Brothers Split in Nicaragua Find No Peace

Times Staff Writer

After six years in opposing armies, Francisco and Luis Adan Fley met in the hills of central Nicaragua to try to persuade each other, as brothers, to stop fighting.

Eight days later, one of the oddest encounters of the Nicaraguan war ended in a standoff, with both soldiers clinging to the deep convictions that are tearing their country apart.

Their story illustrates how intractable the Nicaraguan conflict remains, even within the closest of families. It also dramatizes the failure of the Sandinista government's strategy of undermining the Contra insurgency through appeals by relatives of the rebels.

The Fleys' reunion started as a peace mission led by 1st Lt. Francisco Fley on behalf of his Sandinista army superiors to try to get his brother to commit 1,200 rebel troops to a cease-fire in eastern Matagalpa province.

But for Luis Adan Fley, a senior rebel leader whose code name is Comandante Johnson, the meeting last Oct. 11 was a trap; he agreed to it only to capture his brother and embarrass the army.

The Defense Ministry has never acknowledged publicly what happened: Lt. Fley and another Sandinista officer, isolated from 70 backup troops by the seizure of their walkie-talkie, were marched as Contra prisoners through a string of rural hamlets before being released ceremoniously to a preacher and a gathering of villagers.

What happened along the way, both brothers recall, was an intensely emotional exchange of boyhood memories and unyielding political argument. When all was said, Lt. Fley returned to duty at headquarters of the 311th Brigade in Matiguas, and Comandante Johnson vanished into the nearby hills dominated by his 15th of September Regional Command.

"For eight days, he walked peacefully with me," Comandante Johnson said in a recent interview outside Nicaragua. "We talked, slept and ate together, as brothers, not as enemies."

"We both understand that war is a political struggle over many issues," Lt. Fley said at his home here. "My political ideas are different from his. He held firmly to his ideas."

Brothers Among 14 Children

The Fley brothers are among 14 children of a modest coffee-growing family from Matagalpa. Both have curly black hair and broad faces that break easily into smiles. Each speaks with deep respect for the other but disdain for the other's views.

Francisco, now 30, always looked up to Luis Adan, who is taller and six years older. With two other brothers, they fought together in the Sandinista insurrection that toppled President Anastasio Somoza in 1979. Francisco, then in high school, gave Luis Adan his school ring for safekeeping, so the name engraved in it would not betray the guerrilla's identity.

After that war, Luis Adan returned to the thriving general store he ran in El Cua and became manager of the town's government-owned coffee warehouse. Francisco stayed a soldier; he is a founding member of the Sandinista People's Army and a militant in the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front.

In 1981, the first rebel bands to take up arms against the new regime harassed Luis Adan because he worked for the government. Later, the police arrested him for attending a political rally in support of Alfonso Robelo, then a non-Sandinista member of the government junta and now a Contra leader.

Went Into Hiding in 1981

After a rival businessman denounced him as a rebel supporter, Luis Adan was arrested again. Both times, Francisco got him out of jail. Then, hearing rumors that the local army commander had ordered his death, Luis Adan went into hiding in April, 1981. The army confiscated his home, turning it into a barracks.

Three months later, Luis Adan and a band of men with hunting rifles robbed a bank and ambushed an army patrol in El Cua, killing six soldiers.

As on so many other issues, the two brothers disagree on why Luis Adan became a Contra.

"The last time I saw him, in 1981, he was afraid," Francisco said. "The Contras were suspicious of him and the Sandinistas had him marked. The Contras involved him in that ambush so there could be no turning back. He left the country without clear ideas or political objectives."

Luis Adan, now Comandante Johnson, insists he quickly became disillusioned with Sandinista rule and organized the ambush gang himself.

"We got rid of the Somoza dictatorship because it denied the people their liberties," he said. "But the Sandinista remedy was worse, much more repressive. They confiscated farms, but the state became the new exploiter. The peasants had their food rationed and were forced to take up arms to defend a communist system."

One of 28 Rebel Commanders

Luis Adan's detailed knowledge of the rural northern provinces, where he had worked as a government fumigator in the 1970s, made him a natural rebel commander.

With specialized training in Honduras and the United States, he advanced through the ranks to become one of the U.S.-backed rebel army's 28 field commanders, with jurisdiction over the same turf as the Sandinista brigade where his brother now works as chief of logistics.

Such division in the family is not all that unusual. For example, sisters Rosa Pasos and Marta Sacasa are chief spokeswomen for the Sandinista and Contra armies, respectively. Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, the country's Roman Catholic patriarch, terms the war a "fratricidal struggle" and preaches "reconciliation of the Nicaraguan family."

Throughout the rural war zones, one meets old peasant farmers who have lost count of their many descendants in both armies.

Exploiting the strong ties that persist in many such families, the government last year tried to mobilize appeals by civilians to their Contra relatives to surrender and accept an amnesty.

The campaign was launched after President Daniel Ortega signed a five-nation Central American peace accord that calls for democratic reforms, amnesty, negotiated cease-fires and an end of outside support to insurgents in the region's guerrilla wars.

Amnesty Plan Failed

Seeking to avoid negotiating with the Contras, the government aimed to cripple their insurgency with mass defections. The Nicaragua-Honduras border, closed for years by the war, was reopened on Saturdays so rebel soldiers in civilian clothes could be reunited with long-lost relatives and, it was hoped, come home to stay.

The plan failed. The government reported fewer than 400 rebels accepted amnesty, out of the estimated 10,000 under arms.

Comandante Johnson laughed as he showed a letter written to one of his rebel task force chiefs from a Sandinista official and delivered personally by the rebel soldier's mother.

"Take amnesty," it said. "If you want land, the revolution will guarantee it. Be sensible and spare your mother and yourself more suffering. This is an offer you can't refuse."

Neither the task force chief nor anyone else under Comandante Johnson's command defected, he said.

"The Sandinistas printed thousands of fliers and flooded the area with radio messages (about amnesty)," the rebel commander said. "They tried everything to convince us that the peace agreement made it pointless to keep fighting.

"But our fighters were not impressed," he added. "Many of my men saw that their fathers, their uncles were still in prison" in spite of the amnesty.

Offers Cynical Explanation

Lt. Fley gave a more cynical explanation why the Sandinista campaign failed.

"The Contras want to defect, but they know they risk being killed by one of their own," the Sandinista soldier said. "They don't trust each other. They just obey orders."

Comandante Johnson said it is the threat of death or arrest at the hands of the Sandinistas that make his men suspicious of amnesty. Though persecution of former Contras is uncommon, the rebel leader often warns his men that "you cannot trust the Sandinistas."

He also assures them they will not lose their U.S. military aid as long as the Sandinistas fail to make the country more democratic. And he has stepped up military attacks to keep his men busy "so they don't think about Sandinista propaganda."

Comandante Johnson himself became a target of the government campaign in late September. A letter from a Sandinista officer, Lt. Enrique Lopez, urged him to arrange a truce in his war zone.

Because the Contra leadership was insisting on top-level cease-fire talks, the commander replied that he had no authority to negotiate. But when Lopez repeated the offer in a second letter, the commander agreed to meet him.

Smiling as he recalls the ruse, the rebel leader said he accepted with the intent "to teach them a lesson."

'Shocked His Own Men'

Lopez and Lt. Fley hiked into the hills as advance men for an eight-member peace commission but were spirited away by Comandante Johnson and nine rebel escorts.

"I have no authority to negotiate," the commander told them, "only to arrest you. You are now prisoners of war."

"It was an act of bad faith that shocked even his own men," Lt. Fley said later. "You could see it in their faces. I think they feel trapped in the war and really wanted a cease-fire."

Having failed to divide the rebel command structure, the Sandinistas reversed a long-held principle by agreeing in November to negotiate a cease-fire with the Contra leadership.

The talks are at an impasse. Comandante Johnson, now a member of the six-man rebel negotiating team, said reaching an agreement will be difficult because of the divisive political issues underlying the war.

Interviewed on a flight to Miami after a round of talks in the Dominican Republic, the rebel commander said he and his brother failed to agree on any important issue during their reunion.

Berated His Brother

Lt. Fley, interviewed later, said he berated his brother for ordering a September raid in which three unarmed civilians died and 14 homes were burned at La Patriota. Comandante Johnson said the whole village is a militia outpost and therefore a legitimate target.

Stopping to eat and rest at six different farmhouses during the march with his brother, the rebel leader said his men were gaining peasant support and hundreds of volunteer combatants.

"He said the peasants reject the government because their land has been taken, their rights violated, their religion attacked," the Sandinista brother said. "But these peasants live under the shadow of war. Whoever shows up armed gets their support. The reality is that (the Contras) kidnap young men. They take them by force and make them soldiers."

When Lt. Fley insisted that the Sandinistas were living up to the peace accord, his brother argued they were offering an illusory democracy so they can get the Contras' U.S. funding cut off and then consolidate a Marxist dictatorship.

"The Contras say they are fighting for democracy," Lt. Fley said later. "What they really want is a return to the old system of exploitation."

Each brother said he felt he had come close to converting the other.

Comandante Johnson said he kept offering to slip his brother out of the country. He said the only reason his brother refused was that he could not abandon his family.

Lt. Fley denied having any such notion. He said it was his brother who seemed to be wavering.

"He kept asking about the streets of Matagalpa, about the park, the people," the lieutenant said. "He seemed homesick."

Sees Mutual Suspicion

"But he couldn't admit this, because his men never left us alone," Lt. Fley added. "He said he couldn't talk behind their backs. I thought that was strange. There's obviously not much confidence between them."

Comandante Johnson later admitted to another Contra official that he was "emotionally drained" by the encounter. He told a reporter he feels "almost too old" to fight and needs medical treatment for arthritis in his left knee.

But he insisted: "I will keep fighting because the Sandinistas have obliged me, not because I want to. This struggle has to end without winners or losers. There has to be a psychological campaign to detoxify both us and the Sandinistas of our belligerence. There has to be an agreed program of government, because the Sandinistas will have to live with those who have fought them for seven years."

Lt. Fley said his brother and other rebels are welcome to return.

"There is no resentment," he said. "We understand that the Contras are fighting against a revolutionary project, not against the people. They have been manipulated by the Reagan Administration, which has the biggest interest in destroying the revolution. When their dollars disappear, they will see how they have been used. They can come home and help the revolution."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World