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 , Correspondent

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    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.'
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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.

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.

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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.”

Former contra leader Luis Fley, better known as “Comandante Jhonson,” told the Monitor that Jahob is not a common outlaw, but rather a highly trained solider with strong political convictions and lingering resentment toward the Sandinistas, who killed his father – an evangelical preacher – and brothers during the war in the 1980s. Mr. Fley says Jahob – who is now 47 – was trained in covert operations by the Argentines and Americans in the 1980s, and is probably working to “build a social network with collaborators in the mountains.”

Scars of war could reopen

Retired Gen. Hugo Torres, a former Sandinista guerrilla hero who later worked as head of the military’s state intelligence in the mid-1990s, warns that Jahob could find fertile ground to develop a following in the mountains.

“The wounds from the military conflict in the ‘80s still hadn’t finished scarring when Ortega returned to power (in 2007). And instead of working to heal those wounds, Ortega did just the opposite: he is reopening wounds by polarizing and dividing the population,” says Mr. Torres, who is now a member of the left-wing dissident Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS).

The former general warns that Jahob’s movement could grow if he proves to be a strong leader and if people think Ortega is repeating the oppressive Sandinista policies of the 1980s.

Though Torres says it’s too soon to predict how Jahob’s adventure will end, at this point it is “important to not magnify this, nor minimize it.”

For many of the older ex-contras who demobilized 21 years ago, returning to armed conflict is unthinkable. Yet many were just teenagers when they handed in their guns. They are now in their 30s or 40s and – in the words of Torres – “still have energy.”

War unwanted among many civilians

But many who experienced the battlefield horrors in the 1980s say a return to armed violence is unacceptable.

Former contra commando “Comandante Jehu,” a close friend of Jahob, says his comrade simply wants to work and live in peace. Jehu, who sits in a wheelchair after being crippled during the war in the 80s, says Jahob has no intention of returning to armed struggle, but was forced to go on the run because he was being “persecuted” by the Army for a murder he insists he didn’t commit.

“Jahob is not rearmed, he’s just hiding because he feels cornered,” Jehu said. “There are no conditions for a guerrilla war here. People don’t even have enough money to buy food, much less guns.”

Jehu says Jahob’s threats have been exaggerated by Managua politicians trying to manipulate the situation for their own benefit. He says Nicaragua’s political right wing fantasizes about a Rambo-like character that declares war on Ortega, while the left wing fantasizes about war as an excuse to crack down harder on society and cancel next year’s elections.

But the majority of Nicaragua’s poor who fought in the civil war – people like Jahob – know that war doesn’t fix anything, Jehu insists.

“War is horrible,” the disabled veteran says. “Those of us who fought for 10 years have no desire to return to war.”

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