The Brief, Necessary and Stormy History of the FUAC
The rhetoric of President Alemán and his followers has sadly made the FUAC a "protagonist" in the election campaign—despite the fact that it no longer exists. It is worth looking back and understanding this armed group in context to get closer to the truth.
José Luis Rocha
In The March of Folly, From Troy to Vietnam, one of her most famous books, US historian Barbara W. Tuchman describes various well-known events in the history of human warfare to point out a notable phenomenon: governments tend to adopt policies contrary to their own interests. She demonstrates that the human species has performed worse in the governmental sphere than in almost any other activity, applying far less judgment, common sense and available information than one might have hoped.
This thesis has been borne out time and again throughout history, running back at least to when Troy’s governors let the monumental wooden horse be brought into their city, in spite of all indications that it might be a monumental Greek trick. Centuries later, Charles XII, Napoleon and Hitler would all invade Russia despite the crushing failures of those who had gone before them. The fierce Aztec warrior Montezuma, who governed a city of over 300,000 inhabitants, would passively succumb to the control of a few hundred Spanish conquistadors who had already given enough signs that they were human and not gods after all. British king George III would opt for a coercive policy in the American colonies rather than seek reconciliation, though amply warned by many of his councilors that the damage caused by such repression would be worse than any possible gains. The Renaissance Popes would maintain an ostentatious way of life and take decisions that catapulted the Catholic Church towards a schism that they themselves wanted to avoid at all costs. And so on. The course of human history appears dominated by obstinacy and foolishness more than any other features of human conduct.
FUAC: The revelation of a blunderNicaraguan history is no less rich in the foolishness and blunders that make up this genre of historical outrages defined by Tuchman as "policies counterproductive to the social group whose welfare or advantage they are supposed to secure." The repeated reactivation of armed groups in Nicaragua even after the change of government and of the world in 1990, and despite the peace negotiations that opened that decade, is another result of the shortage of common sense so often downright flaunted by those who have governed the human species. The history of the last of these armed groups—the Andrés Castro United Front (FUAC), which operated in the municipalities making up the "Mining Triangle" (Siuna, Bonanza and Rosita)—is a clear example of how a series of terrible choices produced exactly the opposite of what was intended. Its story and that of other armed groups in Nicaragua reveal how a presumably democratizing and anti-militarist project has multiplied and exacerbated the armed options. Each strategy implemented to reduce the military apparatus only reinforced the conviction that gunfire was the only language those governing could hear.
The big losers: Many people ended up as winners following the war in Nicaragua in the 1980s. Nicaraguans living in Miami could return after a decade of exile to recover their properties and receive exaggerated compensation, many of them metamorphosed into latter-day US citizens precisely to bring US Embassy pressure to bear in filing their claim. The FSLN’s top military and civilian leadership, meanwhile, filled their sacks with goodies before abandoning their ministries in a process popularly dubbed as the "piñata." The big entrepreneurs were able to get back down to business in peace, creaming off for themselves the rampantly expanding market of new services, including cable television, cellular and satellite phones, shopping malls and other clones of the American way of life. Bankers feathered their nests with the reactivation of private banking and collapse of state banking. The middle classes started recapitalizing at a reasonable pace without being deprived of the delicacies of "western civilization," without having to substitute newspaper for toilet paper, eat Bulgarian tinned food or sweeten their drinks with Cuban brown sugar—obviously plebeian habits they were ignominiously forced to share with the masses during the eighties. All of these winners were absolved by history and blessed by the coming of democracy and the free market to Nicaragua.
Those who risked their necks
The net losers of this war were those who had risked their lives over more than 3,000 days of combats, each with their experiences of dead and wounded, exploding mines, ambushes and tension, and each with an accumulation of enemies. They traveled outside on the driver’s seat, the roof rack or the trailer of the stagecoach of history, never in the cabin, and they were the biggest losers, but there were others. The first to lose when "peace" arrived were the thousands of officers vomited out of the state apparatus and into unemployment, sacrificed on the altar of structural adjustment that demanded the slashing of public spending. But the details of these thousands of family tragedies are of little importance when the IMF must be satisfied. The Sandinista government had initiated adjustment measures and state layoffs in 1988, but Violeta Chamorro intensified them after winning the 1990 elections, with significant US help, as the presidential candidate of a 14-party coalition known as UNO. While the elections with which the FSLN sought to legitimize its power ended up with its dethroning, the weaknesses of the strange array of parties that dethroned it were revealed sooner rather than later.
Historically unprecedented The military question was the immediate priority. The head of the most radically anti-Sandinista sector in the UNO coalition, Alfredo César—a late-blooming counterrevolutionary leader who became president of the National Assembly after the 1990 elections—was soon leading demands for Antonio Lacayo’s removal as minister of the presidency and Humberto Ortega’s as head of the army. Ultra-rightwing US Republican senator Jesse Helms supported the strategy sketched out by César—nicknamed "Seven daggers" due to an inveterate tendency to betray his closest friends—and brought it to a head by seeing to it that US aid was frozen and conditioned on the virtual dismantling of the Sandinista Popular Army (EPS). One UNO faction, led by then-president of the Supreme Council of Private Enterprise Enrique Bolaños and currently the Constitutionalist Liberal Party’s presidential candidate, totally opposed Chamorro’s reconciliation line and called for the army’s complete dismantling. In the end, President Chamorro and her son-in-law Antonio Lacayo—who never won over the more belligerently anti-Sandinista politicians in the UNO coalition—had to give in; the EPS, though not eliminated, was substantially shrunk. The army was one of the few elements that provided stability to the new administration, a ship that suffered a chronic syndrome of mutinies throughout its seven years in office.
reduction of the army
The extravagant generosity with which the US government financed the counterrevolutionary forces during the war ran out during peacetime. The Bush government did not economically support the military conversion it had so vociferously demanded, a process that, planned for five years, took just over two due to pressure from the US government and the recalcitrant wing of UNO. The number of troops thus fell from 86,810 in January 1990 to 16,200 in 1992 and to 14,553 in 1994. Although it remained very well armed, the Nicaraguan Army had become the smallest armed force in Central America within four years, with fewer members than the armed forces even of neighboring Costa Rica, a country famed for theoretically not having an army. According to Nicaraguan military expert Roberto Cajina, the overall reduction rate of 86% and yearly reduction rate of 21.5% makes the slashing of what is now called the Nicaraguan Army unprecedented in contemporary military history. This is even more surprising when one considers that it was not justified by the correlation of forces after the war ended. The EPS had militarily controlled its Resistance adversaries, and the FSLN, the party to whose interests it was linked, had called legitimate elections and handed over the government to a mixed bag of politicians who were not all identified with the interests of the Resistance. There was no symmetry between the disarming of the Resistance, which was entirely logical given the change of government, and such an abrupt reduction of the army. In the end, political pressure and economic urgency dragged the government into such a drastic reduction when it should have been the last step of a staged process based on constitutional reforms.
Reduction and discharge: The hasty discharging of EPS career soldiers was divided into three plans and created a chaotic mixture of parameters for severance pay. Length of service was given priority in one plan while in another the rank reached was more important. The forms of compensation (houses, land, money, schedules for disbursements) also varied from one plan to another. The most serious problem was that criteria were never established for determining who would remain active in the army and who would be discharged. This confusion, added to the inequality of the different payment plans and the government’s subsequent failure to honor agreements due to a lack of resources, created fertile ground for a growing resentment that only grew louder.
A game with only losers
Between April and December 1992, a large group of former officers, sick of promises, held a series of protests and hunger strikes to urge the government to honor the accords signed in the three discharge plans. They emphasized legalization of property and access to credit and technical assistance. February 1992 had seen the emergence of the National Coordinator of Retired Officers (CNOR), which was originally conceived as a movement of captains and lesser ranks in defense of their interests. Rejection of the Association of Retired Military (AMIR), which was obviously subordinated to the FSLN, highlighted the class interests that set this group of middle and lower ranks against the army and FSLN leaderships. Those of the lowest rank who had fought and been conferred great confidence during the war were now being relegated.
According to CNOR figures, the awarding of land to the veterans had followed elitist criteria and exclusively favored high-ranking officers: 2 colonels, 25 lieutenant colonels, 97 majors and 458 captains, representing under 6% of all discharged officers. The model of severance pay involving long-term payments also affected many who were discharged and could not find work. In many different ways, the rushed reduction of the army was creating a time bomb. What was supposed to have reinforced democracy and demilitarization actually fueled the activation of dozens of rearmed groups and perpetuated bellicose activities. The pressing need to pacify the country by ending the institutional mechanisms of war only led to a military activism that included groups of all political stripes, and even nonpolitical groups. The speed-shrinking of the army was just one more demonstration of the above-mentioned historical blunders, those policies that end up being counterproductive to all of their supposed beneficiaries. Neither Sandinista or Resistance soldiers, nor UNO and George Bush managed to impose their interests; in the end the obstinate will of the US Congress and the most anti-Sandinista sector of the UNO created a game in which there were only losers.
Development poles: False utopiaThe Resistance had to be disarmed at the same time. In this area as well, the Chamorro government proved unable to prize from the US Congress the same levels of financing it had previously lavished on the war. What were known as the Toncontín Accords were signed in Tegucigalpa on March 23, 1990; an addendum signed in Managua on April 18 made the cease-fire between the Resistance and the Nicaraguan Army definitive. On May 29, the Nicaraguan Resistance and the Government of Nicaragua signed a protocol for the disarmament of the Resistance fighters and the establishment of what were known as "development poles." According to the agreement, a development pole is a "production unit defined for the benefit of community members and the country that serve as a center for services and development for the surrounding region, through individual and/or collective projects, and should include the following basic structures in the municipal area: schools, warehouses, drinking water and electricity services, hospitals, streets and roads; a housing area for the inhabitants of the development pole or center; a plot of private property for subsistence crops and livestock; a communal area and an area for projects to benefit all the members of the community."
The government promised to guarantee the physical security of the demobilized Resistance members, access to productive lands and material and social assistance for their reinsertion into civilian life. Their relatives and war victims—widows, orphans and those with disabilities—would also be benefited. Within a year, the program had provided 10,493 demobilized fighters with over 660,550 acres of productive land, an average of just under 60 acres per person. The problems here included bogging down of the issuing of land titles and the return of lands and compensation assumed as a priority in agreement number two of the disarmament protocol. Both elements were to prove explosive as conflicts blew up everywhere over agrarian and urban property, and with them taking priority, the promised roads, electricity, social services and projects failed to appear in the poles. The most meager resources trickled down to help the wounded, orphaned and widowed and the war pensions were wretched. To justify this failure to honor what had been agreed, talk of a "social frontier" started to be heard, which, it was argued, did not allow the services to reach the regions where the demobilized Resistance members had settled. Land disputes multiplied in this frontier and hundreds of grudges formed. Whether or not they had a political origin, everyone looked to resolve their arguments using their particular band’s power, be it numerical superiority, police support or friendly judges...
A militarized country A year after the accords with the Resistance had been signed, an evaluation showed that some 65 demobilized fighters and their relatives had been murdered and 1,400 charges had been presented of other human rights violations perpetrated against demobilized Resistance members by armed civilians and soldiers. Such bloody events took place in areas where the war’s activities had been most intense. The Resistance veterans complained that the judges were biased and provided impunity to their aggressors. They called on the government to pay more attention to the problem of politicized and inefficient personnel in state institutions, educating or relocating them and bringing in other personnel with positive attitudes and a spirit of efficiency and service to the community.
with a culture of violence
The Resistance’s Security Commission proposed following up on the FSLN’s promise, reiterated on June 24, 1991, to disarm its own grassroots base and the civilian population in general. It also proposed setting deadlines for turning in weapons of war, legalizing all arms in the hands of civilians that were not war weapons and asking the army and police to turn confiscated arms over to the National Disarmament Commission for destruction or for trading with international organizations for productive equipment. These just demands were increasingly ignored as the country got caught up in other more priority issues and the new situation revealed the minority nature of the groups that were still armed or were rearming, although they were capable of major impact in certain circumstances.
It was thus forgotten that Nicaragua was still a militarized country, that the civilian population still possessed many of the arms that the FSLN had distributed first in case of a US invasion, which had seemed quite possible following the invasion of Panama in 1989, and second for security in case the Resistance refused to disarm. It was also forgotten just how dangerous it was to have so many weapons floating around in a country where people have learned that conflicts are resolved through violence rather than negotiation.
Recontras, recompas and revueltosThrough their policies, the winners (UNO and the US government) achieved the opposite of what they had aimed for; militarization effectively shot up. In no time, groups of recontras (former Resistance members) and recompas (former EPS members) had formed and begun acting. The government found itself immersed in a sea of separate negotiations in which the main demand was legalization of the lands handed out to the demobilized members of both sides. Although at the beginning some recompa groups formed as a reaction to abuses by recontras, the two sides often identified common interests and formed mixed groups known as revueltos to carry out joint actions aimed at getting government and public attention. Combining forces was an attempt to improve the correlation of forces of those who had actually fought during the war against the winners whose only merit was political opportunism.
As these rearmed veterans (and increasing numbers of non-veterans) were split into individual groups of between 16 and 800 members, the disarmament process went very slowly and involved numerous separate negotiations. Sociologist Angélica Fauné, who has studied these groups closely, concluded that arming and disarming became an excellent mechanism for getting a bit more out of the government, making it comply with their main demands and reminding it of the promises it had made. Some leaders of the rearmed groups agreed that the Chamorro government’s policy of buying up guns for money sent out a terrible message to men who had no other way of earning a living than through bellicose activities.
Although duly titled lands was a common denominator in the list of demands for all the groups, they had diverse modi operandi. The demands of groups of EPS veterans were more community-based and not exclusively centered on land or individual compensation, for example. But perhaps the most obvious difference could be seen in the aliases employed by the groups and their leaders, an apparently superficial feature, but one that revealed a declaration of principles. The recompas chose revolutionary heroes such as Bolivar, Ernesto Che Guevara, Camilo Ortega, while the recontras used other names. Some looked to inspire panic (Terror, Cyclone, Fierce, Little Dagger, Friday the 13th, Panther, Snake, Black Hand, Indomitable), while others adopted the names of show-business personalities (Dyango) or Anglo-Saxon names (Mike, Jackson), and named their commandos after their own ideological heroes such as Cardinal Obando and Reagan. Although both groups carried out assaults and kidnappings and sowed terror in many rural zones, it could be seen that certain groups of recompas were looking to revive an ideological mystique, something totally absent in the recontra groups.
The Helms-César plan: A vital pieceNone of the negotiations managed to eradicate the problem of the rearmed groups totally. New groups emerged, counting on their military experience and the arms caches that had been hidden during the war to seek successive financial compensations. On the national stage, meanwhile, there were ongoing confrontations between various political forces that had made up Violeta Chamorro’s government and the UNO coalition. The most virulent chapter in this conflict took place in March 1992, just when the government appeared to have the situation under control. Alfredo César, who had become president of the National Assembly with the support of the FSLN and a sector of the UNO, soon turned against his allies. Following a trip to Washington and ominous conversations with General Colin Powell and Jesse Helms, César proposed reforming the Military Law and removing Humberto Ortega as head of the armed forces. The Helms-César plan was clearly aimed at destabilizing Violeta Chamorro’s government. When the confrontation heated up, so did the terms of the plan: to call a plebiscite to cut her presidential term, hold elections for a Constituent Assembly, draw up a new Constitution, name a government junta and move forward the 1996 elections. Helms did his part by ensuring that Congress froze an aid payment of US$100 million for Nicaragua. In this context former army soldiers took over a number of Nicaraguan government offices and called strikes called; the events included the peaceful occupation of Ocotal by over 500 revueltos on March 5, 1992.
With the Helms-César plan translating into a new escalation of violence, the 3-80 Northern Front emerged as its armed expression. Made up of former Resistance members linked to the most viscerally anti-Sandinista UNO faction [comandantes "Pajarillo," "Charro," "Chacal," "Caminante" and "Zapoyol"], the 3-80 Northern Front included up to 800 men and was financed by anti-Castro organizations from Miami, thus becoming the most serious military threat to the government. Its first demands were the total dismantling of the army and replacement of the National Police’s entire top command structure. In addition to activities in Siuna, it also covered El Cuá-Bocay, Waslala, Quilalí and Wiwilí. The eventual demobilization and reinsertion of the 3-80 Northern Front cost the government almost $2 million.
Various recompa groups emerged as a reaction to the 3-80 Northern Front, and it would not be going too far to suppose that they initially enjoyed the army’s sympathy and support, as they were implicitly defending it and making up for their own numerical and financial weakness. By then all necessary ingredients were present in the Molotov cocktail that the rearmed groups represented: the government’s failure to honor its promises, manifest political instability, rearming as a source of income otherwise unobtainable in a Nicaragua increasingly bereft of employment and threats from groups of different tendencies. It was in this explosive context that Edmundo Olivas—who would later adopt the alias "Camilo Turcios"—set out recruiting to create the FUAC, a job that would keep him occupied for the next five years.
The army’s arbitrariness Born in Quilalí of a very poor family, Olivas joined the fight against Somoza when he was just nine years old. His teacher in the Carlos Fonseca Northern Front was none other than the legendary Sandinista comandante, Germán Pomares, alias "Danto." "That man represented the people’s real interests," Olivas would say later. "If he were alive the things we have to witness with such pain wouldn’t be happening today, such as a Sandinista leadership that has turned its back on the people. He would have opposed the measures imposed by President Chamorro and would now be in the mountains fighting for his people again." Olivas reached the rank of captain after years fighting on the different fronts of the anti-Somoza struggle, always in the front line. Even before the 1990 electoral defeat, he was disillusioned by the sumptuous life of the Sandinista leaders.
contributes to the FUAC’s origins
Olivas termed their incoherence between lifestyle and ideals the "declassing of the leadership." Once discharged from the army, Olivas’ demands coincided completely with those of the National Coordinator of Retired Officers (NCOR): failure to honor severance pay, disproportional benefits for a military elite and lack of clarity in the criteria to select which officers would remain in the army. Olivas expressed his complaints in an unpublished interview with Angélica Fauné: "There is a lot of resentment against the way our institution just dumped us. The criteria used to discharge us were very arbitrary. A few people made the decisions without considering an individual’s seniority, merits or capacities. Loads of us were just cleared out. It was a question of reducing the army, whatever it took. We feel that the army short-changed us, that we don’t deserve this kind of treatment after risking our lives to serve the country and the revolution. The governments haven’t honored their agreements with us either. That’s why we don’t have work or a house and can’t provide our families with a dignified life or our children with an education."
FUAC criticizes the FSLN This questioning by "Camilo Turcios" was unending and explains the FUAC’s particular aversion to the Nicaraguan Army. A man’s worst enemies are often of his own ilk. Those who witnessed the talks between "Turcios" and army delegates during negotiations over the FUAC’s demobilization as late as 1997 talk of an ongoing mental and emotional confrontation. Many Siuna inhabitants are also convinced that the army was always more determined in fighting the FUAC than in pursuing the 3-80 Northern Front.
claiming it betrayed Sandinismo
The FUAC emerged at a delicate juncture, discrediting the army, which was one of the FSLN’s three power bases after its electoral defeat (the other two being their weight in the National Assembly and their capacity to co-opt demonstrations of popular discontent for social and economic reasons and use them for political objectives). The FUAC was an expression of discontent that the FSLN could not manipulate, as well as a military expression that questioned the FSLN and set itself up as a regional army and parallel police force given the inadequacy of the armed institutions in a state being dismantled by structural adjustment.
Appealing to the myth of the "new man" and "paradise regained" was still an attractive discourse in an area where the idea of gun slinging has a powerful draw and at a time when the "sense" of the armed movement had been lost. The FUAC presented itself as representing the Sandinista ideals betrayed by its leaders and appealed to people who might be attracted by this discourse. The alias "Camilo Turcios" sums up the project: Camilo after Camilo Ortega and Turcios after Oscar Turcios, two heroes of the anti-Somoza struggle in the 1970s, martyrs of the Sandinista Front’s golden decade, a patrimony ideologically squandered by the top FSLN leadership in the 1980s and 1990s.
"Turcios" argued that "the FUAC is fighting against the new bourgeoisie that has been forming and that we were the architects of; a bourgeoisie worse than the Somocista one because that one killed using hunger while this new one born of Sandinismo is using all possible means to make us disappear. It doesn’t bother them to take away land from those of us who were their brothers in arms and that they gave us during an agrarian reform that left thousands of peasants without land titles. The only thing that interests this new bourgeoisie is business; doing business any way it can, cutting good deals even if doing so leaves people worse off than ever."
Social banditry: "Justice for the people!"By defending certain betrayed ideals, the FUAC aspired to return to the paradise lost: the reestablishment of revolutionary morals and a mystical tension not absorbed by any institution. That was the fundamental difference between the FUAC and other rearmed groups of Sandinista origin.
As "Camilo Turcios" put it, "We can’t fight from inside the Sandinista party, because there’s no room for us there. Ours is not a party fight. We have Sandinista roots and our project is revolutionary, but we’re not raising any party flag; only justice for the people." They constantly appealed to the original revolutionary mystique. When "Turcios" met with Lieutenant Colonel Leonardo Guatemala of the Nicaraguan Army, he told him, "I know you’re in General Carrión’s pocket and I know what your presence here might be about, but it doesn’t scare me. I was a disciple of Pomares, of Carrión, of Francisco Rivera ("el Zorro") and of comandante Cristóbal Vanegas ("el Monimboseño"). What our teachers forgot is that sometimes students turn out very good, taking their lessons very seriously."
The FUAC combined the invocation of revolutionary myths with demands for concrete men and women. Restricting their demands to one regional area—the Mining Triangle—facilitated the recruitment of new members and differentiated the FUAC from other revolutionary movements in a strict sense. The FUAC did not intend to change the national system as a whole; it just wanted it to function better and extend its benefits to the marginalized region in which it was operating. In this sense, the FUAC shared certain traits of the "social banditry" studied by English historian Eric J. Hobsbawm, which he defines as a universal phenomenon that is virtually the same everywhere: little more than the endemic protest of peasants against oppression and poverty, a cry of revenge against the rich and the oppressors. For Hobsbawm, social banditry has few ambitions and wants a traditional world in which people receive justice, not a new world with the shimmer of perfection.
The FUAC was not fighting against a rotten system—even one full of rotten officials—but rather against its limited coverage. As Hobsbawm also observed of this kind of movement, such revolutionaries can turn into de facto reformists given the total impossibility of a triumphant revolution. The FUAC’s demands were oriented to local reforms (highways, water, electricity, credit) and did not touch the system (low salaries, irrational lumber extraction), except regarding land redistribution or the legalization of disputed lands. The latter were the only genuinely revolutionary demands, in the modern sense, whose benefits would nonetheless be exclusively for the FUAC’s own members and its social base.
Siuna and the FUAC: Two bonded destiniesThe FUAC built up a limited and very particular revolutionary profile. It demanded local, not national benefits, did not attack the area’s timber or mining entrepreneurs and did not aim to construct a new world or recover the old lost one—except in merely symbolic terms. Its armed struggle was thus limited to introducing certain demands into the existing world. Compared to its ambitious spiritual claims—resurrecting a buried mystique, rehabilitating abandoned morals and spreading the spurned revolutionary ethic—its material demands were rather modest. But they were enough to act as an explosive detonator in the chosen locality.
The FUAC and Siuna were two destinies bound together and still today represent two connected karmas. Hunger joined them together in the desire to eat, and being forgotten in the discharge plans joined them together with those forgotten by all governments. The vaults of history met in this corner of Nicaraguan territory. Like the rest of the Mining Triangle, and the Atlantic Coast region in general, Siuna, with its abandoned mines, total lack of basic services and only incipient road network, is a municipality submerged in the forgetfulness of politicians. Because of its natural resources and its geographical position, Siuna started to exist again thanks only to the activities of lumber and drug traffickers in tghe nineties. These seekers of sudden fortunes found that the corrupt local government and easily bought judicial system made their illicit operations quite simple.
Siuna had become a military enclave during the war. The EPS took it over to build one of those "cultural Frankensteins" erected as part of its military strategy and then abandoned to its fate, as happened to Mulukukú, a Sandinista military base west of Siuna, which was later swollen into a population center by civilians displaced by the war of the eighties and fighters demobilized in the nineties. Out of pure military convenience, a security cordon of cooperatives was also created, which acted as a retaining wall against the Resistance groups and swelled with demobilized troops once the conflict died down.
Frontier society: These migratory movements, added to the frivolous actions of politicians and the institutional weakness of property registration, produced terrible land tenure insecurity, a powerful fragmentation grenade whose pin the FUAC pulled out. Siuna’s militarization and secular abandonment explain why it was there, rather than in El Rama or Nueva Guinea, which also had rearmed groups, that the groups emerged, reemerged and remained come hell or high water.
The rearmed groups’ arena
According to "Camilo Turcios," the FUAC came to Siuna "because we considered it a bastion, where people are healthier, less contaminated; because it has been one of the regions hardest hit by the war, by unemployment with the closure of the mines and by the hunger affecting the population. There are no roads, electricity or potable water. We also came because many reservists fought in this area, whose struggles were forgotten at the time of the demobilization, and they were left there with nothing."
These "gun-slingers"—as some rearmed members call themselves—were located in a frontier society made to order for irregular groups and guerrilla warfare. Although "Turcios" and "Tito Fuentes"—the two "historical" FUAC leaders—were not originally from the Mining Triangle, they found it easy to tune into the discontent of the zone’s demobilized army soldiers. The Association of Retired Military (AMIR) in Siuna had not managed to consolidate and only served as a trampoline for certain top-ranking officers to get into the highly lucrative lumber business. Everything pointed to Siuna as fertile ground for activating a regional struggle. "This region," "Turcios" continued, "has maintained an historic struggle for its autonomy, an autonomy that means they have the right to exploit their own resources. We in the FUAC think that the only people who can save this region are the inhabitants themselves."
FUAC’s social base attracted It was possible to generate a sufficiently broad and faithful social base in Siuna to keep the struggle active. The cooperatives’ history of participating in the war guaranteed loyalty and military experience. In the eighties they had been the victims of hundreds of atrocities by Resistance members, including rape, kidnapping, forced recruitment, torture, the execution of presumed state security collaborators and the theft of cattle, money, provisions and clothes. Due to their political affinity, shared abandonment and military origins, the cooperative members played the key role as the FUAC’s rearguard. The FUAC soon started protecting the cooperatives against the 3-80 Northern Front’s assaults, attacks by criminal bands and repression by the army merely for being the FUAC’s social base.
by affinity and abandonment
The FUAC attempted to camouflage the support the cooperatives provided for a long time, but during the negotiations that took place during the second half of 1997 it could no longer maintain the cover. One of the FUAC’s main demands was legalization of the lands worked by those cooperatives, which were being reclaimed by their former owners. As long as the FUAC was operating in the area, those whose land was confiscated during the eighties did not dare attempt to take it back. The FUAC thus considered it vital for the land belonging to the communities within the cordon of cooperatives to be included in the security enclave zones, where the FUAC could move without hindrance, free from army interference.
The FUAC considered the land around these cooperatives effectively, if not legally, under their control. When the army initially refused to cede them control over it, the FUAC stated its position in a challenging message from "Camilo Turcios" to Lieutenant Colonel Guatemala: "The zones where our men are found today were conquered with blood and lives, not through the kindness of the government or its national army. If you were never a guerrilla fighter, ask someone who was whether a revolutionary conquest can be exchanged for any old thing, for very little."
The cooperative members had been subjected to army repression for some time and there had been various confrontations, as demonstrated by the Peace Commission’s communiqué of June 9, 1997: "They, as cooperative members, ask for the respect that should prevail among Nicaraguan civilian authorities and citizens…. They stated that the claims [that they had carried out criminal acts] are not good for reaching mutual peace agreements between the cooperative members and authorities…. They call for the application of real justice without distinction in the case of Rosa Grande and the criminals who, using the FUAC’s name, were involved in inhuman actions against defenseless citizens."
A gentlemen’s pact between While the FUAC demanded protection for the cooperative members, the cooperative members busily tried to counteract the false accusations against the FUAC. In the Peace Commission’s minutes of June 13, 1997, it recorded that the members of La Primavera transport cooperative had declared to the Peace Commission and the authorities that they had never seen the FUAC commit acts of vandalism. It was effectively a gentlemen’s mutual protection pact. The FUAC eliminated criminal bands that were making the area impossible to live in and the cooperative members acted as liaison between the FUAC and the Peace Commission, or else denied any knowledge of the FUAC’s location. The authorities’ bad treatment of and threats against the FUAC’s social base only reinforced their loyalty to the armed group and swelled its membership.
FUAC and the cooperative members
The FUAC’s discourse, with its high level of social content, won it admirers in other sectors as well. On September 15, 1997, two Catholic nuns mentioned the FUAC in a favorable light in a public communiqué. "The group’s leadership is made up of former soldiers but its members include people from different political tendencies. Its ideals are based on the demands of the people."
The background of the FUAC’s leadersThe rebels’ own background was attractive to the FUAC’s social base. "Camilo Turcios" and "Tito Fuentes" were, like classic outlaws, men of a very humble origin who had risen up the social ladder due to their own effort and reached positions they had later given up in order to take to the mountains and defend the poor. According to the usual pattern, a man becomes an outlaw by doing something that local opinion does not consider criminal but that state or local authorities do. In the army, "Turcios" had always been a questioner, a critic, and this attitude brought him into conflict with the command structure. In a society in which the prototype of a caudillo is a "man of arms," the decision by "Turcios" to form an armed group was perfectly acceptable for most Siuna inhabitants, even if he was condemned and pursued by the army.
The biographies of the FUAC general staff ("Turcios," "Tito Fuentes," José Francisco "Damián" Moncada Calderón and José Luis Marenco—the only original FUAC leader still alive and active today) are very similar to the profile of the classic romantic outlaws. Typical elements include having served in an armed body; decades of gun-slinging; pioneers in frontier societies; limited possibilities of winning respect in any way not related to arms due to limited academic formation and capital; and the need to cling to a diffuse, worldly and short-term utopia.
"Camilo Turcios" presented himself as a true revolutionary and did not hold back in bragging about the purity of his caste or mentioning that he had been a disciple of Germán Pomares. Nor did he deny himself certain concessions to vanity, such as when, during the first negotiations in Siuna, it was arranged for him to be seen crossing the city armed. His life fitted in with the three characteristics most emphasized in romantic tales about bandits: the just origins of his decision to "take to the mountains," his defense of the poor and his death caused by the treachery of people close to him. It is easy to draw a parallel with Augusto César Sandino, a rebel who left the ranks of the Liberal army and was also betrayed after having laid down his arms. During the negotiations, and again on the eve of the FUAC’s demobilization in December 1997, José Luis Marenco, the only FUAC leader who did not agree to totally abandon the armed way and continued intimidating the army in the mountains of the Mining Triangle, warned him: "Camilo, they’re going to kill you like they did Sandino."
Marenco had also reached the rank of captain in the army and when he was demobilized at the end of the war used the two trucks he received as severance to start a transport business in the Mining Triangle. While this allowed him to build good relations with the lumber dealers, he also became very popular with the local populace thanks to his proverbial generosity, refusing to charge passengers who could not afford it. He emerged as a FUAC leader after setting himself up as the champion of the gold panners by providing them support during a strike over wage demands. Dressed in cowboy boots, short with a bushy moustache, Marenco is described as having the appearance of a construction worker. Simple and sober in character, he is also famed for really losing it when he gets angry. He started as a FUAC collaborator but took to the mountains when his links with the armed organization had become dangerously evident.
Both the FUAC’s leaders and its followers were men who felt uncomfortable in a world whose dominant elements had come from outside and was ruled by economic forces they did not understand and over which they had no control. The leaders, who were clearer about their revolutionary ideals, were followed by individuals who perhaps could not completely understand their proposals, but had no other way of escaping from the region’s new masters.
FUAC’s Disarmament: With these men at the helm, the FUAC became a parallel police force that went about its mission of clearing the area of bandits that had nothing in common with the Robin Hood image. The region’s peasants always thanked the group for this work, but the national media never gave a true account of what was going on. The FUAC complained about the media, for example, when there was an exchange of gunfire in Las Quebradas at the beginning of June 1997 that the FUAC was reported to have caused. The FUAC said its members were clearing the area of criminal elements when the army suddenly attacked them. This role of providing defense was complemented by an agenda of demands for the whole Mining Triangle. For the group’s leaders, these demands constituted an essential ideological fuel that would turn their movement into something more than a group of resentful veterans and guarantee them prestige, at least locally. It was on the back of this reputation as protectors and defenders of the rights of the poor that the FUAC intended to negotiate its demobilization in talks with the government, in which the population would present its own claims and demands.
The first to demand social participation
At the beginning of the negotiations over its demobilization, the Peace Commission received this idea with interest. On August 19, 1997, the Peace Commission—which included Vicente Trujillo, a former Resistance member who is now president of the Regional Council of the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN) but at the time was a Ministry of Government delegate in the region—issued a pronouncement acknowledging the FUAC’s work. "During its presence in the region, the FUAC has taken up the many different needs and problems that [its inhabitants] confront in their daily life," stated the communiqué. "We have observed this on two occasions; when the government agreed to talk with the FUAC, sectors of the population declared that they wanted to participate in the process to present their petitions. The FUAC, meanwhile, is asking the government to listen to the population as a pre-condition to starting to disarm. We the undersigned, request the government to speed up the peace process by forming a commission that includes representatives from the different ministries to come to Siuna to assess the petitions and talk with the people." This support from the Peace Commission was a great success for the FUAC considering that it was effectively an irregular group. The demand to let the population participate in the negotiations sharply distinguished the FUAC from all the other armed groups that had gone before and appeared to open the way for a unique and very interesting negotiation process.
The loneliness of the FUAC: The FUAC’s condition of letting the population participate in the talks was also part of a strategy aimed at not giving up its arms until the dialogue was underway. Basic caution warned it not to relinquish its only instrument of pressure. The FUAC’s demand and the army’s opposition to it obstructed the talks for a long time, an impression corroborated by the two Catholic nuns on the Peace Commission. They said they felt that "the crux of the problem lies in the fact that the FUAC is demanding that the government first listen to the people’s demands in a public forum, while the government only wants to talk about disarmament."
Criticizing the FSLN and criticized by Alemán
Marked from the start by so many tensions, the dialogue between the FUAC and the Alemán government started in June 1997 and lasted for six months, when it culminated with the demobilization of the group operating in Kilambé and the subsequent disarming of the group operating in the Mining Triangle. President Alemán wanted to present the demobilization as a political trophy, and gleefully calculated how many points it would add to his governability scorecard, which might be enough to open the doors to the debt-pardoning HIPC initiative. Nonetheless, the new Liberal government had not before and would not later set aside the means to achieve it. The government made no significant contributions, either at the beginning of the negotiations or after they were concluded, other than its incendiary harangue against the FUAC. The Peace Commission was forever complaining that it lacked the necessary means of transport and that programmed talks had been postponed due to a lack of vehicles. After the demobilization, it was the UN Development Program and the Canadian government, not the Alemán government, that financed certain projects promised by the accords such as the taxi cooperative and the housing project. Both before and after the accords the Alemán government maintained and applied its habitual lack of memory when it came to the commitments it had acquired.
The government still today is using the FUAC as a way to discredit the FSLN, repeatedly presenting the party as the driving force behind the group. Without ruling out the possibility that elements within the FSLN may have encouraged the FUAC’s activities in the zone at some moment, more for reasons of economic than political convenience, the group’s persistent and well-argued critique of the top FSLN and army leadership effectively distanced both institutions. For a number of reasons, the FUAC was out on its own when it demobilized in 1997; its lonely position became evident during the disarmament negotiations and was sealed by the Liberal-Sandinista pact.
The army’s dirty war against the FUACDuring the negotiations between the FUAC and the government, there were skirmishes between the two sides from start to finish. What could have been an interesting exercise in regional pacification became a nightmare for all involved. During the first stages of the negotiation, the army used information obtained from the Peace Commission to ambush the FUAC. On April 20, 1997, while the Peace Commission was traveling to Labú junction for an interview with the FUAC, after the army had denied the commission members transportation and refused to ensure their safety, the army broke the cease-fire and attacked the FUAC. It was the second time this had happened and this time four people died and four were wounded. The tactic was aimed at undermining the FUAC’s confidence and breaking off the dialogue. It proved a success because the FUAC withdrew to the mountains for a month, during which the Peace Commission was unable to reestablish contact.
On various occasions the army signed agreements at the same time as initiating provocative troop movements and threatening ambushes. Following the August 3 accords in which the FUAC and the army shared out legitimate and mutually recognized displacement zones, the army initiated a suspicious troop movement that "Camilo Turcios" denounced, adding a threat. "Your troops’ harassment of our men in the various areas we are occupying does not terrify us," he warned. "We are prepared to respond in kind if you fire the first shot and make clear that you do not recognize the accords signed on August 3, 1997 at 13:00 hours. I have instructed all of my men everywhere to respond the same way we are treated and let the people judge who is right and who is guilty."
This dual army strategy reached such an extreme that during a ceremony for disarming and issuing identity cards to members of the FUAC on December 21, the army turned up with a contingent of special troops, complete with guns fitted with silencers. This provoked an immediate response from the FUAC, whose members took the Peace Commission hostage for three days. The bad treatment the Peace Commission members received on that occasion ended their honeymoon with the FUAC, as demonstrated by a communiqué they issued on the kidnapping. "While the FUAC’s project of ‘peace with social justice’ is very attractive in principle, we totally condemn and reject the inhuman and degrading treatment that certain FUAC members imposed on the Disarmament Brigade and the Peace Commission by taking them hostage during the disarmament process in Labú." According to the communiqué, the hostages were deprived of their freedom and of food and subjected to constant harassment: torches were shone in their faces, they were deprived of certain belongings, guns were aimed at them and they were threatened with grenades and insulted. Perhaps that was when the FUAC started to "lose itself in rage"…
Unfulfilled promises and the beginning of the endIn the negotiations with the FUAC, the Liberal government followed a pattern established by its predecessors that involved a lack of transparency in talks with irregular armed groups. The most frequent option had been to buy off the groups’ leaders, who often became willing accomplices by "selling themselves" first. The same started to happen with the FUAC. Members of both the army and the FUAC undervalued the role of the Peace Commission, which was excluded from following up on fulfillment of the accords and thus guaranteeing the peace process. Defense Minister Jaime Cuadra met behind closed doors with the three FUAC leaders, without anyone from the commission present. There are no indications that any personal benefits resulted from those meetings, but this policy undoubtedly fueled speculation that the FUAC high command received juicy payoffs that they refused to share with their brothers in arms. In reality, the government and the army sought to exploit to the full the many internal contradictions already existing within the FUAC.
To round off this "dirty war" strategy, the negotiations with the FUAC were very different from the treatment offered the 3-80 Northern Front. The lands assigned to the latter were previously paid for and the demobilized fighters were given technical advice. The FUAC, on the other hand, was offered a load of promises that were never honored: financing and permission for a line of 15 transport trucks that was never authorized; lands that were already occupied by members of the Resistance, who evicted the FUAC members; and plots of land for houses, though only 100 houses were ever built and those were with UNDP support. Other projects about to get underway were cut short when "Tito Fuentes" was murdered.
The climax of the dirty war: After demobilizing on Christmas Day 1997, "Turcios," "Fuentes" and "Damián," the FUAC’s three top leaders, established the Andrés Castro Foundation to implement the projects growing out of the accords. Due to the government’s neglect and failure to comply with its promises, however, they stayed in contact with the organization’s remaining armed wing under Marenco’s leadership, viewed as the guarantor of government fulfillment. Just before he was murdered, "Camilo Turcios" declared that the FUAC still existed: "Yes, we are a foundation, but it was stated in the accords we signed that we would maintain a guaranteeing force and, as the accords have not been honored since February, it has reactivated. Why have we decided to take up arms again? Because weapons are the only language that governments—Liberal governments—have ever understood throughout history. The proof is that we went over to civilian life and they closed all doors to us. Nobody received us." And as "Tito Fuentes" emphasized, "We are waiting, but patience has its limits. We will continue fighting for the people’s interests. The FUAC has not died."
Three unexplained murders
The FUAC was probably planning some sort of civil and military expansion. Its new and very strange links with controversial bankers Alvaro Robelo and Haroldo Montealegre, both at the time presidential aspirants, as well as with the Libyan government, indicate that a new phase of struggle was being planned. But what was it and what did it hope to achieve? These deranged signs renewed interest in wiping the group out before things got out of control.
The dirty war against the FUAC culminated in the murders of its three main leaders, which have never been explained and almost certainly never will be. "Tito Fuentes" bled to death after having been ambushed in front of the Siuna cemetery on January 2, 2000. In mid-March, "Camilo Turcios" was called to meet up with a former member of the FUAC at the Boaco junction, where he was gunned down. Although a lot of traffic passes the spot and there were several bursts of AK-47 gunfire, it took the police eight hours to reach the scene. Then in September, "Damián" was killed when a radio he was using to communicate with Marenco blew up in his hands.
Were these political crimes? Did a Sandinista faction in the army take advantage of a government green light to stoke the fire in Siuna and expose the rampant lack of governability into which the country was sinking? Did those reactivating the group have to get ride of the FUAC leaders because their existence was no longer beneficial to its interests? And who, in fact, were those reactivating the FUAC: politicians, drug traffickers, lumber traffickers? Was it a skillful hand played by the FSLN in the framework of its pact with the Liberal government to kill three birds with one stone: eliminate the bothersome and critical bandits, destabilize the government and win more maneuvering room within the pact? Did the Army exploit demobilized FUAC members who felt that "Camilo" was letting them down and obtaining personal benefits in undercover negotiations with the army as so many had before him? Or were "El Pufe" and the other suspected murderers perhaps not recently disillusioned at all, but rather infiltrators right from the start who had always been working for military intelligence? We just don’t know.
Will we ever? Nicaragua almost certainly will never learn to what depths the roots of this dirty war against the FUAC really go. What we do know are the results of this strategy: national and local peace commissions and human rights organizations have been left like voices in the desert clamoring that life be respected and the accords be fulfilled. Another negative result is that killing off the FUAC leadership and truncating its projects have put an end to an interesting social experiment with productively reinserting an armed group, unprecedented in a country that really needed it. By taking a series of counterproductive decisions, the government achieved the worst possible scenario: it has lost all control over the armed groups in the Mining Triangle.
The result of the dirty war: The deaths of "Tito" and "Camilo" did not cause the mass influx into the FUAC that Marenco and others probably expected. The army’s calculation was more accurate and it is probable that the FUAC had already reached the limit of its recruitment capacity. But thanks to the many arms caches left by the war and the social base encouraged by abandonment, a small group of armed men can easily destabilize a whole region.
Armed paramilitary groups
The army knows that finishing off the FUAC will not be easy and is avoiding touching its social base. Stepping on such dangerous ground could easily extend the dimensions of the violence, as happened in the 1980s against the contras. Instead, it is attempting to undermine that base via paramilitary groups, whose organization many Mining Triangle inhabitants attribute to former "contra" and Ministry of Government delegate Vicente Trujillo, now the Liberal president of the Regional Council in the North Atlantic Autonomous Region. Thus ex-FUAC member Cristóbal Martínez and ex-Resistance member Ezequiel Medrano are operating in the area with army consent, running what are variously called the Auxiliary Police, Volunteer Police or Rural Police—Martínez’s group is self-denominated the "Righteous Ones." They have clandestine jails and use activities such as kidnapping and summary execution, adding yet another twist in the spiral of violence.
The ineffective actions of the National Police and the judiciary system have encouraged the application of vigilante justice, leading to an atmosphere not unlike what Thucydides described as happening around Greek cities: "The strong did what they could and the weak suffered what they must." The population complains of the arbitrary acts committed, while the National Police insist that these are not paramilitary groups because they are institutionally monitored and coordinated. These two groups linked to the Police, together with a more recently created paramilitary group led by Eugenio Ortega and the three other armed groups considered to be remnants of the FUAC, total six irregular groups, whose leaders and estimated size are shown in the table on the preceding page. The numbers were calculated with the help of development program promoters who travel around the zone under conditions of great insecurity.
These groups form a whole system of parallel justice and ensure that guns continue to represent the driving force behind social mobility. Are they mountain youth gangs? Are some of them social bandits and others mercenaries at the service of the lumber dealers and drug traffickers who effectively own the region? The links between these rearmed groups and the lumber dealers are as good as public. The alliance between them allows both to consolidate their power. It is unthinkable that a wood trader could survive in the area without paying the kind of "war tax" demanded by movements of this kind. And it is equally unthinkable that the armed groups could survive without any contribution from the lumber dealers. Just like the free market, free movement has its costs. These links only further complicate the mess in which the paramilitary groups, the remnants of the FUAC and the drug and wood traffickers are tangled as they fight for control of the area.
"Rearmed" simplifies a stormy historyApplying the adjective "rearmed" to all the different groups is either a harmless journalistic simplification for want of a better name or a tendentious ideological construction used to dump a diversity of movements in the same bag. Dull police mentality and journalistic laziness have combined to coin and spread this label, which ignores the stormy history behind such groups. Its use is also sometimes an attempt to stress that their leaders participated in the EPS or the Resistance during the war of the eighties, but that is just as misleading today as it was during the eighties to lump all "contras" together as former National Guardsman. It conceals how young many of these men are way too young to have participated in a war that ended over a decade ago, how different in nature the different groups labeled as "rearmed" really are and how rich a breeding ground the region’s misery is for something more than just "rearming."
Siuna’s inhabitants clearly distinguish the three groups currently considered as the FUAC, those of Marenco, "Tinieblas" and "Tyson." The latter two are repressive toward the peasants, while Marenco treats them well. The police assume that this has happened due to a division of labor in which Marenco handles relations with the social base, "Tinieblas" battles the police and "Tyson" carries out the atrocious crimes. There are other differences as well, the main one being Marenco’s social discourse, which is the result of his Sandinista formation and the stamp that "Camilo Turcios" left on the FUAC. "Tyson" also has his discourse, but it is one of arms, which is always attractive in an area like Siuna. It is not too far fetched to believe that there are links between Marenco and "Tyson," and it would be no historical novelty to find a noble bandit and a violent and cruel one dedicated to indiscriminate terrorism sharing the shame territory and even the same military group. It happens in armies as well. When Marenco’s group kidnapped the Canadian mining engineer, Manley Guarducci, it went so far as to call for the release of "Charlie" and "Frijol Mágico" [Magic Bean], recognized criminals who specialized in decapitating, a macabre inclination they share with Tyson.
The very probable links between "good" and "bad" bandits, the massacre of the Liberal Montenegro family earlier this year, new cases of atrocious massacres and ambushes of the police that have resulted in deaths and injuries, have deteriorated, perhaps permanently, the FUAC’s romantic image and objectives. They may now be fulfilling Hobsbawm’s law on the degeneration of social banditry: "Those bandits that do not adapt to new forms of struggle for the peasant cause, as in fact many of them do individually, stop being the defenders of the poor and turn into mere criminals or end up in the pay of political parties, landlords and traders."
In any case, this would not free the government from its responsibility for not having honored its word during and after the disarmament negotiations or free the army from responsibility for waging a dirty war. It is a dishonorable policy that seeks to obtain a short-term solution by promising what it does not have or is unwilling to hand over. It is even more dishonorable not to give demobilized bandits a chance to reinsert into civilian society and to work and produce in peace. It is even more tragic to have attempted to build peace based on three cold-blooded murders that have still not been punished.
José Luis Rocha is a Nitlapán-UCA researcher and a member of the envío editorial council.