A DEFECTOR IN PLACE: The Strange and Terrible Saga of a Green Beret Sandinista – Part Three
By Greg Walker (ret)
USA Special Forces
"Cry 'Havoc,' and let slip the dogs of war;
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.
On August 4th, the Honduran Army arrived in Nueva Palestina and established its forward operating base (FOB). Lieutenant Justo Martinez and his resupply team had just arrived, as well. In his diary entry of August 6th, Reyes Mata offers “…we complete 10 days without food…We are all waiting anxiously for him…”. Two days earlier Reyes Mata had personally executed Combatant “El Paisa”, whose true name was Juan Ortiz. Ortiz was accused of planning to assassinate Reyes Mata and inciting those who had deserted to have done so. A swift jungle trial was held, and Ortiz killed in front of all those other guerrillas present. The execution did not stop the desertions. In fact, they would increase with those surrendering providing even more information about the FAP.
By now the column had lost six of its original 96 members to desertion, capture, and execution. Still, Reyes Mena believed he had won a “great political victory”. He’d also lost four M16s, 2 grenades, and roughly 1500 rounds of ammunition and yet the FAP had not engaged in a single armed engagement.
In an August 30th U.S. Department of Defense message to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, provided by the Honduran G-2 and U.S. Defense Attaché, a nine-page report gave the names and position of each guerrilla in the column. In addition, the commanders, sub-commanders, and political officers for each of the four platoons were identified. The true names and alias of the deserters to date and the members of the FAP support staff to include “Comandante Adolfo”, or David Arturo Baez Cruz and “Gregorio” were noted; Finally, the battle plan for the column was revealed as it sought to open separate fronts in Honduras.
The deserters had described radio communications capable of reaching Nicaragua and “other countries”. Deserter Enoc Benigno told his interrogators the radio had to be used with a dipole antenna put as high as possible in a tree “for better signal propagation.” One power source was a car battery and the other a portable generator operated by a mechanical pedal. Comandante “Fidel”, leader of the Third Platoon, held all the codes and frequencies. As he had forgotten to pack an extra battery the generator had become the sole source of power for communications. Communication security was poor. Transmissions were daily and always occurred at 0900 and 1600 Hours and were 30 minutes each in duration.
In short order the Honduran Military, working in concert with the U.S. Military and the CIA, began intercepting guerrilla radio traffic. Using the U.S. operated clandestine radio communications intercept sites atop Tiger Island in the nearby Gulf of Fonseca, and another located inland between San Lorenzo and Tegucigalpa, General Alvarez’s Special Forces task force begin placing blocking forces from Honduran infantry units at key trailheads, villages, towns, and roadways in Olancho Province. Major Leonel Luque was assigned by General Alvarez as the task force commander. Leonel Luque possessed a Military Police background and had attended the School of the Americas in Panama. He was also an important liaison with the Contra effort on the Honduran border and known for his ruthlessness in dealing with subversives.
Reyes Mata allowed for just eight days for Justo Martinez to return to Congolon with supplies. The situation at the base camp was deteriorating swiftly. Listening to their own radio the guerrillas discovered they’d been compromised by the deserters and the Army’s response. Reyes Mata ordered the camp struck and the column split in two. His group would remain in the Nueva Palestina area, the other group now commanded by Comandante Serapio Romero (Frente Oriental) would begin its trek to the Catacamas Mountains. “Gregorio” would travel with this group. “Adolfo”/Baez would remain with Reyes Mata and combatant James “Lupe” Carney. Serapio’s unit departed 48-hours before Reyes Mata. Serapio would bivouac at a pre-determined location and allow the slower moving Reyes Mata to catch up before they parted for good. It was determined the FAP would not return to Nicaragua. It would remain in pursuit of its mission to wage war in Honduras.
As the starving band started down the trail, they were joined by combatant Raul Felipe Calix. “[He] appeared, completely beaten, but all right,” wrote Reyes Mata. “They had left him alive.” Although his diary does not identify the other guerrillas that were with LT Martinez it is reasonable to presume Felipe Calix was one of these. And had managed to escape the Army in Nueva Palestina to warn the FAP they were being hunted.
Rangers Lead the Way!
“…the U.S. Southern Command admits 150 American troops, most of them Army Rangers from Fort Lewis, Washington, were parachuted in Olancho on August 5th. They stayed until August 16, engaging in what the Pentagon called ‘a simulated counter-insurgency operation’ with Honduran forces. August 5th was the day after the Honduran Army’s Patuca Task Force arrived in Olancho on its real counter-insurgency mission.” – The Nation, “The Mysterious Death of Fr. Carney,” August 4-11, 1984
The Honduran Special Forces Squadron was originally trained in La Venta, Honduras, by a U.S. Special Forces operational detachment from the 3/7th SFG(A) then stationed in Panama. La Venta, roughly twenty miles from Tegucigalpa, was the headquarters for both the “TIGERS” squadron as well as the COBRAS. The COBRAS were trained by a separate 40-man mobile training team recruited at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Both efforts took place in 1982. The Green Berets responsible for the COBRAS grew their hair out, wore civilian clothing, and arrived in Honduras completely “sterile”. Meaning no dog tags or any other U.S. military identification (the same precautions David Baez had used before crossing the Coco River with the FAP).
Both the Tigers and the Cobras were trained in counter-insurgency, counter-terrorist and unconventional warfare strategies, tactics, and techniques. These included sniper employment, special weapons, hand to hand combat, raids, ambushes, the clearing of airplanes and buildings, and Intelligence collection/assessment. At times individual instructors with unique specialty skills such as photography and demolitions were brought in. Both MTTs delivered a well-trained 120-man Honduran Special Forces squadron owned by the Army and a 40-man Urban Operations Command, or Hostage Rescue Force (HRF) that fell under FUSEP. Both these elite units were under the direct command of General Gustavo Alvarez, Chief of the Armed Forces.
Working in conjunction with the Tigers and Cobras were the military intelligence teams of Battalion 316. B-316 was the direct result of General Alvarez’s long time professional and personal relationships with the military in Argentina. That country’s armed forces had been conducting a “dirty war” against communist influence and objectives for over five years. The larger operation began in 1976 and was a collaboration between Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, and Paraguay. CONDOR allowed for extra ordinary cross border cooperation between Intelligence services and special units. Kidnapping, torture, assassination, and “disappearing” suspects by dropping their sometimes still living but most often dead corpses from fixed and rotary wing aircraft was sanctioned.
The United States under both President Carter (1977-1981) and Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) were fully aware of CONDOR and both encouraged and resourced it. An August 1976 cable to the State Department from U.S. diplomats in Latin America raised early and grave concerns regarding CONDOR being far more than simply intelligence gathering and sharing (Figure 1). Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was at first cautious in his response, but within days sent the subtle message that no further oppositional action was to be taken regarding CONDOR and its goals/objectives by U.S. State (Figure 2).
Although CONDOR was officially shut down in Argentina and that country’s direct support of subject matter experts in interrogation, torture, and assassination withdrawn from supporting U.S. efforts in Central America, the over-arching years of collaboration and financial support as managed by the Central Intelligence Agency to its allies in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala had created units such as Battalion 316, a mirror image of its parent, Battalion 601, in Argentina.
Operation CONDOR, as was formally known as, was supported by U.S. assets and resources. The end game was the destruction of any and all suspected or proven communist movements in both the southern cone (South America) and Central American countries. CONDOR grew out of Cuba’s continued and blatant efforts to destabilize Latin America, with Che in Bolivia (and a concurrent Cuban sponsored effort in Argentina at the same time) the basis for such a program. When Nicaragua fell to the Internationalist Marxist revolutionaries under the Sandinista banner, and although by 1982/1983 Operation CONDOR was being shut down and war crimes trials for its creators and participants on the horizon, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala imported CONDOR veterans and their techniques to counter the myriad of Marxist armed groups such as the FMLN, FSLN, and PRTC.
In all fairness the Sandinistas, finding themselves facing the Contras with their U.S. backing, likewise employed former CONDOR specialists for the same if not opposing ideological purposes
Alvarez wanted his own counter-part unit to Argentina’s feared Battalion 601. And he got it. The 316 Military Intelligence Battalion’s commander reported directly to Alvarez, and was on the same command wiring diagram as the Special Forces Squadron and COBRAS. B-316 oversaw or ran counter-intelligence operations, covert and clandestine operations, domestic and foreign operations, electronic and “other” surveillance efforts. It also had a hand in Psychological Operations although those were run by a separate unit. The “iron fist” for B-316 were the Tigers and the Cobras. When the FAP crossed the Coco River and was discovered, as well as Daniel Ortega’s diplomatic treachery, the stage was set for all three units to be put to the test…and with U.S. knowledge, support, assets, and resources.
“The Argentines came in first, and they taught how to disappear people. The United States made them more efficient. The Americans…brought the equipment. They gave the training in the United States, and they brought agents here to provide some training in Honduras. They taught us interrogation techniques.” – Lt. Oscar Alvarez, Honduran Special Forces, nephew of General Gustavo Alvarez
“In accordance with the International Rules of Land Warfare, had [the FAP] established a shadow government, held a piece of territory and governed it, wore uniforms and had an established legal system, they would have received protection under the Geneva Convention. Reyes Mata would have known this.” – MSG (ret) Leamon Ratterree, 3/7thSpecial Forces Group (A)r
Reyes Mata and Serapio Romero went over their final plans. Reyes Mata and his group would continue toward Nueva Palestina and attempt to refit and resupply. Comandante Serapio would take his group, the fittest of the remaining FAP, and move along the Patuca River toward the Catacamas Mountains and, once there, strike inland toward the Capacan Mountain Range and the Tinto River. The guerrillas continued to forage in the jungle, and although their food was minimal, they were blessed in having an abundance of water available. A human being in the circumstances the FAP guerrillas were in would die within 48-72 hours without water. However, the sporadic rainfall and the Patuca River with its feeder streams ensured their survival.
What neither commander knew was just how enormous the manpower and resources of the Honduran and U.S. armies were.
On August 28th, with the help of signal intercepts, overflights of specially equipped U.S. Air Force C-130 surveillance aircraft flying out of Howard Air Force Base in Panama, and the provision of five U.S. Bla