The gunmen targeted two buses in Matagalpa department transporting Sandinista supporters as the latter returned from political events commemorating the anniversary of the country's 1979 revolution. Four people died in the first ambush, which occurred before midnight on July 19 near the community of Las Calabazas. Eyewitnesses said an unknown number of gunmen hidden along the side of the road fired on the bus as it passed by, and a police report said the assailants used AK-47s and shotguns. According to one report, the attackers also used caltrops to puncture the tires of vehicles traveling in the convoy. The second ambush occurred in the municipality of San Ramon after midnight July 20. One person died in that attack. Soldiers responding to the scene of the Las Calabazas attack arrested four people.
Nicaragua's guerrilla landscape
A group calling itself the National Salvation Forces-Popular Army claimed responsibility for the first attack through a Facebook post on July 20. The group's only previously claimed attack came in February, when gunmen shot and killed a Sandinista municipal official near Mulukuku, in Matagalpa department. The Nicaraguan Guerrilla Coordinator, the main militant organization that has been active since 2011, denied any involvement in the July attacks. The organization did say it shut down the Pan American Highway near Yalaguina, Esteli department, on July 17. In that incident, men stopped vehicles on the highway to spray paint them with "FDN 380," the name of a militant organization. They held the highway for several hours before leaving.
The National Salvation Forces-Popular Army's only stated motivation is its desire to overthrow Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, who also ruled Nicaragua during the Contra insurgency. However, there is a link between a longstanding land grievance by former Contra militants and the current outbreak of militancy. In 2006, a group of landless former combatants, represented by several former Contra commanders, signed an agreement under which the Nicaraguan government was to provide them with plots of land — but the government did not follow through. Santos Joya and Alberto Lopez Midence, two former rebels who backed this deal, led new insurgent groups in 2012 and 2013. Joyas, the self-identified commander of a militant organization known as FDN-380 since 2011, was gunned down in Honduras in January. Lopez Midence, identified as the head of the Nicaraguan Patriotic Commandos, suffered the same fate in Honduras in 2013. The Nicaraguan Guerrilla Coordinator has said the Nicaraguan government is responsible for both killings.
The Nicaraguan Guerilla Coordinator reportedly comprises former Contra fighters opposed to Ortega's continued rule. This group has engaged in periodic firefights with military and police forces since 2011, particularly in the country's remote northern regions. Only three soldiers and police officers are known to have died in firefights with militants since 2012. Most of the fighting between government forces and the alleged rebels has occurred near the Honduran border, in places such as the Autonomous Region of the Northern Atlantic, Jinotega department and Nueva Segovia department. The activity seen over the past week, in which gunmen have operated along the Pan American Highway and in the departments of Matagalpa and Esteli, is new. According to a media report, Nicaraguan Guerrilla Coordinator now includes FDN-380 and the Nicaraguan Patriotic Commandos, which were active in Nueva Segovia department and the Autonomous Region of the Southern Atlantic from 2011 to 2013. The Nicaraguan government has never acknowledged the existence of the Nicaraguan Guerrilla Coordinator, repeatedly referring to its self-described militants as armed robbers and drug traffickers.
A militant escalation
The July 19-20 attacks are unusual indeed for Nicaragua: They occurred outside of the area where known anti-government groups operate, and they targeted civilians. The incidents show an escalation in militant tactics. They do not, however, illustrate any imminent threat to the Nicaraguan government. The groups likely involved are too small and lack mass popular support. The Contra movement of the 1980s became a threat to the Sandinista government because of continuous funding from the United States. Without a steady source of financial and political backing, militants operating in Nicaragua are unlikely to grow significantly, or to substantially expand their capabilities.
If they are to become a threat to the state, these groups will have to grow. Right now, there seem to be too few rebels to significantly affect Ortega's national security strategy. The total force available to guerrilla commanders does not seem to exceed 100 fighters. According to former Contra Byron de Jesus Zeledon, who fled across the border to Honduras to lead one group, there were 30 to 40 rebels operating from Honduras in late 2013. Marvin Figueroa, another former Contra commander arrested in Honduras in October 2013, claimed to lead 40 men inside Nicaragua.
With regard to money, drug trafficking is the only major source of revenue available to militants right now. According to reports from residents and Nicaraguan authorities, the leaders of rebel groups have been involved in drug trafficking activities and in cattle theft in Nicaragua and Honduras. The Nicaraguan government claimed that Midence, Joyas, and Figueroa were all involved in drug trafficking. However, any profits from these activities do not appear to have significantly increased the group's capabilities, as the rebels have used only grenades and small arms during their engagements with government forces.
The lack of public support for the rebels' cause will also hamper their expansion. Nicaragua's political opposition is divided and mostly acquiescent to the Ortega administration, and would-be rebels would likely not find meaningful backing there. Without a receptive audience, the group is unlikely to attract more recruits.
If the militants start to operate outside of their traditional areas of influence in northern Nicaragua, it could signal a rise in their capabilities. Sustained attacks against police or military forces would also indicate that the group is becoming stronger. Until now, most of the firefights against the military have resulted in few casualties on either side. Attacks on electricity infrastructure, bridges or roads would also indicate a strengthened insurgency. For now, though, in the absence of steady funding and sources of political support, the guerrillas will likely not be able to expand their conflict against the state.