MANAGUA, Nicaragua - Tomás Borge Martínez, the last surviving founder of the Sandinista guerrilla movement that overthrew Nicaragua’s US-backed right-wing dictatorship in 1979 and replaced it with a leftist system criticized for its own repressive measures, died Monday night. He was 81.
Rosario Murillo, the wife of President Daniel Ortega, announced the death in a simultaneous broadcast on Radio Ya and other stations. Murillo, who also serves as a government spokeswoman, did not give a cause of death, but the military had said previously that Mr. Borge was being treated for pneumonia and other ailments.
Mr. Borge joined Carlos Fonseca Amador and others in 1961 to found the National Sandinista Liberation Front. It was named for Augusto César Sandino, who fought against US military intervention in Nicaragua in the 1930s. Ortega joined the front later and became its leader.
Mr. Borge became minister of the interior after the Sandinista victory in July 1979 that toppled Anastasio Somoza Debayle, a son of the slain Somoza García.
As interior minister, Mr. Borge was accused of expelling and harassing clergymen during the war against the Contras, imposing strict censorship of the press, and closing media outlets.
He was elected to Congress and was serving as ambassador to Peru when he fell ill.
“Like Carlos Fonseca, he is one of the dead who never die,’’ Murillo said in making the announcement, her voice seeming to break at times. “He will always be with us in the Sandinista Front.’’ She said memorial and funeral plans for Mr. Borge would be announced later.
An incendiary speaker, combative personality, and admirer of the communist governments in Cuba and North Korea, Mr. Borge was central to both the overthrow of Somoza Debayle and the establishment of a junta and then the elected Sandinista government. He became the target of the Contra rebels supported by the Reagan administration.
Jailed twice by the Somoza’s brutal dynastic dictatorship, Mr. Borge was himself accused of human rights violations as the powerful interior minister during the 1985-90 elected Sandinista administration, until it was voted out of power.
Working from a six-story building that bore the slogan “Guardian of the People’s Happiness,’’ he controlled the police, immigration agents, jails, and even firefighters, often using his nearly unbounded powers to punish the Sandinistas’ enemies in the press, the Roman Catholic Church, and private business.
Miskito Indians living along Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast said that Mr. Borge orchestrated the displacement and killing of Miskitos suspected of anti-Sandinista activities, said Marcos Carmona, president of Nicaragua’s Standing Commission on Human Rights.
He was also accused of ordering the killing of 37 opposition members in a jail in the city of Granada during Ortega’s first term in office, something that Mr. Borge always denied.
A defender of the Sandinistas and Ortega, who won back the presidency in 2007 and was reelected last year, Mr. Borge wrote that “the return of the right is inconceivable’’ and pledged before the 2011 presidential election that the Sandinistas would stay in power forever.
Jacinto Suárez, a member of Congress, called Mr. Borge “a transcendental figure in Nicaraguan history, not just for his founding of the Sandinista National Liberation Front, but for his fight to free the Nicaraguan people from Somoza’s dictatorship.’’
Nicaraguan writer Gioconda Belli, a Sandinista who broke with the movement, saw a tragic trajectory in Mr. Borge’s life.
“For a good portion of the Nicaraguan revolution, Tomás Borge sought to embody its free-flowing, original character,’’ Belli said. “He could be tough with one hand and extremely generous with the other. He was a good friend of his friends. After 1990, I have the sense he gave up his revolutionary illusions. . . . He ended up a tragic-comic figure.’’
Born to a poor family in the city of Matagalpa, Mr. Borge left a university before graduating and dedicated himself to the struggle against the hated Somoza family, which ran Nicaragua almost as an extended plantation from 1937 until it was toppled by the Sandinistas in July 1979.
Economists estimate that the Somozas owned 20 percent of the country’s cultivable land, as well as sugar mills, banks, credit companies, cattle ranches, fishing fleets, construction companies, florists, and other businesses.
Mr. Borge received military training in Cuba and in 1956 was arrested and jailed for three years on charges of involvement in a plot that ended with dictator Anastasio Somoza Garcia’s assassination by poet Rigoberto López Pérez. Mr. Borge escaped from jail and took refuge in Honduras, El Salvador, and Costa Rica.
After returning to Nicaragua, Mr. Borge helped found the Sandinista movement, which began small-scale armed actions against the dictatorship about a decade after its founding.
In January 1978, the Somoza regime was weakened when opposition journalist Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, editor of the newspaper La Prensa, was slain by a hired gunman named Domingo Acevedo and four accomplices.
Imprisoned for subversive activities at the time of Chamorro’s killing, Mr. Borge was liberated in August 1978 by a Sandinista commando force that attacked the National Palace, took legislators hostage, and traded them for a group of Sandinista guerrillas who then escaped to Cuba.