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In Nicaragua, a return of the contras?

A former commando known as 'Comandante Jahob' says he is rearming a group of contras to oppose the reelection of President Daniel Ortega. Former contra leaders and ex-military intelligence tell the Monitor it would be a mistake for the military to dismiss the threat.

By Tim RogersCorrespondent / August 20, 2010

A man walks past a painting of Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega in Managua August 7. Ortega returned to power in 2007 in his fourth attempt at reelection – a campaign he ran on promises of 'peace and reconciliation.'

Oswaldo Rivas/Reuters

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Managua, Nicaragua

Hidden somewhere in the rugged mountains of Estelí, in northern Nicaragua, a former contra commando with CIA training says he’s organizing an armed rebellion against President Daniel Ortega.

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José Gabriel Garmendia, a former counterrevolutionary special forces commander known by the codename “Comandante Jahob,” is reportedly leading a group of rearmed contras that promise to “remove Ortega from office with bullets” if the president tries to sidestep the constitution to get himself reelected next year.

US-backed counterrevolutionary forces, or “contras,” battled the left-wing Sandinista government in decade-long civil war in the 1980s, which claimed more than 36,000 lives. When Mr. Ortega and the Sandinistas were voted out of office in 1990, tens of thousands of contras – including Jahob – handed in their weapons and tried to return to civilian life.

Ortega returned to power in 2007 in his fourth attempt at reelection – a campaign he ran on promises of “peace and reconciliation.” But three-and-half years into his second term, Nicaraguan society has become increasingly polarized by Ortega’s government, which critics claim is pushing the country back toward dictatorship.

Ortega’s actions have allegedly forced some contras to return to clandestine struggle, according to Jahob. In a rare phone interview with a local newspaper earlier this month, the mysterious comandante said he and his men are looking for weapons and munitions and are prepared to remain in the mountains as long as they feel it’s necessary to ensure Ortega's ouster.

Military dismisses threat

Nicaraguan authorities are downplaying Jahob’s rebellion. Gen. Julio César Avilés, Nicaragua’s military chief, said the Army has gathered intelligence that Jahob has been crossing into Honduras to make contacts with other “delinquent groups” north of Nicaragua’s border, where the contras created training bases with CIA support in the 1980s. Still, the military brass insists Jahob is nothing more than a common criminal hiding behind a false political cause.

“The war has ended; there are no conditions for armed groups to operate here,” General Avilés told reporters last month.

But former contra leaders and ex-military intelligence warn that it would be a mistake to dismiss Jahob’s incipient uprising.

One ex-contra who says he worked with Jahob in the 1980s says he remembers the former commando leader as being a “specialist in ambush and kidnappings,” and someone who is “very capable of doing convert operations anywhere, anytime.”

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