Nicaraguan coffee farmer Modesto Duarte was returning home from the fields with his son and grandson last Tuesday when he spotted two unknown men driving up the dirt road on a motorcycle. It was the third day in a row they had seen the men pass by — not a common occurrence on the remote mountain passes of Pantasma.
Five minutes later, a strong explosion surged through the forest, scattering the birds from the trees. Duarte dropped his coffee sack at the house and ran in the direction of the noise, followed by his son Jadier and grandson Eliezer, according to his wife's testimony recorded by the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH). What the three men found was appalling: a bomb blast had strewn human body parts everywhere.
The Duartes didn’t have much time to ponder the gruesome scene; within seconds of their arrival bullets whizzed past their heads from the guns of soldiers dressed in jungle fatigues. The first burst of bullets dropped Modesto Duarte, 62, and sent the younger Jadier and Eliezer scrambling for cover. Jadier, 19, was shot in the leg and captured as he beat a retreat through the forest; Eliezer, 16, managed to escape unharmed and later rel the events to CENIDH.
A second brother, 22-year-old Yader, was captured by masked soldiers an hour later when he unknowingly happened by the scene on his way back from the coffee fields. He claims he was hogtied and interrogated at knifepoint about the movements of rearmed contras operating in the area. By the time the soldiers released him sometime around 1 a.m., Yader’s younger brother was in the hospital with a bullet wound and his father—tragically mistaken for a rearmed contra—was dead and left tied to a tree on the edge of his own property.
The Duarte family is the latest victim of a violent cat-and-mouse game between the army and alleged rearmed ‘contra’ rebels operating in the northern mountains of Nicaragua. The fateful explosion that Modesto Duarte went to investigate with his son and grandson was apparently a remote-detonated backpack bomb intended to wipe out a band of rearmed contras operating in the region, according to a preliminary investigation by CENIDH. The bomb apparently detonated prematurely, killing only two of the rebels.
“Supposedly there are two to four more members of rearmed group who escaped with injuries,” Pantasma Mayor Oscar Gadea told Fusion in a phone interview. “The army is going on nightly patrols looking for the others. The people of Pantasma are scared. No one goes out after dark anymore.”
Military spokesman Manuel Guevara confirmed the incident to the daily La Prensa, but wouldn’t offer any further comment. Nicaraguan police won’t comment on the matter, and the army’s spokesman did not answer Fusion’s request for information.
In the past, the Nicaraguan army has denied the existence of rearmed rebels, insisting they are “common delinquents.”
But that argument is getting harder to defend. Former contra leader Oscar “Comandante Ruben” Sobalvarro, who led the contra demobilization commission in 1990, estimates that some 50 rearmed rebels have been killed in army operations since their gradual return to arms began in late 2010. The claim is not independently verifiable.
“Nicaraguan campesinos might be uneducated and humble, but they’re not stupid or blind. And campesinos aren’t liars, either,” Sobalvarro told Fusion in a phone interview. “The campesinos say there are rearmed contras operating in the area, and that the army is hunting them down. And the campesino knows the difference between the two groups.”
Sobalvarro says the army is playing a dangerous game in Pantasma, an area where most of the able-bodied men joined the U.S.-backed contra uprising against the Soviet-backed Sandinista government during President Daniel Ortega's first administration in the 1980s.
Sobalvarro notes that last week’s backpack bomb — which he calls a telltale sign of “Sandinista military intelligence”—was the second apparent military operation in Pantasma in the past year. In December, 2013 two other campesinos were gunned down in a shootout between the military and a different rearmed contra unit led by “Comandante Flaco,” who allegedly escaped into Honduras.
“The army has clearly made Pantasma a place of permanent vigilance and persecution,” Sobalvarro said. “This is a dangerous situation, because every act of violence and repression forces more campesinos into the mountains to join the rebel groups for protection.”
There is no way of knowing how many contras have returned to arms; their claims to have hundreds or even thousands of armed rebels are almost certainly exaggerated.
Nicaragua’s silent rebellion started when a former CIA-trained special-ops commander known as “Comandante Yahob” launched a Rambo-style insurrection and vowed to “remove Ortega from office by bullets” in 2010. He was killed a year later by a sniper’s bullet in northern Nicaragua. His predecessor, a rearmed contra known as “Pablo Negro,” was murdered the following year and tossed in a ditch along the Honduran border. Neither crime was fully investigated.
In 2013, Nicaraguan special ops launched “Operation Reptile” to hunt down and kill the next in command, who went by the nom de guerre “Comandante Cascabel,” or Commander Rattlesnake. Cascabel and three of his men were killed when the army surrounded their jungle hideout. Around that time, several dozen self-identified contras fled to Honduras seeking political asylum.
Last July 19, on the anniversary of the Sandinista revolution, an alleged contra group struck back, attacking several buses of Sandinista sympathizers, killing five and injuring 19 more in what appeared to be a series of coordinated midnight attacks. The government denies the attack was politically motivated.
But most of the skirmishes go unreported in the media or by the government, according to contra leaders, rights activists and rural church leaders.
“The dead remain where they fall in the mountains,” said CENIDH'S Adelayda Sánchez.