Ex-contra leader, on visit home, finds his war is over
A more tranquil Nicaragua greets him
BY GLENN GARVIN
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,
story the next morning.
Of the three civil wars that wracked Central America during the
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
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,
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
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.
COUNTRY `LESS TENSE'
``The country is less tense,'' Ortega acknowledged in a recent
on both sides have lowered.''
Perhaps nothing illustrated Nicaragua's new tranquillity as dramatically
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
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
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
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
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
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.
SAW CHILDHOOD HOME
On his trip, he saw his childhood home on the south side of Managua,
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
``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.''