The earliest Contra groups formed in 1980-1981 in Honduras, Nicaragua's northern neighbour, allying in August 1981 as the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (Fuerza Democratica Nicaraguense, FDN) under the command of former National Guard (army) colonel Enrique Bermúdez. A joint political directorate was created in February 1983 under businessman and anti-Sandinista politician Adolfo Calero.
A second front in the war opened with the creation in Costa Rica in April 1982 of the Democratic Revolutionary Alliance (ARDE) and its armed wing, the Sandino Revolutionary Front (FRS), by Edén Pastora (Comandante Cero), former Sandinista hero of the August 1978 seizure of Somoza's palace. ARDE was formed by Sandinista dissidents and veterans of the anti-Somoza campaign who opposed the increased influence of Cuban officials in the Managua regime. Proclaiming his ideological distance from the FDN, Pastora nevertheless styled his force the "southern front" in a common campaign.
A third anti-Sandinista force, Misurasata, again with little in common with the FDN's founders, appeared among the Miskito, Sumu and Rama Amerindian peoples of Nicaragua's Atlantic coast, who in December 1981 found themselves in conflict with the revolutionary authorities following an ill-judged modernisation drive. In 1983 the Misurasata movement led by Brooklyn Rivera split, the breakaway Misura group of Stedman Fagoth allying itself more closely with the FDN.
A key role in the development of the Contra alliance was played by the United States following Ronald Reagan's assumption of the presidency in January 1981. Accusing the Sandinistas of importing Cuban-style communism and aiding leftist guerrillas in El Salvador, Reagan on November 23 that year signed the top secret National Security Decision Directive 17 (NSDD-17), giving the Central Intelligence Agency the authority to recruit and support the Contras with $19 million in military aid.
In 1984 Nicaragua filed a suit in the World Court against the United States in Nicaragua v. United States, which in 1986 resulted in a guilty verdict against the US, calling on it to "cease and to refrain" from the unlawful use of force against Nicaragua through direct attack by US forces and through training, funding and support of the terrorist forces. The US was "in breach of its obligation under customary international law not to use force against another state" and was ordered to pay reparations (see note 1). The US response to this ruling was to dissmiss the juristiction of the court and escalate the war.
After direct military aid was interrupted by the Boland Amendment (passed by the U.S. Congress in December 1982 and extended in October 1984 to forbid action by not only the Defense Department and the Central Intelligence Agency but all U.S. government agencies), Administration officials sought to procure third-party funding of military supplies, culminating in the Iran-Contra Affair of 1986-1987.
U.S. officials were also active in drawing the various Contra groups together in June 1985 as the United Nicaraguan Opposition under the leadership of Calero, Arturo Cruz and Alfonso Robelo: after its dissolution early in 1987, the Nicaraguan Resistance (RN) was organised along similar lines (May 1987). Splits within the rebel movement emerged with Pastora's defection (May 1984) and Misurasata's April 1985 accommodation with the Sandinista regime: a subsequent autonomy statute (September 1987) largely defused Miskito resistance.
Mediation by other Central American governments under Costa Rican leadership led finally to the Sapoa ceasefire agreement of March 23, 1988, which with additional agreements (February, August 1989) provided for the Contras' disarmament and re-integration into Nicaraguan society and politics, and internationally-monitored elections which were subsequently won (February 25, 1990) by an anti-Sandinista centre-right coalition.
Some Contra elements and disaffected Sandinistas returned briefly to armed opposition in the 1990s, sometimes calling themselves recontras or revueltos, but these groups were subsequently persuaded to disarm again.
The Reagan administration's support for the Contras continued to stir controversy well into the 1990s. In August 1996, San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb published a series titled "Dark Alliance," linking the origins of crack cocaine in California to the contras. Freedom of Information Act inquiries by the National Security Archive and other investigators have unearthed a number of documents showing that White House officials including Oliver North knew about and supported using money raised via drug trafficking to fund the contras.
Contra is also the name of a game by Konami, developed by the internal team who later left to form Treasure Software.