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Former Contras differ over value of war with Sandinistas

It was at the end of January 1982 that the Contras, with help from the CIA, approved a plan to take the war against the Sandinistas beyond the Honduran border to Nicaraguan territory.

Two bridges in north Nicaragua became targets of the first major operation against the Sandinistas, who had taken control of the Central American country after a bloody revolution supported by Cuba that toppled President Anastasio Somoza.

In an operation by Contras trained by the Argentine military and financed by the CIA, the bridges were blown up on March 14, 1982. That led to a state of emergency in Nicaragua and years later to the Iran-Contra scandal in the United States. Eventually, negotiations between the Contras and Sandinistas resulted in a period of peace and democracy in Nicaragua.

A half-dozen former Contra fighters reunited in Hialeah recently to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the launching of the CIA-financed war and to share their memories of the historic conflict in interviews with El Nuevo Herald. Two other former Contras who could not make it to the reunion told their anecdotes in separate telephone interviews.

“The Nicaraguan war of resistance was one of the last battles of the Cold War,” said Luis Moreno, known as Comandante Mike Lima, one of the top Contra leaders. Today he works as an accountant in Jacksonville. “The legacy of the war in Nicaragua, together with the wars in Afghanistan and El Salvador, contributed to the defeat of communism and put an end to the Soviet Union.”

But another former Contra, Noel Castillo, known as Comandante Trampas, expressed disappointment with the result of the war and the peace accords because Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega is once again leading Nicaragua.

“Sometimes it seems that all we did was useless,” Castillo said.

When Ronald Reagan became president, all his advisors, especially then-CIA chief Bill Casey, began to put together a strategy to push back against communism.

President Reagan’s signing of a secret CIA document on Dec. 1, 1981, opened the U.S. financing valve for the Contras through Argentine advisors who were interested in Nicaragua because the Sandinistas had granted asylum to Montonero guerrillas opposing the military regime in Buenos Aires.

“In Nicaragua, Sandinismo had become paradise to the world’s terrorists,” said Rafael Arias, known as Comandante Atila. “The Argentines, governed at the time by then-President Leopoldo Galtieri and a military junta, were looking for Montonero leader Mario Firmenich, who was then in Nicaragua. The Argentines were the first to begin helping us financially and with training.”

Arias is one of the founders of the September 15 Legion, the first anti-Sandinista group of resistance formed mainly by former members of the National Guard under Somoza, who fled Managua in July 1979.

“The September 15 Legion begot the Nicaraguan Democratic Force,” said Arias, referring to the group that the CIA eventually supported. During the war, Arias was part of the Jorge Salazar task force, named in honor of the Nicaraguan entrepreneur murdered by the Sandinistas in 1980. Arias now works in Miami at a company that builds and installs anti-hurricane shutters.

Another founder of the September 15 Legion is José Antonio Lombillo, who also lives in Miami.

“The first to initiate resistance were the former members of the National Guard of Nicaragua,” said Lombillo, who hosts the radio program Farándula at WRHC Cadena Azul 1550 AM in Miami.

Another former Contra fighter, Eshman Ruiz, said he joined the Contras in 1983 and took part in an operation that culminated with taking over a military barracks at San Pedro de Lóvago in the Chontales Department. When he speaks of the Sandinistas, Ruiz calls them piris, an abbreviation of the pejorative nickname piricuaco, which means rabid dog.

“There the piris had a full troop and they managed to capture some of our fighters. From a nearby hill we watched them drag their bodies overnight,” Ruiz said. “We then waited to take over the barracks, and we did.”

Ruiz now works for a bank-security company.

Perhaps one of the most prominent former Contras in Miami is Roberto Amador, former pilot of the Nicaraguan Air Force under Somoza. He also helped found the September 15 Legion after fleeing Managua piloting a DC-6 plane in July 1979.

After the Contras launched a more systematic warfare inside Nicaragua, Amador became the pilot who flew in supplies to the fighters.

On Oct. 3, 1983, the Sandinistas downed his plane with his seven-man crew. Amador was tried and sentenced to 84 years, but was released when hostilities ended. Today he is a commercial pilot in Miami.

To read more, visit www.miamiherald.com.

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