Nicaraguans Still Dying in Targeted Executions
The day before he died, Martin Martinez, 17, told his mother the Sandinistas were after him. He would go into hiding, he promised, as soon as he brought in the bean crop.
The youth’s ordeal had begun when Contras seized him two years ago as an alleged Sandinista informer. He had escaped, only to be harassed by state security agents seeking hidden weapons and information about his brother, a Contra foot soldier.
Last Nov. 22, months after the fighting subsided, the delicate balance of forces and fate that had allowed Martin to survive in this war zone collapsed. In the pre-dawn chill, men his mother recognized as being from state security called at her tiny wooden farmhouse and led away the family breadwinner. Martin’s body was found kneeling face down in a distant field, his hands tied behind him and part of his face blown away.
“People told stories that my son had a gun,” Andrea de Martinez, 45, said in an interview last week in the Santa Cruz hamlet near Pantasma. “I never saw Martin armed, but the compas (Sandinistas) told me that is why this happened to him.”
Throughout a year-old cease-fire that has all but halted traditional combat, Sandinista forces and U.S.-backed Contras have waged a quiet battle of targeted executions on a scale at least as large as it was at the height of the seven-year conflict, according to human rights groups that monitor Nicaragua. Dozens of such killings have been reported in the northern provinces of Jinotega and Matagalpa, the deadliest theater of conflict.
By most accounts, Sandinistas are doing a greater share of the killing as they move in to break up Contra civilian networks in isolated hamlets abandoned by the rebels. Meanwhile, the few hundred Contras still in Nicaragua have saved part of their dwindling ammunition for selected enemies.
Killings of this kind are far fewer here than in the guerrilla wars of El Salvador and Guatemala. But they raise questions about the safety of rebels being asked to disarm and come home under a Central American peace plan that would close the Contra camps in Honduras. They also could threaten the U.S. funding to sustain the rebels in those camps until after Nicaraguan elections scheduled next February.
One of the latest Contra executions occurred March 10 after 10 rebels slipped into a state cattle collective a mile from Matiguas, where Sandinista militia members had let down their guard in recent months of calm. Moving from house to house in the dark, they seized Brigido Espinoza, 30, the farm’s production manager; Pedro Moreno Madrigal, 23, a former Sandinista soldier, and four other ranchers.
Some of the captives escaped to tell this story: after marching their prey to a farm 20 miles away, the Contras relaxed over roasted chicken, corn liquor and ranchero music blaring from Moreno’s stolen tape player. Then two executioners took Moreno and Espinoza 100 yards into the woods and shots rang out. Their bodies, showing wounds in the head, were found March 14.
Witness descriptions of the tactics on both sides of this struggle are chillingly similar. Contras and Sandinistas pose in uniforms of the enemy to seek informers, who are fingered by deserters from each side. Victims are beaten on long marches through the hills, often without shoes, to die with their throats slashed.
The Contras’ practice of summary executions has been well-documented for years by human rights groups. Apparent high-level encouragement of that practice became evident with the 1984 disclosure of a CIA training manual advising rebels to “neutralize” Sandinista figures.
Since rebel leaders agreed to the cease-fire on March 21, 1988, their fighters have executed 20 people captured or cornered in noncombat situations in Matagalpa and Jinotega provinces, according to an analysis of reports by Witness for Peace, the organization that most thoroughly documents alleged abuses by the rebels.
Reports by the Washington-based group, which opposes U.S. Contra aid, described 21 executions by the rebels in the same region the year prior to the cease-fire, when more than 10,000 rebels were inside Nicaragua for their most effective campaign.
Until lately, allegations that the Sandinistas execute prisoners have been less common. In 1982, after human rights groups denounced the slayings of dozens of Miskito Indians for taking part in a Caribbean coastal uprising, the killings there stopped.
But last August, Americas Watch publicly reported a “pattern of summary executions by government forces” in the two northern provinces against suspected Contra collaborators. Since then, the New York-based rights organization has documented new cases.
“The government’s failure to put an end to this practice deserves severe condemnation,” Juan Mendez, the group’s executive director, said in an interview.
Americas Watch has received reports of more than 50 executions carried out by the Sandinista army or state security forces in the north during the cease-fire and has documented 18 through direct witnesses. Four other people taken prisoner by Sandinistas in these cases have disappeared, Americas Watch says.
The Times, in trips to rural hamlets near the towns of Pantasma and Pancasan, re-interviewed witnesses and confirmed two of the executions. It also discovered the previously unreported slaying of the Martinez boy and confirmed a published account of the Contra killings of the two cattle ranchers.
After receiving accounts of 23 Sandinista killings from Americas Watch, The Times and two other American news organizations, the Interior Ministry said Friday that it had sent officials to the north to investigate.
“This is the first we have heard of these cases,” said Capt. Nelba Blandon, the ministry spokeswoman. “We cannot comment until our investigation is complete.” She denied that the government has a policy of killing Contra supporters.
After the Contras lost their U.S. arms aid last year and retreated to Honduras, state security agents rounded up thousands of farmers in the abandoned rebel strongholds. Around Pantasma, about 700 males were briefly held in August and September and warned not to help the rebels again, residents said.
One of those arrested, Miguel Angel Ramirez Davila, 23, was escorted from jail, marched up a ridge and shot to death last Sept. 2, two relatives said, after an imprisoned Contra deserter accused him of hiding weapons.
Another Contra deserter was reported killed by Sandinista soldiers, and two others disappeared after being arrested near Pantasma during that period.
Since November, when small rebel patrols began filtering back to Pantasma, pressure against civilians from both armies has intensified. According to Witness for Peace, three suspected Sandinista collaborators were seized near the town last month and died of slit throats.
Tension over the killings sets this bleak tobacco-growing center and other towns in the north a world apart from the capital, where opposition groups now rid of press censorship are organizing freely for next year’s elections.
“It’s different here,” Pablo Ramirez Davila, 21, the brother of an execution victim, told a visitor over a deafening hum of locusts at his farm. “For the army, every civilian is a Contra.”
Spokesmen on both sides say they investigate killings by their own forces.
Under U.S. pressure, the Contras began doing so two years ago. Marta Patricia Baltodano, the rebels’ top human rights official, said “three or four” murders of civilians--all committed before the cease-fire--have been successfully prosecuted and two recent cases are headed for trial.
She said the conviction and expulsion last month of six guerrillas for crimes against prisoners in their Honduran camps had set a stern example for troops in the field. “There used to be impunity for these killers, but not any more,” she said.
Reynaldo Guadamuz, the top Sandinista official in Pantasma, said the murders reported here are being looked into by army prosecutors.
Human rights groups credit the Sandinistas with trying and punishing abuses, such as the murders that sent Guadamuz’s predecessor, Carlos Barquero, to prison in 1984 for a 27-year term. But they note that investigations are slow and that some of those convicted are “punished” with transfers to other war zones.
When the army tried recently to transfer one controversial intelligence chief from its El Ochote base in eastern Matagalpa, the officer’s troops rebelled and he remained, according to an Americas Watch investigator. People have accused the officer’s forces of five executions since November.
Human rights workers, church officials and farmers in the north say that the army and security forces might have become too big for effective discipline and that regional officials seem reluctant to impose it in areas still racked by Contra violence.
A case in point was the Jan. 27 slaying of Felicito Peralta, a 40-year-old Roman Catholic lay preacher who was dragged from his shack in Apantillo, near Pancasan, by a band recognized as militiamen. In a sermon, the bishop in Matagalpa publicly blamed the government.
In response, a state security officer called a meeting in the hamlet and blamed the crime on the Contras. Carlos Molinari, one of those present, said he was threatened for talking too much about the case.
“Nobody said anything,” Molinari recalled. “But nobody doubts that it was the Sandinistas.”