The Miami Herald
May 8, 2001

Activist's death reignites conflict in Nicaragua

Murder carries echo of battles between Liberals, Sandinistas


 SIUNA, Nicaragua -- Agustín Mendoza was a farmer, Liberal Party activist, father of the Nicaraguan vice consul in Miami, and a jolly man whose company everyone enjoyed.

 ``Agustín Mendoza was a true friend of ours,'' said Bernardino Herrera, political secretary of the opposing Sandinista National Liberation Front. ``Be clear: A lot of people loved him.''

 Who then left the 67-year-old dead at his farmhouse with his head sliced clean off his body?

 Mendoza was one of five victims of an April 19 massacre that has stunned Nicaragua because of its particularly brutal nature -- three of the dead were decapitated -- and its political overtones.


 Much of this town's fury has been directed at the Andrés Castro United Front, or FUAC, former Sandinista soldiers that rob and attack in the name of politics. They are accused of killing opposing party members to keep their followers from the polls, leading the president to vow to scour the mountains until the group is stopped.

 The murder has reignited the decades-old conflict between the incumbent Liberal Party and leftist Sandinistas, who ruled Nicaragua from 1979 until 1990.

 Eleven years after the end of a civil war between the Sandinista-ruled government and U.S.-supported rebels -- and six months before a presidential election -- the violence carries the echo of old battles and arouses fears that the political violence that damaged Nicaragua throughout its history has not yet run its course.

 The focal point now is this town of 82,000 in northeast Nicaragua, still terrified weeks after the one-night burst of violence attributed to the FUAC. In addition to the the five dead, a pair of brothers were kidnapped and their whereabouts remain unknown. The victims were all either ex-contra fighters -- rebel opponents of the former Sandinista government -- or active with the ruling PLC.


 If this deeply polarized city is an example, then Nicaragua's tenuous peace is at the brink of falling apart in the countryside, where memories of a hard-fought war are still fresh and bodies keep mounting.

 ``People are tense,'' said Siuna Mayor Julián Gaitán. ``There are people here who don't like others to have their own ideological thoughts. We are feeling it. Farmers are leaving in fear, abandoning their beans, animals and cows. We're in crisis. Nothing led up to this, just politics.''

 Gaitán and other PLC leaders say they count 47 murdered party members in Siuna alone over the past four years, but the worst of it began April 18.

 That night, a truck-load of armed men pulled up at the home of Paulino and Arturo Peralta Garzón, brothers who fought in the resistance against the then-ruling Sandinista Front. The brothers were calmly led from their hammocks where they lay, allowed to stop inside to don boots and a shirt. With their arms tied behind their backs, they were marched away and last were seen in the same condition in a nearby town.

 There have been no demands for ransom, nor any corpses.

 Eight hours after the Peralta brothers were taken away, in the nearby community of Santa Fé, an armed bandit stormed the ranch of Felipe Herrera, 43, vice president of that district's Liberal Party, and his wife Miriam Espino, 38, the group secretary. Herrera shot back, killing the man and infuriating his accomplices.


 They jumped the fence to the Herrera home and shot him and his 17-year-old son dead. Then they decapitated his wife and did the same to their older son.

 The tale was told to police by a 13-year-old daughter who cowered under the bed, watching her family's slaughter. Later, the same killers apparently stopped at Agustín Mendoza's home, too, leaving his headless body by the doorway.

 For the Mendoza family, there is no question but that FUAC is responsible for the killings, and in this tiny town, FUAC is just another name for a familiar adversary:

 ``They are back in the mountains like it was the '80s,'' said Samuel Mendoza, a son. ``They are inciting war.''

 His brother and the victim's namesake, Miami's Nicaraguan vice consul Agustín Mendoza, urged police to hunt down the killers.

 ``If they don't, we're entering a difficult and dangerous situation for peace,'' the vice consul said. ``Nicaraguans do not want war.''

 Government spokeswoman Marta McCoy said the president plans to launch a security offensive to bring confidence back to the mining town.

 ``It has to worry us that armed people are going around -- it puts our political stability at risk,'' McCoy said. ``It worries us because 47 innocent people have been killed, innocent people who were struggling for democracy.''

 The prevailing theory is that FUAC is running a fear campaign to keep people from the polls Nov. 4, when Sandinista General Secretary Daniel Ortega, the former
 president, will run again. The Sandinistas won several important mayoral elections last November -- but not in Siuna.

 The FUAC, named after an 1850s youth who became prominent in the struggle against American soldier of fortune William Walker, was once believed to be 700 strong but may have dwindled.


 Leader José Luis Marenco is believed to be in the mountains still, making new allies. FUAC claimed responsibility for the 1999 kidnapping of a Canadian mining executive. Police here say despite their political origins, they have evolved into old-fashioned criminals.

 ``We're like a soccer ball, everyone kicks us and nobody defends us,'' FUAC leader Roberto Pérez said Thursday in the Sandinista newspaper El Nuevo Diario. ``Some of them even scored a few goals.''

 Pérez -- a pseudonym -- said his group formed to provide services for peasants and to rid the region of up to 40 gangs of highway robbers. Since the group disarmed, he said, perhaps the gangs they helped dismantle have begun operating again.

 Siuna Police chief José David Jarquín said evidence links some Marenco associates to the killings, but he is not convinced that makes the murders political. He has no theories about why the five were killed, noting they were not robbed. The Sandinistas agree and argue that they are not affiliated with the paramilitaries.

 ``The Sandinista Front has nothing to do with these people. The Sandinistas do not have an armed band. For what?'' said Bernardino Herrera, who is not related to the murder victim. ``The government wants to politicize the murders. That's very dangerous.''

                                    © 2001