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American Crime Case #29: Contra War of Terror in Nicaragua 1979-1989

Bob Avakian has written that one of three things that has “to happen in order for there to be real and lasting change for the better: People have to fully confront the actual history of this country and its role in the world up to today, and the terrible consequences of this.” (See “3 Things that have to happen in order for there to be real and lasting change for the better.”)

In that light, and in that spirit, “American Crime” is a regular feature of Each installment focuses on one of the 100 worst crimes committed by the U.S. rulers—out of countless bloody crimes they have carried out against people around the world, from the founding of the U.S. to the present day.

See all the articles in this series.





Nicaraguan woman buries her child murdered by the Contras. Contras, mercenaries trained by the CIA at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia, were responsible for the slaughter of more than 8,000 Nicaraguans civilians, and 910 state officials, as well as other atrocities and crimes against humanity.


The U.S. has had its claws dug deeply into the small Central American country of Nicaragua for over 150 years. It landed its Marines there 12 different times between 1853 and 1933. The U.S. directly occupied Nicaragua for more than 20 years—from 1912 to 1933. America and other imperialist powers plundered the country, using its rich soil to create an export-oriented economy, focused on coffee, to serve the world’s wealthier countries. After Nicaraguan rebels, led by Augusto César Sandino, finally drove U.S. forces from their country in 1934, the U.S. had him assassinated and installed a military dictatorship under Gen. Anastasio Somoza García, whose family, in league with the U.S., brutally ruled Nicaragua for the next 43 years.1

In 1979, after the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) overthrew Anastasio Somoza (the son of Gen. Somoza García) and his regime, the U.S. launched a savage, decade-long counter-revolutionary war against the people of Nicaragua. It built up a reactionary proxy army to wage war to weaken, destabilize, and attempt to overthrow the new Sandinista-led regime, which had established ties with the Soviet Union, the U.S.’s main imperialist rival at the time.

The effort began under President Jimmy Carter in 1979 and was sharply escalated after Ronald Reagan took office in 1981. In November of that year, Reagan signed a secret National Security Directive authorizing the CIA to create a 500-man mercenary army for this job.2



President Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) initiated and authorized the 8-year-long Contra war and was its chief public champion, fondly referring to the Contras as “freedom fighters.”

Their official name was the Nicaraguan Democratic Force, but they were known as the “Contras,” short for “contra-revolución”—against revolution. The Contras were largely made up of former officers and soldiers from Somoza’s National Guard, many of whom had been trained by the U.S. Marines and other military institutions. (As of 1979, over 4,300 Nicaraguans had attended the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, a facility known for training assassins and torturers. U.S. military advisors, stationed in Nicaragua during the Somoza years, also trained another 4,000 Guardia members.)3 By1983, the Contras forces had grown to 16,000 to 20,000.



The CIA literally wrote the “how to” manual for the Contras, called the Psychological Operations in Guerrilla Warfare.4 Among the things it advised: hiring “professional criminals,” “neutralizing” judges, executing civilians, inciting mob violence, attacking “soft targets” like schools, health clinics and cooperatives, and blowing up refineries and pipelines. During the 1980s, the Contras were carrying out atrocities, as well as sabotage and other attacks from inside Nicaragua and from U.S.-supported bases in Honduras and Costa Rica.5

By 1984, numerous reports of the Contras’ barbaric crimes were being reported by human rights groups: raping, torturing, killing, burning, blinding, dismembering, and/or beheading unarmed civilians, including children. The Nicaraguan government reported that from 1981-1984, the Contras had assassinated 910 state officials and 8,000 civilians.6

A 16-year-old was among a group of civilians caught in an early morning Contra raid that killed 21 people between five and 60 years old while wounding eight people. He recalled “When they were finished, they set the truck on fire. From where I was lying, I could hear the groans and the screams of those who were being burned alive.”7

A Contra leader bragged that the CIA gave them large knives—“[E]verybody wanted a knife like that, to kill people, to cut their throats.” A survivor of a Contras’ raid in Jinotega province recounted: “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 slits.”8

Meanwhile, witnesses to such outrages reported seeing backpacks, tents, and boots stamped with “USA.”

The U.S. imperialists cut off aid and worked to squeeze the life out of the Nicaraguan people and Nicaragua, including by strangling its economy. Contra raids damaged crops, prevented harvesting, destroyed tobacco drying barns, grain silos, irrigation projects, and farm houses, as well as machinery, roads, bridges, and trucks. They also decimated Nicaragua’s fishing industry. In 1982, the U.S. multinational Standard Fruit suspended its banana plantation operations, halting shipments of one of Nicaragua’s main export crops.9 The U.S. also pressured the International Monetary Fund, Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank, and the European Common Market to withhold loans.10

In 1986, it was exposed that U.S. officials ignored three separate Congressional resolutions barring funding or aiding the Contras, and had secretly sold arms to Iran and used the proceeds to buy arms for the Contras. This became known as the Iran-Contra Affair.11 The CIA under Reagan also secretly used drug trafficking money to finance their arms purchases—flying planes into U.S. mainland bases loaded with cocaine, and flying back to Central American bases loaded with arms for the Contras. The flood of cocaine helped create the “crack epidemic” that hit U.S. inner cities in the early 1980s, which was in turn one of the factors that drove the expansion of mass incarceration.12

At the end of 1989, the White House announced that it would impose an embargo on Nicaragua unless the pro-U.S. candidate, Violeta Chamorro, won the elections. She did, thanks in part to $11 million from the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy and Contra violence during the election.13

Ten years of U.S.-sponsored war killed as many as 50,000 people and left Nicaragua as one of the poorest countries in this hemisphere.14

Excerpts from the Q&A following the speech: Why We Need An Actual Revolution And How We Can Really Make Revolution

Bob Avakian's Answer to People Who Complain about Immigrants Crossing Borders

Q&A: Would Mexico And Central America Still Be the US Backyard After the Revolution?


President Jimmy Carter authorized the CIA to supply funds and other forms of support to anti-Sandinista forces before and after the fall of Somoza.

President Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) initiated and authorized the eight-year-long Contra war and was its chief public champion, fondly referring to the Contras as “freedom fighters,” and “our brothers.”

The CIA under Director William Casey took full charge of funding and providing the expertise to lead, organize, train, orchestrate, equip, and maintain the Contras, including through the secret arms and drug dealing of the Iran-Contra Affair.

Reagan’s team: Secretaries of State Alexander Haig and George Schultz, who called the Sandinista government “a cancer in our backyard”; aide Oliver North and his bosses National Security Advisors Robert MacFarlane and John Poindexter; Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger; United Nations Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick; Director of Communications Pat Buchanan; Attorney General Ed Meese III; and Assistant Secretary of State for Central America Elliot Abrams (recently named Trump’s special envoy to Venezuela.)

The Contras/FDN founder Enrique Bermúdez, Adolfo Calero, Edén Pastora, Commandante Franklin plus scores of other (field) commanders; also the rank and file, and all those, in Nicaragua, the U.S., and other countries, who aided and abetted this mercenary army.



Wreckage of a plane shot down by Sandinista forces after it had air-dropped supplies to Contras in Nicaragua. (Photo: AP)


The Reagan administration claimed the Sandinistas were supplying arms to anti-U.S. insurgents in El Salvador and threatening Honduras, other Central American countries, the Panama Canal, and sea lanes in the Caribbean basin and the Gulf of Mexico. Reagan called Nicaragua under the Sandinistas a “totalitarian dungeon” which was more oppressive than apartheid South Africa.15


Even though the Sandinistas were not out to break Nicaragua from the grip of imperialism or end all forms of oppression, the Sandinista revolution still represented a challenge to U.S. imperialist hegemony in Latin America, and in relation to its global battle with the Soviet Union, by then an imperialist power contending with the U.S. globally.

Historically and up to today, the U.S. has considered Mexico and Central and South America their “backyard” to be plundered, exploited, dominated and—whenever needed for their strategic interests—invaded. Nicaragua was no exception.

In 1984, the CIA’s assistant director Robert Gates spelled this out in an internal memo to its director William Casey:

The fact is that the Western Hemisphere is the sphere of influence of the United States. If we have decided totally to abandon the Monroe Doctrine ... then we ought to save political capital in Washington, acknowledge our helplessness and stop wasting everybody’s time.16

By the end of the 1970s, the U.S. rulers considered their escalating global rivalry with the Soviet Union as the main overall challenge they faced. One way this rivalry was sharpening up was in relation to the nationalist uprisings and revolutions taking place around the world and in Central America, which the Soviet Union was actively supporting, or maneuvering within for advantage. After its defeat in Vietnam, the U.S. did not feel it had the freedom to carry out direct invasions or occupations, so it relied on proxy armies such as the Contras in the struggle against regimes it considered pro-Soviet, and it branded the reactionary butchers it supported as “rebels” or “freedom fighters.” (During the Reagan years, the U.S. also supported reactionary wars against El Salvador and Guatemala that slaughtered 75,000 people in each of these Central American countries.)

Now the U.S. saw the Sandinistas as a threat because they had overthrown Somoza’s old pro-U.S. order, and they had ties with Cuba and the Soviet Union, so they mounted an aggressive comeback challenge.

Reagan set out to mobilize every reactionary force in the U.S. and in the world for U.S. supremacy, and their “backyard” was one decisive battleground. Preventing “another Cuba” (where the Soviets had gained a foothold), stopping the expansion of Soviet spheres of influence elsewhere in the world, became the “Reagan Doctrine” of the U.S. ruling class. Mercenary armies like the Contras put an indigenous face on the imperial killing machine as Nicaragua became a key battlefront in their high-stakes imperialist rivalry with the Soviet Union.



“THE REAGAN ADMINISTRATION is right to take Nicaragua as a serious menace—to civil peace and democracy in Nicaragua and to the stability and security of the region....What about the contras? They have become an instrument to topple the Sandinistas or—a nearly equivalent goal—to deny them a monopoly of power. But they are an imperfect instrument.... But, as the administration says, would not these difficulties dissolve if the United States ended its hesitancy on the contras and provided them the resources and American policy constancy they need to prevail?”(“Is There a Chance in Nicaragua?Washington Post, March 14, 198617)


1. William Blum, Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions since World War II (Common Courage Press, 2004), pp. 456-461, Appendix II; HISTORICAL BACKGROUND-The Economy in Tim Merrill, ed. Nicaragua: A Country Study. Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 1993.  [back]

2. “Reagan gives CIA authority to establish the Contras,”  [back]

3. Richard Grossman, “Nicaragua: A Tortured Nation,” Historians Against War.  [back]

4. “CIA releases full contras manual on “psychological operations in guerrilla warfare,” Muckrock, December 18, 2017.  [back]

5. David Model, Lying for the Empire: How to Commit War Crimes with a Straight Face (Common Courage Press 2005), pg. 179.  [back]

6. Blum, pg. 293. See also, Thomas A. Walker, Editor, Revolution and Counterrevolution in Nicaragua (Westview Press 1991), p. 375; Holly Sklar, Washington’s War on Nicaragua (South End Press 1988), p. 179.  [back]

7. “Nicaragua Rebels Accused of Abuses,” New York Times, March 7,1985.  [back]

8. Blum, p. 293.  [back]

9. Blum, p.292.  [back]

10. Blum, pp. 291-292.  [back]

11. The “Iran-Contra Affair” reflected a sharp struggle among the U.S. rulers over how best to deal with the contradictions they faced in Central America in relation to their escalating rivalry with the Soviet Union. Hearings were held and a number of participants were indicted, but in the end all were pardoned by President George H.W. Bush and none of the criminals were imprisoned. “THE PARDONS; Bush Pardons 6 in Iran Affair, Aborting a Weinberger Trial; Prosecutor Assails ‘Cover‑Up,’” New York Times, December 25, 1992.  [back]

12. “American Crime Case #66: The ‘War on Drugs’ 1970 to Today,” March 6, 2017.  [back]

13. Blum, p. 304.  [back]

14. “Legacy of Civil Wars: In Central America, Reagan Remains A Polarizing Figure”, Washington Post, June 10, 2004.  [back]

15. Blum, pp. 295, 296, 300.  [back]

16. Gates argued that the CIA-run Contra war was “an essentially half-hearted policy.” He recommended that the Reagan administration initiate a “comprehensive campaign openly aimed at bringing down the regime,” including “the use of air strikes” against Nicaraguan military targets. “The Iran-Contra Affair 20 Years On,” The National Security Archive, November 24, 2006.  [back]

17. “Is There a Chance in Nicaragua?Washington Post, March 14, 1986.  [back]

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