MANAGUA – The land promised by the government in exchange for turning in their weapons didn’t come with legal title, and when it did it was oftentimes falsified.
The poverty in the countryside makes it difficult for them to feed their families, especially when the only job skill on their resumes is counterinsurgency.
“You lost your childhood to the war. You have no fear of God. You’re abandoned,” said lawmaker and former contra leader Salvador Talavera, of the nation’s demobilized former contra fighters.
A recent flurry of criminal allegations involving several former contras – from the kidnapping of a coffee plantation owner to a land-fraud scandal that implicates Talavera and several other government officials – has this legislator again defending his ex-soldiers, who he claims have been forgotten repeatedly by the succession of governments since the disarmament accords in the 1990s.
“You have a way of thinking and acting that’s different from the rest of society,” Talavera said of the former combatants. “It’s easy to fall into organized crime.”
Talavera, who denies his alleged involvement in a recent land scandal, represents the National Resistance Party (PRN), a political party of the former contra.
In the war, Talavera lost five of nine brothers. But in the spirit of reconciliation, Talavera signed a controversial electoral pact in 2006 with Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega, who promised to deliver on the promises of the peace accords if elected president (NT, Oct. 20, 2006).
The recent crime wave involving demobilized soldiers, however, is evidence that the Ortega administration hasn’t seriously begun to deal with the demobilized contras who still haven’t received the land they were promised when they handed in their weapons nearly two decades ago, Talavera said.
“They didn’t give the commission any real function,” he said, referring to the Peace and Reconciliation Commission started by Ortega nearly a year ago to deal with landless ex-combatants.
The commission, headed by Roman Catholic Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, was to study land claims on a “case by case basis” and resolve them “definitively” (NT, May 18, 2007). But even Obando has admitted that the commission has few resources, as it seeks international support to settle land disputes and deliver promised health, education and employment services to former soldiers (NT, Dec. 7, 2007).
As that search continues, the problems continue to fester in the countryside.
The daily La Prensa reported last week that a group of ex-contras from the southern Caribbean coast filed a complaint with the Property Intendancy and threatened to go on a hunger strike in protest of promised lands for which they haven’t received titles.
Former contras have attempted similar tactics in past years.
The problem of former soldiers isn’t just limited to Nicaragua. Last year, an ex-contra was arrested in Costa Rica for smuggling 10,500 bullets for an automatic weapon.
Another ex-contra was fingered by Costa Rican authorities as the top suspect in a series of 19 unsolved murders that were committed in San José between 1986 and 1996.
Talavera, 42, claims the Ortega administration isn’t interested in sincerely addressing the issue of demobilized soldiers because it would mean opening a Pandora’s box of land issues including property scandals that have involved some Sandinista officials in past years.
Employable Job Skills
Former guerrillas have all the skills needed to commit crimes, Talavera says.
“In many cases in Nicaragua, (kidnappers) are looking for qualified hands,”which, he says, is why ex-soldiers are oftentimes recruited.
A wake-up call came last month, when four armed, masked suspects abducted coffee plantation owner Andres Altamirano, as he was driving to his San Rafael del Norte plantation Jan. 19.
The kidnappers demanded $500,000 in ransom, but family members of Altamirano – brother-in-law to Liberal legislator Carlos Noguera – say they ended up paying the kidnappers $55,000 instead.
After police arrested four suspects, they discovered that at least two of them were excontras, and that a third former contra remains at large, according to National Police spokesman Alonso Sevilla. Between them, the suspects have a long list of criminal history that includes other kidnappings, robbery and conspiracy, Sevilla says.
National Police don’t have any special preventive programs aimed at former soldiers or their children, like they do for gangs, he says.
“We just investigate the crimes, we don’t get into the people’s backgrounds,” he says.
The resurging problem of crime among former combatants resurfaced last week when the Government Attorney’s Office opened an investigation into accusations by a former state attorney who accused Talavera and several other government officials of land trafficking on Nicaragua’s Central Pacific coast.
Former public notary Morena Aviles came forward with allegations about a series of illegal land transfers involving false signatures that could allegedly be traced back to a group of ex-contras who owned the land in the 1990s. Her accusation also implicates a Managua appellate judge and other government officials. All of the accused have denied the allegations in the local press.
Aviles filed a complaint with the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH) last week after she reportedly received threatening phone calls, according to the center’s spokeswoman, Adelaida Sánchez.
Rafael Solis, vice president of the Supreme Court, was also implicated in the scandal and renounced his immunity to allow for an investigation, according to Supreme Court spokesman Mamely Ferreti.
Talavera, too, denies any wrongdoing. “My hands are clean,” he says.
Talavera thinks the case is a “smokescreen” for other illicit real estate activity.
The Nica Times was unable to contact Aviles for comment by press time.
After the Sandinista Front took power in 1979, the government confiscated as much as 40% of the country’s arable farmland, much of which had been in the hands of former dictator Anastasio Somoza.
When the Sandinistas lost the 1990 election, President Violeta Chamorro (1990-1996) promised combatants that they would receive land in exchange for turning in their weapons.
History professor Ricardo Berríos, of the National Agrarian University, says the land issues plaguing Nicaragua today may be traced back to the fact that the Sandinistas overestimated how much of Nicaragua’s arable land had been in the hands of Somoza.
The Chamorro government then began promising land to former soldiers before preparing land titles, he tells The Nica Times.
Many of those titles were never normalized later on.
Talavera says the case in which he was named is just one of thousands like it.
Ortega, before being elected president in 2006, promised that the Sandinistas had an intimate understanding of the land problems afflicting the countryside, and that his government would fix the situation once they returned to office.
Talavera, however, claims it might not bein everyone’s best interest to get to the bottom of the issue.
“They don’t want to get into these issues on a deep level,” he says of the current government. “Powerful forces will come to light.”