Nicaraguan authorities are continuing to refute the political motives of armed actors in the country's northern highlands, despite the recent assassination of two government activists. Yet the methods employed to confront them suggest they are more than just common criminals.
On October 13, ex-army officer and activist for the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN - known as the "Sandinistas") Trinidad Cano Torres was assassinated on the grounds of his farm near Wiwili, in the northern department of Jinotega. Less than two weeks earlier, Jose Cruz Lopez, the Sandinistas' leader in a small community 35 miles away, was killed in a similar fashion -- gunned down by a handful of men in military fatigues.
While initial reports did not identify who was behind Cruz's murder, Cano's was immediately linked to an armed group operating in the region under the leadership of Gerardo de Jesus Gutierrez, alias "El Flaco."
Since a deadly confrontation with security forces in July, El Flaco's group has attracted increasing attention. A series of clashes have rocked the region and left at least eight people dead, leading community leaders, human rights activists and Catholic Church representatives to call for an end to the bloodshed.
Reported to have been active within the "Contras" -- a rebel insurgency which fought the Sandinistas during their first stint in power in the 1980s -- El Flaco claims to lead one of several groups which have rearmed throughout northern departments and the Atlantic autonomous regions to oppose what they perceive as the government's slide towards tyranny.
While Nicaraguan authorities continue to label the groups "delinquents" involved in kidnapping, drug trafficking, cattle rustling and robbery, the rebels cite the 2009 alteration of the constitution to allow President Daniel Ortega to run for a second term as emblematic of his authoritarian tendencies. Among other key complaints are local electoral fraud and countryside repression.
Jinotega is a mountainous agricultural region which has been a traditional stronghold for armed rebellions, including that of Augusto Cesar Sandino -- from whom the Sandinistas take their name -- who fought a guerrilla war against US occupation during the 1920s and 1930s. Significant hostility towards the Sandinistas has persisted in the region for decades, while local leaders of the country's main political opposition, the Independent Liberal Party (PLI), have expressed their sympathy for the rebels' cause.
While estimates of the numbers of rearmed contras have varied from dozens to hundreds, and even thousands, they are commonly thought to act in small bands, and El Flaco has generally been reported to operate in a group of no more than 20 -- although his armed following could be more numerous.
According to security analyst James Bosworth, "These groups have been very small and the Ortega government has worked quickly to eliminate the threats, even while claiming that they are criminals and not politically motivated."
Despite this official dismissal of the political nature of the groups, Nicaraguan security forces have employed fierce military tactics in what has been described by Nicaragua-based journalist Tim Rogers as "a silent war which the government denies is happening."
A series of ex-contras who declared themselves rearmed have been killed in mysterious circumstances, while elite military squads have been employed to track down men later depicted as nothing more than drunken hoodlums. The systematic manner of the killings has seen military tactics described as "a hunt," amid complaints by local people and human rights activists of harassment, illegal detentions and extrajudicial killings by security forces.
As Tim Rogers told InSight Crime, such tactics have led to a "cycle of state repression, persecution and rearmament," arguably exacerbating the problem and bolstering support for armed groups such as El Flaco's.
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While the FSLN is now a left-wing party, it originally rose to power in 1979 as a revolutionary socialist movement following the ousting of US-friendly despot Anastasio Somoza Debayle. Throughout the 1980s, counter-revolutionaries heavily financed by the United States and based in Honduras and Costa Rica used guerrilla tactics to harry the infrastructure, services and people of the border regions in order to exert pressure upon the Sandinistas, arguably catalyzing their electoral defeat in 1990.
The Contras were a disparate collection of insurgent groups, with the southern front established by disenchanted Sandinista hero Eden Pastora. In the north, former members of Somoza's National Guard swelled the Contras' ranks, but they were also joined by Miskito Indians and former revolutionary allies of the Sandinistas such as the MILPAS (Peoples' Anti-Somocista Militia, which become the Peoples' Anti-Sandinista Militia), which had Marxist political origins.
None of the sources consulted by InSight Crime were able to confirm the historical origins of El Flaco, or any of the other notable rebel leaders who have risen up in recent years, but what seems clear is the veracity of the political convictions they espouse.
However, political convictions do not in themselves negate the possibility of criminal activity. As security analyst Roberto Orozco told InSight Crime, the groups' transition from using shotguns and hunting rifles, to military-grade weaponry suggests "a type of illegal arms trafficking that had not been seen in Nicaragua for over two decades."
The ties between the Contras operating in the 1980s and cocaine trafficking are now well known and it is possible these new groups are also involved to some degree. As Orozco points out, "the geographical points of operations of these armed groups are areas where organized crime, particularly drug trafficking, has great presence and control."
According to Orozco, "drug trafficking moves enough resources to co-opt these armed groups. It is a fear that drug trafficking may be supplying these weapons, but so far it's just a fear."
While the connection between the rearmed Contras and drug traffickers remains speculative, the need for funding to continue their struggle could push them together in the future, if it hasn't already. As James Bosworth told InSight Crime, "one of the long term threats is that those groups would turn to drug trafficking as an easy way to fund their operations."
In any case, what is currently being presented as a criminal nuisance could rapidly become a significant security threat, as heavy handed government tactics entrench the rebellion and push it towards the sphere of organized crime.