A chronicle of guerrilla warfare and mosaic pieces of the Mosquitia
These extracts from the author’s extensive book,
A chronicle of guerrilla warfare (1982-2007)
aren’t necessarily the best or most important
but they give an idea of the book’s detailed description,
the complexity of the analysis and the wealth of information
required to understand the roots and evolution of the
Miskitus’ guerrilla tactics against the Nicaraguan revolution.
They’re just appetizers for those who want to know more
and understand better who the Miskitu people are
and how their society has evolved.
I’m aware of the problems the outcome of my re¬search could cause. As the statement by Pierre Vidal-Naquet that I used as an epigraph warns: “Just because an ideology empowers a fact doesn’t annul that fact’s existence” (…)
An ever-evolving investigation
At first this book was only to be an introduction to long interviews I had with a former guerrilla fighter, Samuel Kittlé (aka Mono), and his relatives. I met this informant during my first stay with the guerrillas in May 1984 and formed a friendship with him. Problems posed by editing and translating those interviews were soon joined by other concerns that had arisen and were still pending during the writing of different pieces about the war and social change among the Miskitu people of Nicaragua’s Caribbean region.
These new problems led me to wonder to what degree Moravian pietism among the Miskitus engenders not only new religious but also political habitus, and resulted in a separate book, the first volume of a trilogy in progress about the Miskitus. The second volume will deal with the experience of a Miskitu family in the 20th century and the third will be specifically dedicated to the confrontations between the Miskitus and the Sandinistas in the 1980s (…)
My research evolved through all the trips I made to what was historically known as the Mosquitia—where I first set foot in 1982 and where I later (1997-2007) gradually began to collect the pieces needed to compose a mosaic. In 1997 I sought “model autobiographies” of Miskitu guerrillas to write an anthropological study of the war in this area of Nicaragua. And I found I had quite a heterogeneous amount of material. The limits I set when starting my research—temporal (the war period), geographical (the Mosquitia) and socio-political (guerrillas)—were shifting (...)
The importance of the Wanki River
More than two-thirds of those I met and interviewed came from the Wanki River (known as the Rio Coco in Spanish). I preferred interviewing those I’d met during the war, the most numerous being residents of Asang from the Wanki River basin…. I chose to increase the number of my stays in those places because of the possibility of making productive trips on the river. The relative ease of moving around by river and the interest the people I met showed in my research led me to pay less attention to those from the coast communities and those along the Prinzapolka and Río Grande de Matagalpa rivers.
The predominance of informants from the Wanki River corresponds very well with this micro-region’s dominant demographic importance in 20th-century Miskitu history. While the coastal communities are relatively numerous, especially in the Pearl Lagoon area of the South Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region (RACCS), in total they’re hardly more populated than the 10 communities forming Sandy Bay in the north. Bluefields, the regional capital of the RACCS, was always more a Creole than Miskitu city. The mining region has played a central role as a source of seasonal or permanent work for Miskitus and Mayangnas since the beginning of the 20th century but historically, with the exception of Musawás, the residents in these relatively dispersed communities are Mayangna rather than Miskitu.
While the mining region was an important war zone in the 1980s, the Contra troops who fought against the Sandinistas were Miskitu, Mayangna and mestizo and only a decade later did the Mining Triangle become especially contentious between them due to the advance of the pioneer frontier, which put Spanish-speaking colonists, whether Sandinistas or former Contras, in conflict with the Miskitus who came to work in the mines and with the Mayangnas living in the surrounding communities. This has superimposed on the mines acts of common violence, land disputes, political confrontations, a settling of scores related to the illegal timber trade and drug trafficking…
A certain religious primacy has accompanied the Wanki River’s dominant demographic importance. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Moravians established their seminary and one of their hospitals in the Lower Wanki River town of Bilwaskarma for demographic and climatic reasons. They also chose Bilwas¬karma as the headquarters for their “Wings of Mercy,” light planes that flew over the whole of the Mosquitia transporting sick people to the hospitals.
The Wanki River was also Nicaragua’s largest internal waterway. Its basin has been an agricultural exporting area for lumber, bananas and rubber, and later rice and beans. That’s why it isn’t surprising that many guerrilla cadres, Moravian Church pastors, some of them very active in their congregations, and also a considerable number of social and NGO leaders, all of them Miskitu, come from this river’s communities.
The sample of people I interviewed for my research has another common characteristic: with few exceptions, they’re all engaged in a process of upward social mobility, very often starting from before the war, underpinned by a willingness to study and based on family networks.
Almost mechanically, the war brought about social changes—often an extension of transformations already underway since the 1950s—and opened up new possibilities. The core of my early informants, almost all former guerrillas, their relatives and the people I met during the courses I taught at the Bluefields Indian and Caribbean University (BICU) experienced and participated in these changes.
There are some exceptions, those their former comrades in arms called “losers,” who sank into alcoholism, sometimes as a result of incidents during the war and often after their demobilization. A lot of guerrillas were never able to make the adaptations necessary to hold a normal job. Although discussing such things with strangers was difficult, I was able to talk with some of my acquaintances about their alcohol or drug problems. The Moravian belief system isn’t very forgiving toward alcoholics, who are particularly stigmatized, making them reluctant to confide in anyone, especially a foreigner.
My informants’ professions clearly indicate social mobility. Most of the guerrillas I knew in the 1980s—from all political positions, be it followers of Steadman Fagoth or Brooklyn Rivera, supporters of the Yulu peace agreements or those who brought about “the Reform”—were from extremely poor communities while only 25% of those I spoke with after 1997 were subsistent farmers or fishers.
With just one exception, none of the guerrilla leaders whose parents were farmers have continued to farm after the war. Almost all have become administrators in state structures or are teachers, lawyers, or NGO or local municipal employees; some are merchants or craftspeople. Many of my new acquaintances belong to the Moravian Church or its Pentecostal rivals, work for or direct NGOs or are teachers, professors, lawyers or doctors.
The “reform” of the guerrilla
movement was a far-reaching change
I constructed a new outline of the Miskitu guerrilla movement ensconced in Honduras in the course of my brief stay in the Mocorón refugee camp during the war, where I made contact with many of those who attended my courses, especially with Mono.
They told me something that pleased me: the power of Steadman Fagoth and Honduras’ Captain Luque—who was the contact between the Honduran Army and the Miskitu refugees in Honduras—had come to an end. After having publicly called for the execution of Sandinista prisoners, Fagoth was expelled from Honduras to the United States and Luque was demoted by his superiors.
Suddenly the “reformers” had the wind in their favor. Mono became second in command of the new military staff. The reformers told me in detail about their reunification work with the commanders, at least initially under orders from Brooklyn Rivera. I learned about their ploys to displace Rivera and about the preparation for an assembly of Miskitu communities and all the commanders for September 1985.
I didn’t understand the full implications of what Mono told me, especially when he talked about “reform.” The term has a certain political meaning but even more it can be used in a religious and moral sense. I saw for myself that a completely new mood reigned in the refugee camps. With the presence of doctors and nurses from Doctors without Borders, the guerrilla force wasn’t the same and, as a result, relationships with the refugees were significantly more trusting (…)
Portrait of Sandy Bay
during the war
I travelled to a place that was doubly interesting for my purpose: Sandy Bay. An important coastal community located not far from the mouth of the Wanki River, this was one of the first places the autonomous Miskitu guerrillas led by Fagoth engaged in a confrontation with the Sandinistas. After the war ended, Sandy Bay became one of the main cocaine trafficking centers.
The trip, accompanied by a fisherman returning from selling his fish to the Atlanor seafood and lobster processing company in Puerto Cabezas, was extremely instructive. Just as in the 1980s with the guerrilla group, I once again took almost the same route between Cabo Gracias a Dios and Karata Lagoon, just south of Puerto Cabezas.
The extremely low-lying coast, where the sandy beaches rapidly disappear to make way for the mangroves, is cut by many small rivers coming from lagoons that can easily be seen on the horizon. It all forms an inextricable, hard-to-control network, where the guerrillas found it easy to hide from planes overflying the region or from boats patrolling along the coast.
Arriving in Sandy Bay confirms this impression. We went in through a relatively narrow channel much like many others that only lead to closed lagoons. Later we came out into a lagoon that forms a small bay. After the mangroves there’s a beach of fine sand with many coconut trees and all sizes of very attractive and obviously recently built houses on posts. We tied up our boat alongside a lot of other dugout canoes and some boats, the power of whose outboard motors recalled those in wartime.
Once we landed we walked on a narrow boardwalk that let us cross over vast swampy areas with dry feet. This boardwalk is built on posts and extends for miles, linking the ten communities that make up Sandy Bay.
The guerrillas functioned in a unique terrain that combines flooded areas with others out of the water, ideal for the guerrillas and especially unfavorable for the Sandinista military. Guided by their local supporters, the guerrillas could calmly move around in the marshlands and, thanks to camouflage, effortlessly approach inhabited areas, attack small military posts, flee without leaving many traces through the many streams and swamps and then hide and rest in areas out of the water. This hide-and-seek game was very easy, as the areas out of water aren’t on any map and are hardly or not at all visible from afar thanks to the density of the undergrowth. The many channels, small rivers and lagoons form a network of navigable waterways that were very difficult for the Sandinista forces to control because, unless large numbers of troops were available, garrisons could only watch the three most important points and not the countless small straits that permit passage between one lagoon and another.
These favorable circumstances led the guerrillas to try to establish themselves close to the towns instead of remaining stationed in bases in the middle of the swamp. As a result, when the Sandinistas mounted operations that combined air support and a terrestrial offensive, blocking exits to the sea, they found themselves at a great disadvantage. Poorly armed, with no means of radio communication, they would have to withdraw without being able to mount counter-offensives against infinitely more numerous troops. The losses would have been much more serious had they not had the possibility of hiding in the swamp.
Portrait of a powerful
Sandy Bay family
Lodging in the house of a mercantile dynasty’s patriarch enabled me insight into the social game. Before the Sandinista revolution, Don Leo was a powerful local figure. The son of a Miskitu woman and a Jamaican man who had come to the Mosquitia in the retinue of timber merchant, he worked for a long time with people buying lumber and later on a banana plantation before establishing himself as a merchant in 1970.
He bought his merchandise in the United States, had it sent to Puerto Cabezas and then transported it in his own boats to Sandy Bay. However, he stayed out of politics, combining spiritual and material power, and became a distinguished member of the Moravian Church’s Council of Elders. It’s said of him that “his word has the force of law.” The Sandinistas were very hostile towards him from the start and furthermore some of his children were not only Misurasata activists but also friends of Brooklyn Rivera.
Don Leo was imprisoned in 1981 during the Sandi¬nistas’ first counter-offensive in Sandy Bay. When he was released he escaped to Honduras with his whole family in 1984. Returning to Sandy Bay in 1990, he re-established himself thanks to financial help from a son settled in Managua. His family is a very interesting example of the Miskitu diaspora and the upward social mobility accorded to some people by the war. His son helped his two sisters, who also became merchants and travel back and forth between Managua and the Coast. Another daughter immigrated to California where she owns a bakery. His last two daughters live in Puerto Cabezas, one is a nurse and the other, one of Brooklyn Rivera’s most loyal followers, was elected regional councilor and is spoken of as the future mayor of Puerto Cabezas.
Although Don Leo is no longer the important man he was before the war, his children have become notable local figures. Even though his son lives in Managua, he is now a síndico and, as such, is in charge of all the community’s territorial problems. Two of his daughters have replaced him and have become the most prosperous merchants in Sandy Bay. There are many rumors that their undoubted commercial successes come from their connections with drug traffickers or direct participation in this lucrative activity.
Portrait of Sandy Bay
in times of drugs
Don Leo’s is no longer the dominant family in Sandy Bay because its members now have to struggle shoulder to shoulder to retain a certain preeminence. The Sandinista revolution was the first step in their decline. The Sandinista soldiers who came to the Mosquitia looked askance at his predominance and sought to make him compete by supporting other merchants. They created a Sandinista Defense Committee (CDS) to compete with the temporal power of the Moravian Church’s Council.
When the young guerrillas, members of the “stars” and the “crosses” autonomous Miskitu guerrilla groups, launched their operations in this zone and established themselves in the immediate vicinity of Sandy Bay, they clashed with Don Leo who, hostile to the Sandinistas, thought these overly self-confident young men would attract army reprisals against the community. He collaborated with them but without much enthusiasm, unlike other merchants from San Carlos in the Upper Wanki River.
His return from exile coincided with the formation of new powers, unimaginable in other times. The first was of former Miskitu guerrilla commanders. The pastors from the evangelical churches directly competed with the Moravian Church and welcomed all those who had problems with it. And finally, a powerful new element emerged, the cocaine traffickers. The sea currents have contributed to their good fortune.
Since the early 1980s the Colombian drug traffickers’ route passed along the Miskitu Cays, where transfers are made. When DEA agents and Colombian coastguards go in pursuit of outboard motor boats loaded with drugs or threaten to inspect certain suspicious fishing boats, it’s customary to throw the packets of cocaine overboard so as to be able to flee as fast as possible or be inspected without risk. The sea currents favor the inhabitants of Sandy Bay because they bring the well-packaged drugs to the beaches of these communities. Ever pragmatic, the local people pick up the packages and resell them.
It’s rare to find a family that doesn’t look for these “gifts from the sea” and the strategies are many. Those who retain a little sense build a new house or buy a generator, a boat or outboard motor but stay away from a life of lavish spending. Others rush all-out into a hitherto unknown consumerism where nothing is too good or too expensive. The latest fashion is to order plates of food from the best restaurants in Managua, have them sent to Puerto Cabezas by plane, and then send an outboard motor boat at full speed to Puerto so they can pick them up hours later in Sandy Bay.
One group, amongst which are several former Miskitu guerrillas, has played a central role by taxing the traffickers, robbing them before negotiating with them, and then engaging in the trafficking.
Everything’s changed in Sandy Bay
Discussions with former guerrilla collaborators and their supporters, members of Don Leo’s family and comments from conversations with Mono gave me a very accurate picture about the crisis of values in Miskitu society.
The Miskitu have acquired a new status resulting from the assertive actions they’ve been engaged in since the era of Alpromisu (an indigenous organization in the 1970s), continued in the time of Misurasata (the organization that replaced it in 1979) and during the war against the Sandinistas. These actions were largely formulated in the mold of Protestant sociability and, although in clearly secular language, were largely inspired by Moravian pietism. But, paradoxically, the advent of these new rights has gone hand in hand with a radical questioning of traditional pietist values.
Since the war the work ethic has been abolished due to the development of widespread dependence on welfare handouts that existed in refugee camps such as Tasba Pri (a Sandinista government resettlement inside Nicaragua’s coast region). On their return to Sandy Bay, community members were confronted with the drug bonanza, which has also been inauspicious for pietist ideals. Why study to become a teacher or a nurse if you can make much more money with drugs? Why continue fishing if picking up drug packets on the high seas is infinitively more lucrative and less costly? Finally, the Moravian Church, which previously had no competition in the governance of souls, must now accept the presence of Pentecostal rivals willing to gather in the lost sheep.
A concept of authority that gave cohesion to the community of Sandy Bay has been disrupted forever and the idea of a relatively stable world, where the local anchor comes first and changes only come gradually after having been to some extent negotiated and prepared for, has vanished. Everything seems possible in the future and nothing seems predictable now. The community came out of a civil war to enter into a world marked by the booming drug economy. Debates about development, autonomy, whether the Regional Council should be in Puerto Cabezas or the Municipal Council Offices for Sandy Bay, no longer seem to have rhyme or reason.
Having now become rich or even very rich, the people of Sandy Bay are fostering projects that are hard to imagine. They talk of financing the construction of a small airport or a highway to Puerto Cabezas and they feel strong because they can finance the bridges or the parts of the road that are on posts, essential in an area encroached on by waterways and by swamps that have to be cleared (…)
“You’re not from here!”
Mono, Negrito and Lottie Cunningham were the closest and the most open but not my only informants. I was often confronted with ideologists not dissimilar to the Council of Elders’ members and their advisers. I could also often hear speeches that ably mixed the stereotypical languages of indigenism, feminism, New Age… Some discussions with Brooklyn Rivera’s followers and with some local NGO leaders were extremely instructive.
The mayor of Puerto Cabezas, whose US visa had just been suspended due to her notorious links with cocaine traffickers, not content with totally denying all the accusations against her, argued that the people of Sandy Bay hardly even know what cocaine is. She said that such accusations show “racist constructions.” And when I tried to present her with the undeniable evidence of enrichment linked to drug trafficking, to the problems related to bloody rivalries between drug dealers and those who bring crack addiction to a growing number of young Coast people, her responses came from the most contemporary versions of cultural relativism: “You can’t understand our ways because you’re not from here!” And, without worrying about contradicting herself, she went on to explain that “it’s very natural for Sandy Bay people to pick up and resell cocaine packages thrown up on the beaches because there’s no other work.”
Although wanting to talk with relatives of former guerrilla friends, I saw that conversations with them wouldn’t lead anywhere for the same reasons as with my guerrilla women friends. They all felt the same embarrassment about exposing some aspects of their close relationships to me, a man who they know is friends with a brother or a cousin, and may disclose their confidences. My closeness to their relatives and the fact that I’m a man became just too many obstacles.
However, this doesn’t work against me when I interviewed women from different areas of the guerrilla movement. I was able to have incredibly free conversations with a Miskitu woman from the Upper Wanki River, a veritable Fantine, the heroine of Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables. Some female Sandinista NGO leaders also talked to me very freely about their youth, their first loves and, in one case, about being a young mother coming from the best Moravian society.
“So that this is known”
I realized that the parents of some of those missing in the Leimus massacre, or in other Sandinista massacres, aren’t able to talk about those events. The pain is still so great, 20 years on, they are hardly able to articulate their children’s names and relate what happened when they were arrested by the Sandinista soldiers, often in their presence.
Some came to meet with me as “witnesses for history.” They gave me very detailed snippets of their experiences and asked me for opportunities to talk “so that this is known,” “it doesn’t matter if it bothers others” and “this is how it was and it has to be known.”
Julio Chow (aka Diplomático), a member of the Provisional Governing Board for Puerto Cabezas which was created immediately after Somoza’s fall, told me about arbitrary arrests often followed by torture sessions and murders committed by Sandinistas under the command of Manuel “Rufo” Calderón immediately after his arrival in the Mosquitia in late 1979.
He described his own arrest in detail, the tortures suffered by Julio Fonseca Talavera, the local National Guard commander, and Lysther Athers, the Alpromisu leader, and their subsequent murders. Fonseca Talavera, “a decent man who was always ready to compromise, whose daughter was a Sandinista on the Pacific,” never tried to flee with his subordinates, ceded power to the locally formed Governing Board and later delivered himself up as a prisoner believing he would be protected by the Geneva Convention. Lysther Athers was denounced as a Somocista by a merchant who had had long-standing dubious relationships with the National Guard and was protected by a Sandinista son.
Although he wasn’t directly present at the tortures of these two men, Chow was imprisoned in the same place as them and heard their groans when they returned from interrogations. He was present at the murders and, after Lysther Athers was executed, he even had to endure a simulated firing squad execution himself. He was released in 1985, during the amnesty after the Yulu Peace Agreements.
“Witnesses for history”
With the second of my “witnesses for history” I spent a one-day session taking notes of his testimony and reviewing the documents he brought me. He wanted me to know certain things, especially two that took place in the Prinzapolka area.
This region, halfway between Costa Rica and Honduras, was hard to supply by sea from Honduras as the Miskitu guerrilla boats were more readily at the mercy of a Sandinista ambush or air raid. Given the distance, radio contacts were very often problematic and evacuating any wounded was hard to coordinate. This situation transformed many guerrillas into real warriors. Some commanders who were close to Steadman Fagoth for some time and then moved their allegiance to Brooklyn Rivera, especially “Pitufo,” committed many abuses against the civilian population and reduced a couple of Sandinista prisoners to quasi slavery, especially a nurse who was subjected to constant and particularly heinous violations.
Operating in this region which he gradually came to love, Chow took these Sandinista prisoners under his wing, expelled “Pitufo” and his followers in a somewhat humiliating fashion, before declaring all leaders from the North as persona non grata. He told me: “People don’t want me to tell you this but it needs to be known!”
Do sirens exist?
Chow also told me that he thinks he was bewitched by a siren who seduced him one afternoon when he fell asleep in his hammock exhausted and quite sick. This siren came to make love with him several times at nightfall. Passive during the first embrace, he later regained all his strength to play a very active role when the Liwa Mairin came back to visit him. She took care that their romps were discreet so that “others don’t get jealous and harm us.”
After several days she told him that he must follow her if he loved her because his fellow guerrillas would oppose their love. The following day his squadron leader was sure that the siren was about to kidnap him and feared losing him. He called a sukia (medicine man) to break the spell before it was too late. At nightfall the siren who came to find him had changed her appearance: the charming young woman with the sweet voice was now a withered old crone with a threatening voice. On seeing that he refused to follow her, that he had unmasked her and was being helped by a sukia, she fled uttering threats.
“Diplomático” wasn’t content with telling me this extraordinary escapade, but asked me for “a scientific explanation.” I wondered how he, as atheist as myself, could have given credence to such foolishness, had such delightful and terrible visions and how the remedy given by the local medicine man could be effective? He insisted that the worst part was that this happened despite the fact that on several occasions his fellow soldiers had reproached him harshly for his lack of faith in both the Moravian and traditional Miskitu beliefs.
Although Julio Chow was the son of a single Miskitu mother, he was actually educated by Spanish-speaking mestizos from Puerto Cabezas where his mother worked as a maid. There he became a non-believer in both the Moravian dogmas as well as a lot of the Miskitu beliefs, which were alien to him.
I told him that his visions appeared in the late afternoon during the high fever of a malaria crisis and that, censored by his companions, he had visions that incorporated imaginary forms he had heard about from them, who live in fear of sirens; a fear that corresponded to the guerrillas’ desires to make love and their feelings of emotional loneliness.
I feel like an official archivist
These two testimonies, that of the summary tortures and executions practiced by the Sandinistas and the collective tortures and violations committed by the Miskitu guerrillas and the tale of the siren, presented me with the problem of testis unus, testis nullus. How much credit should I give to these versions? The two informants take full responsibility for their versions and not only authorized me to quote them but did so very explicitly…
This willingness to “testify for history” about certain, often shocking events which are, in many cases, dangerous for those revealing them, placed me more than once in the position of an official archivist. They also told me about certain events, maneuvers, alliances and feats of arms so I would talk about them “when we’re old.” My informants’ idea was that there are things that need to be known someday, and that a foreigner is the best person to keep the secret and to disclose it effectively later on.
There are obvious parallels with the Herrnhut files, in the origins of the Moravian Church. In the same way that the early evangelists’ chronicles and notes allowed fragments of their past to be preserved, without which they would have been doomed to disappear, I’m responsible for conserving and disseminating this information…
Gilles Bataillon is a sociologist and anthropologist, an expert on Latin America and director of studies at the Paris School of Higher Studies in Social Sciences. The excerpts are from his book Cronica sobre una guerrilla (Chronicle of a guerrilla movement), published by CIDE (Center for Research and Teaching Economics), Mexico, 2015. Translated and edited by envío.