Events of 1991

Human Rights Developments

In 1991, the task of national reconciliation in Nicaragua continued to be threatened by sporadic and sometimes violent unrest, the re-emergence of armed groups composed of both former contras and ex-Sandinista soldiers, and the inability of the judicial system to administer justice. The divisions wrought by the previous decade's bloody conflict continued to be manifest in a highly charged and politically polarized debate about private property, the state's role in the economy, and Sandinista dominance of the armed forces. The resort to violence by persons and groups of different political persuasions was perhaps the most troubling aspect of the still incomplete, and regularly tumultuous, democratic transition.

The Nicaraguan police and military did not themselves instigate political violence in urban areas. However, their failure to punish abuses – from either official or opposition sources – and their passivity in the face of major instances of violent unrest signaled the need for further progress in establishing the rule of law.

During the year, the government of President Violeta Chamorro reacted responsibly and prudently to tense situations in the countryside. The integration of former contra rebels in the so-called rural police expanded throughout the year in areas traditionally sympathetic to the contras, reducing the potential for political violence. Some former State Security officials known for human rights abuses who had entered the police force were removed from their posts in conflict areas. An office within the Ministry of Governance – the Civil Inspectorate – was created to investigate police abuses and became increasingly active throughout the year. The army was reduced in size to about twenty thousand and its role in society greatly diminished. Efforts to retrieve arms in the possession of the civilian population were renewed. Often, however, reforms were implemented only after long-standing problems had gotten out of hand. For example, the tensions that arose from the continued presence of Sandinista military and police in areas sympathetic to the contras and the United Nicaraguan Opposition (UNO) could have been anticipated.

The judicial system continued to suffer from poor funding, politicization, and an apparent lack of political will to investigate and prosecute violent crimes. As in 1990, the Chamorro government seemed intentionally to avoid pressing through the justice system cases involving violent crimes committed by persons of one political persuasion against another.39

The government apparently continues to believe that jailing suspects involved in politically motivated crimes would elicit charges of political persecution. However, this failure to enforce the criminal laws has bred further polarization and distrust. Violence perpetrated for political motives – whether by UNO, contra or Sandinista partisans – should be, but rarely is, investigated and punished by the authorities. The state also has a particularly strong responsibility to prosecute crimes committed by its own agents.

A number of high-profile killings and many lesser-known murders were not resolved during the course of 1991. Foremost among the prominent cases was the February 17 assassination of Enrique Bermúdez, who had been the top contra commander during most of the war. His murder was a setback to the process of national reconciliation and did more to create a feeling of insecurity among demobilized rebels than any other single incident in post-war Nicaragua.

Less than a month after the murder, President Chamorro appointed a special commission composed of several lawyers and one former contra commander to monitor the government's investigation into the Bermúdez killing. After months of work, including exhuming the body months later for an autopsy in Miami, the commission issued a brief report in early November and disbanded. The report concluded that the one eyewitness named by the police had no credibility and that the forensic capabilities of the police were not sufficient to carry out a decent investigation.40

In another case, several members of the army and police killed Francisco Luis Cano Chavarría, alias Commander "Chapulín," as they attempted to disarm him on April 12 near Wiwilí, Jinotega. "Chapulín" had been suspected of the murder of a former State Security agent. An Americas Watch investigation concluded that "Chapulín's" death, while not necessarily premeditated, was intentional and could have been avoided. The man filling the newly created post of civil inspector investigated the case and recommended that the police lieutenant in charge of the operation be transferred to another zone, that the army not engage in law-enforcement missions, and that special delegates from the Ministry of Governance (formerly Interior) be named in municipalities with deep political divisions. In theory, the naming of Ministry of Governance delegates would provide a civilian authority that could mediate conflicts and investigate abuses by Sandinista military personnel. Months after "Chapulín's" death, and after further violence in July in Wiwilí, the police lieutenant identified by the civil inspector was finally transferred. In late 1991, Ministry of Governance delegates were named in nine conflictive municipalities in the north. However, no one has been charged in "Chapulín's" death.

The October 1990 killing of sixteen-year-old Jean Paul Genie was revisited in 1991 by a special National Assembly commission. Genie was allegedly murdered by bodyguards of army General Humberto Ortega as Genie attempted to pass a caravan of four military escort vehicles on the highway between Managua and Masaya. At the request of the Nicaraguan Assembly, the Venezuelan Parliament sent a team of specialists to review the police investigation, which had identified no suspects. Although the Venezuelan team turned up no new evidence, it reiterated the charge made by Nicaragua's Permanent Commission on Human Rights (CPDH) and Genie's parents that the prime suspects were General Ortega's bodyguards. The case remains in the civilian court system.

Significant urban violence erupted in 1991 during labor disputes as well as when the National Assembly attempted in June to overturn controversial property laws enacted in the closing months of Sandinista rule. The Nicaraguan police intervened aggressively against Sandinista unions in several cases, but in others were accused of standing by passively during violence by Sandinista partisans.

In April, for example, the police brutally attacked striking workers affiliated with the pro-Sandinista National Workers' Front outside the Olof Palme conference center, injuring dozens of people. According to the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH), at least sixteen workers were beaten around the head, back and stomach with rubber truncheons and clubs, and kicked while being forced into police vehicles.

In mid-June, political tensions erupted when the National Conservative Party introduced a bill in the National Assembly to repeal two laws passed in the waning months of Sandinista rule. Laws 85 and 86 had privatized some state property (enriching top Sandinista leaders in a so-called piñata) and legalized the status of rural and urban plots handed out over the years to thousands of poor Nicaraguans. The Assembly action led to armed takeovers of radio stations and municipal buildings by Sandinista organizations and bombings of the homes and offices of UNO politicians. For the most part, the police responded with inaction, which was widely interpreted as evidence of their pro-Sandinista bias.

UNO deputies and politicians decried the various incidents as acts of terrorism by the Sandinista Front (FSLN), and National Assembly President Alfredo César blamed the Sandinistas for death threats that he said some UNO deputies had received. On June 21, even the pro-Sandinista newspaper Barricada condemned the bombings as terrorism and called for negotiations to end the conflict. All of the takeovers were eventually resolved through negotiations and without further violence, although former President Daniel Ortega held out the prospect of renewed disorder. "We have used civic rebellion," he told supporters. "But the Sandinista Front cannot renounce armed rebellion if the National Assembly tries to take away the rights the people have won."41 The UNO majority in the Assembly eventually passed a property bill on August 23, but it was vetoed by President Chamorro.

Violence erupted again in Managua on November 9 following the bombing of the tomb of Carlos Fonseca, a Sandinista hero and one of the founders of the FSLN. Looting ensued after Sandinista demonstrators set fire to the offices of Managua Mayor Arnoldo Alemán, a chief conservative leader, whom they blamed for the bombing. Other Sandinistas shot at former contras outside the headquarters of their civic association. Conservative radio stations were assaulted by armed Sandinista partisans, and contra-leader Alfredo César's Social Democratic Party headquarters were damaged. The police, as they had during the disturbances in June, remained passive.

Following the worst of the violence, Daniel Ortega called for calm at a public rally and accused right-wing politicians of trying to bring back "somocismo," a reference to the rule of the former Nicaraguan dictator.42 Meanwhile, conservatives accused the FSLN of planting the bomb at Fonseca's grave to provoke chaos.

Following these incidents, the government announced an agreement on November 12 to begin a tripartite "national dialogue" between the government, anti-Chamorro UNO politicians, and the FSLN. Governance Minister Carlos Hurtado also announced the formation of a commission led by Vice-Minister of Governance José Pallais to investigate credible charges that some police officers stood by and did nothing to stop the violence.

Few of the major violent land disputes of 1990 were repeated in 1991. Previously, armed and unarmed demobilized rebels, former Sandinista soldiers and traditionally landless peasants had invaded dozens of cooperatives and other lands out of sheer economic desperation, often sparking violent confrontations. According to the National Federation of Cooperatives, by late 1991 only some forty coops remained in the hands of former contras who had forcibly taken them over, as compared with two hundred at the beginning of the year.

The most violent incident in 1991 occurred on February 28, when a group of some two hundred unarmed persons, among them peasants, demobilized contras, and members of the Communist Party's Confederation of Trade Union Action and Unity, marched on a state farm in Corinto Finca, Jinotega, where they were fired upon by armed workers, leaving five dead and eleven wounded.43 The incident was one of the few in which a judicial investigation was carried out. Several of the workers from Corinto Finca were incarcerated, although no further action appears to have been taken.

Despite the decline in the number of land disputes, violence in the countryside continued at high levels during 1991, producing a situation of insecurity for persons across the political spectrum. There were numerous violent confrontations between demobilized contras and Sandinista civilians, and a smaller number of incidents involving the police or military.44 In addition, small groups of demobilized contras – disgruntled with the failure of the Chamorro government to deliver on promises of land, and often claiming persecution by the police and Sandinista civilians – began taking up arms again in early 1991. These groups have been popularly dubbed the "recontras." By mid-year, attacks by these groups on both military and civilian targets were a weekly, if not daily, occurrence. As a result of the renewed military activity by former rebels, groups of Sandinistas (the so-called recompas45) also began to form armed bands by mid-year. It is thought that the recompas consist of demobilized members of the Sandinista army.

The demobilized contras often cite the state's inability or unwillingness to secure their personal security as the principal reason for the emergence of the recontra movement. Indeed, two of the recontra groups named themselves after Enrique Bermúdez and "Chapulín," noted above, whom they believe to have been murdered by the Sandinistas.

The group responsible for verifying the security of the demobilized contras, the Organization of American States (OAS) International Commission of Support and Verification (CIAV), has played a valuable, though little understood, role in defusing tensions in the countryside.46 Through its daily contact with the demobilized contras, it has compiled reports of seventy-seven killings of former rebels between July 1, 1990 and August 31, 1991, as well as hundreds of other cases of threats, illegal detentions, and physical attacks. Responsibility for seventeen of the reported deaths was attributed to the police or military, and forty-two to Sandinista partisans. The Nicaraguan Association For Human Rights (ANPDH), set up to monitor human rights abuses within the contra movement, also documented numerous other instances of threats, physical injury, robbery and detentions. During approximately the same period, CENIDH reported some fifty-six killings of members or sympathizers of the FSLN.

The exact motives for and circumstances surrounding the killings of former rebels varied. In some of the cases attributed to state authorities or FSLN militants, the victims as well as the assailants were armed. Moreover, not all of the deaths had political overtones. But the substantial impunity for abuses by both government forces and civilians of all political persuasions has fostered a situation conducive to violence and the personal settling of scores.

In this context, the recontras, and later the recompas, began to emerge in early 1991, primarily in northern Nicaragua. The recontras have operated mostly in Region VI (Jinotega and Matagalpa), the area where the contra war was most intense and where today there is the largest concentration of former rebels without land and the most serious reported security problems for former contras. Recontras also have been active in other former conflictive zones in Regions I and V. Estimates of their number, which range from several hundred to several thousand, are complicated by the many armed actions carried out by former contras and ex-Sandinista soldiers that are criminal rather than political in nature. Although the demands of the recontras have not always been clear or well-articulated, and have varied depending on the particular recontra unit, their overriding goal seems to be to reduce the influence and power of the Sandinistas in the military and the police.

By mid-year, recontra attacks against civilian and military targets had become a common occurrence, especially in the north. Recontra units under the command of José Angel Román, known as "Indomable," appear to be responsible for serious abuses and attacks against civilians, while additional troops appear to be loyal to Francisco Valdivia ("Dimas") and his brother Encarnación ("Tigrillo"). Some of the more notorious cases of abuse attributed to the recontras include the June 6 assassination of the police chief of San Rafael del Norte and his secretary as they were traveling by car en route to San Rafael, and the August 31 attack in Boaco on the "Carlos Fonseca" cooperative, in which three children were killed and others wounded.

In August, the Nicaraguan press reported the emergence of various recompa groups set up to counter the attacks of the recontras. The August 22 detonation of a mine on a road near Pita del Carmen, Matagalpa – where one group of recontras was known to congregate – resulted in the death of some six recontras and eight civilians traveling in a truck with them.

In general, the government has responded politically rather than militarily to the recontra threat, trying to minimize its importance and to avoid armed confrontations. Negotiations between government officials and recontra leaders to end the violence began in June. By November, the government and the major recontra leaders (with the exception of "Indomable") had agreed to increase the number of former contras in the rural police, withdraw the military from several northern areas, and include contras and recontras in regional security commissions and disarmament brigades.

Disarmament brigades, which are made up of equal numbers of military or police agents and former contras or recontras, began functioning in November in Matagalpa. Their task is to disarm the huge number of civilians (estimates range from 50,000 to 100,000) who possess arms. Although the brigade is expected to meet with only limited success, it represents an important first step in the process of disarming the civilian population.

The Right to Monitor

Freedom to monitor the human rights situation in Nicaragua is for the most part unrestricted, although late in the year the CIAV denounced a number of ways, described below, in which Sandinista authorities or sympathizers had interfered with the work of the organization. Several human rights organizations of different political and ideological tendencies continue to operate, for the most part without the direct or indirect pressures against monitors that one finds in other Central American countries (with the obvious exception of Costa Rica.) Americas Watch was told, however, of one incident in which a house of a collaborator of the CPDH was shot at in Boaco in late September but no one was injured.

In addition to domestic groups, the OAS International Commission for Verification and Support operates throughout Nicaragua, in part verifying the security of the demobilized contras. Although some of the work of the CIAV involves monitoring, it also engages in direct assistance to the demobilized contras. In early December, CIAV director Santiago Murray publicly denounced a series of threats and physical attacks on CIAV personnel and property carried out by Sandinista military and security agents as well as by unknown perpetrators; the reprehensible incident that sparked Murray's public condemnation was the kidnapping and murder by recompas of a wounded recontra being transported in a CIAV vehicle. In a similar episode, Claudia Vargas de Pérez, a CIAV official, was stopped by the police on October 1 and physically abused while transporting three wounded recontras. Several of the police were later reprimanded.

Through the coordination of the civil inspector, domestic human rights groups also have a more regular means of communicating with the government. Several groups have made extensive visits to state prisons to examine conditions. On one occasion, a visiting delegation was allowed to film conditions and interviews with prisoners.

U.S. Policy

Having occupied center stage in the U.S. foreign policy battles of the 1980s, Nicaragua virtually disappeared from policy discussion following the 1990 inauguration of President Violeta Chamorro.47 Most State Department public comment was measured, and emphasized U.S. support for Chamorro's efforts at national reconciliation; for example, in response to a question on the recontras on April 9, spokesman Richard Boucher blandly stated that all sectors of Nicaraguan society should refrain from violence and contribute to national reconciliation.

The failure throughout the year to condemn the recontras' return to arms as well as various incidents of murder or kidnapping attributed to them contrasted sharply with the pointed criticism of Sandinista leaders in June for provoking violent takeovers of radio stations and municipal buildings and threats to non-Sandinista legislators. Boucher stated on June 20 that "Sandinista leaders have the responsibility to disavow these violent actions, take action to end them, and conduct their debate through constitutional means." In early December, Secretary of State James Baker sent an unpublicized letter to Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Enrique Dreyfus expressing concern over the violence in November. While U.S. criticisms of Sandinista behavior have been well-placed, they have been one-sided, given other sources of political violence in Nicaragua, especially the recontras.

The United States pressed publicly for a thorough investigation of the killing of contra commander Enrique Bermúdez, and both Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Bernard Aronson and Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs Richard Schifter met with Bermúdez's widow to demonstrate U.S. concern for the murder. In the months immediately following the assassination, however, several U.S. actions were decidedly unhelpful to the pursuit of justice in the case. The Federal Bureau of Investigation delayed until December providing information relevant to the investigation that was officially requested by the Nicaraguan Ministry of Governance in April. Similarly, Administration officials said in February that they had "heavy circumstantial evidence" linking the murder to the army high command; but after leveling the charge, the Administration refused to describe the nature of its information or to pass it along to the Nicaraguan government.48

In one instance, the United States appeared to be interfering with a valid human rights initiative of the Chamorro government. In September, Minister of the Presidency Antonio Lacayo told reporters that the United States was reluctant to finance a civilian disarmament program that involved buying back and destroying weapons; a U.S. official told Americas Watch that this was because the Sandinistas, who control more weapons, would unduly benefit. This logic obscures the fact that disarmament of the civilian population is a key demand of human rights groups and groups opposed to the Sandinistas, including the recontras, and would no doubt diminish political violence. Similar buy-back programs are taking place in major cities around the United States, without regard to who receives payment for the weapons purchased.

A case in the International Court of Justice (the World Court) that had stood as a major irritant in U.S.-Nicaraguan relations was also resolved in 1991. In 1984, Nicaragua sued the United States in the World Court for the mining of Nicaraguan harbors and violations of international humanitarian law. Two days before filing the case, the United States announced its refusal to accept Court jurisdiction for disputes involving Central America; in 1985, the United States announced that it was ending its policy of automatic compliance with Court decisions.

Nonetheless, the Court ruled on June 27, 1986 that U.S. sponsorship of the contra war and the laying of mines in Nicaraguan harbors were violations of international law, and that the United States had "encouraged the commission by [the contras] of acts contrary to general principles of humanitarian law."49 The Court ordered the United States to pay reparations, but never specified an amount. The decision represented a key political victory for the Sandinista government, while the U.S. withdrawal demonstrated the selectivity with which the United States upheld international law.

On June 5, 1991, Nicaragua's National Assembly approved a law repealing another law that had required Nicaragua to seek compensation. In mid-September, the Chamorro government announced that it had withdrawn the suit from the Court. While the dropping of the case will no doubt smooth relations between the United States and Nicaragua, Americas Watch deplores the short shrift given to international law, particularly as the Bush Administration purports to build a "new world order" on international legal principles.

The Work of Americas Watch

Americas Watch conducted extensive field research in Nicaragua during the months of March, April, May and June 1991, which led to the release of a July report, Fitful Peace: Human Rights and Reconciliation in Nicaragua under the Chamorro Government. The report was a comprehensive study of the human rights situation since President Chamorro took office, reviewing all the major episodes of political violence, agrarian conflict, and targeted assassinations, as well as issues of clandestine cemeteries, accountability for past abuses, the recontras and the judicial system. The report was widely covered in the Nicaraguan press and, to a lesser degree, the U.S. press. Additional follow-up visits to Nicaragua were conducted in July and November.

An October 30 report by the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH), for example, found that judicial investigations were opened in only fifty-five of the 215 killings it reviewed, and that in only a small percentage of those was anyone detained and prosecuted. See CENIDH, Investigación: El Derecho a la Vida e Impunidad, October 30, 1991.

For more information on this and other cases, see Americas Watch, Fitful Peace: Human Rights and Reconciliation in Nicaragua under the Chamorro Government, July 1991.

Richard Jacobsen, Reuters, "Sandinistas Offer to Return Land – With a Catch," The Miami Herald, July 1, 1991.

Conservatives had recently attempted to challenge the legal status of the fsln, to create a municipal police force independent of the Sandinistas, and to strip Ortega of his parliamentary immunity.

Americas Watch, Fitful Peace, July 1991, p. 36.

These incidents were reported by the International Commission of Support and Verification (CIAV) without elaboration as to the circumstances and without attributing culpability. In the latter part of the year, the CIAV only reported statistics on the numbers killed.

Sandinistas, and more specifically Sandinista soldiers, referred to each other informally as compas during the war.

In late 1991, discussions were underway that would expand the CIAV's mandate to include other sectors threatened by violence.

Nonetheless, Nicaragua received the largest economic aid package of any country in Central America during fiscal years 1990 and 1991, more than $555 million.

See Americas Watch, Fitful Peace, July 1991, pp. 40 and 53.

For example, the CIA produced a manual on "Psychological Operations in Guerrilla Warfare" which in several places instructed the contras to assassinate civilians taking no active part in hostilities. See Americas Watch, Violations of the Laws of War by Both Sides in Nicaragua 1981-1985, March 1985, pp. 93-97; and Americas Watch, Human Rights in Nicaragua 1986, February 1987, pp. 167-170.

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