Feature

Adolfo Calero, 1931–2012

The man who led the contras of Nicaragua

Adolfo Calero said he learned the “value of freedom” in the 1950s, when he left his native Nicaragua to study at the University of Notre Dame and Syracuse University. He returned to his country, he said, as “a knight in democratic armor.”

At first, Calero’s fight was against the right-wing dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza, which he opposed as a leading light in the Conservative Party. But it was the leftist Sandinistas that finally overthrew Somoza, in 1979. Calero, the manager of a Coca-Cola bottling plant, supported the Sandinistas initially, said The New York Times, but by 1982 he sought exile in Florida, convinced that they “planned to impose their own kind of dictatorship.” 

Calero soon became the chief “strongman of the CIA” in the struggle to overthrow the Sandinistas, said El País (Spain), mobilizing a force of some 22,000 contras. After six years of civil war left thousands dead, in 1988 Calero negotiated a cease-fire, which led to the 1990 democratic elections that ousted the Sandinistas.

The Reagan administration’s attempts to hide its role in Nicaragua spawned the Iran-contra affair, said the Los Angeles Times, in which U.S. agents illegally sold weapons to Iran to fund the contras. Working closely with White House aide Oliver North, Calero was a key player in “one of the darkest chapters of U.S. foreign policy.”

Calero later told congressional investigators that he’d had no idea where the U.S. funds originated. “When you’re in the desert and you’re dying of thirst, you don’t ask if the water they are giving you is Schweppes or Perrier,” he said. “You drink the damn thing.”

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