MANAGUA, Nicaragua (AP) — Officials are calling it a robbery gone bad, but a bloody firefight between police and an armed band in a northern town has Nicaraguans asking if guerrilla groups are forming to confront President Daniel Ortega as he lobbies for a constitutional change to let him seek an unprecedented third term.
Rumors of such insurgent activity have been circulating, and the talk got a boost with the announcement that 10 people had been killed and two wounded in the gunbattle Wednesday in the town of Ayapal, near Nicaragua's border with Honduras.
Authorities said the fight erupted when gunmen tried to rob a grocery, and Ortega Chief of Staff Ana Isabel Morales dismissed them as "criminals."
Many quickly questioned that explanation, among them one of the country's main human rights groups, a former Ortega ally and a Roman Catholic bishop. They said the bloodshed was evidence of long-rumored insurgent activity.
"We can't accept that there are 10 deaths in an attempted assault on a small town. It's illogical," said Roberto Petray, director of the National Association for Human Rights.
He said the clash involved 12 members of an armed group under the leadership of a guerrilla who goes by the name of "El Flaco." He said they were "trying to take control of a police post, but it seems someone warned the police and they opened fire at the entrance to the village."
Bishop Juan Abelardo Mata, from the province of Esteli, reportedly has been in touch with one guerrilla band. He said he had tried to warn the government that such violence could break out unless it addresses the poverty and injustice afflicting poor Nicaraguans.
"There are people who are armed and unhappy with the government," Abelardo said. "We have come warning of this without finding any receptive ear, and these are the results."
The possibility of nascent guerrilla activity awakens painful memories in Nicaragua, where many remember the U.S.-backed rebels known as Contras who throughout the 1980s fought the leftist Sandinista government led by Ortega, until he was voted out of office.
After nearly two decades on the sidelines, Ortega returned to the presidency in 2007. He is now seeking to change Nicaragua's constitution so he can run for a third term, adding to criticism that he has ruled autocratically.
The details of Wednesday's gunbattle in the remote area were sketchy, but rumors of guerrilla movements in the country have circulated for months. It's unclear whether the aim of the suspected guerrillas is to topple Ortega's government or simply force changes.
Petray said he had been following the activity of armed bands in the northern mountains, especially that of a group led by former Contra soldier Gerardo Gutierrez, known as "El Flaco" or "the Skinny One." On July 18, Gutierrez engaged in a shootout with an army patrol in the town of Tamalaque, killing one soldier, army Col. Jose Dolores Hernandez Palacios said.
Ana Maria Vigil, president of the Sandinista Renewal Movement, which split from the original Sandinistas in 1995, said she lamented the apparent return of guerrilla activity as a political tool.
"It's a lie of the army and of the police to say they don't exist or don't have any political motivation," Vigil said. "They are farmers who feel that their rights have been violated and have retaken up arms. There's a return to thinking that the solution to problems is weapons."
Vigil said that sentiment could open space for drug cartels to recruit local support as they use the country's Caribbean coast to move cocaine and other narcotics up to the U.S.
The suspected guerrilla activity is taking place in the same northern and central parts of Nicaragua where Contra rebels had their bases of operations in the 1980s. The new groups usually claim only 10 to 15 members, Petray said, but have been vocal.
Rebel leaders Jose Garmendia, known as "Yajob," and Santo Joyas, alias "Black Pablo," spoke out in local media to accuse the government of not respecting the law and other perceived injustices, including the failure to distribute enough ID cards to citizens and an absence of electoral transparency.
Both Garmendia and Joyas were killed during the past three years in still mysterious circumstances. The police and army have yet to clarify any involvement they may have had in the deaths.
Former Contra combatant Enrique Castillo said he leads a Miami-based group that sends medicine, clothes and other "humanitarian" aid to insurgent groups in Nicaragua. He said he didn't know who was involved in Wednesday's battle but believes it was a local uprising.
"They were clashes that were spontaneous, that weren't instigated by anybody — simply the injustice and the repression generated by Daniel Ortega," Castillo said.