All day long we squatted under the grapefruit tree, listening to the dull thunder of the artillery on the other side of the mountain, and wondered what the Sandinistas were shooting at. They might be firing at random–sometimes they did that, launching their expensive Soviet rockets out into the trackless jungle to pulverize monkeys and coconuts–but the shelling had been going on for hours now. It seemed more likely they were blasting away at the contra patrol that was supposed to meet our little group of journalists here but was now 36 hours late. Finally, in the late afternoon, the artillery stopped. And a few minutes later, six figures in dusty olive green appeared at the top of the ridge and headed down the crusty dirt road toward us. Even a mile away we could see the sun glinting off the cruel curves of their rifle clips. There was just enough time for us to panic.
“Look, I know it’s kind of late to be thinking about this,” I said, squinting at the approaching soldiers. “But how are we going to tell if those guys are Sandinistas or contras?”
“I don’t know,” replied Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, the thin, scholarly reporter from the London Spectator. “Everybody wears the same uniforms and carries the same guns.”
It had never occurred to us, when the contras told us to meet them on this remote mountaintop in Nicaragua, that they would schedule a rendezvous in an area where the Sandinista army was active. After all, the idea was to show reporters how freely they could move around the northern part of the country.
“If they’re Sandinistas,” asked Sue Mullin, a free-lance photographer, “what will they do?”
“I’m not sure,” I said. “But they might wonder what three gringos are doing hanging around in the middle of a combat zone 30 miles from the nearest town.”
By now we were whispering. The soldiers were only a few dozen yards away. We peered at them for a sign–maybe the tiny red star pins that Sandinista officers wore on their caps, or the grinning-skull insignia patches that Soldier of Fortune magazine reporters handed out in the contra camps. But the thick layer of dust made it impossible to pick out any details. We tried to look nonchalant; yes, Lieutenant, we’re just out here interviewing this grapefruit tree.
The first soldier stopped, tilted his camouflage cowboy hat up, and gestured at me. “Hey, amigo,” he said, “can you tell me”–here it comes, I thought, he’s going to ask me Daniel Ortega’s middle name, and when I don’t know it we’ll all be arrested as CIA agents–“has there been any shooting up the road today?”
“No, no, all quiet,” I answered. The soldier smiled, nodded, and walked on, followed by his five companions. As they walked away, I realized that we still didn’t know who they were. They might even be our contra patrol, assuming from our studied indifference that we weren’t the right gringos and they would have to look further.
As the soldiers trudged on, Ambrose walked over to a nearby peasant shack, where a toothless old woman had been watching our encounter. “Senora,” he asked, “do you know if those soldiers were Sandinista, or contras?”
“Sandinistas, of course,” she said, and went back inside her hut. We could hear her in there with her husband, laughing, and I could just picture the conversation. Imagine that, Juan, those gringos think they’re going to explain the war in Nicaragua to the world, and they can’t even tell one army from another. No wonder the North American Congress can’t make up its mind.
That was in January 1988. We never did find our contra patrol, and the flatbed truck that we hired to drive us back to Managua broke down in a rainstorm in the middle of the night. When we finally got back to our hotel–grimy, exhausted, and covered with insect bites from two nights out in the open–we discovered that another group of reporters had managed to link up with the patrol. Within four hours, they were ambushed twice. “Does that mean it’s bad news that we missed the patrol, or good news?” Sue Mullin wondered aloud.
I covered the war in Nicaragua for six years, and a lot of the time I couldn’t tell the good news from the bad news. In fact, a lot of the time I wondered if the whole experience wasn’t some kind of hallucination left over from the days before we Just Said No. It wasn’t the kind of war in which beribboned officers stood in front of flip-chart maps, gesturing with their pointers. In fact, finding out what was actually happening on the battlefield was nearly impossible, not just because both sides lied so promiscuously but because neither high command really knew what was happening out there. With only a few exceptions, it was not a war of sweeping offensives and grandiose counterattacks, but a confusing melange of dirty little ambushes that might not be reported to headquarters for weeks, if ever.
But what the war lacked in military majesty it more than made up for in bizarre sideshows. There were addled armchair mercenaries and Mad magazine spies. There were sultry Mata Haris who stole secrets and sometimes sent men to their deaths. There were befuddled old Indiana farmers who found themselves managing secret CIA armies. There were intrepid millionaires with fruitcake dreams of empire.
I spent most of the war with the contras. That’s because I was working for the Washington Times, the eccentrically conservative newspaper founded by high officials of Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. In many ways, that was the most surreal part of the whole adventure. Covering anything at all for the Times, with its rigid political agenda (reporters were never allowed, for instance, to quote anyone from the Institute for Policy Studies, a leftist Washington think tank, on the grounds that it was a “malign source”), could quickly develop into an out-of-body experience. But writing about the war in Nicaragua was a process that I can only call, no pun intended, loony. The Times and its Unification Church sponsors were backing the contras not only with editorials but with their bank books.
The Times made a direct, public $100,000 contribution to the contras in 1985, and various church officials and organizations funneled untold amounts of money to individual contra officials in the form of lecture fees and other honoraria. And I was never certain that the aid wasn’t taking an even more lethal form. One afternoon in the lobby of a Honduran hotel, I was accosted by a Hungarian free-lance photographer with madly spinning pinwheels in his eyes who assured me he was a personal friend of Bo Hi Pak, the Korean president of the company that publishes the Times. The Hungarian was going to go out on a contra patrol, he said, and he would bring back some pictures for the Times. And, by the way, did I think he should take just a light carbine, or something with real firepower?
Covering a guerrilla army funded by your own editors is not easy–I sometimes felt like a bit player in a musical-comedy version of Citizen Kane–but I did my best. And nobody spent more time with the contras. I went inside Nicaragua with their patrols, visited their border camps, drank coffee in their safe houses in Honduras and Costa Rica, and camped out in the lobby of their Miami political office. I flew in the rickety little planes of their air force and ate mystery meat with them along the Coco River.
Now their war is ending. The U.S. Congress refuses to give them any more military aid and their former pals at the State Department won’t return their phone calls. The CIA men on the ground in Central America are still sympathetic, but back at headquarters the contras are a (somewhat embarrassing) historical curiosity. The Honduran government, which for years provided supply lines and staging areas along its borders, backed out when it saw the gringos getting ready to cut and run. The Hondurans have asked the United Nations to disarm and relocate the contras–to take over the “disposal problem,” to use a polite term the CIA coined a couple of decades ago to describe what happens when Americans walk away from the messy human debris of their foreign policy failures.
Now Nicaragua is having an election and the contras are starting to wash up in Miami, where I live. They call me. Sometimes they are looking for jobs, or the whereabouts of mutual friends, or explanations of some tortured paragraph in an INS pamphlet. And sometimes they just want to talk about a war that, they are certain, they almost won. Although most of them are only in their late 20s or early 30s, sometimes I see something in their eyes that makes me think of the stooped old Cuban men who sit in the sun along Eighth Street in Little Havana, playing dominos. And I remember a craggy old Nicaraguan who, a few years ago, outraged a roomful of men from the State Department and the CIA when he told them he didn’t want any part of their project.
“Lamentably,” the Nicaraguan told them, “I have the impression–and I have not been able to be convinced otherwise–that the erratic policies of the United States are leading to a new Bay of Pigs; this time without a bay, but with thousands more pigs.”
The First Contra
His name was Pablo Ortega, but he liked to be called Comandante Juan Carlos. It was no accident that he selected the name of a Spanish king for his nom de guerre; Comandante Juan Carlos had been born in Spain and made no secret of his belief that Central America had been in abject decline ever since the conquistadores left. He had moved to Nicaragua in the 50s and had owned a match factory with some members of the Somoza family, whose four-decade dynastic rule of Nicaragua had been ended in 1979 by the Sandinistas. In 1980, while Nicaraguan exiles in the U.S. were still debating what to do about the Sandinistas, Comandante Juan Carlos was already bragging that he had used his considerable fortune to raise an army that was going to whip the communists. He used to issue communiques announcing that the National Liberation Army would be holding a staff meeting at some Managua hotel. Everyone considered him sort of a lovable coot. But when he flew into Miami one day in early 1981 and asked for a meeting with leaders of the exile community, they decided to go. Maybe, they reasoned, he would give their anti-Sandinista political organization some money.
The meeting took place in a suite at a downtown hotel. Comandante Juan Carlos was doing the talking, assuring the exiles that politics was a waste of time. They should join his army instead, and get Nicaragua back on the road to monarchy. In the middle of his speech, one of the comandante’s young assistants entered the room, clicked his heels, and saluted.
“I’m sorry, Comandante, but you have a very important call in the other room,” the assistant said.
“Can’t you see I’m busy?” Juan Carlos snapped. “Take a message.”
The assistant saluted again and marched away–only to return a few moments later. “I’m very sorry, Comandante,” he apologized. “But Mr. Haig says it really can’t wait.”
“Ahhh, these gringos,” Juan Carlos sighed in exasperation. “Excuse me, gentlemen, I’ll get rid of him as quickly as I can.”
As Juan Carlos left the room, the exiles stared at each other, wide-eyed. Could this senile monarchist really have forged an alliance with the secretary of state of the brand-new Reagan administration? Maybe there was more to this National Liberation Army than they had thought.
For several weeks Juan Carlos was treated with new respect, befitting a man who could put the American secretary of state on hold. Then the exiles got ahold of Juan Carlos’s personnel list and discovered that “Haig” was the name of one of his young assistants.
Is It Live or Is It Memorex?
In November 1980, a few weeks after Ronald Reagan was elected president, five Nicaraguan exiles visited Washington to see if they could stir up any interest in funding anti-Sandinista activities. They stayed in the cheapest hotel they could find. Their guide was Nat Hamrick, a North Carolina businessman who had been in and out of Nicaragua for years.
The exiles met a few congressional staffers and some reporters, and they felt it was a successful trip. But Hamrick told them these interviews were trivial. “Your most important meeting is going to be with a tape recorder,” he said.
The Nicaraguans thought he was kidding, but that afternoon Hamrick brought in a little cassette recorder. He switched it on and began asking questions about the situation in Nicaragua–what the exiles thought the Sandinistas were up to, what could be done about it. He told them to answer in English. They talked for a while, and then Hamrick would leave with the cassette. In an hour or so he would come back with a new list of questions. This process went on for six hours. “What’s this all about, Nat?” one of the exiles said as Hamrick left with the cassette for the last time. “The person I’m taking the tapes to can’t meet with you because it’s against the law,” Hamrick said. But he wouldn’t say anything more, except that the interview was going well.
None of the exiles ever did learn who was on the other end of the conversation. But a few weeks later, they were summoned to a meeting with two members of the Reagan transition team at Miami International Airport. “They seemed to know all about us, even though we had never met with them,” one of the exiles said. “They were on their way to Argentina, and they told us that although they couldn’t be very specific, everything was going to be all right.”
About a month later, the Argentine government offered to help fund an anti-Sandinista guerrilla movement. And a little over a year later, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands. And the day they heard the news, every one of those five Nicaraguans thought of the interview with the tape recorder.
The Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party
Walter Calderon–Comandante Tono to his men–was desperate. After a three-month patrol inside Nicaragua, his troops were down to a few bullets apiece. The 1,000 new recruits he was taking back to Honduras didn’t have any weapons at all. Tono’s patrol was still three days from the safety of the Honduran border, but there were Sandinista units surrounding him on three sides. If he met the enemy, there would be a massacre. For three days he had been calling headquarters, asking for an airdrop of weapons and ammo, but nothing had come. Tono had been making war on the Sandinistas for eight years–first as a lieutenant in the Nicaraguan national guard, then as a contra commander–but never had he felt so helpless.
On the afternoon of the third day, they finally heard the monotonous drone of the supply aircraft. Tono barked a confirmation code into his radio to let the pilot know he had reached the drop zone, and then turned to his officers. “We have to get the guns out of the crates quickly, and then get out of here,” he warned them. “If the Sandinistas see the plane dropping parachutes, they’ll be after us right away.”
The men watched nervously as the parachutes popped out of the plane’s side door like camouflage mushrooms after a rain. While the chutes drifted lazily down, the men crouched at the edge of a clearing that now seemed preternaturally quiet. Everyone strained his ears for the sounds of Sandinista boots advancing through the jungle.
Finally the first wooden crate hit the ground. Tono sprinted into the clearing and frantically pried at the top with his knife. Finally he jerked it open and plunged his hands into the . . . dinner plates. Dinner plates! Hundreds of metal dinner plates, enough for the biggest dinner party in the history of Nicaragua. Maybe when the Sandinistas get here, Tono mused, I’m supposed to invite them to dinner and reason with them.
Every contra I ever met knows at least one comical supply story (comical, that is, unless you’re hearing it in the middle of the jungle, surrounded by Sandinista troops). Maybe it’s because the contras reversed the ordinary army ratio of eight to ten support personnel for every combatant; and maybe it’s because their aerial supply operation was run for a time by Richard Secord, a man with a reputation for unconventional use of air power. In the 60s, when he was running the logistical side of the secret U.S. war in Laos, Secord once bombed the Ho Chi Minh Trail with Calgonite dishwasher detergent. To make it slippery, he said.
Whatever the reason, contra soldiers began to view supply drops as the most exciting part of their existence. You just never knew what might be in there. Often it seemed that Miss Manners must have been the chief supply officer. How else to explain the shipment of 5,000 plastic spittoons? Or the 800,000 tubes of toothpaste? Or the gigantic shipment of foot deodorant?
The most peculiar supply snafus occurred on the war’s southern front, where former Sandinista war hero Eden Pastora–the famous Commander Zero–had turned against his old friends. One of Pastora’s units got a much-needed shipment of boots–but only left boots. Another, waiting for bullets, received 15 cases of suppositories. Nothing, however, topped the time a unit deep inside Nicaragua opened supply crates dropped from a CIA plane and found tens of thousands of sanitary napkins–“many more sanitary napkins than the female comrades needed,” one of Pastora’s men noted dryly. The sanitary napkin airdrop was so bizarre that several of the commanders concluded that the CIA was offering a commentary on their masculinity and courage. But, a CIA officer told me, it was just a singularly impressive screw-up: “We’re not that subtle.”
Revenge of the Grunts
The contra patrols on the ground weren’t always the butt of the joke. In 1984, a contra unit in Matagalpa province called in for a supply drop. A couple of days later an ancient C-47 cargo plane wheezed into view. The old C-47s were not only slow, but their archaic side-door cargo hatches were so inefficient that it usually took them three passes, flying no more than 500 feet above the ground, to drop their entire load. The contras on the ground settled back for a long wait–and then they saw, hovering several thousand feet above the supply plane, two Soviet-made AN-7s. The Sandinistas, so high above the C-47 that its pilot couldn’t see them, were coming in for the kill. The contra commander started to get on the radio to alert the pilot of the C-47, but another officer stopped him. “If you say anything,” the second officer warned, “our plane will leave and we won’t get the supplies.”
The commander called the C-47 pilot. “Listen, primo, we’re in kind of a hurry down here,” he said. “Maybe you could step on it.”
“Why, is there a problem?” the pilot asked.
“No, no, we’re just anxious to get back to the war,” the ground commander lied.
The C-47 finished its first pass and came around for a second. “Really, we’d like to get out of here,” the ground commander urged over the radio. “Keep your shirt on, the war isn’t going anywhere,” the pilot snapped. Finally he made a third pass, and the final parachutes popped out of the hatch. “OK, see you later,” the pilot said, and tilted the C-47 upward for the first time. A moment later, the radio crackled to life again: Son of a BEEEEEEECH! The pilot kept saying it over and over as he dipsy-doodled his way across the horizon, trying to get away from the Sandinista planes. The contras on the ground calculated that it was 192 son of a bitches back to the safety of Honduran air space.
Breakfast at the Maya
The most vicious hand-to-hand combat of the war took place in a sprawling ranch-style house about a mile from the airport in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital. The house was the headquarters of the contra press operation, and it was there that reporters had to seek permission to visit one of the base camps or go out with a patrol.
During the first four or five years of the war, a reporter who could learn the location of a contra camp could simply rent a car and drive there himself. The process was not without risks–Dial Torgerson of the Los Angeles Times and free-lance photographer Richard Cross were killed on their way to one of the camps when their car struck a Sandinista land mine intended for a contra supply truck–but no one tried to stop you.
But Honduran authorities–who always denied that the contras were in their territory–got tired of being shown up in the American press every day, and put up roadblocks on the few roads that led down to the border area. That made it nearly impossible to get in, although a few people managed. In 1986, Newsweek photographer Bill Gentile, his hair slicked back with a quart of Brylcreem and a huge pair of silver-lensed sunglasses wrapped around his face, told the border guards Soy de la Compania–I’m from the Company. They waved him through. In 1987, a jeep load of us got past the checkpoint by insisting we were going to visit a colony of gringo missionaries on the border. The Honduran commander let us pass, but he insisted we carry one of his men as an escort. The Honduran soldier was only 16 and utterly thrilled to be in the company of a bunch of American journalists who personally knew Madonna, a false impression that we gave him quite advertently. He chattered away, peppering us with questions about the seamy New York disco scene, until we passed a parked blue pickup truck full of armed men. “Look,” the soldier observed conversationally, “contras.”
The reporter at the wheel slammed on the brakes and we all grabbed our notebooks and headed for the truck. The soldier, suddenly aware that he had been had, shouted a fabulous oath in perfect American-accented English and sprinted ahead of us. By the time we got there, the armed men were insisting that they were Honduran soldiers, too, and no amount of pleading or cajolery could change their minds. We finally gave up and got back in our jeep.
Our soldier apologized. “I thought they were contras because that’s a contra truck they’re riding in,” he explained.
But the men were carrying Soviet-made AK-47 assault rifles, we pointed out, which the contras used and the Honduran army didn’t.
“Yes,” our soldier agreed, “they borrowed those guns from the contras.”
And the men had been wearing surplus U.S. Army uniforms, some with the insignia intact, rather than Honduran army fatigues, we said.
“Yes,” our soldier concurred, “our men often borrow uniforms from the contras.”
And the men had beards and mustaches, which are forbidden in the Honduran army, we noted.
“Yes,” our soldier nodded, “we learned that fashion from the contras.”
Tom Gjelten of National Public Radio stared at the soldier for a moment. “So,” Gjelten said with a sigh, “that was a contra truck, and those were contra guns, uniforms, and beards–but the men were Hondurans?”
Si, si, the soldier gurgled, ecstatic that we had finally comprehended. We turned around and headed back to the roadblock, and no matter how much the young soldier begged we wouldn’t tell him another single secret fact about Madonna’s sex life.
Once the border was closed, the only way to see contra troops was to get permission from the rebel press office. Every application for a trip had to clear half a dozen hurdles: The Honduran army could veto it, or the U.S. embassy, or contra military chief Enrique Bermudez, or the local commander at the base the reporter wanted to visit. And of course the contra press bureaucracy had to approve, too.
It was run by Adela Icaza, a former caterer who got the press job because she cooked a fabulous dinner for a summit conference of contra commanders and CIA officials. Everyone loved Adela, but her skills as a press secretary can be judged by the fact that she got an unlisted phone number because reporters were always calling her at home with questions about battles and stuff. Once, during a time the Honduran army had ordered no visits at all to the base camps, Adela let a French photographer go in anyway because he spoke Spanish with such a cute accent.
Adela’s job was also complicated by the fact that Bosco Matamoros, the oily former Somoza diplomat who was head of the U.S. press office, thought that it was a waste of the contras’ time to talk to Central America-based reporters. Bosco thought it was a better strategy to deal only with Washington correspondents. In 1987, the Associated Press wanted to send Reid Miller, its roving Central America reporter, out on a contra patrol. Miller had been covering the war for three years and had nearly been killed a couple years earlier when an assassin’s bomb went off at an Eden Pastora press conference in a contra camp in La Penca, Nicaragua. But Bosco kept vetoing the trip; he wanted an AP reporter from Washington to go. Finally the chief of the Mexico City AP bureau got Bosco on the phone. “Goddamnit Bosco,” the bureau chief shouted, “Reid Miller has shed his blood in Nicaragua, which is more than you’ll ever be able to say!” Miller finally got the patrol.
A reporter who was waiting for permission to make a trip with the contras would hole up at the Hotel Honduras Maya on a hilltop overlooking Tegucigalpa, and wait. The Maya, awash in conspiracy, always reminded me of Humphrey Bogart’s bar in Casablanca. It was like a giant anthill of diplomats, spooks, soldiers, mercenaries, and out-and-out nut cases. Every afternoon hordes of hookers materialized from the dying beams of sunlight and haunted the front entrance. Reporters bounced like pinballs between the bar, the coffee shop, the lobby, and the telex room, interviewing and eavesdropping and keeping an eye on their competitors.
The contras themselves always insisted that a reporter who was trying to go in with them not tell a soul. “Otherwise, all the other reporters will know we’re planning a trip, and they’ll all be over here asking to go, and then we’ll just have to cancel the trip and you’ll never get to go and your editors will probably be mad,” Adela explained to me cheerily one day. Nonetheless, you could always tell who was waiting for a trip. You could find them every morning in the Maya coffee shop, slumped against a wall, saucer-eyed and mildly psychotic from drinking coffee for five hours after getting up for a 4 AM summons from the contras that never materialized. At night they slumped at the end of the Maya bar, mumbling profoundly obscene threats against Adela and Bosco. They started out every day wired from anticipation and caffeine poisoning, and ended every evening morose and suicidal from having to call their editors again. (Since the contras always insisted the word could come at any moment, you were never supposed to leave the hotel, which meant you couldn’t work on any other stories, which meant you were running up thousands of dollars in expenses with nothing to show for it. It was a situation calculated to make editors homicidal.)
The vigil ended in one of two ways. Sometimes the reporter would vanish without a trace; no one would have seen him go, no hotel clerk would remember having checked him out. That meant the 4 AM summons had finally arrived, and the reporter would resurface in a few days or weeks.
Or, one morning the reporter would announce he was driving to the town of Danli to do a feature story on the cigar factory there. The man who owned the cigar factory loved American reporters, would always drop whatever he was doing to show them around, and–since he had given several thousand interviews since the start of the war–could deliver perfect quotes on cue. The cigar factory was a story that could always be done in one day, and that way when the reporter called his editor to say he was giving up on the contra visit after three weeks and $10,000 in expenses, he could make a peace offering of the cigar factory feature. The cigar factory was the reporters’ white flag of surrender, and it was hoisted many times.
Bond Girls, Nicaraguan-Style
The first thing intelligence officials tell you is that spying is nothing like James Bond–no glamour, no sexy babes, just a lot of hard, tedious work. But the Sandinistas seem to have been working from a different manual. In Nicaragua’s civil war, “pillow talk” acquired a new and sinister meaning.
The first time the Sandinistas linked sex and spying was when they were still guerrillas fighting the Somoza regime. A Sandinista agent named Nora Astorga lured one of Somoza’s generals to her bedroom, where he was tortured and killed. Astorga–who subsequently was at some pains to make it clear that the general was snuffed before sleeping with her–was later made Sandinista ambassador to the UN.
I don’t know if anti-Sandinista politics are linked to some kind of hormonal imbalance, but the contras, time and again, fell victim to the same ploy. Just a few months after the Sandinista victory in 1979, one of Somoza’s top military officers–Pablo Emilio Salazar, known as Comandante Bravo–was in Central America with several companions trying to organize the remnants of the Somoza national guard into a force that could challenge the Sandinistas. The other men didn’t want to go to Honduras, they didn’t think it was safe, but Bravo insisted. He wanted to see an old girlfriend from Managua who had promised to meet him there.
What Bravo didn’t know was that after he fled Nicaragua in the wake of the Sandinistas’ victory, his girlfriend had taken up with his archenemy: Eden Pastora, then still a Sandinista war hero and several years away from turning against the revolution. One night as she slept, Pastora prowled her house–and, tucked away at the back of an overstuffed closet, found a national guard uniform with Bravo’s name on it. The next day, whether through coercion or persuasion, she went to work for the Sandinistas.
So Bravo flew to Honduras, checked into the Hotel Istmania, and disappeared with a woman. They found him three days later in an empty house a few miles away, his body covered with cigarette burns, his genitals missing, and most of the skin of his face peeled away.
Later, Pastora himself became a fool for love. In 1983, after he began military operations against the Sandinistas, a young woman who called herself Nancy showed up at his headquarters in Costa Rica. Nancy was a slim, dark young woman who said she was willing to type, work the phones, anything. Pastora quickly installed her as his official mistress; she even traveled inside Nicaragua to base camps alongside him. She began to control his appointments: who Pastora would see, what favors he would grant, what initiatives he would undertake. “It was very feudal,” recalls one of his aides. It was not unusual for Pastora to have a mistress; he had 22 children by God-knows-how-many women. Even among Pastora’s men, steeped in Latin machismo, his behavior seemed excessive. Some of the men whispered that Pastora was trying to compensate for his diminutive genitalia, so small they were known to his troops as el frijole–the bean. Such was Pastora’s ego that he knew about the whispers, and was delighted.
But Nancy seemed to be different from the ordinary starry-eyed peasant girl Pastora usually shacked up with. Many of Pastora’s advisers began to suspect that she was really a Sandinista agent. Nancy was worming her way into too many things–like contra efforts to establish an internal front of saboteurs inside Managua, for instance–that were really none of her business. And much of her advice to Pastora seemed so bad, so disruptive, that it had to be calculated.
Finally a group of the men confronted Pastora. She’s a spy, they told him. You’ve got to get rid of her.
“No, no, you’re wrong,” Pastora insisted. “She was a spy. But since I have been making love to her, she has abandoned the Sandinistas.” Pastora had craftily deprogrammed her with his libidinous technique.
It seems that Pastora should have studied The Joy of Sex a little harder. A year later, Nancy flew back to Managua. Her real name was Marielos Serrano Guillen, and as so many of the men had suspected, she was a Sandinista state security agent. She told the Sandinistas what Pastora’s monthly CIA aid was, gave them the addresses of all his safe houses inside Nicaragua, turned over all his radio codes. She was the star witness at a series of spy trials.
And many of Pastora’s advisers wondered if she had managed to tip the Sandinistas off earlier about several contra operations that mysteriously failed–particularly a sabotage ring that the contras and the CIA had labored mightily to set up. The ring, which was equipped with an impressive arsenal of the CIA’s top-of-the-line espionage tools–firebombs, tape players, and megaphones to broadcast recorded firefights and panic neighborhoods, and even an FM radio transmitter that could break into government programming with a prerecorded Pastora speech–was busted without warning in February 1983.
There were other cases, too. The one that drove the CIA craziest was a contra base commander who stubbornly refused to believe that his girlfriend was a Sandinista spy. Even when the Americans showed him transcripts of phone taps on the Nicaraguan embassy in Tegucigalpa, where the woman was giving detailed descriptions of troop movements to Sandinista intelligence officers, the commander insisted there was some other explanation. Finally the CIA got the contras to transfer him up to El Salvador, where he worked with the private air-supply network being run by Richard Secord. But, unknown to the CIA, he took his girlfriend along. No one realized she was there until October 1986, when one of the supply planes was shot down and crew member Eugene Hasenfus captured. Nobody could understand how the Sandinistas got so much information out of Hasenfus so fast, until it was discovered that the woman had been providing them with material for months. This time the CIA got the commander transferred to Swan Island, the remote coral reef 150 miles offshore in the Caribbean where its supply planes were headquartered. At last word his girlfriend had not managed to swim out there. (The CIA itself was not immune, either; in 1987 a “boff report”–the report agency personnel are required to file every three months on their sexual partners–revealed that a Honduran counterintelligence officer was sleeping with a CIA secretary. His interest was believed to be more than carnal.)
Eventually the Sandinistas planted so many spies and saboteurs inside the contras that the CIA put a full-time polygraph operator at the main base camp. (No one seemed to think his effectiveness might be hindered by the fact that he didn’t speak Spanish.) It didn’t seem to do much good. Soon after the truth squad went to work, a saboteur at a rebel air base in Honduras managed to wreck a supply plane by dropping the cap of a ballpoint pen in the gas tank. After the plane took off, the cap lodged in the fuel line and cut off the flow of gas. The same saboteur released a horse onto a runway one night as a flight was returning. The resulting collision destroyed one of the plane’s propellers. It wasn’t very good for the horse, either.
When the CIA moved its supply flights out to Swan Island, the agency thought it was an ideal setup: no prying journalists or congressmen, no embarrassing incidents with Honduran peasants, no fear of Sandinista attack. (If the contras saw any ill omen in the fact that the island had been used in staging the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, they tactfully kept their mouths shut about it.) The CIA was not even fazed when the very first airplane to fly off the island failed to find its way back and had to ditch in the middle of the ocean. By mid-1986, Swan Island was home to about 150 contras, a Honduran army platoon, three or four CIA officers, a handful of Rhodesian pilots who flew the supply planes–and several thousand iguanas balefully surveying this invasion of their ancestral homeland.
But the CIA soon discovered that Swan Island had its own novel problem: dozens of bales of marijuana, dumped by drug smugglers, washed up on its beaches every week. Some of the contras found the marijuana a pleasurable diversion on an island with no television, radio, or bars. Then they began to imagine it might be profitable as well if they loaded it onto the supply flights for drop-off somewhere on the mainland. The CIA officers, horror-struck when they thought of the headlines that would result if one of their planes was caught unloading marijuana, had to organize antidope patrols.
My Lunch With Peter
It was a sunny January afternoon, and we decided to go to Tegucigalpa’s only French restaurant for lunch. I was a babbling wreck after getting up at 4 AM every day for three weeks, waiting for word from the contras about going on a patrol. Peter Bertie, a young Canadian free-lancer, was in better shape. He had only been waiting for two days.
At lunch we started talking about the contras’ terrible reputation as human rights abusers. I felt the accusations were wildly exaggerated, but there was no doubt that they did sometimes kill prisoners. And I also thought that their conservative allies–including my own newspaper’s editors–did the contras no favor by encouraging them to ignore the problem.
Bertie didn’t answer for a moment. “You know, I was out on a three-month patrol with them last year,” he finally said. “Near the end, we went into this little village that they had visited some time back. There were some people there that, they believed, had betrayed them to the Sandinistas. So they went around picking these people up; they were going to march them back to Honduras. At one of the base camps there’s a sort of jail where they put informers. I remember one of the people they picked up was a little girl, about 13, who was just the cutest thing. The peasant life beats the women down pretty early, but that girl was cute as a button.
“As we were leaving the village, we got word that the Sandinista army was coming. We hadn’t gone more than a couple of miles when they started firing mortars and those goddamn Stalin’s Organ rockets that they have. They obviously didn’t have our exact position, because everything was landing about half a mile away, but it was still a terrifying experience. The commander decided we would split into two groups and take different routes north. He set a rendezvous point 30 or 40 miles away, and we took off. The prisoners traveled with the other group.
“When we got there, I noticed the little peasant girl wasn’t with them. ‘What happened to that cute little girl?’ I asked one of the other men. ‘We killed her,’ he said. ‘You what?’ I said. ‘Oh, yeah, we cut her head off,’ he said. Just like that. We cut her head off.”
I guess I must have been a little pale, because Peter gave me an odd look.
“I didn’t feel too great about it, either,” he said. “But what else could they do? Should they have turned her loose? If you were out there, would you have wanted them to do that, knowing that she might be an informer, knowing that she might give you away to the Sandinistas? Would you have been willing to gamble your life for hers?”
The conversation died out after that, and we left the restaurant a few minutes later. I was supposed to have dinner with Peter the next day, but he didn’t show; his 4 AM summons had arrived, and he disappeared. Two months later, after a fierce firefight with a Sandinista army unit in Jinotega province, Peter was opening a bottle of Coke. From out of a cloudless blue sky, a Sandinista rocket tore his head off.
Faces in the Crowd
“Gringos are very strange people,” a contra politician told me confidentially one day after a fight with the State Department. I could see why he thought so. Meet a few of the gringos the contra army encountered along the way:
Hubert Humphreys, a Texas millionaire who owned a Holiday Inn in the Cayman Islands. Humphreys frequently donated money to the contras, and after a gift of $60,000 that came at a particularly critical time, he was invited to visit one of the camps in Honduras. There, with much pomp and circumstance, Humphreys was made an honorary colonel in the contra army.
A few hours later, an aide to contra commander Enrique Bermudez came in with an unusual request. He wanted to schedule a parade.
“A parade?” Bermudez said, annoyed. “What for? This is a guerrilla army.”
“Senor Humphreys just gave us another $15,000,” the aide said. “I thought we could promote him to general and have a parade in his honor.”
“Line ’em up,” Bermudez said.
Humphreys told friends he hoped that if the contras won, he would get the right to build a canal across Nicaragua. His fellow Texan millionaire Maco Stewart was less ambitious; he only wanted to float “war bonds” that would be redeemable later for some of Nicaragua’s tiny offshore islands.
Steve McAlister, the only gringo to actually join a contra unit. McAlister was a 26-year-old private in the U.S. Army when he saw a television documentary on the contras in 1985. When he had two weeks of leave the next year, he flew from his base in West Germany to Costa Rica and found his way to the contra office there. When he learned that a Sandinista offensive was under way, he wangled a ride to the Nicaraguan border, borrowed a rifle, and went inside to help. His unit was ambushed almost immediately, he was trapped inside, and his two weeks stretched into two months.
When McAlister finally returned from Nicaragua, he discovered his U.S. Army unit had been transferred back to Louisiana. He gaily traipsed into the base and told his officers what had happened. “Nicaragua? No kidding?” one of the officers said. “Whose side are we on there?” The news that McAlister had been fighting for the good guys only slightly mollified the officer. “Couldn’t you have called?” he complained.
The Army tossed McAlister in the stockade for three weeks, then discharged him. And he caught the next plane to Costa Rica and went right back to his contra unit, where he spent another seven months.
Peregrino, the contras called him–Pilgrim. The last time I heard from him was about a year ago. He was planning to go back again to the southern front, where, he assured me, the war was continuing, cease-fire or no.
John Hull, an old rancher from Indiana who became the chief liaison between the CIA and the contras in Costa Rica. Hull was at the center of a group of American farmers who owned land along Costa Rica’s remote northern border and lived out a story that was half John Wayne and half Don Knotts. They raced the border’s back roads in Jeep Cherokees, blasting away at iguanas and monkeys with their hunting rifles; they drank rum and danced with the local girls; and they hated the Sandinistas like hell its own self. Practically all of them let contras camp out on their land and use their little airstrips for resupply. One of them, a loopy Illinoisan named Jim Denby, even liked to take his plane across the border and buzz so low over Sandinista gun emplacements that he could spit on them. (That kind of came to a halt after the Sandinistas shot him down in 1987.)
Hull was much less of a nutball than most of them, and the CIA station chief started coming around more and more often. Eventually, for all intents and purposes, Hull was the CIA up on the border. The American left has accused him, in that capacity, of just about everything short of the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa. We can’t kill a whole forest’s worth of newsprint to go into that just now, but it’s worth noting that John Hull prevented the most harebrained stunt ever devised by the contras and coincidentally probably saved the lives of a whole bunch of people he personally despised, namely liberals and reporters.
In 1983, Eden Pastora decided he wanted to bomb Managua, using one of the little twin-engine Cessnas the CIA had supplied him with. This would be like “30 seconds over Tokyo,” the famous American bomber raid on Tokyo in the early days of World War II that served notice that, even in a weakened state, the Americans could bring the war directly to Japan. Not only would a raid on Managua garner incredible international publicity, but the Sandinistas wouldn’t be able to keep it a secret from ordinary Nicaraguans by censoring the news as they nearly always did. Everyone in Managua would see that the contras were real.
The target: the Bunker–the old Somoza headquarters complex in the middle of Managua that was now the nerve center of the Sandinista army. Because most of the buildings were heavily reinforced, Pastora insisted that the little Cessna carry a 500-pound bomb.
The pilot who drew the assignment for the mission was worried. The Bunker, he suspected, would be protected by heavy concentrations of antiaircraft guns, and the heavy bomb would make the plane slow and unmaneuverable as it approached. But he knew better than to argue with the mercurial Pastora. Instead he went to see his old friend Hull, who agreed it was a stupid idea. “I saw a report on Managua air defenses last week,” Hull told the pilot. “You’re right–the Bunker is ringed with Soviet guns, the kind that lock onto a target with radar. You’ll never even get close.”
The pilot was downcast. He didn’t want to look like a coward, but he also didn’t want to fly a certain suicide mission.
“Look, tell Pastora you think it’s a great idea,” suggested Hull–who, privately, thought Pastora was a blowhard fool. “But tell him the propaganda value will be a lot better if he flies along with you. Think of the headlines: ‘Commander Zero personally bombs Managua.’ Maybe he’ll think twice if he’s going along.”
What neither Hull, the pilot, Pastora, nor anyone else considered was that the Bunker was located less than 100 yards from the Inter-Continental Hotel, where nearly every foreign journalist and visiting political dignitary–including American congressmen, who regardless of ideological orientation hovered around Nicaragua like a flock of political vultures–stayed during visits to Managua. Depending on how hot the news was in Nicaragua on a given day, there might be anywhere from a half dozen to a couple hundred media and political celebrities housed at the Inter-Con; NBC and CBS News even maintained bureaus there. A 500-pound bomb that landed squarely on the Bunker would still do serious damage to the Inter-Con–and if the bomb missed the Bunker by a few yards, the carnage would be mind-boggling.
When Pastora heard the pilot’s idea, he canceled the mission.
Everybody Has His Own Gringo
The weirdly incestuous relationship between the U.S. government and contra politicians led to a bizarre method of settling political arguments. In arguing about a particular operation, one contra might say: “Well, the CIA says . . .” And from across the table another might retort: “So what? The State Department thinks . . .” Contra politician Aristides Sanchez refined this technique to its highest point when he got a CIA officer on the speaker phone right in the middle of a meeting over whether the contras should name a new military commander. The CIA man settled the dispute on the spot: The contra who was proposing a change was “an imbecile,” he shouted. Case closed. The contras even had a saying about this form of argument–everybody has his own gringo.
This could lead to some complicated problems for the gringos, too. In the dying hours of the Reagan administration, I went up to Elliott Abrams’s suite of offices on the sixth floor of the State Department to see if there were any last-second conspiracies afoot. One of Abrams’s assistants was screaming incoherently into a phone. When he finally slammed it down, he explained that he was settling a dispute between four contra leaders: Adolfo Calero, Alfredo Cesar, Enrique Bermudez, and Aristides Sanchez.
“You know what I’m doing today?” he asked. “I’m trying to find tickets to an inaugural ball for Sanchez, Cesar, and Bermudez. You know why? Because that fucking Calero got tickets from Jack Kemp, and then he ran down to Miami and started prancing around, waving them under everyone’s nose: ‘I got tickets because I’m the one that really counts.’ Now I have to find three more sets or it will be a major political incident . . . over a goddamn fucking ticket to an inaugural ball.”
Footnote: When Aristides Sanchez walked by, some of the other contras would whisper, “There goes the most expensive butt in the whole contra movement.” It seems he once billed the contra organization $4,000 for a bee sting on his rear end suffered during a visit to one of the border camps.
Warning: Claymore Mines May Be Hazardous to Your Health
It drove the Americans wild when the contras wouldn’t take their “advice.” One State Department honcho was fond of saying that the contras “are strongly in need of adult supervision.”
In practice that could sometimes seem like supervision by an old-maid schoolmarm. In 1986, State Department auditors told the contra logistical chiefs that they could not use so-called nonlethal aid to buy suspenders for the troops. The befuddled contras asked why not.
“Because they could be used to clip ammunition and hand grenades to,” one of the State Department men replied primly.
“They could also be used to keep our pants from falling down in the middle of a battle,” a contra retorted, to no avail.
The State Department also told the contras that no more American money could be spent on cigarettes for the men. It was a filthy unhygienic habit that was bad for their health.
“I wonder,” one of the contras mused as he told me about the conversation, “if it will occur to them to warn us that setting ambushes and attacking Sandinista military bases is also a dangerous practice which could lead to acute lead poisoning.”
And, oh yes, the State Department also cut off money for matches. If the contras weren’t going to be lighting cigarettes, State reasoned, they didn’t need matches. Of course, they wouldn’t be lighting cooking fires either.
Good Times, Bad Times
Even in the early days, the Washington Times was never short of cockeyed stories. My favorite was a series we ran in 1983 offering the startling news that Japanese-Americans actually liked being penned up in concentration camps during World War II.
But the ante was significantly upped when the Times hired Arnaud de Borchgrave as editor. De Borchgrave was a diminutive Belgian–of royal lineage, he claimed–who had worked as a foreign correspondent for Newsweek for years, until he discovered it was riddled with KGB agents and escaped. The Tiny Count, other correspondents called him. Within days of his arrival at the Washington Times, dozens of yellow five-by-seven index cards, each one attached to a newspaper clipping and covered with scrawled threats and demands, began fluttering down to the newsroom floor from Arnaud’s grandiose mezzanine office. We called them “yellow rain,” after the substance that Afghan guerrillas claim falls from their sky and makes them ill. Scientists and diplomats argue vehemently about whether yellow rain is some poisonous Soviet chemical weapon, or merely bee feces. At the Washington Times, we figured that either way the name fit de Borchgrave’s notes.
De Borchgrave was hired in 1985, while I was visiting Central America. I didn’t meet him until several weeks later when I came back to Washington. My first encounter with him was indirect; another Times reporter walked over with some gruesome photos from the new issue of Newsweek. The captions said they depicted a contra patrol forcing a Sandinista informer to dig his own grave, and then cutting his throat.
“Arnaud wants to run a story tomorrow saying these photos are obviously fakes,” the reporter said. “He says you’ll confirm that those aren’t contra uniforms.”
“Actually, they are contra uniforms,” I said. (In those days, the contras wore distinctive aquamarine uniforms that they purchased, no kidding, out of the Sears catalog.)
“Well, you go tell him that,” the reporter said, and stalked away. I sensed the new management was going to be a little different.
But I couldn’t have imagined how different. A few weeks before I was supposed to open a bureau in Costa Rica, de Borchgrave ran a front-page editorial announcing that the Washington Times was creating the Nicaraguan Freedom Fund for donations to the contras, and the paper itself would contribute $100,000. (Later, when the Iran-contra scandal unfolded, we discovered that just six weeks before that editorial, Oliver North had written a memo to Robert McFarlane saying that he was about to create a Nicaraguan Freedom Fund for private contributions to the contras. De Borchgrave says this is nothing more than a fantastic coincidence.) Reporters quickly began circulating a petition around the newsroom, protesting the donation; de Borchgrave declared he would fire anyone who signed it. When he discovered there were more than 50 signatures, he decided he would just refuse to accept it.
I suppose I should have my head examined for going on to Costa Rica after de Borchgrave’s editorial, but somehow I convinced myself that it was nothing more than an egregious lapse of judgment that wouldn’t be repeated. Actually, it was anything but isolated. The longer I was in Central America, the more evidence I accumulated that the Washington Times was intimately involved with the contras. One day a contra official, quite casually, told me that Bo Hi Pak–Reverend Moon’s right-hand man and the president of the company that publishes the Times–made a secret trip to Honduras in 1983 to meet contra military commander Enrique Bermudez. Pak offered the contras financial support, but Bermudez turned him down. Hilariously, the contras were worried that their image would be damaged if they were publicly linked to the Washington Times and the Unification Church.
“Pak took it very well,” the contra official recalled, “and he said: ‘Well, how can I help?’ We told him we needed help with the press. So he said he would bring in a tour of journalists from around the world. And he did, just a couple of months later. They came from Europe and Africa and everywhere.” The Moon-backed World Media Association did indeed take hundreds of journalists on a junket through Central America in the spring of 1983; in Honduras, on their way to visit a refugee camp, the entourage had an “accidental” encounter with the contras.
Obviously editors who were underwriting the contras had no interest in undercutting them in print. Any story I filed containing even implied criticism was spiked. When my stories appeared in the paper sometimes editors substituted the term “freedom fighter” for “contra” or “rebel.” I once wrote a story saying that anti-Sandinista politicians in Nicaragua felt the contras had failed to establish a political context for the war (a criticism, incidentally, that many contra leaders accepted as valid). De Borchgrave spiked it on the grounds that I had naively assumed I could find out what Nicaraguans thought merely by asking them. I should go to a better source, he said: the U.S. embassy.
As angry as I got over the stories de Borchgrave killed, they were the least of my problems. What he printed was much worse. One of the Honduran radio stations has a correspondent in Washington who, every morning, calls Tegucigalpa and reads over the air all the news stories about Central America from the Washington papers. One morning in December 1986 I tuned in expecting to hear him read my scoop from that morning’s Washington Times. I had learned of a secret meeting between the president of Honduras, the U.S. ambassador, and a top CIA official. The Honduran president had told the Americans he wanted all the contras out of his country by April.
What I heard instead was: “Glenn Garvin of the Washington Times has written a very interesting story about a secret deal between the Democratic Senator Christopher Dodd and the Sandinista government to destroy U.S. foreign policy in Central America.” I nearly fainted. I hadn’t written any such thing; but Arnaud de Borchgrave had, and printed it under my byline. (The story about the meeting in Honduras, on the other hand, was cut to a few paragraphs.)
How ridiculous did it get? In 1987, Holger Jensen–one of several foreign editors that de Borchgrave has ground into dust–left a frantic message at my hotel in Honduras. When I called him back he asked, “Can you do a story on the contras and human rights in the next 48 hours? Arnaud’s out of town.”
The Garcia Family
I used to hear contras talk about the Garcia family all the time. They seemed to be one of the most powerful, and sinister, families in Nicaragua. So many of the conversations began, Los maldito Garcia . . . those damned Garcias. Finally one afternoon a slightly drunken contra official told me his wife had just left him for a Garcia.
“Who are these Garcias?” I demanded. “And why haven’t I ever met one?”
“You really don’t know?” the contra said in astonishment. “What are the last three letters of Garcia?”
That’s how I learned that “Garcia family” was contraspeak for the CIA, an innocent phrase that could be shouted in drunken anger at a Tegucigalpa bar (and was, often) without panicking everyone in the room. The contras talked about the CIA quite a lot, and so did the Sandinistas. In Latin America, the CIA enjoys a reputation that is simultaneously heinous and awesome. The Garcias are believed to be mighty, nearly divine allies and implacable, almost ubiquitous, enemies.
The truth, of course, was something less. The CIA didn’t know everything, as one of its own officers reported breathlessly to the Tegucigalpa station one day in 1986. He had been out delivering supplies to a refugee camp in the Mosquitia, a vast and virtually unmapped area in southeast Honduras inhabited mainly by Indians. As he was handing out blankets, the CIA man was startled to hear the eerie whump of mortar shells nearby. What’s going on here? he wondered. We don’t have any training camps around here. He walked into a nearby clearing, where he was set upon by half a dozen little men smiling broadly and chanting something–apparently friendly–in incomprehensible singsong Spanish. One of Japan’s little right-wing parties, it seemed, had sent a team of mercenaries halfway round the world to train contras.
That bit of information, fascinating though it was, paled beside the discovery of a CIA officer from Washington who was assigned temporary duty in Tegucigalpa in the early years of the war. He arrived on a Friday, and after several hours of briefings a couple of the other Garcias invited him out for a beer. “There’s this really terrific bar down the street,” one of the men explained. “You’re not going to believe this place–it’s full of beautiful women, really great-looking, but there are never any men there except us.” The visiting officer was pleased; what had looked like a grimy assignment in a drab backwater country was starting to sound good. With the other men, he bellied up to the bar and ordered a Port Royal, then turned around to check out the chicks. He promptly spit his beer on the floor. The women, every single one of them, were drag queens.
That’s what the contras called him. He wasn’t really a colonel, but the contras liked to give the CIA men ranks for some reason. Jaime’s predecessor had been a colonel, so he was a colonel too.
Jaime’s real name was Jim Adkins. He was a veteran of the CIA’s secret war in Laos, where he lived in a hut a grenade’s throw from the North Vietnamese border. For months at a time, he saw no one but the primitive Hmong tribesmen that he was supposed to mold into a modern army. Adkins didn’t mind that, but he hated all the rules and regulations that headquarters kept devising in an attempt to placate a hostile Congress. In the end, trying to play by the congressional rules didn’t do any good, anyway; the American advisers flew home, and the Hmong stayed there to pay the piper. Never again, Adkins decided, and when the CIA first asked him to go to Nicaragua in 1983 as chief liaison to the contras, he refused. When the agency kept after him about it, Adkins ran away. He even left the CIA’s Latin American division altogether trying to avoid Nicaragua, but finally his superiors gave him a direct order. An old friend in the counterterrorism division, where Adkins was working, walked in one day in September 1985 to find him emptying his desk. “Where are you going?” the friend asked in surprise. “To Central America,” Adkins answered. “To be the next sacrificial lamb.”
When he got to Honduras, Adkins was confronted with a confusing and often contradictory set of rules of engagement that seemed to have been designed by some bureaucratic Dali. In Washington, Congress and the Reagan administration were using the contra program as a club to beat each other senseless; it was the CIA officers on the ground in Honduras who had to make some sense out of the debris.
So a CIA officer could fly out to the Nicaraguan border and count refugees who were dying of dysentery or from gangrene that set in after their toes were blown off by Sandinista land mines. That was OK, that was gathering intelligence. But he couldn’t load the helicopter with food or medicine, or carry any of the dying refugees back to hospitals; that would be active participation in the war. If a contra unit was planning to attack a target and asked if there were a machine-gun nest next to it, the CIA officer could confirm that. That was intelligence-sharing. But he couldn’t tell them that there was also a rocket-launcher there, not unless they asked. That would be taking the initiative.
But, it seemed to the CIA officers, all these rules could be suspended if someone in Congress wanted a favor. In the summer of 1986, militant American Indian activist Russell Means, on a tour inside Nicaragua with Indian contras, was trapped by a Sandinista offensive. A cable from CIA headquarters arrived in Tegucigalpa: plan a rescue mission to get Means out. The CIA men were dumbfounded. They weren’t allowed to evacuate wounded contras from Nicaragua–they weren’t allowed to evacuate dying refugee babies from Nicaragua–but they were supposed to send helicopters deep inside, right into the middle of a combat zone, to rescue a burned-out 70s radical. Damn right, headquarters said, he has friends in Congress. After an exchange of vicious cables, Adkins and his staff prepared a rescue plan. Two helicopters would fly halfway down Nicaragua’s Atlantic coast. The distance was so great that the CIA would have to sneak a refueling team into Nicaragua by sea. The plan would work, Adkins thought, but there was a good chance that some CIA people would die in the process. But just as they were about to launch the operation, Means got out by himself.
Adkins tried to live with the rules for a while. But, he told the other officers, he couldn’t sleep at night; he kept seeing the faces of the starving refugees he met during his visits to the border–refugees who had walked for weeks after hearing that the Americans were dispensing $24 million worth of humanitarian aid. Thousands of them were arriving at San Andres de Bocay, a cluster of huts in eastern Honduras that was separated from the country’s interior by mountains and dense jungle that would take a month to cross on foot.
So Adkins began to break the rules. When a CIA officer went to San Andres de Bocay, his helicopter was loaded with food. When he flew back out, the helicopter was loaded with refugees. Sometimes, if the officer was going to be on the ground at the border for several hours, the helicopter would spend the time shuttling back and forth on the same cycle: food in, people out. Once, Adkins sent a helicopter to a contra camp when there was no real need for a CIA visit. The illicit cargo: measles vaccine. During his last trip, Adkins had seen four dozen tiny graves in a clearing where the refugee women were burying their babies.
And once there was a load of weapons and ammo. It was in November 1986, when–after a two-year cutoff–U.S. military aid had started to flow to the contras again. Thousands of them, newly equipped, were heading back to Nicaragua to fight. And congressional delegations were shuttling in to the headquarters at Yamales, Honduras, on a daily basis. The Sandinistas were infiltrating troops into the area, and Adkins could listen to their radio conversations as they tried to get one of the CIA helicopters full of congressmen in the sights of their surface-to-air missiles. He cabled headquarters to stop the congressional visits. Headquarters answered that the visits would continue, and the contras should send out patrols to ensure the safety of the congressmen.
Adkins went to visit Enrique Bermudez, the contra commander. “I need you to send out patrols,” he said.
“You told us to concentrate on infiltration,” Bermudez protested. “You told us you didn’t even want us to keep this base.”
“Look, Enrique, you gotta do it,” Adkins said wearily.
Bermudez smacked a table angrily. “If you want it done, you give us help,” he said. “You’ve got to supply the patrols by helicopter. We’ve got enough problems supplying the men who are going back to Nicaragua.”
So Adkins broke the rules again. A few weeks later, the Iran-contra scandal broke, and there were investigators all over the place. They found out about the refugee supply flights, and the measles vaccine, and the patrols. And five days before Christmas 1987, after two decades in the CIA–after winning medals not only for espionage but for saving the life of an American ambassador–Jim Adkins was fired.
Somehow, despite all the media firepower concentrated on the Iran-contra scandal, the case of Jim Adkins never really became well-known. He wasn’t called to testify to any of the congressional committees, he never talked to reporters, and he hasn’t hit the lecture circuit. But he does keep in touch with some of the people he knew in Honduras: contras, State Department officials, the other CIA men. Recently he was having lunch with one of them, and the visitor asked if Adkins had any regrets.
“Just one,” Adkins replied. “I regret doing anything at all to contribute to the security of those sons of bitches in Congress. My advice to any future Agency officer is to let them die.” His tone softened. “The rest of it was just saving lives.”
Now the contras are flooding into Miami. I see them at McDonald’s, I see them at the shopping malls. They live in my neighborhood. Arturo Cruz Jr., who somehow managed to be both the leading political theorist and the leading playboy of the movement at the same time, lives a few streets away. He called me one morning to complain that there are still liberals living on his block.
“What we need are more Cubans in the neighborhood,” Arturo brooded. “Anglo-Saxon liberals are such fools, I can’t bear it. I’m beginning to wonder how you people ever built this country.”
I laughed. Arturo has charmed, during his various past lives, the Sandinista foreign ministry, Cuban intelligence, the National Security Council, and Fawn Hall. Any day now, I imagine, he will take over either a television ministry or an Amway distributorship.
But for others, exile will not be so easy. Encarnacion Baldivia, once known as Comandante Tigrillo, who recruited hundreds of contra soldiers before his kneecap was shot away, lives here now too. Baldivia was born in a remote village in Jinotega province, and never expected anything but to live out his life on the acre or so of coffee plants he farmed. Now he wanders aimlessly along the vast concrete expanses of the city. Recently, on a visit to McDonald’s, he wondered aloud why he couldn’t get rice or beans.
One night I had dinner with Enrique Bermudez. He lives in a very ordinary middle-class home in Kendall, an inexpensive suburb south of Miami. As he and his wife puttered about the kitchen, setting the table, I wondered what 57-year-old ex-guerrilla commanders do when their wars are over. But I didn’t say anything.
After dinner Enrique popped a tape into his VCR, and there, big as life, was William Casey, the master spook. Contra home movies, shot in happier days in November 1986, when Casey visited the contra camp at Yamales. “It’s a great privilege for me and my country and President Reagan to stand side by side with you in this struggle,” he shouts from a makeshift reviewing stand. The troops roar back. With the gringos on their side, how can they lose?
The tape jiggled and went black, and Enrique snapped off the machine. Elsa watched as he carefully replaced the cartridge tape in its box. “I love to watch that tape, Ricky,” she said. “We were winning then.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Sue Mullin, illustrations/Michael Reidy.