The Counterrevolutionaries: What kind of Freedom Fighters Are They?
Life overcame death in Bocana de Paiwas. “After what happened, the people felt more like people, we felt we possessed our own future. No taskforce will be able to take from us the new spirit that is now ours.” Thus speaks a young woman who was a victim of the counterrevolution.
THE PEOPLES’S RESPONSE IN BOCANA DE PAIWAS. Life overcame death in Bocana de Paiwas. “People feel more human now. After all that has happened, I would say that we now have a firm grasp on our future. No taskforce is strong enough to strip us of the new spirit that we have acquired,” says a victim of the counterrevolution.
Since the latter part of 1982, the counterrevolutionary forces, especially the Honduran-based FDN (Nicaraguan Democratic Force), have frequently sent “taskforces” across the border into Nicaragua. These 50-to-400-member groups use guerrilla tactics to harass the army militia units, as well as to attack economic targets by burning crops and destroying key elements in the country’s infrastructure. The task forces terrorize the civilian population with threats, the torture and murder of grass-roots leaders, and the abduction of women and children.
The Nicaraguan military forces have been repeatedly successful in routing these task forces. Although the task forces have proven to be a failure on a strictly military basis, they continue to be used because of the unlimited supply of mercenaries and weapons at the disposal of the counterrevolution. The cost for Nicaragua in loss of human life and in material damage has been high. The activities carried out by these troops are bleeding and impoverishing the country.
The nature of these activities reveals the essence of the counterrevolution far more clearly than any ideological arguments and provides an indication of the Contras’ plans for the future. Many Nicaraguan villages have been exposed to the task forces, or bands. We have chosen the example of Bocana de Paiwas for the purpose of describing the situation before and after the attacks by these armed groups, whose members President Reagan has labelled as “freedom fighters.”
A Few Statistics on Bocana de Paiwas—Before and after the RevolutionThe municipality of Paiwas (the “mouth” of the Paiwas River, as it is usually called) is located in the department of Zelaya, in the very center of Nicaragua, where the Tuma River joins Matagalpa’s Río Grande in its journey toward the Caribbean Sea. The departments of Boaco, Matagalpa, and Zelaya come together in Paiwas at the urban center of the municipality whose 43,143 inhabitants are scattered throughout 33 townships. The municipality of Paiwas is also part of Nicaragua’s eastern agricultural frontier, where campesinos use machetes to cut through the dense mountain vegetation in search of farming and grazing lands.
The Paiwas branch of the National Development Bank, which services only one area of the municipality, operates with assets of 82,386,755 cordobas. These funds exceed those controlled by neighboring municipalities and are chiefly intended for the development of cattle raising.
La Bocana produces approximately 16,000 liters of milk a day. On the most isolated farms, milk is transformed into 50-pound blocks of cheese before being transported. Another important product of the Paiwas mountains is wood, which goes to the sawmills in Managua. Poor campesinos grow corn and beans, two basic grains whose production is very low in the region. They also plant manioc, coffee, rice, sugar carne, and different fruits. Hogs and poultry are raised as well.
Paiwas is a region that has traditionally been isolated from economic development in the rest of the country because of a lack of roads. Only the 950 people residing in the central area of the municipality have access to newspapers. The great majority of campesinos are illiterate and do not even have a radio in their home.
During the Somoza regime, this isolation was even greater due to the fact that the immense majority of investments were intended to meet the interests of large cattle raisers and cotton and coffee producers in the Pacific region. The scarce services in the townships of Paiwas were made available by health instructors and rural teachers who were trained by the Church on a parish level.
This geographical isolation has had an impact on the level of awareness of the campesinos of Paiwas. They have had a different historical experience from that of the inhabitants of the Pacific region. The only direct conflicts that the people of Paiwas experienced with the dictatorship were those involving the “jueces de mesta,” who were township judges and members of Somoza’s Liberal Party. The inhabitants of the region were scarcely affected by the repression brought on by the National Guard’s counterinsurgency, and they did not identify themselves directly with the Sandinista victory in 1979.
In Bocana, as in other isolated areas of the country, thousands of campesinos quickly benefited from the revolution. Two roads were built across the northern section of the municipality, and electricity was installed for the first time in the urban center. Two health centers were built, and teams of doctors and nurses offered their services in the most isolated townships. Homemade “sweets” made from sugar cane were replaced by white sugar, which is much preferred by Nicaraguans. A distribution network for sugar stretched across the entire municipality. Poor campesinos began to form literacy collectives and cooperatives with bank financing and advice from the UNAG (National Union of Farmers and Cattle Raisers). For the first time, campesinos living in the municipality became local judges and administrators.
As were all Nicaraguan peasant women, those in the Paiwas region had been kept in very limited roles. Following the revolutionary triumph, they began to participate in all the grass-roots organizations and activities, such as popular health campaigns, AMNLAE (women’s association), Sandinista defense committees, and militia units. These women also began to play an important role in managing the “Héroes y Mártires de Enero y Abril” coop, which engages in diverse activities, such as river transportation, the sale of basic consumer goods, and agricultural production. The Paiwas women also organized their own clothing cooperative, which allowed them to make good clothes at prices that the campesinos from the most distant townships could afford.
All these small and yet important changes, through which men, women, and children saw their lives transformed, illustrate the revolution that Paiwas experienced after 1979. These changes allowed the people of Paiwas not only to live better but also to become more aware of their national identity and of Nicaragua’s historical process.
The Counterrevolutionary Bands However, because of its isolation, Paiwas also experienced the counterrevolution. Social progress in Paiwas was dealt its first blow in August of 1981, when troops entered the municipality and murdered four campesinos in the township of Santa Rosa. The motive of the crime was the fact that the four had joined the local militia unit. Fear spread to all the members of the defense committees, coop members, health campaigners, and volunteer teachers. All had understood the “message” and felt that their continued participation in such projects entailed a death sentence.
The people had overcome their fear by the end of 1981, and plans were being carried out at a normal pace with the support and volunteer work of the campesinos. Then, on March 3, 1982, a band of seven counterrevolutionaries killed the parish’s best Delegate of the Word, Emiliano Pérez Obando. A father of ten children, Pérez Obando had been a delegate for twelve years, a local judge, and a leader in the community.
The death of this exemplary man shook the parish and made it more difficult to recruit students for adult education and volunteers for the health brigades. As the murderers told a group of Christians held at gunpoint in the Copalar chapel, Emiliano’s death was a warning to anyone who dared take part in the grass-roots organizations.
Reorganization was a difficult but not impossible task. With what could be termed heroic commitment, 45 campesinos continued to take part in adult education, and 32 more kept up the delivery of vaccinations to their rural chapels in order to protect children against disease. Some 200 coop members continued to raise crops, despite the threats.
By April, 1983, those counterrevolutionaries with the best CIA training and equipment had been transformed into the infamous taskforces. One of these groups approached the Paiwas region with the intention of seizing the municipality’s urban center. However, there had been time to improve the organization of the region’s defense, and the Sandinista army was able to disband the 150-member task force before it could harm the population and attain its military objective.
An Account of the Counterrevolutionaries’ Incursion into Bocana de PaiwasOn August 31, 1983, a task force composed of 350 well-equipped soldiers, accompanied by 150 civilians carrying packs — most of whom were campesinos who had been kidnapped in other regions — entered the Paiwas mountains. The surprise attack on Paiwas left behind 20 dead civilians, 2 wounded women, 3 raped women, 18 homes burnt to the ground, and 144 refugees in the municipality’s urban center.
James Feltz, a United States citizen and the parish priest for Paiwas, describes what took place.
“Don’t kill me, Mr. President.” These words pounded through my head as I rode a mule along the long trail between the townships of El Guayabo and Las Minitas. Everywhere I looked I saw signs of the destruction wreaked by the FDN task force.
I had just spoken with Cristina, the thin, fragile, ten-year-old daughter of Isabel Borge, a catechist from the Catholic chapel in El Guayabo. Cristina had told me what happened on September 2.
She was visiting two of her uncles when the Contras arrived. They immediately killed her uncles, Lino and Cándido, as well as a neighbour named Rosa María Pérez. All three were unarmed civilians. One of the Contras decided to practice his marksmanship by using Cristina as his target. Lying on the ground surrounded by other men who had approached to watch the game, Cristina screamed: “Don’t kill me! Don’t kill me!” The Contra took no pity and fired four bullets into her body. She miraculously survived with superficial wounds on the top of the head and in the left hip, and deeper wounds that pierced her chest and right wrist.
The same day I spoke with Cristina, the Unites States Senate Intelligence Committee had approved an extra $19,000,000 in support of covert CIA activities in Nicaragua. I remembered Cristina’s story and the cry of distress, her only recourse in the face of death: “Don’t kill me!”
In my mind, her scream had been transformed into a new one: “Mr. President, don’t kill us!” And it resounded in my brain again and again with each step of the mule. Rage and helplessness blinded me as I thought about the policies of my country’s government and their cost in human lives and destruction to this small land that has become my new home.
Cristina was not the only victim of the counter-revolutionaries. Father James Feltz prepared a careful inventory of the crimes and destruction perpetrated by the task forces in all the townships of his parish. His account depicts a series of horrors that are typical of the activities carried out by these task forces in other regions of the country.
In the township of Anito, they killed 6 people, robbed 50,000 cordobas, burned 8 houses and an outboard motorboat used by the cooperative for river transportation, blew up part of the chapel with a mortar shell, and, to say farewell, shot another mortar shell into a group of people who had come together for the burial of one of the victims.
In Ocaguas, the FDN “freedom fighters” murdered two campesinos. One was stabbed and had his eyes dug out before being killed. The other was hung from a beam of his own home. On the same day (September 1), in Las Minitas, they burned 6 houses and all the clothes that the cooperative had on sale. Before leaving, they killed the wife of the militia chief with a gunshot to the head. They killed a campesino from El Guayabo, who happened to be passing through Las Minitas, because he was carrying his UNAG membership card.
The taskforce arrived in El Guayabo the next day and killed 9 people. One of the victims was a 14-year old girl who was raped by several men and later decapitated. They threw her body into a brook and placed her head in the road at the entrance to the village. They did the same with the head of another campesino. Three women were forced to roll in the mud like pigs for the amusement of the Contras. At gunpoint, they were made to lie face down in the mud for a considerable length of time, after which the Contras fired on them. One was killed, another was wounded, and the third was not injured. Later, they raped another woman and entered a house where they proceeded to murder a couple in the presence of their 3 children. The Contras then burned 4 houses without allowing their occupants enough time to save their clothing or tools, just as they had done elsewhere.
The taskforces abducted 15 campesinos from the different townships. As were the 150 who had arrived with the Contras, the newly kidnapped campesinos were forced to carry packs of provisions and ammunition weighing between 80 and 100 pounds. Campesinos abducted by the Contras are given one meal a day and live as prisoners with the constant threat of being shot it they attempt to escape.
However, Arcadio Pérez Méndez, a Delegate of the Word in Las Minitas and the father of several militia members, did escape. He revealed what his abductors talked about in his presence. “We’re going to cut off your head so that we can drink your blood,” said one of them. Another said, “No, let’s hang him until his tongue sticks out, to punish him for not telling us where his sons are.”
Two women from Anito whose houses were burnt told of how the counterrevolutionaries showed them their new weapons (FALs) while talking about President Reagan’s support for the FDN. They also showed large sums of money. One campesino was told that he would be paid 40,000 cordobas if he joined the Contras. They stole a Bible from Valentín Velásquez, a delegate of the Word in Anito. “This way, the people around here will see that we are Christians,” the FDN members said.
Father Feltz concluded his account with the following words: “These ‘Christian freedom fighters’, this devastating taskforce, demolished my parish, murdered my friends, and destroyed years of work, all with the complicity and funding of my country’s government. Such cruelty and cynicism seem like a nightmare to me.”
Immediate Reactions: Unity and SolidarityOne cannot deny the taskforces’ capacity for spreading horror and death. However, the passage of these armed groups through different Nicaraguan villages has sparked indignation and consternation on a national basis, as well as a higher level of popular organization aimed at maintaining production and improving defense. The American policy of backing the taskforces is not only unjust and criminal, but also ineffective in its attempt to destabilize the revolution. What the Reagan administration’s policy seems to be achieving is the consolidation of the revolutionary process.
Such were the effects on Paiwas. The defense committees immediately organized a collection for the refugees who had lost everything. Poor people from the area shared with the refugees the small amounts of clothing, food, and money that they possessed. Members of the AMNLAE women’s organization in Boaco also took up collections in order to provide for the most urgent needs of the widows and orphans. Italian medical workers in the region supplied effective help by replacing the machetes and tools that were lost when the houses were burned.
The chapels of every township where the campesinos met to evaluate what had happened and mourn for their dead rapidly became centers for solidarity. People showed up to volunteer for rebuilding destroyed homes or making new ones on different sites. The campesinos also came together in their chapels in order to make plans for the collective harvesting of corn, starting with the gardens of the widows.
Once they had overcome the initial psychological shock, the different communities began to channel their energy toward the organization of self-defense through the territorial militia units. They also decided to bring their little hamlets closer together, instead of remaining in isolated areas scattered over a large region. They discovered strength in unity that increased their capacities for defense and the improvement of everyone’s living conditions. The people saw that such unity facilitated the distribution of sugar, soap, and other products, while increasing the efficiency of the health brigades, adult-education coordinators, schoolteachers, and Delegates of the Word.
The clearest hope for regenerating community life in Paiwas after the attacks was the UNAG’s commitment to find funding for the creation of cooperative hog-raising farms in several hamlets.
Paiwas Today: Greater Consciousness and Organization In an interval of several days and in a dramatic manner, the campesinos of Paiwas became familiar with the two general alternatives that are at stake in this crucial period of Nicaragua’s history. One is the revolution, with its determination to make steady improvements in the population’s living conditions. The other is the counterrevolution, bent on bringing the revolution to an end as soon as possible, regardless of the cost in human life.
The people of Paiwas are now embarking on a new phase in their historical development. The idea of joining together different communities has been well understood, and responsibility for the plan has been shared by all concerned. They have built new houses in several parts of Ocaguas, El Guayabo, and Anito. Those who took refuge in the urban center of Paiwas are returning to their villages with confidence in the organizational development of the territorial militia. The number of enlistments in these units has been remarkable. Just 8 townships — with a total population of 7432 — put together a battalion composed of 600 volunteers, both men and women, within 3 weeks of the taskforce’s departure. Today, participation in the militia is four times what it was before the last attack by the task force.
The campesinos have begun to have confidence in their ability to defend their land and community. Moreover, they feel more than ever before the responsibility to do so. All the members of the militia have received automatic rifles and are being trained by Sandinista army officials.
With its self-defense assured, the Paiwas population can now concentrate all its energy on growing crops and implementing the new hog-raising farms. Six different hamlets will organize such cooperatives, and each one will have 75 hogs. Besides benefiting those families who are members (4320 people) by greatly increasing their average annual income, the coops will help to solve more general problems in the region. For example, corn that previously could not be transported out of the region because of a lack of roads will no longer be wasted. Hogs of a higher genetic quality will result from better overall planning. Furthermore, more effective marketing of pork throughout the municipality will improve nutrition. The hog-raising project will be the key to collective production, a new dimension that will certainly have repercussions at other organizational levels, such as health, education, and defense.
Another consequence of the counterrevolutionary attacks was the decision by the government’s regional delegation to renegotiate, and in some cases cancel, part of the 8,045,000-cordoba debt with the National Development Bank by December, 1983. This will give the population a stimulus with which to begin its new stage of development.
The new hamlets will be included in the self-defense ring surrounding the Copalar hydroelectric project in Anito. Once it begins to operate, the new plant will furnish new jobs for 1000 campesinos in the municipality. Therefore, the militia is defending not only the endangered present, but also the future.
In this way, Bocana de Paiwas is moving ahead: rebuilding what has been destroyed and continuing, despite all that has occurred, to carry out development plans in an area that had never experienced anything but alienation and isolation before 1979. Life has overcome death. Virgilio Barrera, a 55-year-old campesino from Ocaguas, describes the situation in the following manner: “It’s true that they struck us a very hard blow, but if they thought that it would chase us away, they were mistaken. We’re more determined than ever. We started by putting roofs back on houses, and we’ll continue doing whatever’s needed. The Contras aren’t going to win. Our children are finally going to learn what it means to live in peace as Christians.”
Carmen Mendieta, the coordinator of AMNLAE in Paiwas, believes that “…the future of our children is at stake. Therefore, we women also have to fight in any way we can. We are going to get another motorboat for river transportation; we are going to make more clothes in the coop; and we are going to create a new cooperative for making bread. We will do all sorts of things, and they won’t make us give in.”
Susana Castro is the widow of Emiliano Pérez Obando. She too is a Delegate of the Word. She is very conscious of the fact that the example of her husband’s honesty and commitment has borne fruit in the determination of the people of Paiwas to strengthen their organization, despite the terror they have experienced. “My husband’s blood,” she says, “was not spilled in vain. It is enriching the land and the new life that we poor people are leading. People feel more human now. After all that has happened, I would say that we now have a firm grasp on our future. No taskforce is strong enough to strip us of the new spirit that we have acquired. No taskforce is stronger than the God of the poor, who is with Nicaragua.”
PRINCIPAL TASKFORCE ATTACKS AGAINST NICARAGUA (JULY-OCTOBER, 1983) July 15: Sixty counterrevolutionaries, armed with hand grenades, destroy the home of the Montesino family in Caño de la Cruz (30 kilometers from the Honduran border), killing the campesino couple and their 3 children.
July 18: About 150 counterrevolutionaries abduct 34 campesinos in Samuria, near Bonanza, in Zelaya Norte. They are held as prisoners in a camp that is later destroyed. Three are taken to Honduras, and the others escape.
July 20: Approximately 100 Contras abduct 152 campesinos in Mozonte, Nueva Segovia. Those kidnapped include 77 children, 10 elderly people, and several pregnant women. It is thought that they were taken to Honduras.
July 25: A task force attacks the El Carmen farming coop in San Juan del Río Coco, burning the storage sheds. Resistance is offered, and one member of the militia is killed.
July 30: Some 300 Contras surround the 28-family Germán Pomares farming cooperative in Yalí, but the militia members hold off the attack.
August 2: A group of counterrevolutionaries ambushes a jeep transporting technicians 8 kilometers from Telepaneca, in Madriz, killing a consultant for the Ministry of Agriculture (MIDINRA) and wounding the other 3 passengers.
August 7: A group of Contras kidnaps 3 adult-education teachers in San Juan de Limay, Estelí. (Some 52 adult-education teachers were abducted and 38 others murdered in the preceding months of this year.)
August 10: A 150-member taskforce ambushes a public bus in Valle de los Cedros, Jinotega. Twelve passengers die in the attack.
August 15: San Rafael del Norte, in Jinotega, is attacked by Contras. The civil-defense unit repels the attack and suffers two casualties, the telegraphist and a militia member.
August 16: A counterrevolutionary group attacks the Bernadino Díaz Ochoa farming coop in La Concordia, Estelí. The militia members resist the attack, and damage is prevented.
August 24: More than 200 Contras attack Ciudad Sandino, in Nueva Segovia. The militia holds off the aggressors, suffering 2 casualties.
August 29: A task force attacks Ulú, in Río Blanco (Matagalpa), destroying a water tank, 5 tractors, a crane, 16 barrels of diesel fuel, 2 barrels of gasoline, and the construction workers’ sheds. One worker is abducted.
August 30: Contras attack the border town of San Pedro de Potrero Grande, in Chinandega, with mortar fire. Two campesinos are killed, and 3 are wounded. (This is the sixth such attack carried out against this town.)
September 3: A group of counterrevolutionaries decapitates 18 campesinos in La Waya, near Río Blanco, Matagalpa.
September 19: A taskforce murders 33 campesinos and abducts 40 others in different communities of Boaco and Chontales.
September 26: Counterrevolutionaries attack Santa María, in Nueva Segovia. Militia members repel the attack.
October 18: Approximately 300 Contras attack Pantasma, Jinotega, burning the sawmill, the Encafé coffee warehouse, the facilities belonging to the coop, a truck, the municipal-government building, 3 supply posts of the state-run Nicaraguan Basic Foodstuffs Corporation (ENABAS), the militia post, the National Development Bank, and the regional FSLN office. Forty civilians and 7 militia members are killed.
October 19: A group of counterrevolutionaries kidnap 4 campesinos near Cárdenas, Río San Juan, and take them to Costa Rica. Another group of Contras ambushes a civilian vehicle near La Azucena, Río San Juan, killing a child and wounding the other passengers.