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The Contras is a label given to the various rebel groups opposing Nicaraguamarker's FSLN (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional) Sandinista Junta of National Reconstruction government following the July 1979 overthrow of Anastasio Somoza Debayle's dictatorship. 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 both overt and covert financial and military support from the United States government through the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), initially supplemented by the Argentinean dictatorship of the time. At other times the US Congress wished to distance itself from the Contras and withdrew all overt support.

The term "Contra" comes from the Spanish la contra, short for , in English "the counter-revolution". (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 ("commandos"); peasant sympathizers also called the rebels ("the cousins"). From the mid-1980s, as the Reagan administration and the rebels sought to define the movement as the "democratic resistance," members started describing themselves as .Image:Contra commandas 1987.jpg|Contra Commandas from FDN and ARDE Frente Sur, Nueva Guineamarker area, 1987Image:Smoke_break_el_serrano_1987.jpg|Members of ARDE Frente Sur taking a smoke break after routing the FSLN garrison at El Serrano, southeast Nicaragua, 1987.



Early opposition to the Sandinistas comprised many disparate strands.

  • Pablo Emilio Salazar (Comandante Bravo), the National Guard's most prominent field commander, hoped its escaped remnants could be regrouped as a unified force. Following his assassination in October 1979 by Sandinista intelligence, however, the Guard disintegrated. 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.

  • Meanwhile, some of the Nicaraguan middle class, whose discontent with Somoza had led them to back the Sandinistas, soon became disillusioned with 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 Sandinista veterans from the northern mountains. Founded by Pedro Joaquín González (known as "Dimas"), the Milpistas were also known as (green corn). Even after his death, other MILPAS bands sprouted during 1980-1981. The Milpistas were composed largely of the highlanders and rural workers who would later form the rank and file of the rebellion.

Main groups

The CIA and Argentine intelligencemarker, 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 Hondurasmarker, Nicaragua's northern neighbor, 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 Ricamarker 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 Cubanmarker officials in the Managuamarker 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 coastmarker, 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.
  • 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 who turned into a vocal opponent , widow of murdered anti-Somoza journalist Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Cardenal, defeated Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega by a huge margin 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.

Catholic Church Support

The Catholic Church in Nicaragua to which 85% of Nicaraguans claimed to belong, often spoke out in favor of the Contras.

To quote from Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo's May 12, 1986 Washington Post letter to the editor "Sandinistas Gagged and Bound Us",which greatly influenced the gifting of the US Congress of $100 million in military aid to the Contras:
"The insurgent dissidents are now in the same position that the Sandinistas themselves once occupied, and, consequently,they have the same right that the Sandinistas had to seek aid from other nations, which they in fact did request and obtainin order to fight a terrible dictatorship."

Pope John Paul II visited Nicaragua in 1983 and publicly scolded the Ortega regime for its "Liberation Theology". Culture Minister Ernesto Cardenal knelt in front of the Pope while being scolded by the finger-wagging Pontiff.

On May 25, 1985, Pope John Paul II promoted Archbishop Obando y Bravo to the rank of Cardinal.

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.

Catholic Institute for International Relations (CIIR, now known as "Progressio"), a human rights organization which identifies itself with Liberation theology 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."

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. In a letter to The New York Times, 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.

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." 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.

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.

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?"

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 Salvadormarker. On January 4, 1982, 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-supportedmarker, 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 Justicemarker (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.

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." [801] 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 Panamamarker 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.. 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." [802] 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 contras contributed to the rise of crack cocaine in California. [803] [804] Webb's controversial and highly damaging revelations were disputed at the time, but later revelations confirmed some of his findings."

Military Successes and Election of Violeta Chamorro

While faced with the largest standing army in the history of Central America, thousands of Cuban and East Bloc military advisers, and "Flying Tank" Mi-24 Soviet gunships Mil Mi-24, the Contras recorded their greatest military successes in late 1987 and early 1988. The December 21st 1987 coordinated attacks by FDN commandos at La Bonanza, La Siuna, and La Rosita in Zelaya province, combined with attacks by ARDE Frente Sur at El Almendro and along the Rama road forced Daniel Ortega and the FSLN into negotiations as a tactic to avoid a military defeat.The downing of Soviet supplied Mi-24 helicopter gunships by US supplied Red-Eye missiles and large scale operations in all corners of Nicaragua were a turning point in the war. FSLN conscription rates, already at 30,000 a year, increased and caused protests in several major population centers such as Managua and Masaya. The 1980s protests in Masaya and subsequent 1990 election loss there were especially galling to the Sandinistas as this town was known as "The Birthplace of the Revolution".

After a cutoff in US military support and with both sides facing international pressure to bring an end to the conflict the Contras agreed to negotiations with the FSLN. This had the short term effect of allowing opposition candidate Violeta Chamorro to win a landslide 55% to 41% victory over Daniel Ortega with Chamorro winning nearly 68% of the rural vote. This in spite of the fact that the estimated 500,000 refugees created by the war living outside Nicaragua were not allowed to cast absentee ballots.As reported in the Washington Post and other sources, in areas where the Contras were most active, the landslide victory at the polls was most pronounced: "Another myth was that the anti-Sandinista rebels, or contras, portrayed for years as widely reviled in Nicaragua, would drag UNO to defeat because the coalition was too closely identified with them and included former contra leaders. As it happened, the two regions where the contras have been most active showed among the most lopsided results in favor of UNO. In the central provinces of Chontales and Boaco, UNO won with 67.9 percent of the vote compared to 27.7 percent for the Sandinistas. In the northern provinces of Matagalpa and Jinotega, UNO got 57.7 percent of the vote to the Sandinistas' 37 percent."

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. Padro-Maurer, R. The Contras 1980 - 1989, a Special Kind of Politics. NY: Praeger Publishers, 1990.
  3. Brown, Timothy C. The Real Contra War, Highlander Peasant Resistance in Nicaragua. University of Oklahoma Press, 2001.
  4. The Americas Watch Committee. "Human Rights in Nicaragua 1986" (print), Americas Watch, February 1987.
  5. The New Republic, January 20, 1986, with letters in The New Republic, February 17, 1986.
  6. Nicaragua
  7. The New Republic, January 20, 1986; The New Republic, August 22, 1988; The National Interest, Spring 1990.
  8. David Asman, "Despair and fear in Managua", Wall Street Journal, March 25, 1985.
  10. Large PDF file from the ICJ website
  11. Meara, William R. Contra Cross: Insurgency And Tyranny in Central America, 1979-1989. US Naval Institute Press, 2006.

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