The Miami Herald
July 30, 2000

Ex-contra leader, on visit home, finds his war is over

A more tranquil Nicaragua greets him


 MANAGUA -- All he had done was run a stop sign, but Luís Moreno knew the
 policemen were going to beat him, maybe even kill him. He'd already seen the
 glint of recognition in one officer's eyes. They know I was a contra, he thought,
 and they're all Sandinistas.

 ``Hey, aren't you the Resistance commander whose picture was in the paper this
 morning?'' the cop asked, using the formal name for the contras. Moreno nodded,
 then waited for the blow. Instead he got advice: ``Be more careful, man. Don't
 spoil your visit with a traffic accident.'' The policemen handed back his license
 and drove off.

 ``That was when I realized the war really is over,'' Moreno said, recounting the
 story the next morning.

 Of the three civil wars that wracked Central America during the 1980s,
 Nicaragua's was the first to be officially settled, the last to end. Peace treaties in
 El Salvador and Guatemala immediately brought political violence in those
 countries to a virtually complete halt.

 But in Nicaragua, bloody demonstrations, political murders and even low-level
 guerrilla warfare continued for years after the contra rebels who battled the
 Marxist Sandinistas laid down their arms in June 1990. More than 200 former
 contras died under mysterious circumstances in the first two years alone.

 Thousands of the former contras rearmed and returned to the mountains, arguing
 that Nicaragua's army and police force were still in the hands of their old
 Sandinista enemies and amounted to little more than uniformed death squads.

 Today, Nicaragua remains a sharply polarized country, divided into two political
 camps: the Sandinistas and their enemies. But during the last 18 months or so,
 their confrontation seems to have declined from an undeclared war into something
 approaching normal political contention.

 Armed groups no longer roam the countryside, demonstrators march peacefully,
 and the Sandinista party has cooperated with President Arnoldo Alemán's
 conservative government on several legislative packages. Sandinista leader Daniel
 Ortega even attended a party at the U.S. Embassy earlier this month, something
 that would have been unthinkable just a couple of years ago.

 ``The country is less tense,'' Ortega acknowledged in a recent interview. ``Voices
 on both sides have lowered.''

 Perhaps nothing illustrated Nicaragua's new tranquillity as dramatically as the
 recent visit of former contra commander Moreno. Now the comptroller at Miami's
 Angler Boat Corp., during the 1980s he was a top contra commander who went
 by the nom de guerre Mike Lima. Sandinista newspapers regularly reviled him as
 a murderer and a bandit.

 ``They hated me,'' said Moreno ``But I didn't care. I hated them, too.''

 Several times during the past decade, Moreno had thought about visiting
 Managua. But several of his ex-contra friends who returned to Nicaragua were
 murdered, and none of the cases was ever solved. ``I just didn't think it was safe
 for me,'' he said.

 Yet when he finally decided to come back this summer, Moreno was treated as
 something of a conquering hero. He was interviewed on television and in the
 newspapers, which inevitably referred to him as ``the legendary Resistance
 commander.'' Reporters asked him to recount his experiences during the war,
 solicited his analysis of Nicaraguan politics.

 It was the same as he drove around the city, ``drinking up Managua like a cold
 beer,'' as he put it. Lots of people recognized him, said hello, wanted to hear his
 stories. He wasn't threatened, wasn't even insulted.

 ``The first night, I couldn't sleep at all,'' Moreno said. ``The last night, I slept like a

 It was a far cry from the last time he saw Managua -- July 19, 1979, the final day
 of the civil war that toppled Nicaragua's old Somoza dynasty and put the
 Sandinistas in power. Moreno, a second lieutenant in the National Guard -- he
 had graduated from the military academy just weeks earlier -- was in the hospital,
 recovering from a Sandinista sniper's wound. When he learned that the
 government had fallen, he and seven other Guardsmen put on civilian clothing and
 headed for the Honduran border.


 Along the way, they stumbled onto a Dantesque nightmare: a Sandinista mob
 burning a captured National Guardsman alive. That was when, Moreno said, he
 knew he would come back to Nicaragua, gun in hand, to fight the Sandinistas. ``I
 wanted to kill as many of them as I could,'' he said.

 In 1982, when Moreno learned that groups of former Guardsmen were banding
 together with peasants who were dissatisfied with Sandinista rule to fight the
 regime -- and doing it with backing from the Reagan administration -- he signed up

 He led one of the first contra patrols deep inside Nicaragua, and his unexpected
 success recruiting peasants -- Moreno came back with 180 new volunteers, which
 increased the contras' manpower 40 percent at a single swipe -- changed the
 war's whole strategy. The contra commanders and their CIA advisors began to
 think of the organization as an army that would fight a full-fledged war against the

 Moreno staged several of the most spectacular contra attacks of the early war,
 including an assault that destroyed a battalion headquarters in Pantasma and left
 nearly 100 Sandinista troops dead. When his right arm was blown off in a 1983
 mortar accident, Moreno learned to shoot left-handed and continued to lead
 contra units inside Nicaragua. In 1989, with U.S. military aid cut off and the war
 winding down, the CIA provided Moreno documents that permitted him to move to
 Miami. Once in South Florida, he was on his own. He worked as a security guard
 and took lessons in TV repair.

 Eventually he began studying bookkeeping, and recently got his bachelor's
 degree in accounting from FIU at age 41. ``I decided the best graduation gift I
 could give myself was a trip to see Managua,'' Moreno said.


 On his trip, he saw his childhood home on the south side of Managua, visited the
 spot where his friend Enrique Bermúdez was murdered in front of the
 Inter-Continental Hotel, and even stopped by the tomb of Sandinista party founder
 Carlos Fonseca.

 ``In Miami, a lot of my Nicaraguan friends think we're still fighting the war, but I
 don't see it that way now,'' Moreno said. ``I still don't like the Sandinistas, but as
 long as they press their ideas by voting instead of shooting, I don't care. If they
 win an election, I won't like it, but I'll accept it. That's democracy. That's what we
 were fighting for. And we won.''