel pilot took photos which allegedly showed a high ranking Sandinista official unloading cocaine shipments at a Sandinista military airport.

The Reagan administration's support for the Contras continued to stir controversy well into the 1990s. In August 1996, San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb published a series titled Dark Alliance, alleging that the origin of crack cocaine in California was the responsibility of the Contras. [3] [4] Webb's controversial and highly damaging revelations were disputed at the time, but later revelations confirmed some of his findings. Freedom of Information Act inquiries by the National Security Archive and other investigators unearthed a number of documents showing that White House officials, including Oliver North, knew about and supported using money raised via drug trafficking to fund the Contras.[citation needed]

See also


  • Asleson, Vern. (2004) Nicaragua: Those Passed By. Galde Press ISBN 1-931942-16-1
  • Belli, Humberto. (1985). Breaking Faith: The Sandinista Revolution and Its Impact on Freedom and Christian Faith in Nicaragua. Crossway Books/The Puebla Institute.
  • Bermudez, Enrique, "The Contras' Valley Forge: How I View the Nicaraguan Crisis", Policy Review magazine, The Heritage Foundation, Summer 1988.
  • Brody, Reed. (1985). Contra Terror in Nicaragua: Report of a Fact-Finding Mission: September 1984-January 1985. Boston: South End Press. ISBN 0-89608-313-6.
  • Brown, Timothy. (2001). The Real Contra War: Highlander Peasant Resistance in Nicaragua. University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0-8061-3252-3.
  • Chamorro, Edgar. (1987). Packaging the Contras: A Case of CIA Disinformation. New York: Institute for Media Analysis. ISBN 0-941781-08-9; ISBN 0-941781-07-0.
  • Christian, Shirley. (1986) Nicaragua, Revolution In the Family. New York: Vintage Books.
  • Cox, Jack. (1987) Requiem in the Tropics: Inside Central America. UCA Books.
  • Cruz S., Arturo J. (1989). Memoirs of a Counterrevolutionary. (1989). New York: Doubleday.
  • Dickey, Christopher. (1985, 1987). With the Contras: A Reporter in the Wilds of Nicaragua. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  • Garvin, Glenn. (1992). Everybody Had His Own Gringo: The CIA and the Contras. Washington: Brassey's.
  • Gugliota Guy. (1989). Kings of Cocaine Inside the Medellin Cartel. Simon and Shuster.
  • Horton, Lynn. Peasants in Arms: War and Peace in the Mountains of Nicaragua, 1979-1994. (1998). Athens: Ohio University Center for International Studies.
  • Kirkpatrick, Jeane J.. (1982) Dictatorships and Double Standards. Touchstone. ISBN 0-671-43836-0
  • Miranda, Roger, and William Ratliff. (1993, 1994) "The Civil War in Nicaragua: Inside the Sandinistas." New Brunswick, NY: Transaction Publishers.
  • Moore, John Norton (1987). The Secret War in Central America: Sandinista Assault on World Order. University Publications of America.
  • Pardo-Maurer, Rogelio. (1990) The Contras, 1980-1989: A Special Kind of Politics. New York: Praeger.
  • Persons, David E. (1987) A Study of the History and Origins of the Nicaraguan Contras. Nacogdoches, Texas: Total Vision Press. Stephen Austin University Special Collections.
  • Webb, Gary (1998). Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion, Seven Stories Press. ISBN 1-888363-68-1 (hardcover, 1998), ISBN 1-888363-93-2 (paperback, 1999).


  1. ^ Dickey, Christopher. With the Contras, A Reporter in the Wilds of Nicaragua. Simon & Schuster, 1985.
  2. ^ Dillon, Sam. Comandos: The CIA and Nicaragua's Contra Rebels. New York: Henry Holt. pp. 49–56. ISBN 0805014756. OCLC 23974023. ISBN 9780805014754. 
  3. ^ Horton, Lynn. Peasants in Arms: War and Peace in the Mountains of Nicaragua, 1979-1994. Athens: Ohio University Center for International Studies. pp. 95–117. ISBN 0896802043. OCLC 39157572. ISBN 9780896802049. 
  4. ^ Padro-Maurer, R. The Contras 1980 - 1989, a Special Kind of Politics. NY: Praeger Publishers, 1990.
  5. ^ Brown, Timothy C. The Real Contra War, Highlander Peasant Resistance in Nicaragua. University of Oklahoma Press, 2001.
  6. ^ The Americas Watch Committee. "Human Rights in Nicaragua 1986" (print), Americas Watch, February 1987.
  7. ^ The Catholic Institute for International Relations (1987). "Right to Survive: Human Rights in Nicaragua" (print). The Catholic Institute for International Relations. 
  8. ^ The New Republic, January 20, 1986, with letters in The New Republic, February 17, 1986.
  9. ^ "'Contra' Terrorism Is, Unfortunately, True". Retrieved 2006-10-13. 
  10. ^ Jonathan Steele and Tony Jenkins (1984-11-15). "The Slaugter at the Cooperatives" (print). The Guardian. 
  11. ^ Nicaragua
  12. ^ The Americas Watch Committee (February 1987). "Human Rights in Nicaragua 1986" (print). Americas Watch. 
  13. ^ The New Republic, January 20, 1986; The New Republic, August 22, 1988; The National Interest, Spring 1990.
  14. ^ David Asman, "Despair and fear in Managua", Wall Street Journal, March 25, 1985.
  15. ^ Peasants Tell of Rights Abuses by Sandinistas - New York Times
  16. ^ Sandinistas Uproot Villagers To Limit Support For Contras - New York Times
  17. ^ Bijagua Journal; Graves Called Witness To Sandinista Atrocity - New York Times
  18. ^ J. Michael Waller Tropical Chekists: The Sandinista secret police legacy in Nicaragua Summer 2004
  19. ^ "International Court of Justice Year 1986, 27 June 1986, General list No. 70, paragraphs 251, 252, 157, 158, 233". International Court of Justice. Retrieved 2006-07-30.  Large PDF file from the ICJ website
  20. ^ National Security Archive (1990?). "The Contras, cocaine, and covert operations: Documentation of official U.S. knowledge of drug trafficking and the Contras". The National Security Archive / George Washington University.  Check date values in: |date= (help)

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