Around 4:30 p.m. on April 15, Nicaraguan special operations forces surrounded a campesino’s shack in a remote jungle area of San Rafael de la Escalera, 25 kilometers from the Wapí mountain range in the south-central Caribbean municipality of Tortuguero. Inside the house was a man the army had been hunting for more than a year: Joaquín Torres Díaz, a self-proclaimed rearmed contra leader codenamed “Comandante Cascabel” (Commander Rattlesnake).
According to the army’s version of events, Cascabel and his group of 10 men opened fire on the soldiers after realizing they had been discovered. It’s not clear from the army’s press release how long the firefight lasted, or under what conditions. But when the guns quieted, Cascabel and three of his men were dead. Six other guerrillas—two of whom are reportedly injured—apparently escaped.
The army is calling the mission “Special Operation Reptile,” apparently named after its main target. But despite referring to the rearmed contra by his nom de guerre, the army’s public position is that Cascabel and his men were a common gang of murderous thugs, not a rebel movement with a political agenda. After four years of hunting self-proclaimed “re-contras,” the army continues to deny the existence of insurgents in Nicaragua.
“This was a group of delinquents that had committed various crimes in the region, including the murder of farmer René García González on April 30, 2012 in the village El Marrón, 32 kilometers northwest of Wapí, and the assault on a police station in San Antonio de Kukarawala, in El Tortuguero, on Sept. 27, 2012, when they stole two AK assault rifles, a 9-mm pistol and a shotgun,” reads a statement released by the army on Tuesday. “The group also attacked a police station in the community of Hachita, in the jurisdiction of La Cruz de Río Grande, on Oct. 15, 2012, when they killed deputy police officer Runell Valle. They were also extorting money from local farmers.”
The contra’s self-proclaimed political leadership in Miami tells a different tale. The Democratic Force Comandante 3-80 (FDC-380) claims the killing of Cascabel and his men is part of a larger military operation underway in Tortuguero to eliminate a group of 30 rebels.
The FDC-380 claims another contra commander known as “Sargento” was recently captured and imprisoned in Jinotega, where he is being held on drug-trafficking charges.
Who was Cascabel?
A shadowy group calling itself the Nicaraguan Guerrilla Command (CGN) posted a press release on Tuesday challenging the army’s description of Cascabel and insisting that he was a indeed a rearmed rebel leader who was well-known and respected in the area of Tortuguero. The CGN release, which is attributed to self-proclaimed “Insurgent Commanders” David Sandoval and Roberto Palacios, describe Cascabel as a humble farmer and self-styled rural dentist who traveled around area helping people extract rotten teeth.
The rebel communiqué says Cascabel, who was in his 40s, was a former contra paramedic in the 1980s who returned to arms against the Sandinista government in 2011. The CGN describes him as a “deeply religious” and simple man who reached the rank of “Insurrectional Commander” after his “distinguished participation, courage and bravery” in last year’s attacks on army and police targets.
“Comandate Cascabel, in his last heroic action along with nine other commandos, confronted in an unequal manner a strong military contingent that had special operations troops and helicopter support deployed against a reduced group of patriots who, with yells of rebellion against the terrible Ortega-Murillo military dictatorship, they resisted until their deaths inside a humble campesino home in the mountains,” reads the CGN’s statement. “Comandante Cascabel fought to the death for the cause that he so deeply loved—the freedom and democracy of our country.”
The history of a war that’s not happening
In 2010, a former CIA-trained counterrevolutionary commander known as “Comandante Yahob” returned with a declaration of war against the government. Since then, there have a long string of rumors, reports, exaggerations and denials about rearmed rebel activity in Nicaragua.
Yahob was killed by a sniper’s bullet in 2011. His self-proclaimed successor, “Pablo Negro,” was then captured and killed a few months later. Pablo Negro was apparently tortured, shot and tossed in a ditch along the Honduran border. The Nicaraguan Army denies involvement in either of those two cases. Cascabel is the first self-proclaimed contra leader the army takes credit for killing.
In the past two years, there have been a series of spotty and inconsistent reports from sources claiming to represent different rearmed rebel movements, which would appear to be operating in various parts of the country under different names. At various moments since the death of Pablo Negro, commanders “Cascabel,” “Sargento,” “Sheriff,” “Cobra”, and “Zapoyol” have all been named as successors in the mysterious rebellion.
In March, a group of Nicaraguan campesinos crossed into Honduras seeking political asylum from the cat-and-mouse violence between the army and rearmed rebels, adding another twist to the story.
Cascabel figured prominently among the rumors and reports of the past year. In January, the FDC-380 released a communiqué warning of a planned military crackdown aimed at eliminating the leadership of the rearmed contra movement and specifically denouncing the persecution of Cascabel’s family members. The police and army deny that they are persecuting anyone for political reasons.
For now, Cascabel and his three unidentified confederates are the latest casualties in an alleged guerrilla insurrection that’s officially not happening.