A DEFECTOR IN PLACE: The Strange and Terrible Saga of a Green Beret Sandinista – Part Three

Editors Note: Be sure to read Part One and Part Two of “A Defector in Place: The Strange and Terrible Saga of a Green Beret Sandinista” if you haven’t done so already.

By Greg Walker (ret)
USA Special Forces

"Cry 'Havoc,' and let slip the dogs of war;

That this foul deed shall smell above the earth With carrion men, groaning for burial.” – Julius Caesar, 1601

On July 27, 1983, Comandante Reyes Mata gave Lieutenant “Justo Martinez” a large sum of Honduran lempiras “to purchase mules, supplies, and, especially, food”. Lt. Martinez and several other guerrillas left the base camp at Congolon for the closest town, Nueva Palestina, a three to four-day hike through the jungle on foot. It was a two-fold mission. Martinez was to establish the FAP’s presence in the town, linking it with Congolon. A similar link would then be made with Tegucigalpa, the country’s capitol city. Once accomplished the FAP’s “Internal Front” would become a reality. “We have vested in it our hope for survival,” wrote Reyes Mata in his war diary.

Lieutenant Martinez was given three days to reach Nueva Palestina, two days to accomplish their tasks, and three days to return to base camp. On July 30th, Combatant “Marvin” deserted the base camp. Leaving his weapons and equipment the guerrilla took only his watch and blanket with him as he headed back toward the Patuca River. A three-man team sent to take him into custody could not catch the fleeing Honduran. “Marvin” was the first of what would become a relentless tide of desertions over the next six weeks.

On the morning of August 2nd, “Miguel”, “Mairena”, and “Renecito” had slipped away taking their weapons and equipment. This to discourage any pursuit by the FAP. Unknown to Reyes Mata was that two deserters had reached the town of Catacamas and turned themselves in to the FUSEP, or National Police. They shared all they knew with the police, who in turn notified the Honduran Army. General Gustavo Alvarez, head of the Armed Forces, was furious and with good reason.

On July 19th, in Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega had proposed a six-point peace plan with Honduras tied to the Contra war. Now, General Alvarez was learning that on this very same date with the support and blessings of the Cubans and Sandinistas, a heavily armed and well-trained Marxist column had crossed the Coco River. Further, it was led by Dr. Jose Reyes Mata and with two Nicaraguan combat advisers with him. It was a betrayal the general would not abide.

“Those” included not only Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua but Fidel Castro in Cuba. Castro provided a year’s training for the new guerrilla army in 1982 at the Cuban Army’s Special Troops training base at Pinar del Rio, located just 90 minutes from Havana’s Jose Marti Airport.

By now, the 96-person column–brought back from Cuba in ones and twos–was assembled in a safe compound outside of Managua. Security conditions were strict. No leaving the compound, no female visitors, no contact with families, and no money. Individuals who deserted were captured and immediately put into a Sandinista prison. Reyes Mata didn’t see this red flag for what it was: the unhappiness and dissatisfaction of some people who didn’t “volunteer” to be guerrillas in his revolution but rather press-ganged into the movement with promises of civilian occupation training in either Managua or Havana.

Reyes Mata’s recruiting efforts occurred in Honduras’ Olancho province by local Revolutionary Party of the Central American Workers (PRTC) Honduran agents, as well as “guerrilla priests,” many of these Jesuits. In a 1984 Miami Herald story (“Deserters Say Foreigners Fight for the Sandinistas”, Guy Gugliotta), Arnulfo Montoya Madariaga, then 35, described his recruitment in 1981. A campesino with a plot of land and seven children, he was recruited by “a French priest at his farm outside Danlí in southern Honduras.”

By September 21, 1983, 23 FAP combatants deserted, were captured, or turned themselves in to Honduran forces. The first desertion took place within two weeks of the FAP July crossing the Coco River in platoon-size elements. By the end of August, deserters provided the Hondurans and Americans with detailed descriptions regarding the platoons, personnel, leadership, weapons, communications, and the logistical support for the column. “Disgruntled employees” and empty stomachs marked the beginning of the end for Baez & Company

Honduras is “peaceful and friendly”

The FAP was combat-ready. The column’s members were broken down into smaller groups of combatants and farmed out to the IWB of the EPS for another six months of fight training the Contras. On January 11, 1983, FAP commanders “LaPorta” and “Marcos” gave detailed reports about ambushing “an entire enemy company, which in its confused flight, left behind weapons, supplies, and a large quantity of rations.” The FAP continued working alongside the EPS until final preparations began for their infiltration into Honduras in mid-July.

“Before leaving, I explained to everyone that our movement must not be noticed by the enemy, and that secrecy, precaution, silence, and initiative would be our principal weapons…based on the information obtained from the enemy which I checked, they were waiting for us, to liquidate us and the daring plan for a march, flanked by enemy [Contra] camps. Everything seemed uncertain.” – from the captured war diary of Dr. José Reyes Mata (Comandante Pablo Mendoza), July 15, 1983.