Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 28 | Octubre 1983



Nicaragua's New Army: Fighting To Achieve Peace

One of the images that has been most projected abroad in order to discredit the meaning of the Nicaraguan revolution is the one claiming that the Sandinista Army has extreme offensive capacity.

Envío team

One of the images which has been used most often outside the country to discredit the Nicaraguan revolution is that of Nicaragua's "increased military build-up." It has been said that Nicaragua's armament and expansionist tendencies express its willingness to serve outside interests by destabilizing its neighbors. It has also been said that these same tendencies show the revolutionary government's intention to repress the Nicaraguan people in a totalitarian fashion.

The recent institution of the draft is currently being used to strengthen this image. We consider it necessary, therefore, to present a historical, structural and analytical context in which the draft the patriotic military service law can be studied and understood.

The inability of international pressure to stop the aggressive policy of the U.S. toward Nicaragua a theme we have constantly touched on in our news analyses has given Nicaragua's defense institutions a key role within the revolutionary process, as well as within the reconstruction process of the nation.

The revolution's defense institutions and structures are not completely separated from the history of this country nor can they be separated, as if they were imposed superstructures, from the active participation of the Nicaraguan people, as is evident at all levels of national reconstruction.

This active and voluntary participation is reflected in the volunteer police, the campesinos armed in self defense cooperatives, the commanders, the aged who do night-watch duty, the soldiers, the militia members, the reservists, etc. In every aspect of the defense of the nation, the groundwork for the new Nicaraguan army is being expressed.

This article is about Nicaragua's army and its historical legacy. On a particular point of this complex issue, we have included excerpts from a document entitled "We want Peace", published in September of this year by the Nicaraguan Christian Base Communities.

On September 13, the Nicaraguan Council of State approved the Patriotic Military Service Law. Two days later, at the 162nd anniversary celebration of Nicaragua's independence from Spain and the 127th anniversary of the San Jacinto battle in which Nicaraguans defeated the U.S. invaders, nine youths were the first to register for the draft. The first was Carlos Fonseca Teran, son of the founder of the FSLN, Carlos Fonseca Amador. This action symbolized how the armed forces of the new Nicaragua continue the tradition begun by the "small crazy army" of General Sandino, the inspiration behind the Sandinista Front.


After independence from Spain was won, the history of Nicaragua, along with other Central American countries, was marked by a series of civil wars between liberals and conservatives. In Nicaragua, the situation was more extreme. Soldiers, drawn from the poorest sectors of society, died defending the interests of the liberal landholding bourgeoisie of Leon or the conservative entrepreneur bourgeoisie of Granada. Neither of these two armies created or consolidated national sentiment.

In the middle of the last century, when U.S. intervention began over the possible location of the interoceanic canal and when U.S. businesses "discovered" Central America, the fighting armies in Nicaragua were either supported or opposed by the U.S., according to its needs. By the beginning of this century, U.S. warships were off the Nicaraguan coast in open support for the government and troops of the Conservative party, which literally sold Nicaragua to the United States for $3 million. By the 1920s, the "peacekeeping" forces of the U.S. marines had landed on Nicaraguan soil.

It was at this historical and political moment when Sandino's army, called the Defender of National Sovereignty, was formed. The head of this army understood, as no one else did at the time, that a truly independent Nicaragua would not be born out of civil wars between the powerful sectors, but rather from a war of national independence. The general who led this anti imperialist struggle and who sought to vindicate the poor indigenous peoples, the campesinos and the workers, was himself a poor artisan of mestizo extraction: Augusto Cesar Sandino.

Sandino's army was founded in El Chipote in the northern hills of the Segovias on September 2, 1927. Hundreds of campesinos' signatures (or thumbprints from those who could not write) approved the founding document. These guerrilleros waged their first attack, an ambush, on September 9 in the small town of Las Flores.

Sandino's army reached its height between 1931 and 1932, both in the number of troops and in its military actions. In the almost six years of fighting against the U.S. invaders, its numbers varied between 2,000 and 6,000 men, divided into eight guerrilla columns. Each column was headed by a general, the majority of whom were campesinos or artisans from the region. Each column had a specific field of operations in which battles were waged. In each area, the army also organized the population to defend themselves. Funds were collected, agricultural cooperatives were formed and literacy classes were set up for the soldiers and the campesinos.

The participation of other Central Americans in Sandino's army and the international echo which this unequal war had around the world reflect the importance of this military experience and aid the understanding of the current situation in Nicaragua.


The U.S. military "formula" to stop the civil wars between party factions in Nicaragua and to neutralize the nationalism created by Sandino's army was the formation, under U.S. control, of the "constitutionalist army" in 1926. But the facade of legality, non partisanship and pacifism which this army wore, with the Liberal Gen. Moncada at its head, was very fragile and soon fell. In December 1927, while Sandino was fighting, the Nicaraguan government signed an agreement with the U.S. to establish the National Guard. This army was formed and trained according to the model the U.S. was then using in preparing the armies of Haiti, the Philippines, and the Dominican Republic. On February 19, 1928, the Nicaraguan National Congress passed the law creating the National Guard.

Right from the beginning, this "army" had all the characteristics of an "interventionist" army created not to defend national interests but U.S. interests. It acted in close collaboration with the U.S. troops, who trained and commanded it. In January 1933, the marines abandoned Nicaragua, and Sandino disarmed his army. It was at that point that the real nature of the National Guard was seen: a force occupying its own country.

In the north, the National Guard began attacking the Sandinistas in all the rural areas. Sandino denounced the army to President Sacasa as unconstitutional in both its origins and its methods. Sandino's last battles, once the arms were laid aside and the soldiers had been incorporated into agricultural cooperatives in Wiwili, were battles against inequality and the impunity and arbitrariness with which this new army was already acting.

It was Somoza Garcia, a Liberal and a career military officer, elected by the U.S. to lead the National Guard, who assassinated Sandino in February of 1934 "for Nicaragua's own good" as he himself declared.

Until 1979, Nicaragua's army was the National Guard (N.G.). Right from the start, it was organized along the lines of a Praetorian style armed body. For historical reasons, it was impossible that it be an apolitical army. By 1936, when Somoza Garcia became president of the country, the National Guard was already linked to the Somoza Liberals, fulfilling the function of the ever present armed bodyguard of the dictator and his family.

In 1939, the "model" of the N.G. was already defined. It was structured as a military body based on privileges and economic sinecures, which in certain public areas had a monopolistic nature. The N.G. controlled the communication systems (roads, post offices, traffic, etc.), customs and immigration offices, the sale of alcohol, prostitution, etc. Its privileges grew over the years. What united this armed group was neither professionalism nor loyalty to a party ideology but rather loyalty to Somoza and his personal and family interests. The N.G. received from the dictator paternalistic privileges in exchange for unconditional protection. In the last few years, this protection was more and more needed because of the nature of the system itself: an apparatus of repression with a highly developed system of torture. The consolidation of the Somocista state between 1936 and 1979 was in direct proportion to the consolidation of the National Guard.

The United States formed, supported and trained this army, unique in Central America. Between 1959 and 1976, 4,897 members of the N.G. were trained directly by the U.S. From 1949 to 1973, 4,119 N.G. went to Fort Gulick, Panama, for counterinsurgency training. Since 1944, all the N.G. cadets did their final year at that base. The number of Nicaraguans trained directly by the United States in Panama during those years far exceeds that of any other Latin American army. This direct participation of the U.S. army in the formation of the National Guard can be explained by the fact that, before the fall of Somoza, the strongest military link in U.S. regional geopolitics was Nicaragua.

On July 19, 1979, there were 5,500 members of the National Guard and 2,000 elite counterinsurgency troops of the EEBI (Basic Infantry Training School). Because of the nature of the National Guard and its history of repression, it was necessary for the new government to disband this army and create a completely new one.


Upon taking power, the FSLN had a total of 15,000 combatants. Of this number, 2,000 had fought as more regular army units in the Southern Front or in the Northwestern Front, and 3,000 had made up guerrilla columns in the northern and eastern regions of the country. In the urban areas, there were 10,000 irregular militia members who fought with whatever they could find during the final insurrection.

By August 1979, the first units of the new army were formed, and this army was officially constituted on September 2 under the name of the Sandinista People's Army (EPS). The date had special significance as it was on the same date 52 years earlier that Sandino's army had been formed.

Creating an army like Sandino's nationalist, defensive, anti imperialist - was seen as the cornerstone of the revolution. But given the various types of persons and the varying degrees of military experience, the formation of a regular army was from the start a major challenge.

At that time, the priorities were:
- unite the armed forces;
- achieve a civil and political conscientization in the army, so that the soldiers would be identified with the revolution;
- form the EPS into a small, mobile force which would maintain contact with the militia forces.

During the first six months after the fall of Somoza, those who had participated in the insurrection had to be disarmed, and the selection process to integrate them into the EPS had to begin. This was not an easy task. At this stage, between 8 10 % of the EPS were women; during the war, about 25% of the combatants had been women.

Military ranks were not established until 1980, with the highest being Commander: Commander of the Revolution, Brigade Commander, etc. The emphasis in these early months was on literacy, as approximately 45% of the EPS soldiers were illiterate.

In February 1980, the Sandinista People's Militia (MPS) was formed to support the EPS and to involve all Nicaraguans in national defense. The MPS were voluntary and accepted men and women between the ages of 16 and 60. Their tasks were the defense of urban factories or workplaces and the defense of the rural areas where counterrevolutionary bands had already begun to appear. Another responsibility of the militia was to form brigades to carry out the tasks of reconstruction in areas destroyed by the war or to help in emergency situations, like floods, fires, etc. Even at that time, the MPS had already begun to fight alongside the regular army combating the ex N.G. who were launching attacks in the north.

The Border Patrol Troops (TGF), a division of the army, began to operate immediately after the revolution. They were responsible for capturing the ex N.G. who were fleeing to Honduras and stopping cattle rustling and contraband.

During the first year of the revolution, defense was not yet a daily priority. The EPS was structured, organized and trained along with the MPS, and both groups participated in the harvests and other social and economic projects.

The Sandinista Police (PS) was another new organization. Their initial tasks were curbing delinquency, watching out for the public order and trying to prevent alcoholism and prostitution.


By the end of 1981, armed attacks against Nicaragua had escalated greatly. This escalation was the reason for the State of National Emergency which was declared at that time and is still in effect. Defense structures were also studied more closely and broadened as defense strategies were reevaluated and perfected.

The current defense structure is as follows:
(Minister: Cmdr. Humberto Ortega, Member of FSLN National Directorate)

1. Infantry
- Border Patrol Troops (TGF)
- Irregular Fighting Battalions (BLIR)
Tank units
Artillery units
Infantry troops

Reserve Infantry Battalions (BIR)
Territorial Battalions

2- Sandinista Air Force (FAS)
Sandinista Anti-Air Defense Force (FASDA)

3- Sandinista Navy

(Minister: Cmdr. Tomas Borge,
member of FSLN National Directorate)

1- State Security
2- Sandinista Police
3- Support Organizations
(Immigration, Firefighters, etc.)

In the current battles against the counterrevolutionary forces, the most active troops are the TGF and the BLIR, who are specially trained for this type of warfare. The MPS reserve battalions (BIR) fight alongside the TGF and the BLIR. No distinction is made among these three groups as to types of armament. The militia who serve in the city, however, are given inferior weapons.

Members of the reserve battalions (BIR) have a special training course which lasts at least one month, while the territorial militia members have training practice on weekends in the neighborhoods where they live.

Since the situation today in Nicaragua is marked daily by a battle in some area of the country, defense has become a national priority, and the strategies to make the defense more efficient have been readjusted. The regular army will now be consolidated and strengthened by obligatory military service, and the territorial militia are perfecting their defensive capacity through the organization of battalions. These changes are evident even in the agricultural cooperatives where the campesinos are organized for self defense. The ever growing possibility of war with the Honduran army, heightened by the U.S. regional policy, has forced Nicaragua to speed up the process of strengthening its national defense.


The military service law is based on the historical legacy of Sandino's army, on the government platform (points 1, 12) and on the Fundamental Statute of the Republic (art. 24) promulgated on July 20, 1979. These stipulate that the new army "will be formed by a minimum of permanent cadres and by Nicaraguans able to give obligatory military service, with the goal of lessening the costs which defense generates and setting aside said financial resources for the economic and social development of the country."

Military service is now a public law which, according to Humberto Ortega, will only be functioning at full capacity in four years' time. It is defined as "the institutionalization of the military service which the reservists and militia have been doing voluntarily since the revolution." Both active and reserve duty are contained in the law: active duty implies direct and continuous service in some branch of the Ministry of Defense, while reserve duty includes only military training and readiness. All Nicaraguan males between 18 and 40 years of age are obliged to serve active or reserve duty. Military service for women is voluntary, but women between the ages of 18 and 40 may request to serve.

Military service is for a two year period and can be reduced or prolonged by six months under the law. In time of war or emergency, the time can be extended. Nicaraguan males between 18 and 25 years of age will be called up first to perform active duty. They will be designated "military personnel", and their food, clothing, medical attention plus a monthly stipend will be given to them. In the case of family necessity, the stipend will be increased. If they are working when called up, their job will be guaranteed after their service commitment. Once their active duty is finished, they will automatically be incorporated into the reserves.

Reservists who do not already have training will receive military instruction. Each year the defense minister will present the government with the number of reservists who will participate in military training. The situation in the country will determine whether or not these reservists will be called to active service.

Registration, technical military preparation and other organizational tasks will be decentralized according to the current regionalization of the country. The first step is registration. Once this is fulfilled, a document will be issued to each registrant. This document will have to be shown in order to obtain work in state or private businesses or factories, to register for schools, universities, etc., to obtain a passport or a visa, or to carry out any legal transactions.

In peace times, there are various exemptions for military service: different illnesses, being the sole support of one's family or being in the last year of high school or college. In times of war, the only exception to military service is proven mental or physical incapacity. (What is not clear in the law is if the current "state of emergency" is considered "time of war.")

The penalties fall under two categories: fine or imprisonment. For those who do not register, the penalty is 3 months to 2 years in prison; for those who fail to keep appointments or medical examinations, between 1 and 6 months; for those who are registered and fail to show up if called for duty, between 2 and 4 years.

Fines will be charged if documents are destroyed or lost. In time of war, reservists who are called to active duty and do not show up will be considered deserters and judged by military law.

The law stipulates that the MPS will continue to function according to the current rules and regulations, even though the majority of those who are currently in the MPS will most likely be called upon first for active or reserve duty.

The first registration period is being carried out during the month of October for all Nicaraguan males between 17 and 22 years of age. It is estimated that there are 200,000 youths in this age bracket but of that number only some 15,000 will be selected for active duty at this time.


In the ideological debate surrounding both the draft and later the approved version of the military service law, there have been some main themes. Several of these were treated in the last issue of the ENVIO, and others have been treated in a recently published document of the Nicaraguan x Christian Base Communities ("We Want Peace"), a section of which is included at the end of this article.

It has been particularly emphasized, but still not sufficiently at a grassroots level, that military service is closely linked to the daily tasks of production and/or education, so that the work needed for the reconstruction of the country is not affected. Currently, there are 1,729 university students who actively participate in the territorial militia, and of that number 777 have been mobilized to combat zones as part of MPS reserve battalions. This has caused students to lose some of their studies and it has contributed to the low academic performance in the universities. The current law hopes to overcome these deficiencies.

There has not been a public debate on conscientious objection. This can be partially explained by the fact that since the country has been under constant attack, Nicaraguans are thinking much more about the right to defend their lives rather than the injunction, "Thou shalt not kill." So far no rule exists about "conscientious objector status" or about an alternative service which would take the place of military service. The evangelical churches under CEPAD (the Evangelical Committee for Aid and Development) have requested that a conscientious objector status be considered and that pastors who must fulfill their military service in lieu of alternative civil service not be moved far from their congregations. Even though the law does not encompass these requests, it would appear that they will be honored.

The resistance from opposition groups in the country has centered around military service as a "partisan imposition" or as an "instrument of ideological indoctrination." In sectors supporting the government, the debate has focused on the participation of women in military service.

Currently about 30% of the territorial militia are women. However, the nature of the new military service presented "objective problems" as regards their participation. AMNLAE, the Nicaraguan Woman's Association, fought hard but unsuccessfully to insure the equal participation of women in military service. Glenda Monterrey, AMNLAE's national director, said: "We cannot accept article 6 or article 22 of the draft without discussion, even though we are clear about the objective and subjective limitations both men and women have in carrying out determined tasks... These limitations are a result of the historical development.... of humanity and therefore can be heightened or diminished according to this same development...."

Despite debates, proposals, and declarations of principles, intelligently and ardently defended by the women, the objectivity of these limitations was left fixed in the "letter" of the law. The daily reality in Nicaragua is a better indication of the "spirit" of the law. Thousands of women in the militia, and thousands more who spend the night watching for the public security in the streets, neighborhoods and factories throughout the country, show evidence of a nation armed to defend what has been won.


While military service consolidates Nicaragua's regular army, increasing its defensive capacity, the militia, Nicaragua's "volunteer army," is perfecting itself through reorganization into territorial militia battalions.

This new structure at the territorial level is designed to augment the civil defense mechanisms in each area according to its particular characteristics. People in each neighborhood and zone have taken inventories of the strategic places in their area (work centers, gas or oil deposits, communication facilities, etc.). The territorial militia now have the responsibility to defend their area to the best of their ability.

The counterrevolutionary attacks and the number of armed men involved in these (between 6,000 and 10,000 according to State Department figures) indicate that Nicaragua could face a prolonged war for some time to come. This has emphasized the necessity to create a military organization in which all the nation must participate at different levels. The territorial militia must become the vanguard in their zone and among their neighbors of this popular mobilization for defense.

As Commander Humberto Ortega said recently, “The counterrevolution will find the country ‘mined’ with better organized and better armed militia in specific places of the military theater." That image describes the pragmatic sense of the new strategy: decentralize, specialize, extend, familiarize the militia with the areas or strategic targets which they must defend, and make each militia member “personally” responsible. About a thousand militia instructors at the company level have currently been given the task to restructure these territorial MPS so that they learn to fight "as the first ring of defense" in the city, in the rural areas or in the factories. They will also be trained to organize the people in their areas into preventive brigades to fight fires, clean up, administer first aid, care for children, construct bomb shelters, etc.

These are the structures and strategies still evolving as happens in any revolutionary process with which Nicaragua is confronting the war imposed from outside and is preparing for other types or escalations of this war. In fact, the weapons, the strategies and all the structures are organized neither offensively nor defensively, but rather with the overall goal of stopping the war. "We continue fighting to win the best war of all, the one which can be avoided," said Nicaragua's Defense Minister in July, the same day that the first three battalions of territorial militia were formally constituted.

The challenge facing Nicaragua's new army defending national sovereignty and the life of its citizens is part of the larger challenge facing the Nicaraguan government and its people to build a lasting peace.

Excerpts from Chapter 4, "The Army in the New Nicaragua", in a document entitled WE WANT PEACE, published by the Nicaraguan Christian Base Communities.

It is obvious that an organized and professional army will occupy an important place in Nicaragua for a long time to come. A long-term challenge, therefore, is the democratization of this army.

Within this ideal of democratization, the officers of this new army should be selected by the people and held accountable to them through a process which will reaffirm the nation’s political power. We are not suggesting that officers be elected by their troops, but rather that mechanisms be established so that the army is controlled by the people and not vice versa.

Nicaragua’s army is a defensive one. The attacks coming from Honduras, and on a different scale from Costa Rica, reveal this fact. Faced with the continuous attacks from Honduran territory, Nicaragua has never responded by crossing the border. And this is true despite the fact that the exact location of the counterrevolutionary camps has been known for some time. The strongest proof of the defensive nature of Nicaragua’s response to the war imposed upon it, is that all the dead bodies are on the Nicaraguan side of the border.

The statement that “all armies are equally bad” is not something that we can affirm. A healthy and Christian criticism of the use of arms and of militarism must always be kept alive, but to achieve this end it is necessary that those who take up arms maintain a critical distance from them. This distance can insure that weapons are not glorified as sometimes happens with money, power, or prestige, for example.

We consider that the insurrections and the armed defense of the poor, underdeveloped nations are part of the same search for peace as the disarmament protests of the developed nations. Those who organize pacifist demonstrations in Europe and the United States, those who struggle heroically in El Salvador, and those who defend Nicaragua’s borders with arms are all serving the same cause – humanity. … The modern world is not just the “global village” which the mass media would have us believe. It is also a collection of realities, a set of unsynchronized histories of peoples who are at different stages in the development of their collective identities.

The Nicaraguan youth who must enter active military service and the older men who must join the reserves are joining an army whose members want to be part of a new army. This new army is evidenced when its soldiers patiently and prudently resist the provocations along the border or when they work alongside the campesino at harvest time. They are joining an army in which “defending the homeland” means defending that land which the agrarian reform has given to the campesinos. So, in joining the army, they will join the ranks of a national self-defense movement, a military formula, in which this new army and the future of the armed forces of our country should be understood.

It should be emphasized here that, while the military service law recognizes the courage and heroism of the armed forces, it places those forces alongside the many other groups which defend the nation and serve the people. Health workers, adult education teachers, rural and industrial workers, parents and many others are all essential participants in building a more just nation. These people also are called daily to generosity and to heroism. They are the “peace artisans” which Nicaragua needs.

It is within the context of opposition to the arms race and the recognition of the self-sacrificing work of the majority of citizens, that we believe the military service law should include the legal provision for “conscientious objection”. Only the willingness to engage in alternative service – including service in the war zones – can legitimize the conscientious objection to the taking up of arms.

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Nicaragua's New Army: Fighting To Achieve Peace

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