Q: "Mr President, have you approved of covert activity to destabilise the present government of Nicaragua?"
A: "Well no, we're supporting them, the - oh, wait a minute, wait a minute, I'm sorry, I was thinking of
El Salvador because of the previous, when you said Nicaragua. Here again, this is something upon which
the national security interests, I just - I will not comment."

President Reagan's press conference, Washington, February 13th 1983


In 1936 the dictator Anastasio Somoza took over the presidency of Nicaragua, and with the help of his brutal National Guards, he established a family dynasty that ruled over the country like a fiefdom for the next 43 years. The National Guards, consistently maintained by the United States, were responsible for rape, torture, murder of Somoza's political opponents, the massacre of thousands of peasants, robbery, extortion, and drug smuggling, while the Somozan clan helped themselves to Nicaragua's land and businesses.. However on July 19th 1979, a popular uprising by the revolutionary Sandinista Party (FSLN) overthrew Somoza, who fled into exile. Somoza left behind a country with widespread poverty and illiteracy. Two-thirds of the country's population earned less than $300 a year., while Somoza's personal wealth was placed by a U.S. intelligence report at $900 million.

After weeks of bloody civil war, FSLN forces march triumphantly into the Nicaraguan capital Managua.
During the conflict, deposed dictator Somoza's National Guard had been responsible for many atrocities such as the machine-gunning of this couple's two teenage sons.
Another victim of Somoza's death squads.

The Sandinistas set about reversing Somoza's devastation of the country and began a programme of land reform, social justice, and redistribution of wealth and income. Just as in Chile however, this was seen as totally unacceptable by the United States. President Carter signed a top secret finding authorising the CIA to provide political support to opponents of the Sandinistas. The CIA ran anti-government propaganda in the Nicaraguan newspaper La Prensa, while pirate radio stations operating from Honduras and Costa Rica attacked the Sandinistas as "Marxist" and "atheists" bent on suppressing religion in the overwhelmingly Catholic country.

FSLN Commandante Jaime Wheelock distributing land titles as part of the agrarian reform programme's distribution of land to poor peasants.


Paramilitary bands, aided by the CIA front organisation American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD), began armed attacks in the north, singling out volunteers in the health and literacy programmes to murder. In January 1981 Ronald Reagan took office under a Republican platform which asserted that "it deplores the Marxist Sandinista take-over of Nicaragua" and he greatly expanded the CIA's guerrilla warfare and sabotage campaigns. In November 1981 Reagan authorised a covert plan for $19 million to help the Argentina dictatorship train a guerrilla force operating from camps in Honduras to attack Nicaragua.

Former members of Somoza's National Guards (who had fled to Honduras when the Somozan regime was toppled) and other war criminals formed the basis of this force, which became known as the contras. By the autumn of 1983, 12,000 to 16,000 contra troops of the so-called FDN (Nicaraguan Democratic Force) were operating along the Honduran border. Smaller contra forces operated from bases in Costa Rica. They staged hit and run raids against rural towns and co-operatives in Nicaragua, before returning to their bases across the border. The CIA had no illusions about the contras' ability to overthrow the FSLN; in two years of operations, they failed to take and hold even a small village. The aim of the contras was to use terrorist tactics to stop Nicaraguan development projects in all areas: economic, education, health services and political organisations.

The contras blew up bridges, civilian power plants and schools, they burned fields of crops and attacked hospitals. Their tactics included rape, kidnappings of peasants and civilians, ambushes and massacres against small rural communities, farms, co-operatives, schools and health clinics. Contra raids caused extensive damage to crop fields, grain silos, irrigation projects, farm houses and machinery. Numerous state farms and co-operatives were incapacitated; other farms still intact were abandoned because of the danger.


Witness For Peace, an American Protestant watchdog body, collected a list of contra atrocities in one year, which included murder, the rape of two girls in their homes, torture of men, maiming of children, cutting off arms, cutting out tongues, gouging out eyes, castration, bayoneting pregnant women in the stomach, amputating the genitals of people of both sexes, gouging out eyes, scraping the skin off the face, pouring acid on the face, breaking the toes and fingers of an 18 year old boy, and summary executions. These were the people Ronald Reagan called "freedom fighters" and "the moral equal of our founding fathers."

One survivor of a contra raid in Jinotega province, which borders Honduras, reported: "Rosa had her breasts cut off. Then they cut into her chest and took out her heart. The men had their arms broken, their testicles cut off and their eyes poked out. They were killed by slitting their throats and pulling the tongue out through the slit." The human rights organisation Americas watch, concluded that "the contras systematically engage in violent abuses…. so prevalent that these may be said to be their principle means of waging war."

There was also a CIA plan to split Nicaragua in half, east and west, with the contras taking the east side and the Sandinistas left with the capital Managua and the west side. Horrified at this picture of outright war, the Senate Committee introduced the Boland Amendment, prohibiting the use of tactics "for the purpose of overthrowing the Government of Nicaragua." However, in defiance of this, the CIA's contra operations continued. By 1983 the Agency's support for the contras had risen to $24 million.


School and Lorries Destroyed by Contra Bombing Raids.

The Reagan administration imposed a total trade embargo on Nicaragua, together with additional economic sanctions. This was designed to force the Sandinistas to divert resources from development projects to defence, and to disrupt their economy to such an extent that the government could not deliver its promises of a better life for the poor, and thus be discredited. Washington hoped that the people would eventually tire of the war and turn against the FSLN. Nicaragua was excluded from US programmes which promoted American investment and trade, sugar imports from Nicaragua were slashed by 90% and Washington pressured the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the European Common Market to withhold loans to Nicaragua.

Another strategy of Reagan's was to force the FSLN to take action against the increasingly anti-Sandinistan sentiments of Agency-backed right-wing papers such as La Prensa, CIA-sponsored trade unions and right-wing sectors of the Catholic Church; each restriction would then be used in the international propaganda campaign to "prove" that the Nicaraguan government was becoming every more "totalitarian". Cardinal Miguel Obando and the Catholic Church in Nicaragua received hundreds of thousands of dollars in covert aid from the CIA until 1985 (and then, after official U.S. aid was stopped by Congressional oversight committees, from Oliver North's covert money laundering operations). One use that Obando put the money was "religious instruction to thwart the Marxist-Leninist policies of the Sandinistas."

Demonstration in support of left-wing clergy in the revolutionary government of Nicaragua, after the Pope had called on these clergy to either give up their political posts or the priesthood.


In September 1983 a contra bombing raid on a civilian airport narrowly missed killing two U.S. Senators on a fact-finding mission to Nicaragua. The contents of a briefcase recovered from the wreckage were recognised by the senators as an authentic CIA contract for the operation. The pilot had the name and phone number of a CIA operator from the U S. embassy in Costa Rica in his pocket. On October 11th 1983, CIA-trained speedboat teams conducted a pre-dawn raid against the Nicaraguan fuel storage depots at the port of Corinto; five storage tanks were blown up.

Three days later, another major Nicaraguan offshore petroleum unloading facility, Puerto Sandino, was struck. A pipeline inside Nicaragua was sabotaged and U.S. corporations such as Exxon informed the Nicaraguan government that they would no longer supply tankers for crude oil transportation to Nicaragua from Mexico, the country's leading supplier; at this point, Nicaragua had a ten-day supply of oil. Press reports revealed that the sabotage teams, known in the CIA as UCLAs (Unilaterally Controlled Latin Assets) operated under direct CIA-supervision, carrying out operations for which the FDN contras would later claim credit.


The next stage was the mining of Nicaragua's harbours in 1984. The CIA directly carried out the placing of underwater 300 lb. mines of C4 explosive in three harbours; several ships were hit (including British and French vessels) and seamen and fishermen were wounded and killed. Nicaragua's fishing industry was devastated by mines and attacks, as well as from lack of fuel for its boats and spare parts due to the U.S. blockade. The country lost millions of dollars from reduced shrimp exports.

The vital oil facilities at the Nicaraguan port of Corinto were attacked by covert CIA squads, leading to a fuel shortage.

In April 1984 the CIA's role in the mining of Nicaragua's harbours was publicly disclosed and Congress refused to authorise another $21 million for the contras. The World Court declared the American mining illegal but the U.S. government chose to flout the law and continued the mining. The government of Saudi Arabia secretly arranged with the CIA to fund the contras at the rate of $1 million a month. This money was laundered via a bank account in the Cayman Islands (under the name of Lt. Colonel Oliver North) to a Swiss Bank account, and thence to the contras.

Israel, South Korea and Taiwan also supplied money via the CIA to the contras, as well as right wing private organisations and individuals such as My Ling Sun Moon, Korean leader of the Unification Church. By the mid-1980s, Reagan's dirty war against Nicaragua had caused 14,000 casualties. Apart from soldiers and civilian militia defending the government, those injured by the contra attacks included teachers, health workers, local government officials, technicians, school-children, church workers, peasants and other innocent civilians. The number of children and adolescents killed exceeded 3,000 and more than 6,000 children had been turned into war orphans.

The Nicaraguan government announced in November 1984 that since 1981 the contras had assassinated 910 state officials. In just over four years, the CIA-backed mercenaries had attacked nearly 100 civilian communities and caused the displacement of over 150,000 people from their homes and farms. Bridges, port facilities, granaries, water and oil deposits, electrical power stations, telephone lines, saw mills, health centres, schools and dams were all destroyed or damaged.

In October 1984 the Associated Press disclosed a 90 page guerrilla-warfare training manual called "Psychological Operations in Guerrilla Warfare", which was authenticated by the House Intelligence Committee as a CIA-produced manual for the contras. The manual gave advice on political assassinations, blackmailing, mob violence, kidnappings and blowing up public buildings. It advised the use of "shock troops" in anti-government demonstrations "armed with clubs, iron rods and placards, and if possible, small firearms, which they shall carry hidden", together with "knives, razors, chains, clubs and bludgeons". Under the heading "Selective Use of Violence", the manual advised the contras to "neutralise carefully selected and planned targets such as court judges, police or state security officials, etc." The manual also urged the contras to "kidnap all officials or agents of the Sandinista government." The manual called for "implicit terror" and stated: "If possible, professional criminals will be hired to carry out selective jobs".

In Congress, the question was raised to Reagan, "Is this not, in effect, our own state-sponsored terrorism?" CIA chief William Casey wrote a personal letter to each member of the House and Senate intelligence committees, stating that the manual was intended to moderate behaviour. Meanwhile, it was confirmed to congressional intelligence committees by the CIA and other witnesses that the contras indeed "raped, tortured and killed unarmed civilians, including children" and that "groups of civilians, including women and children, were burned, dismembered, blinded and beheaded".

After Congress again cut funding of the contras, the Saudis doubled their secret contributions to $2 million a month. Oliver North informed Casey that American hostages held in Beirut "can be bribed free for $1 million apiece"; a down-payment of $200,000 was made to North's contacts in Iran, followed by two shipments of U.S. TOW missiles to Iran. North wrote that $12 million of the $15 million expected to be paid by Iran for the arms could be "set aside for the contras". When news of the arms-for-hostages scandal became public, Reagan went on TV to announce: "We did not - repeat did not - trade weapons or anything else for hostages. Nor will we."

But the war against Nicaragua continued. Reagan circumvented the ban on military aid to the contras by authorising "intelligence advice" of $13 million and "humanitarian aid" of $27 million to them, and in October 1986 Congress authorised another $100 million of aid for the contras. The United States's devastation of the frail Nicaraguan economy eventually resulted in the Sandinistas narrowly losing the country's second election. Exhausted and impoverished by ten long years of the war, people wanted the U.S. blockade lifted and Washington off their backs. Many queued to receive their $40 each for voting for the U.S.-favoured candidate Violetta Chamorra - an irresistible bribe if you have an annual income of less than $200. President George Bush called the result "a victory for democracy." U.S. State department official Elliott Abrams declared: "When history is written, the contras will be folk heroes."

Today the United States stands condemned by the World Court of Justice at The Hague for the "unlawful use of force" against another, sovereign, state, Nicaragua. The World Court ruled that "the United States of America, by training, arming, equipping, financing and supplying the contra forces or otherwise encouraging, supporting and aiding military and paramilitary activities in and against Nicaragua, has acted... in breach of its obligation under customary international law not to intervene in the affairs of another state." Afterwards, critics of the United States' policy in Nicaragua called it a "blueprint" for successful U.S. intervention in the Third World. A Pentagon analyst agreed: "It's going right into the textbooks."

More information on the contras' covert funding by the CIA and their drug-running activities can be found in: DEALING IN DEATH: The CIA and the Drugs Trade

Top of Page