The contras (some references use the capitalized form, “Contras“) is a label given to the various rebel groups opposing the Sandinista Junta of National Reconstruction government in Nicaragua that were active from 1979 through to the early 1990s. Among the separate contra groups, the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN) emerged as the largest by far. In 1987, virtually all contra organizations were united, at least nominally, into the Nicaraguan Resistance.
From an early stage, the rebels received decisive financial and military support from the U.S. government, initially supplemented by the Argentine dictatorship of the time. After U.S. support was banned by Congress, the Reagan administration tried to covertly continue contra aid.
The term “contra” comes from the Spanish contra, which means against but in this case is short for la contrarrevolucion, in English “the counter-revolution”. 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”). From the mid-1980s, as the Reagan administration and the rebels sought to portray the movement as the “democratic resistance”, members started describing themselves as la resistencia.
During the war against the Sandinista government, the contras carried out many human rights violations, and evidence suggests that these were systematically committed as an element of warfare strategy. Contra supporters often tried to downplay these violations, or countered that the Sandinista government carried out much more. In particular, the Reagan administration engaged in a campaign to alter public opinion on the contras which has been denoted as “white propaganda”.
- Ex-guardsmen of the Nicaraguan National Guard and other right-wing figures who had fought for Nicaragua’s ex-dictator Somoza—these later were especially found in the military wing of the FDN. The Carter administration had viewed the US-created Nicaraguan National Guard as a means to keep the Sandinistas from exclusive power, and had taken measures to preserve at least parts of it when Somoza was defeated. On July 19, 1979, as Sandinista forces entered the capital, a U.S. plane disguised with Red Cross markings had evacuated remaining members of the National Guard to Miami. The Guard was then built into a counter revolutionary force by the CIA and Argentine trainers. Remnants of the Guard later formed groups such as the Fifteenth of September Legion, the Anti-Sandinista Guerrilla Special Forces, and the National Army of Liberation. Initially however, these groups were small and conducted little active raiding into Nicaragua.
- Anti-Somozistas who had supported the revolution but felt betrayed by the Sandinista government – e.g. Edgar Chamorro, prominent member of the political directorate of the FDN, or Jose Francisco Cardenal, who had briefly served in the Council of State before leaving Nicaragua out of disagreement with the Sandinista government’s policies and founding the Nicaraguan Democratic Union (UDN), an opposition group of Nicaraguan exiles in Miami. Another example are 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 chilotes (green corn). Even after his death, other MILPAS bands sprouted during 1980–1981. The Milpistas were composed largely of the campesino (peasant) highlanders and rural workers who would later form the rank and file of the rebellion.
- Nicaraguans who had avoided direct involvement in the revolution but opposed the Sandinistas’ increasingly anti-democratic regime.
The CIA and Argentine intelligence, seeking to unify the anti-Sandinista cause before initiating large-scale aid, persuaded the 15 September Legion, the UDN and several former smaller groups to merge in August 1981 as the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (Fuerza Democrática Nicaragüense, FDN). Although the FDN had its roots in two groups made up of former National Guardsmen (of the Somoza regime), its joint political directorate was led by businessman and former anti-Somoza activist Adolfo Calero Portocarrero. Edgar Chamorro later stated that there was strong opposition within the UDN against working with the Guardsmen and that the merging only took place because of insistence by the CIA.
Based in Honduras, Nicaragua’s northern neighbor, under the command of former National Guard Colonel Enrique Bermúdez, the new FDN commenced to draw in other smaller insurgent forces in the north. Largely financed, trained, equipped, armed and organized by the U.S., it emerged as the largest and most active contra group.
In April 1982, Edén Pastora (Comandante Cero), one of the heroes in the fight against Somoza, organized the Sandinista Revolutionary Front (FRS) – embedded in the Democratic Revolutionary Alliance (ARDE) – and declared war on the Sandinista government. Himself a former Sandinista who had held several high posts in the government, he had resigned apruptly in 1981 and defected, believing that the newly found power had corrupted the Sandinista’s original ideas. A popular and charismatic leader, Pastora initially saw his group develop quickly. He confined himself to operate in the southern part of Nicaragua; after a press conference he was holding on 30 May 1984 was bombed, he “voluntarily withdrew” from the contra struggle.
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 nationalize Indian land. In the course of this conflict, forced removal of at least 10,000 Indians to relocation centers in the interior of the country and subsequent burning of some villages took place. The Misurasata movement split in 1983, with the breakaway Misura group of Stedman Fagoth Muller allying itself more closely with the FDN, and the rest accommodating themselves with the Sandinista government. A subsequent autonomy statute in September 1987 largely defused Miskito resistance.
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 Adolfo Calero, Arturo Cruzand Alfonso Robelo, all originally supporters of the anti-Somoza revolution. After UNO’s dissolution early in 1987, the Nicaraguan Resistance (RN) was organized along similar lines in May.
U.S. military and financial assistance
In front of the International Court of Justice, Nicaragua claimed that the contras were altogether a creation of the U.S. This claim was rejected. However, the evidence of a very close relationship between the contras and the United States was considered overwhelming and incontrovertible. The U.S. played a very large role in financing, training, arming, and advising the contras over a long period, and the contras only became capable of carrying out significant military operations as a result of this support.
Ronald Reagan, who had assumed the American presidency in January 1981, accused the Sandinistas of importing Cuban-style socialism and aiding leftist guerrillas in El Salvador.On 4 January 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-supported, communist governments.
By December 1981, however, the United States had already begun to support armed opponents of the Sandinista regime. From the beginning, the CIA was in charge. The arming, clothing, feeding and supervision of the contras became the most ambitious paramilitary and political action operation mounted by the agency in nearly a decade. One of the purposes the CIA hoped to achieve by these operations was an aggressive and violent response from the Sandinista government which in turn could be used as a pretext for proper military actions.
In the fiscal year 1984, the U.S. Congress approved $24 million in contra aid. However, since the contras failed to win widespread popular support or military victories within Nicaragua, since opinion polls indicated that a majority of the U.S. public was not supportive of the contras, since the Reagan administration lost much of its support regarding its contra policy within Congress after disclosure of CIA mining of Nicaraguan ports, and since a report of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research commissioned by the State Department found Reagan’s allegations about Soviet influence in Nicaragua “exaggerated”, Congress cut off all funds for the contras in 1985 by the third Boland Amendment. The Boland Amendment had first been passed by Congress in December 1982. At this time, it only outlawed U.S. assistance to the contras for the purpose of overthrowing the Nicaraguan government, while allowing assistance for other purposes. In October 1984, it was amended to forbid action by not only the Defense Department and the Central Intelligence Agency but all U.S. government agencies.
Nevertheless, the case for support of the contras continued to be made in Washington, D.C., by both the Reagan administration and the Heritage Foundation, which argued that support for the contras would counter Soviet influence in Nicaragua.
On May 1, 1985 President Reagan announced that his administration perceived Nicaragua to be “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States”, and declared a “national emergency” and a trade embargo against Nicaragua to “deal with that threat”. After the U.S. enforced the embargo, Nicaragua was isolated from the West, forcing the Sandinistas to rely more on Eastern bloc military and economic assistance even though Moscow declined to offer the quantity of aid it provided to close communist allies.
Illegal covert operations
With Congress blocking further contra aid, the Reagan administration sought to arrange funding and military supplies by means of third countries and private sources. Between 1984 and 1986, $34 million from third countries and $2.7 million from private sources were raised this way. The secret contra assistance was run by the National Security Council, with officer Lt. Col. Oliver North in charge. With the third-party funds, North created an organization called “The Enterprise” which served as the secret arm of the NSC staff and had its own airplanes, pilots, airfield, ship, operatives and secret Swiss bank accounts. It also received assistance from personnel from other government agencies, especially from CIA personnel in Central America. This operation functioned, however, without any of the accountability required of U.S. government activities. The Enterprise’s efforts culminated in the Iran-Contra Affair of 1986–1987, which facilitated contra funding through the proceeds of arms sales to Iran.
According to the National Security Archive, Oliver North 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 United States 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”.
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.  
During the time congress blocked funding for the contras, the Reagan government engaged in a campaign to alter public opinion and change the vote in congress on contra aid.For this purpose, the NSC established an interagency working group which in turn coordinated the Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America and the Caribbean (managed by Otto Reich), which conducted the campaign.
The S/LPD produced and widely disseminated a variety of pro-contra publications, arranged speeches and press conferences. It also disseminated “white propaganda”—pro-contra newspaper articles by paid consultants who did not disclose their connection to the Reagan administration.
On top of that, Oliver North helped Carl Channell’s tax-exempt organization, the “National Endowment for the Preservation of Liberty”, to raise $10 million, by arranging numerous briefings for groups of potential contributors at the premises of the White House and by facilitating private visits and photo sessions with president Reagan for major contributors. Channell, in turn, used part of that money to run a series of television advertisements directed at home districts of congressmen considered to be swing votes on contra aid. Out of the $10 million raised, more than $1 million was spent on pro-contra publicity.
“If you look at it as a whole”, a senior S/LPD official said, “the Office of Public Diplomacy was carrying out a huge psychological operation of the kind the military conducts to influence a population in denied or enemy territory”.
International Court of Justice ruling
In 1984 the Sandinista government filed a suit in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) against the United States (Nicaragua v. United States), which resulted in a 1986 judgment against the United States. The ICJ held that the U.S. had violated international law by supporting the contras in their rebellion against the Nicaraguan government and by mining Nicaragua’s harbors. Regarding the alleged human rights violations by the contras, however, the ICJ took the view that the United States could only be held accountable for them if it would have been proven that the U.S. had effective control of the contra operations resulting in these alleged violations. Nevertheless, the ICJ found that the U.S. encouraged acts contrary to general principles of humanitarian law by producing the manual Psychological Operations in Guerrilla Warfare (Operaciones sicológicas en guerra de guerrillas) and disseminating it to the contras. The manual, amongst other things, advised on how to rationalize killings of civilians and recommended to hire professional killers for specific selective tasks.
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, while it accused Nicaragua of actively supporting armed groups there, specifically in the form of supply of arms. The ICJ had found that evidence of a responsibility of the Nicaraguan government in this matter was insufficient. The U.S. argument was affirmed, however, by the dissenting opinion of ICJ member U.S. Judge Schwebel, who concluded that in supporting the contras, the United States acted lawfully in collective self-defence in El Salvador’s support. The U.S. blocked enforcement of the ICJ judgment by the United Nations Security Council and thereby prevented Nicaragua from obtaining any actual compensation. The Nicaraguan government finally withdrew the complaint from the court in September 1992 (under the later, post-FSLN, government of Violeta Chamorro), following a repeal of the law requiring the country to seek compensation.
Human rights violations
Edgar Chamorro, a former Contra and member of the FDN’s political directorate who later became a critic of the Contras, stated that during his time with the Contras, he frequently received reports about atrocities committed by Contra troops against civilians and against Sandinista prisoners: “As time went on, I became more and more troubled by the frequent reports I received of atrocities committed by our troops against civilians and against Sandinista prisoners. The atrocities I had heard about were not isolated incidents, but reflected a consistent pattern of behaviour by our troops. There were unit commanders who openly bragged about their murders, mutilations, etc.”
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.”
- 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.
Human Rights Watch released a report on the situation in 1989, which stated: “[The] contras were major and systematic violators of the most basic standards of the laws of armed conflict, including by launching indiscriminate attacks on civilians, selectively murdering non-combatants, and mistreating prisoners.”
Similarly, the Catholic Institute for International Relations (CIIR, now known as “Progressio”), a human rights organization which identifies itself with liberation theology, had 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.” Earlier, in December 1984, the Council on Hemispheric Affairs had issued a report condemning the Contras and the United States government as being among the worst human rights violators in Latin America: “The CIA directed forces are among the worst human rights violators in Latin America, responsible for systematic brutality against a civilian population. For its critical role in facilitating the Contra violence, the [United States] Administration must share responsibility as a hemispheric violator of human rights. The Contras have killed, tortured, raped, mutilated and abducted hundreds of civilians they suspect of sympathizing with the Sandinistas. Victims have included peasants, teachers, doctors and agricultural workers.”
Human rights violations as a strategy
A fact finding mission of 1985 – sponsored by the International Human Rights Law Group and the Washington Office on Latin America, and carried out independently of any Nicaraguan government interference or direction – found that the contras with some frequency deliberately targeted Nicaraguan citizens in acts of terroristic violence.
An influential report on Contra atrocities was issued by lawyer Reed Brody shortly before the 1985 U.S. Congressional vote on Contra aid. It disclosed a “distinct pattern” of abuses by the contras, including: “attacks on purely civilian targets resulting in the killing of unarmed men, woman, children and the elderly—premeditated acts of brutality including rapes, beatings, mutilations and torture—and individual and mass kidnappings of civilians for the purpose of forced recruitment into the Contra forces and the creation of a hostage refugee population in Honduras; – assaults on economic and social targets such as farms, cooperatives and on vehicles carrying volunteer coffee harvesters; – intimidation of civilians who participate or cooperate in government or community programs such as distribution of subsidized food products, education and local self-defense militias; – and kidnapping, intimidation, and even murder of religious leaders who support the government, including priests and clergy- trained lay pastors.”
Similarly, Human Rights Watch pointed out that “the Contras systematically engage in violent abuses…so prevalent that these may be said to be their principal means of waging war” in a 1989 report.
In his affidavit to the World Court, former contra Edgar Chamorro testified that “The CIA did not discourage such tactics. To the contrary, the Agency severely criticized me when I admitted to the press that the FDN had regularly kidnapped and executed agrarian reform workers and civilians. We were told that the only way to defeat the Sandinistas was to…kill, kidnap, rob and torture…”
These deliberate acts of violence against civilians were acknowledged by the CIA as early as late 1983, when Duane Clarridge, Latin America division chief of the CIA’s Directorate for Operations, reported in a secret briefing to the Senate subcommittee that his contras had murdered “civilians and Sandinista officials in the provinces, as well as heads of cooperatives, nurses, doctors and judges”. But that didn’t contradict the presidential directive, Dewey said. “These events don’t constitute assassinations because as far as we are concerned assassinations are only those of heads of state. I leave definitions to the politicians. After all, this is a war—a paramilitary operation”.
Furthermore, the CIA instructed the contras to destroy and sabotage economic and social targets such as lumber yards, coffee processing plants, electrical generating stations, farms, cooperatives, food storage facilities, health centers, including a particular effort to dusrupt the coffee harvests through attacks on coffee cooperatives and on vehicles carrying volunteer coffee harvesters. They also attacked and intimidated civilians deemed to be contributors to the country’s economy such as telephone workers, coffee pickers, teachers, and technicians as well as civilians who participated or cooperated in government or community programs such as distribution of subsidized food products, rural cooperatives, and education.
Psychological Operations in Guerrilla Warfare
The CIA manual, “Psychological Operations in Guerrilla Warfare” (Operaciones sicológicas en guerra de guerrillas), had been written in 1983 to be used by the contras. The manual talks about killing civilians who try to leave an occupied town and to rationalize their killing, hiring professional assassins, blackmailing citizens into working for the contras, and inciting violence during demonstrations.
The International Court of Justice ruled on 27 June 1986 that by disseminating the manual to the contras, the United States of America had “encouraged … acts contrary to general principles of humanitarian law.” Americas Watch had come to a similar conclusion in 1985.
New Republic editor Michael Kinsley argued that critics should not simply dismiss State Department justifications for contra attacks on “soft targets”: “The State Department has defended bloody contra attacks on government-sponsored farm cooperatives, saying that these civilian facilities have military aspects. And, of course, that’s true. In a Marxist society geared up for war, there are no clear lines separating officials, soldiers and civilians. A guerrilla struggle can’t be won by attacking only card-carrying Sandinistas. The goal is to undermine morale and confidence in the government: a perfectly legitimate goal if you believe in the cause, but impossible to achieve without vast civilian suffering. Any sensible policy must meet the test of cost-benefit analysis. The amount of blood and misery that will be poured in, and the likelihood that democracy will emerge at the other end.”
In line with this, contra leader Adolfo Calero denied that his forces deliberately targeted civilians: “What they call a cooperative is also a troop concentration full of armed people. We are not killing civilians. We are fighting armed people and returning fire when fire is directed at us.”
U.S. news media published several articles accusing Americas Watch and other bodies of ideological bias and unreliable reporting. It 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 for 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?”
Human Rights Watch, the umbrella organization of Americas Watch, replied to these allegations: “Almost invariably, U.S. pronouncements on human rights exaggerated and distorted the real human rights violations of the Sandinista regime, and exculpated those of the U.S.-supported insurgents, known as the contras…The Bush administration is responsible for these abuses, not only because the contras are, for all practical purposes, a U.S. force, but also because the Bush administration has continued to minimize and deny these violations, and has refused to investigate them seriously.”
U.S. political scientist Rudolph Rummel estimated that by 1987, the contras had murdered about 500 people while the Sandinistas had murdered 4,000 to 7,000 people in democide. In contrast, Witness for Peace and the Sandinista government claimed at least 736 civilians were murdered by the contras between March 1987 and October 1988 alone.
Military successes and election of Violeta Chamorro
By 1986 the contras were besieged by charges of corruption, human-rights abuses, and military ineptitude. A much-vaunted early 1986 offensive never materialized, and Contra forces were largely reduced to isolated acts of terrorism. In October 1987, however, the contras staged a successful attack in southern Nicaragua. Then on 21 December 1987, the FDN launched attacks at La Bonanza, La Siuna, and La Rosita in Zelaya province, resulting in heavy fighting. ARDE Frente Sur attacked at El Almendro and along the Rama road. These large-scale raids mainly became possible as the contras were able to use U.S.-provided Redeye missiles against Sandinista Mi-24 helicopter gunships, which had been supplied by the Soviets. Nevertheless, the Contras remained tenuously encamped within Honduras and weren’t able to hold Nicaraguan territory.
There were isolated protests among the population against the draft implemented by the Sandinista government, which even resulted in full-blown street clashes in Masaya in 1988. However, polls showed the Sandinista government still enjoyed strong support from Nicaraguans. Political opposition groups were splintered and the Contras began to experience defections, although United States aid maintained them as a viable military force.
After a cutoff in U.S. military support and with both sides facing international pressure to bring an end to the conflict, the contras agreed to negotiations with the FSLN. With the help of five Central American Presidents, including Ortega, it was agreed that a voluntary demobilization of the contras should start in early December 1989, in order to facilitate free and fair elections in Nicaragua in February 1990 (even though the Reagan administration had pushed for a delay of contra disbandment).
In the resulting February 1990 elections, Violeta Chamorro and her party the UNO won an upset victory of 55% to 41% over Daniel Ortega, even though polls leading up to the election had clearly indicated an FSLN victory.
Possible explanations include that the Nicaraguan people were disenchanted with the Ortega regime as well as the fact that already in November 1989, the White House had announced that the economic embargo against Nicaragua would continue unless Violeta Chamorro won. Also, there had been reports of intimidation from the side of the contras, with a Canadian observer mission confirming 42 people killed by the contras in “election violence” in October 1989. This led many commentators to assume that Nicaraguans voted against the Sandinistas out of fear of a continuation of the contra war and economic deprivation. Both by critics and supporters of the Reagan administration, this was seen as a direct result of the administration’s efforts concerning the contras.